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Questioning Short's Agenda

Replying to Craig Etcheson's criticism (Phnom Penh Post 17-30 December, 2004) of

his book Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare, Philip Short asserts that he had 'attempted

to offer a balanced picture of the extremely complex mix of factors that underlay

the murderous specificity of Khmer Rouge rule' (Phnom Penh Post, January 14 - 27,


But this is not what emerges from his book. Short has a hidden agenda.

As Etcheson observed, Short uses the dubious concept of 'national character' to explain

what the Khmer Rouge did. He states that they were the 'heirs to a culture' (p.282)

and quotes Bernard-Philippe Groslier who wrote in 1921 that 'beneath a carefree surface

there slumber savage forces and disconcerting cruelties which may blaze up in outbreaks

of passionate brutality' (p.208). Furthermore, he asserts that Cambodian society

continues to allow people to commit appalling cruelties (p.13) and draws a parallel

between Khmer Rouge atrocities and rich men's wives nowadays pouring acid over their

husbands' young mistresses (p.12).

To support his speculations about Cambodian culture, Short quotes Alexander Laban

Hinton. But he omits that Hinton wrote that Cambodian culture is not 'inherently'

genocidal and that culturally distinct models of face and honor exist in most societies.

But these Cambodian cultural models have not caused genocide in other historical

periods. They only lead to mass violence within a certain context of historical and

socio-political change. For genocide to take place, these changes must be accompanied

by a violent ideology that adapts traditional cultural knowledge to its lethal purposes.

This is what happened in Cambodia, Hinton wrote.

Short claims that when the Cambodian communists instituted a slave state, they were

not motivated by revenge against a particular class or group (p.292), that there

were no central directives from the party leadership to kill elderly and sick people,

to loot libraries and destroy western things (p.283). 'What occurred was rather a

dysfunction of the Khmer Rouge polity, one of many that prevented Pol's vision of

the future ever being carried out' (p.292). Dysfunction?

Short explains the system of forced labor in Democratic Kampuchea with the Khmer

peasants being indolent, producing only enough to feed themselves (p.296). He writes

that the CPK leadership 'faced a genuine and all but insurmountable problem, which

had defeated the French, defeated Sihanouk, and has defeated every Cambodian government

since. The problem was: how to make Khmers work' (p.294). But who produced the 490,000

tons which were exported in 1965?

Short's conclusion is that 'Democratic Kampuchea was not a fatal exception in an

otherwise kindly world.' More than half of all UN member states have, or have had,

prisons resembling S-21 (p.365), he asserts. But how many of them killed 1/5 of the


Even democratic governments have tortured and murdered like the Khmer Rouge, Short

tells us, and supports this statement with the case of the French army in Algeria,

which set up torture centres and then killed prisoners to maintain secrecy, exactly

the same justification as was used in Democratic Kampuchea. 'Five thousand Algerian

prisoners were killed in this way in one interrogation centre alone. In the country

as a whole, the number of such deaths probably exceeded the 15-20,000 who died in

S-21' (p.364). Short conveniently forgets those tortured and killed in the many local

prisons in Democratic Kampuchea.

Why does Philip Short trivialize the crimes that Pol Pot & Co. committed?

Maud Sundqvist

Stockholm, Sweden



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