Pol Pot : Anatomy of a Nightmare
by Philip Short
Much of this book is spent charting the development of the Khmer Rouge, particularly in it’s relationship with Vietnamese Communism; it’s place in Khmer culture in general; and most intriguingly, how it was shaped by Cambodia’s tradition of Theravadan Buddhism.
Saloth Sar, who eventually took the name Pol Pot, was a rather poor student who used family connections in order to gain a coveted spot studying in Paris. It was there that he came into the circle of Cambodian leftist nationalist radicals who introduced him to Marxism. He comes off as a bit simplistic, and wasn’t particularly interested in the theoretical basis of Marxism; in fact he may not have even read any of his works.
When he returned from Paris he joined the Viet Minh fighting to rid Indochina of its French colonial overlords. After they were driven from Vietnam in 1954 he turned his attention to Cambodia itself and was eventually forced to flee into the forest to escape the secret police of Prince Sihanouk’s government. It was here in the jungles of Cambodia that the Khmer Rouge movement began.
Short argues that the jungle-based movement appealed to the central dichotomy in Khmer thought, that between srok (village) and brai (forest), as opposed to the Judeo-Christian’s notion of good and evil. Pol saw the cities as having a corrupting influence on Cambodian society and hoped that forcing people to take their turn at farming would reinvigorate the Khmer people. Once the Khmer Rouge took over, it was this influence that compelled Pol to empty the cities of their inhabitants in a chaotic drive into the country-side which resulted in millions of deaths.
Perhaps Short’s most controversial thesis is that it was the particular branch of Buddhism and its exhortations to the negation of ego that resonated in such a tragic way with Communist notions of state planning and control.
“You see the ox, comrades. Admire him! He eats where we [tell] him to eat… When we tell him to pull the plough, he pulls it. He never thinks of his wife or his children.”
He went so far as to ban the use of money altogether, so that people became in actuality slaves of the state, dependent upon them for their very existence.
Some have criticized Short for in effect “blaming” the Cambodians for acquiescing to the tragedy, but this is simply not the point he is making. Buddhism simply colored the tragedy, it didn’t form it. I actually found this to be a rather compelling and challenge argument. People often lay the blame for genocidal tragedies at the foot of theistic mindsets; it was interesting to see how something as seemingly docile as Buddhism have a role in something so barbaric.
Despite pulling together as much information on Pol Pot as we’re ever likely to see, the source of his power remains as much of an enigma after reading the book as before. While Short relates Pol’s colleagues’ assertions that he was an engaging speaker, the remarks do little to allow the reader to gain a visceral feel for his persuasiveness.
There is a welter of one and two-syllable names that can be difficult to keep straight after a while, but it is a neccessary difficulty that has to be accepted in dealing with a book on Cambodia.