By PAUL SIEGEL
John Pilger, “Hidden Agendas.” New Press, 1998. 412 pp. $18.95 (paperback).
Author John Pilger is a veteran radical British journalist and documentary film-maker who is much less known to Americans than he should be. He twice received the coveted British Journalist of the Year Award, and as a filmmaker he won an Emmy award.
Pilger witnessed the hurried American evacuation from Saigon as its client regime disintegrated in 1976, and he has returned to Vietnam since then to observe the increase in poverty wrought by World Bank-imposed “structural reforms.”
He reported on apartheid South Africa and then visited the country under President Mandela, where, despite some gains, there has been a perpetuation of social inequality as a result of the “historic compromises made with the corporate white elite and its Anglo-American backers.”
Using a concealed camera, he made a film, “Inside Burma: Land of Fear,” exposing the repressive government of Burma (also known as Myamar), which has employed slave labor, including children, on a large scale to build railroad construction sites for the service of big oil companies and other foreign investors.
Howard Zinn, in his jacket blurb for the book, states that “John Pilger’s startling revelations of Western perfidy and violence in the Third World” enable its readers to be “better able to see through the distortions and omissions of the mainstream media.”
Noam Chomsky states, “The realities of our time that he has brought to light have been a revelation, over and over again.” Unlike many jacket blurbs, these statements are not at all exaggerated.
The title of this book, “Hidden Agendas,” refers to the real concerns underneath the rationalizations and mystifications of society’s rulers. It is a remarkable combination of vivid eyewitness accounts and interviews with top government and business leaders, who are often inadvertently revelatory, and with rebel leaders, who are often highly informative.
These are hammered down by documentation from little-read official sources and low-circulation radical sources that drives home the point he is making. Salman Rushdie has it exactly right when he says that Pilger has a “gift for finding the image, the instant, that reveals all,”
The book ranges widely and rather haphazardly, including as it does, selections from previous books and essays that have been expanded and brought up to date as well as new material. The inclusion of previous writing does not, however, make the book a serving of warmed-up left-overs. What Pilger has to say is relevant and significant for today as well as for the past.
Slaughter in Iraq and Yugoslavia
What he wrote, for example, at a time when the mainstream media in Britain and the United States were blandly describing the expansion of NATO eastward as merely insurance against vague, unspecified, only remotely possible threats to Europe’s security-with Russia’s fears and protests treated as evidence of paranoia-anticipates the subsequent NATO war against Yugoslavia.
“Rather than provide ‘more stability and security for Europe,’ as its proponents promise,” he quoted Andrea Zumach, a German analyst of international diplomacy, “NATO’s expansion east will be a cause of possible open crises on the Eurasian continent for years to come.”
The United Nations Security Council’s function, Pilger added, has been more and more to lend its authority to the unilateral actions of its dominating member, the United States, as it did in Bosnia and before that in the Gulf War. These statements, of course, are an accurate foreshadowing of what happened in Yugoslavia
“Humanitarian intervention,” Pilger said further, was used as a justification for the Gulf War slaughter, which was “an old-fashioned colonial massacre” rather than a war. There were in excess of 200,000 civilian deaths,” as was later stated in American and French intelligence estimates but not so reported at the time.
The 100,000 Iraqi soldiers who, according to General Schwartzkopf, were killed consisted in large part of conscripted minorities (Kurds and Shi’a), for whom the UN was supposedly fighting. Pilger also cited a 1995 report of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and a 1996 report of the World Health Organization that found that more than 560,000 children died as a result of the war and of subsequent sanctions, which, of course, are still in effect.
So too the U.S.-dominated NATO ostensibly went to war on behalf of the Kosovars, but in doing so it greatly intensified the Milosovic regime’s criminal “ethnic cleansing” and the destruction of Kosovo, and now the Kosovars do not have the independence they desired but a NATO protectorate.
The fraying relations between the protectorate and the Kosovars are likely to deteriorate even more with time, since the governments of the NATO alliance are supplying the UN mission only half of the sum needed to begin to restore a semblance of normality to Kosovo, “the price of half a day’s bombing,” as a senior UN official commented bitterly. (New York Times, Nov. 22, 1999.)
As for Serbia, a Sept. 20, 1999, report of the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs stated that it faces severe winter shortages of electricity, heating oil, coal, and food as a result of NATOs destruction of bridges, power stations, and refineries and of the subsequent sanctions against Yugoslavia.
“The overall impact of such shortages is expected to be increased morbidity and mortality,” the report said. “The most vulnerable will be the elderly, the very young, the sick, and the urban poor.” (The New York Times, Oct. 11, 1999.) What Pilger points out with regard to Iraq is repeating itself in deadly fashion in Yugoslavia.
Although establishment journalists had tipped their hats to Pilger in acknowledging his scoops, he is scornful of the mainstream journalism that does not probe the official myth. “While corruption among the systems managers and subalterns is at times brilliantly exposed by a small group of exceptional journalists,” he says, “the wider corruption is unseen and unreported.”
Pilger attributes this blindness primarily to the mainstream journalists’ “internalizing the priorities and fashions of established power.”
He also calls attention, however, to an “astonishing admission,” made off-handedly by Rupert Murdoch’s London Times, that many British journalists receive financial handouts from the CIA and British intelligence.
