Scott McLemee
Cambodia's Demon King
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Newsday, 22 February 2005

POL POT: Anatomy of a Nightmare, by Philip Short. Holt, 537 pp.



For the past few weeks, while reading Philip Short's Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare, I have kept on my desk an astonishing and by now rare book called The New Face of Kampuchea -- a collection of snapshots from a guided tour of hell. It consists of pictures shot in April 1978 by a group of left-wing American visitors invited to Cambodia (then called "Democratic Kampuchea") by the Khmer Rouge.

As usually happened with such junkets, the tourists of the revolution saw only what their hosts wanted to show them, and photographed only what they were already disposed to witness. The children are all smiling. There is a picture of an open-air communal dining area designed to seat a hundred. Peasants are shown in the rice fields laboring heroically. And on the last page of the introduction, you find the image of two oxen in a field.

It is a simple photograph, easy to overlook. But after reading Short's history of the movement that Pol Pot led, it seems as disturbing as any other picture in this creepy photo album. Short quotes a passage in which the Khmer Rouge instructed peasants on their role in Democratic Kampuchea: "You see the ox, comrades. Admire him! He eats where we [tell] him to eat. ... When we tell him to pull the plow, he pulls it."

Making such a regime comprehensible is no simple matter. A reader picks up Short's volume expecting, from its title, to find a detailed biography of Pol Pot, and with it, perhaps, an explanation of the Khmer Rouge movement as the product of his personality and experience. But in fact, the figure emerging from its pages is colorless to the point of invisibility. The regime practiced what might be called a cult of impersonality. Short notes that the future leader was, in his youth, a student in a Buddhist monastery -- "a rigidly ordered community" in which "originality and initiative were discouraged, the least deviation was punished and the greatest merit lay in unquestioned obedience to prevailing orthodoxy."

"Subconsciously it must have registered," Short writes, "for in later life the abandonment of personal ties and the suppression of individuality -- in both thought and behavior -- would become key elements of his political credo."

That is half plausible, but only half. For as the bulk of this detailed chronicle of Cambodian politics from the 1930s through the 1990s demonstrates, Pol Pot's credo was in much larger measure a response to the incredibly complex course of his country's history. The small Cambodian revolutionary movement he joined in the early 1950s was under the tutelage of the Vietnamese communists next door. It emerged as a serious guerilla force only in the late 1960s, thanks to the bitterness fostered in the countryside by American bombing. But by that point, the need for autonomy from Vietnamese leadership had driven the Cambodian left to synthesize its own peculiar mixture of elements drawn from Stalin, Mao, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and local traditions.

All of it was held together by what might best be called hillbilly resentment at the ways of city folk. When the Khmer Rouge came to power in April 1975, the first step it took was complete evacuation of all urban areas -- a move without precedent in the history of communist revolutions. It seemed the fulfillment of a 19th century Cambodian prophecy that one day "'people will be so hungry that they will run after a dog to fight for a grain of rice that has stuck to its tail,'" and a demon king would rule.

The journalist William Shawcross once pointed out that during the sustained bombing of Cambodia begun by Richard Nixon in 1969, people in the Khmer Rouge-controlled areas sustained casualties "well above levels where, in orthodox military doctrine, units suffer 'irreversible psychological damage.'" Short insists, however, that the nightmare of Pol Pot's rule, which ended only when Vietnam invaded in 1979, was not an inevitable result of the air war itself.

Perhaps in some abstract sense that is true. But remember, after Pol Pot was driven from power, the United States supported him against Vietnam (our mutual enemy) well into the 1990s. No matter how you look at it, we bear some responsibility for the demon king.

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