Philip Short’s Pol Pot: Anatomy Of A Nightmare

I recently came across an article published in a scientific journal nearly a decade ago that warned that the 2020s, in the United States, might be a time of revolutionary fervor. The article purported to analyze the factors that made revolutionary upheaval more or less likely, and managed to derive one variable as being particularly telling: not the economy of the country, nor its degree of religiosity, nor even its income inequality, but the number of educated young people working below their academic qualifications. Having just finished Philip Short’s exhaustive study of the Khmer Rouge, that insight hit especially hard, for the philosophical foundations of the future “nightmare” were laid not in Cambodia, though the country had certainly seen its share of bloodshed, but in post-war Paris, where its burgeoning radical student movement was exporting ideological fads across the globe.

Philip Short’s Pol Pot is part biography, part history, a detailed account of the rise of a fringe radical group in Cambodia and its murderous reign between 1975 and 1979, centred around their enigmatic leader. Before he became Pol Pot, head of a revolutionary insurgency, he was Saloth Sâr, the son of a prosperous farmer born in French Cambodia, whose education at the best local schools led him, ultimately, to Paris and a fateful encounter with Marxism. Short, of all Western journalists, was uniquely positioned to write this book, for in his capacity as a foreign correspondent for the BBC in China, he met Pol Pot in 1975, during his one and only state visit to China, making him one of only a small handful of Westerners to observe him in person.

The book begins with some necessary background discussion of Cambodia, the better to help outsiders understand the political battles, partisan allegiances and cultural concerns that shaped mid-century Cambodian society. First among these forces was the French occupation of Cambodia, which lasted nearly a century, from 1863 to 1953, leaving an indelible stamp on the culture and psyche of the Cambodian people. But the French were hardly the first to stake a claim there. Three decades prior to the French occupation, both Vietnam and Siam (now Thailand) controlled Cambodia as a vassal state, subjugating its people, desecrating its monuments and erasing its history. These became known as the “Years of Calamity,” still very much a part of the living memory of Cambodians in the early 20th century, who recounted to their children stories of Vietnamese invaders burying Cambodians alive, gouging out their eyeballs and salting their wounds for sport. Short quotes from a French missionary, who witnessed first-hand the Siamese treatment of captive Cambodians:

The Siamese method of warfare is to steal everything they can lay hands on; to burn and destroy wherever they pass; to enslave those men that they do not kill, and to carry off the women and children. They show no humanity towards their captives. If they cannot keep up with the march, they are beaten, maltreated or killed. Unmoved by tears and wailing, they slaughter small children in front of their mothers. They have no more scruple in killing a person than a fly, perhaps less, for their religion forbids them to kill animals.

I quote this now for, I surmise, the same reason Short chooses to include it: because this description could as aptly be applied to the Khmer Rouge, who over a century later would conduct themselves in almost the same way towards their fellow countrymen. One final insult would occur after the invasion of France by Nazi Germany, which resulted in the transfer of control of Cambodia into German – and by extension, Japanese – hands. Seeking to weaken Japanese control of the country, America launched a tactical bombing raid on the Japanese military headquarters – they succeeded only in bombing the nearby Royal Palace, killing hundreds of innocent Cambodians. Needless to say, then, that by the early 1960s, the Cambodian people were psychically battered, looking centuries into their past, to the Khmer Empire and the construction of the beautiful Angkor Wat, for a sense of national pride. Short quotes from Khieu Samphan, a one-time Khmer Rouge leader, speaking about the pain of learning of Cambodia’s lost greatness: “One must never underestimate the effect of these centuries of decline on our national subconscious. It is why young Cambodians still ask themselves, almost instinctively, whether Cambodia as a nation can survive.”

An entire generation of young and relatively affluent Cambodians, given an education far greater than their parents and grandparents had been given, came to look upon fieldwork – the one job commonly available in mid-century Cambodia – as beneath them.

The student population had decupled. […] 600,000 young people were in full-time schooling. But the only posts they wanted were in the administration where there were limitless possibilities for ‘squeeze’ and, in consequence, more than a hundred candidates for every available position. The result […] was to throw into unemployment ever-increasing numbers of disaffected, semi-educated young men, too proud to work in the rice-paddies as their parents had done but unable to find anything better.

At the same time, floods, bad harvests and “usurious interest rates” caused a flood of peasant farmers to enter the cities of Cambodia, forming “a lumpen-proletariat of coolies and cyclo-pousse drivers living at the margins of society, often in wretched conditions.” And all the while this scene of misery and hopelessness and confusion was playing out in the cities of Cambodia, the northern territories abutting Vietnam – already desperately poor even by the standards of Cambodia – were subjected to an American bombing campaign designed to rout North Vietnamese supply lines that had been passing through Cambodia. The situation, in other words, was volatile, and unbeknownst to the Cambodian authorities, a paramilitary group, long hidden in these same remote northern territories, was training, organizing, gathering strength and biding time, funded by the Chinese Communist Party in conjunction with the Viet Cong.

