Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Comment:Short's History of a Nightmare draws a Locard

Comment:Short's History of a Nightmare draws a Locard

Comment:Short's History of a Nightmare draws a Locard

I read with great interest Philip Short's book, Pol Pot: the History of a Nightmare, and the controversy the book has given rise to in the columns of the Phnom Penh Post. My only regret is that the book came out at the same time as my collection of Khmer Rouge slogans in Pol Pot's Little Red Book, as there is much new data contained in Short's book that would have made my comments more informative - for instance on the relationship between Buddhism and Pol-Potism.

We must praise Short for having written not just a new biography of Pol Pot but indeed a history of the entire Cambodian revolutionary movement in a vigorous and felicitous style that makes his long book highly readable, however painful the subject might be. His portraits are particularly well-penned: see Ieng Sary on pages 3 and 64, for instance, and so is Thiounn Mumm's (64). This was made possible as Short must have worked very conscientiously to tap new sources - archives in Phnom Penh, Hanoi, Beijing and Paris. Thanks to the latter, it is the first time we have a partial history of the Sangkum period, as there exists none so far, to my knowledge.

Still, this is only the dark side of the period, and the light of those years should be narrated too. However, I have a feeling that it was not the rich only who had a good time then, as Short seems to imply, but the poor peasants as well. At least those people were definitely better off than now, as I witnessed myself in the mid-sixties.

But the most important new source is having extracted vital information straight from the horse's mouth - that is the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders themselves. This is how we know, for instance, what Khieu Samphan preached to the returnees he re-educated in the now-renovated Institute of Technology (316-317), or many vital details through the author's deft interview of Phi Phuon, the Jarai who headed the bodyguard unit of the leadership. This is what I have tried to do with Suong Sikoeun, Laurence Picq's ex-husband.

I am grateful to Philip Short for having given convincing answers to a number questions. For instance, was the Angkar a close-knit group of criminals, a true Soviet, or essentially one individual, a mesmerizing tyrant as in all other communist regimes? The answer is clear that from around the first Party Congress in 1960 and Pol Pot's appointment as Party Secretary in 1962, he dominated the Angkar. The originality of the regime lay in the fact that all leaders' names and faces were concealed - except for Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan.

As David Chandler has pointed out, those men and women were too terrified of the people they terrorized. Therefore the originality of the regime lay in its complete secrecy together with lying as a matter of policy to take its opponents by complete surprise. And of course the brutal evacuation of all the cities, together with continuous relocations and total collectivization. The reason was the desire on the part of the leadership first to catch up with the Soviet, the Chinese and the Vietnamese revolutions and then to overtake them - in particular the Vietnamese one, to make sure the Khmers would not fall subservient to Hanoi. In this demented race, no account was taken of human cost, and that explained why the Khmer Rouge revolution was so lethal. The communist society they created was, as it were, upgraded in comparison to others: the population was put in collectives the equivalent of Mao's re-education work camps and the prisons beyond were hells with no real equivalents in the models of the Khmer Rouge. That was their version of the super-Great Leap forward!

Another cipher cleverly unraveled too is respective influences from France, the Soviet Union, China and Vietnam. The story of the Paris days of all these young students is most novel and fascinating, particularly for a Frenchman. Still, what really remains a puzzle to me is how could this group of totally ruthless and asinine pseudo-intellectuals that formed the Angkar convince so many young soldiers to become such pitiless murderers?

However, like Craig Etcheson or other readers, there are a few points which I don't agree with the highly knowledgeable Philip Short. I will just note what I believe are mistakes or misinterpretations. On page 26, Short presents a curious picture of Chatomuk: the Tonle Bassac is certainly not a "river" that "joins" the Mekong like the Tonle Sap, but the beginning of the delta itself, branching out to the sea. Nor is Neak Luong "just below" Phnom Penh (207).

I would not be so sure that the brevet in carpentry that Saloth Sar obtained after one year at the Russey Keo Technical School was at all equivalent to a CSE, O-level (43) or French BEPC (Brevet d'Etudes du Premier Cycle), and this certainly could not prepare him for studies in radio-electricity in Paris. The young man never obtained any degree or diploma of much value, and this must go toward explaining why so many diploma holders got exterminated.

When mentioning the Geneva negotiations in 1954, where "Sihanouk's representatives won back at the conference table everything his army's incompetence had lost on the ground" (103), Short fails to mention the crucial role of Sam Sary, whose obstinacy delayed the signing of the agreement by one day, when, in the name of Sihanouk and the delegation, they (with Tep Phann and Nhiek Tioulong) said no to all the demands of the communists. Later, Short describes the astute politician as a monster; only the dark side of his personality is portrayed, while Pol Pot himself is allowed to be not just "the heart of darkness" but a humorous and likeable character also. This is not quite fair.

In the mid-1960s ... Preap In's execution was filmed and, for the next month, a fifteen-minute newsreel, showing his last moments in unsparing detail, was screened before every séance in every cinema in the country. Decades later, people still squirmed at the memory". Yes, and I still do myself.