The renowned British Broadcasting Corporation World Service illustrates the limitations of even the best establishment journalism: “Foreign broadcasters employed by the BBC are allowed to criticize vicious regimes-that is, until ‘Western interests’ are directly threatened. Then the mood is likely to change.”
Thus, when the Suharto regime in Indonesia, long supported by the American and British governments, was confronted by giant demonstrations in 1996, the BBC reporter dismissed the demonstrators as young people “with an excess of testosterone” and described the country as fundamentally stable. Not only did Suharto fall, however, but Indonesia remains racked by crisis.
Americans will easily be able to apply what Pilger has to say to the equally respected New York Times. A Times reporter recently (Oct. 21, 1999) referred to the “32 years of selfish and autocratic rule under President Suharto.” But was The Times critical of this autocracy during these years? It was too busy lauding the industrial development of Indonesia-gliding over the widespread poverty that existed-to say much about it.
Vietnam and “free market”
The illumination Pilger’s own reportage provides is illustrated by his discussion of Vietnam.
If one were to rely solely on, say, the reporting of the The New York Times, one would have a distorted picture, in which a decline into utter destitution was followed by a hopeful economic revival brought about by the “market reforms” that superseded the Communist rigid adherence to Marxist dogma. Pilger corrects the distortion and gives perspective, depth, and clarity to the picture.
He points out that Vietnam experienced 30 years of almost continuous war against five different foes-the French colonialists, the Japanese invaders, the Americans, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, and the Chinese.
The destruction from all these was immense, especially from the American bombing, which killed at least three million Vietnamese, mostly civilians.
Thirty years of destructive war were followed by 14 years of a punishing embargo by the United States and its allies. Nixon, in a secret letter accompanying the peace treaty, whose existence was acknowledged by the U.S. State Department after it was revealed by the Vietnamese two years later, had to pay $3.25 billion as a “reconstruction grant.” Not only was this promise never kept but an embargo, more complete even than that on Cuba, was imposed.
In these desperate circumstances, the Communist Party turned in 1986 to the “free market” as a way of breaking out of the embargo. The old guard of the leadership resigned and was succeeded by a new, “pragmatic” Politburo.
The change in policy was the more easily put into effect because the Communist Party, overwhelmingly supported though it was in its opposition to foreign imperialism by the Vietnamese peasantry, had a leadership not democratically accountable to either its members or the people.
Moreover, after the military victory of the National Liberation Front, corruption in the party and state bureaucracy grew rapidly, as new members sought the power and privilege that came with party membership. Many of them became the most conspicuous of the new wealthy.
As elsewhere, “structural reform” and “privatization” brought a great increase in wealth for a few, the growth of poverty among the many, and the drastic reduction of social welfare provisions. The gross national product of an economy more and more oriented to exports increased, but the people suffered more than ever.
In a 1995 report the World Bank itself admitted that, seven years after the “structural reforms” enacted at its behest, 70 percent of the population was in “absolute poverty,” worse that it ever had been.
“The magnitude of stunting and wasting among children,” it stated, “appears to have increased significantly,” so much so that Vietnam was now in this regard second only to Bangladesh among the countries of South and Southeast Asia.
According to a UN Development Program report, North Vietnam had once been among the first in life expectancy and the last in infant mortality among the countries of the “developing world.” Now, a 1993 World Bank report stated that “despite its impressive performance in the past, the Vietnamese health sector is currently languishing.”
From 1954 to 1972, the number of elementary and secondary school pupils in North Vietnam increased from 700,000 to nearly 5 million. UNESCO in 1980 estimated that it had a literacy rate of 90 percent and a school enrollment that was among the highest in Asia and the Third World generally.
By 1992, with the privatization of education, there were 759,000 children less in the schools although the number of school-age children had grown.
In opening itself to the world market, Vietnam has submitted to rape by foreign capitalism. “Use Vietnam’s weaknesses selfishly,” said the British Department of Trade and Industry in a briefing document addressed to British businessmen visiting Hanoi. “Vietnam’s open door invites you to take advantage of its low standard of living and low wages.”
Pilger’s film on Mylai is censored
(Left) Mylai, 1968:
These women and children were photographed seconds before they were murdered by U.S. soldiers.
An indication of the power foreign capital has gained is the attempted censorship by the Vietnamese Ministry of Culture of Pilger’s documentary film on Mylai because it feared that the film would disturb commercial relations with the United States.
It will be recalled that Mylai, in a province declared a “free-fire zone” by the American military, where 50,000 civilians were killed in a year, was the scene of a massacre in 1968 of 200 old men, women, and children by U.S. troops.
However, Pilger finds numerous manifestations of resistance to the Communist Party’s subordinating the country to foreign capital. In Vietnam’s Korean-dominated Export Processing Zones there have been many large “wildcat” strikes, unreported in the press. In 1997, Nike, which has 35,000 women workers, was confronted by one rolling strike after another.
Pilger sees this resistance occurring not only in Vietnam but elsewhere in the Third World. In the concluding sentences of the book, he quotes Harvard professor Dano Rodrick, who wrote, “The international integration of markets for goods, services, and capital is pressuring societies to alter their traditional practices [so much that] in return, broad segments of these societies are putting up a fight.” And Pilger comments, “The fight has only just begun.”