This malignant force – driven by an ideology combining Marxism, Stalinism and Cambodian nationalism (let it not be said that communism is not infinitely adaptable), and commanded by a man so unknowable, even to his closest allies, that no one could tell when his smile connoted genuine happiness or hid a murderous rage – descended the mountainous north in April of 1975, to seize control of Cambodia. Their fighting force was composed largely of northern peasants, teenagers and some boys “only twelve or thirteen years old, not much taller than the AK47s they carried on their shoulders.” Modernity was a mystery to them: they drank from toilets and used tree branches as toilet paper. With heads filled with propaganda about the decadence of “bourgeois society,” they looked upon young girls wearing makeup as prostitutes and young boys with long hair as “perverts.” Above all, they were angry that they had spent years suffering the consequences of an American bombing campaign while their fellow countrymen lived in safety and luxury. Short quotes from a doctor’s account of their invasion: “There was something excessive about their anger. Something had happened to these people in their years in the forests. They had been transformed.” By the lights of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, these rough northern peasants, poor as dirt, were the true proletariat, the revolutionary vanguard. “The overriding, if unstated, objective of Khmer Rouge policy from 1972 on,” Short writes, “was to refashion the whole of Cambodian society in the image of this authentic, autochthonous peasantry, unsullied by the outside world.” The first step along that path involved emptying the cities, whose residents were led on forced marches deep into the countryside, without adequate food or water. Some 20,000 are now estimated to have lost their lives at this earliest stage. The next step was a thorough scourging of luxury. The marchers were searched for valuables, including jewelry, cameras, wristwatches, and tape recorders. The roads leading out of the city were littered with luxury goods and furniture, the cars carrying them having been commandeered. The final step, and the most crucial, was aimed at eliminating individual self-consciousness itself. Every man, woman and young adult was compelled to write an “autobiography,” a kind of confessional account of their past decadence, which was then judged the Khmer Rouge, with special penalties applied to anyone whose diction or grammar suggested higher education.

But the signal achievement – if it can be called that – of the Khmer Rouge was the institution of a modern slave state, a kind of trial-by-fire designed to purify the decadent and birth new men and women sympathetic to the Khmer cause.

Pol enslaved the Cambodian people literally, by incarcerating them within a social and political structure, a ‘prison without walls,’ as refugees would later call it, where they were required to execute without payment whatever work was assigned to them for as long as the cadres ordered it, failing which they risked punishment ranging from the withholding of rations to death.

This, however, constituted only an enslavement of the body. Pol Pot’s regime sought to enslave the human mind as well.

There was a minuscule space for the exercise of free will. In Khmer Rouge Cambodia, there was none – which marks a qualitative difference that only those who have experienced it can comprehend. Not only were there no wages, there were no markets. With time, as the system grew more rigid, even barter was discouraged. Like true slaves, the inhabitants of Pol’s Cambodia were deprived of all control over their own destinies – unable to decide what to eat, when to sleep, where to live or even whom to marry.

Weddings, traditionally a celebration of the union of two individuals, became under the Khmer Rouge a collective affair, with upwards of ten couples being married at one time. The Party chose bride and groom, and both were enjoined not to get too attached to their future children, for these too belonged to the Party. Dissidents – real or imagined – were summarily rounded up, tortured, and executed. At the peak of the repression, more than 150 prisons existed for the purpose of torturing and extracting confessions of guilt from political opponents or suspected sympathizers of the old order. All told, between 1 million and 3 million people lost their lives during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, and as of 2009, an astonishing 23,745 mass graves have been unearthed. These are the infamous “killing fields,” whose only harvest was death, and they remain macabre outdoor museums to the Khmer legacy. To this day, heavy rainfall continues to unearth the bones and teeth of victims.

Closing Short’s book, a quotation from Dostoevsky’s Demons came instantly to mind. The following are the words of a would-be revolutionary named Shigalyov, taking his passion for equality to its natural conclusion:

Each belongs to all, and all to each. They’re all slaves and all equal in their slavery. Slander and murder in extreme cases, but above all – equality. First, the level of education, science, and talents is lowered. A high level of science and talents is accessible only to higher abilities – no need for higher abilities! Higher abilities have always seized power and become despots. Higher abilities cannot fail to be despots and have always corrupted rather than been of use; they are to be banished or executed. Cicero’s tongue is cut off, Copernicus’s eyes are put out, Shakespeare is stoned – this is Shigalyovism! Slaves must be equal: there has never yet been either freedom or equality without despotism, but within a herd there must be equality

For nearly five years, Pol Pot pursued this exact course, with flesh and blood human beings, and we are still counting the bodies.