"Khmer loeu (Highland Khmer)... had nothing in common with the Buddhist, rice-eating Khmers..." (171). Short seems to overlook that the main diet of those tribes is rice too - be it their delicious and tasty dry rice.

I find it strange that during the civil war, "hundreds of thousands fled ... into the forests" (216). This is the first time I've read or heard about such migration. Did not the author get his facts wrong here? Mass relocations had already taken place before the final Khmer Rouge victory, but I never thought those were voluntary.

I suspect Short over-dramatizes what he regards as an abrupt change in his hero in May 1972, when sweeping revolutionary measures were first adopted (230). I have heard evidence that purges of cadres had started in the early Ratanakkiri days from 1967 to 1970. Similarly, I did not read in the French edition of François Bizot's Le Portail that "about fifty prisoners ...were awaiting release" (554). In other words, it is possible that Short made the pre-1972 Saloth Sar somewhat more benign than he really was.

I do not believe either that after April 17, 1975, "each deportee's baggage was searched" (279). This is why so many "17th April people" were able to survive throughout 1975 as they bartered with "Base People" many of the belongings they had taken with them.

"There is no convincing evidence that Chams died in vastly greater numbers ... than did other racial groups" (327). Well, I am afraid there is, but Short has obviously not seen the only thorough demographic study on this subject in Marek Sliwinski's Le Génocide khmer rouge, une analyse démographique, l'Hamattan, 1995. If about 30 percent of the population was exterminated during the Khmer Rouge period, Sliwinski found that 37.5 percent of the few remaining Vietnamese, 38.4 percent of the Chinese and 40.6 percent of the Muslim Chams died under Democratic Kampuchea. But the two largest groups of victims were the Phnom Penh inhabitants (41.9 percent) and the Catholics (48.6 percent). The study also shows that the total number of victims was almost two million, reduced to 1.5 million by Short (418). But, by and large, people were singled out for elimination because of class origins and attitudes towards the revolution and not because of race or ethnicity.

Short tends to be somewhat cocksure about facts that are difficult to determine whether they are true or not. Etcheson rightly singled out what led Pol Pot to die in his sleep in 1998. I shall pick up another assertion about why so many Khmers were starved to death (352-353). It was not, as Short claims, because too much rice was shipped to China, but because production was very low.

I do not believe this corresponds to reality. I would not be quite so sure about exports to China, as we have no reliable figures on this, and the Angkar boasted that the country was in a position to export a vast amount. But we have the survivors' literature in which I do not recollect a single life story that did not point out the fact that paddy was carted away from the collectives by any means of transport imaginable to be stored in the cities.

For instance, Daran Kravanh in his Music through the Dark, a Tale of Survival in Cambodia (Silkworm Books, 2003), was in Pursat in 1977, and he witnessed large storage of edibles among which "rats [were] running about and eating our food" (130-131). He was brought to Pursat city in order to "pick up fifty-kilogram bags of rice and carry them on my shoulder across a board that was propped against the train. ... The rice produced in the rural areas was being put on a train for China" (131). Along the Phnom Penh-Kampong Som railway line, in Kampot province in particular, I have collected testimonies of people who saw trainloads being driven to Cambodia's only seaport. The other cause of food shortages was the abolition of markets, which led to an enormous wastage of rice stored in all the cities that the Angkar was unable to distribute, just as it had been unable (or unwilling) to distribute the new currency that had been printed. No, the people were not starved because there was no rice, they were starved by a decree from Angkar that sold and wasted food "on a vast scale", as Short points out himself (598).

My only serious contention with this otherwise remarkable book is first the lumping together of "five thousand Algerian prisoners [who] were killed in this way [tortured, "martyrized" and killed]" during the Algerian war and "the 15-20,000 who died in S-21" (364). The two situations have nothing in common, neither in the nature nor in the scale of the conflict. This would fudge rather than clarify such painful issues.

Besides, as one reader perceptively noted (Maud Sundqvist, PPP, 11-24 February, 2005), "Short conveniently forgets those tortured and killed in the many local prisons in DK". Yes, this is precisely the point: Short, who has innovated in many ways, cannot see the trees through the forest - like most historians before him - and the Vietnamese propaganda has built S-21 into such an exceptional institution that every visitor is convinced that what took place there was unique.

Alas, it was the norm.

The only difference was that Tuol Sleng, as it is now called, was the prison-torture centre for cadres of the regime essentially. Ordinary people were "processed" elsewhere, as every district had its major prison, not to speak of the numerous commune detention centres. There, the totally innocent, ordinary people were executed and cadres as well, particularly in the zone (dambon) and regional (phumpea) prisons. There, hundreds of thousands of victims were chained, starved and tortured during long interrogation sessions. Contrary to S-21, a small minority were released on condition they remained silent about what they had been through.

I would agree with Short's afterword and his rejection of the word 'genocide' to describe the crimes of Pol Pot and his peers. For two years I ran a course at the Political Institute of Lyon to demonstrate to the students that the 1948 Genocide Convention could not describe the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, while the 1998 Rome Agreement, with its definitions of 'war crimes', 'crime of aggression' and above all 'crimes against humanity' perfectly applied to DK. Every article of that convention can be illustrated by certain aspects of the Khmer Rouge policies.

