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?