The empire established in the fifth century by the Khmers, the aboriginal people of Cambodia, peaked with the construction of Angkor Thom and ruled the entire Mekong Valley as well as its neighboring Shan states. Annamese and Siamese conquests after the twelfth century left the Khmers vulnerable to outside domination; Khmer yearnings for independence and restoration of their previous glory remained. In the 1970’s, the Khmer Rouge (Communist or “Red” Khmers) turned those hopes into one of history’s most destructive revolutionary movements.
Philip Short’s biography of Pol Pot shows that the Khmer Rouge leader does not rank very far below Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong when one considers the twentieth century’s perpetrators of mass murder and crimes against humanity. Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare contains important warnings. It documents how easily violence and barbarism can arise when dogmatic political theory is ruthlessly put into practice.
Short begins by observing that “history is to a great extent detective work.” For at least two reasons, that judgment understates the challenge he confronted in researching his subject. First, Pol Pot’s origins scarcely pointed to his becoming a murderous dictator. Second, no single person working alone could have implemented the policies that resulted in the massive slaughter of the Cambodian population that took place between April, 1975, and January, 1979, in ironically christened Democratic Kampuchea.
When the Khmer Rouge took power on April 17, 1975, Cambodia’s population was about seven million. Although exact statistics for the number of Cambodians who perished under Pol Pot do not exist, one-and-a-half million deathsthose of one-fifth of Pol Pot’s own peopleare estimated by Short. It has been said that every civilian family in the nation suffered deaths and losses. Most of the victims died from the starvation and disease that resulted from Pol Pot’s revolutionary policies, which were as unrealistic as they were radical, but some two hundred thousand Cambodians were executed outright by the Khmer Rouge as well.
Apparently Pol Pot was not a “hands-on” killer. He could appear mild-mannered, polite, and smiling, but he ruled by terror and fear nonetheless. His reign, Short argues, made ideology primary. Thus, the Khmer Rouge regime required that its leaders and followers to do everything that was necessary to ensure that “principle won out, regardless of the material cost.” The guiding principle was that Democratic Kampuchea was to be, in Pol Pot’s words, “a precious model for humanity” whose egalitarian ways would erase human inclinations for exploitation, including the need for money and profit-making markets.
This dream was disastrous. To determine how and why the catastrophe was allowed, however, Short could not concentrate on Pol Pot alone. His biographical work became much more than that of a detective who has to track the actions of one complicated and elusive individual. Short’s daunting problem was also to assess the historical, geographical, cultural, political, and international contexts that could produce not only Pol Pot but also the cadres of leaders and followers who were willing to destroy so much of their own Cambodian culture.
Short’s narrative is as complex as it is detailed and compelling. For example, the radical nature of the Khmer Rouge movement meant that it operated in secrecy and with levels of mistrust that reached paranoia. Keeping track of names alone takes Short and his readers into a labyrinth that can be mapped only in part by the book’s helpful pages that list and identify the key players. The name Pol Pot was an alias, the best known of several used by the Khmer Rouge leader, who was born Saloth Sar. In his youth, Cambodia was a French protectorate. Coming from a relatively prosperous family that enjoyed favor with the Cambodian royalty who were allowed some autonomy under French colonialism, Sar went to French-language schools. Popular but inconspicuous, he did not achieve academic distinction, although his record and connections were sufficient to win him the coveted scholarship that took him to Paris in 1949.
Radio technology was Sar’s official field of study in Paris, but it was eclipsed by revolutionary politics as he found his way into the Cercle Marxiste, a group of young communist-inspired Cambodian intellectual-revolutionaries, and then into the French Communist Party. By 1952, his scholarship revoked, Sar was back in Cambodia, which achieved independence from France two years later. Officially, Cambodian political authority belonged to King Norodom Sihanouk, a wily practitioner of political expediency. The first to use the term “Khmer Rouge” to refer to the Cambodian Communists, Sihanouk sometimes opposed them and sometimes aligned with the...
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