Now, is this problem of terminology purely academic? I first thought yes, since, in ordinary speech, now 'genocide', far from its Greco-Latin origin, means mass murders of the most heinous kind. This exactly fits what happened under DK. And if some of my good friends, like Craig Etcheson or Helen Jarvis, wish to use them, why not? We must use the language everyone understands and not be pedantic.

Still, if "the case of Cambodia's Vietnamese ethnic minority is a textbook example of genocide", I think the reviewer (Craig Etcheson) got his facts and figures wrong. I do not need to elaborate as Bora Touch from Australia has supplied readers with all the relevant figures (PPP, 28 Jan.-10 Feb. 2005). Besides, Short has already answered that point, if somewhat abruptly (PPP, 14-27 January, 2005).

Indeed the struggle against the Vietnamese Communist Party was not about race or ethnicity but the nature of the Revolution and who would lead it. It was ideological and above all a struggle for totalitarian power, as the famous slogan "Vietnamese head, Cambodian body" (No. 202 in my collection) shows.

No, what worries me most about the use of the word 'genocide' associated with the Khmer Rouge crimes was that it was first molded on the concrete slab that directs visitors to the Tuol Sleng Museum: 'Genocidal crime". The label has stuck and it seems DK will always be associated with 'genocide' and skulls. But then why not, in that case, all the other communist regimes? The regimes created by Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Kim il-Sung killed millions too. If only Cambodia is singled out and associated with that monstrous category into which Hitlerian Nazism was the model, does it mean that we wish to unconsciously exonerate all the crimes committed in the countries they ruled and that are still committed in North Korea today? The label has also served to justify the occupation of Cambodia by Vietnam for one decade in order to institute 'real' communism and not what was termed the 'Red Nazism' of the Khmer Rouge. The best way to avoid such fruitless controversy is to avoid the word altogether. Since the useful words of 'politicide' or 'democide' that would fit the policies of Angkar have not entered our vocabulary, we had better keep clear of 'genocide'. 'Crimes against humanity' sounds horrendous enough to me, and the phrase perfectly describes the situation.

As Short himself sensed, it was risky on his part to tread the thorny path of singling out cultural or national characteristics that would contribute to explaining why the Cambodian revolution took such an extreme form. Here I think he was right, and although he has probably lived in this country a shorter period than some of his critics, he has pointed out Khmer traits that also correspond with my experiences. I shall just take one - their overweening individualism.

Anyone who has tried to drive in the streets of Phnom Penh cannot fail to have noticed this. I have a friend who had a duplex flat on the forth and fifth floors of an apartment block in central Phnom Penh. The common entrance is a dismal and narrow padlocked iron railing; it is very tricky to open. The staircase is very dark, as the third-floor owners have decided to block the light from the glass slabs on the top with a huge cardboard on which they store some kitchen implements.

The stairs on the first and second floors are filthy. When my friend renovated the fourth floor and the tiny attic above, he of course had to have a new roof put on. When the works were going on, none of the inhabitants on the ground floor, the first floor, the second floor, the third floor - that is four families - noticed that they were living under the same roof, and my friend had to pay the entire cost of putting in a new roof. The previous one was nothing but rusty and leaking corrugated iron. Sharing the cost with all the apartment block inhabitants was unthinkable.

I take this as symbolic of the Cambodian nation as a whole. It is a series of close-knit, extended families, at best clans or parties concerned only with the welfare of their faction, but for whom there is no roof sheltering them all - that is, there is no State. Westerners are shocked by what they call the corruption of the leaders and the civil servants, but when those are providing lavishly for their families and their dependents, they probably believe they are fulfilling their obligations. Beyond the clan, there exists nothing. This might explain why the Khmer Rouge created exactly the reverse of this: everything belonged to Angkar and the absolute collectivization meant, as I hoped to have shown in the last chapter of my book, "the death of the individual."

As a last note, one must warn the inexperienced reader that such a remarkable book as Short's is only one side of the coin. If we want to know the nature of the Democratic Kampuchean regime, one has to read more than half a dozen of the best life stories of the survivors. What we have in this book is the dream, the utopia (or dystopia, rather), how it was imagined, but not really how it was implemented in the collectives (and not "cooperatives" for heaven's sake, as no one was happily "cooperating" with the regime). After such a rewarding read of Short's book, in order to understand the point of view of the perpetrators, we need to go back to reality and listen to the voices of the victims. For instance, the last autobiography I read, Music through the Dark, a Tale of Survival in Cambodia, by Daran Kravanh and Bree Lafreniere (Silkworm Books, 2000), would be an excellent choice.


  • Temi tourism project approved by the CDC

    The $500.4 million Tourism, Ecological, Marine and International (Temi) tourism project has been approved by the Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC), according to a notice on its Facebook page on Monday. The project is part of Chinese-owned Union City Development Group Co Ltd’s (

  • Rainsy will return at ‘favourable time’

    Opposition figure Sam Rainsy on Saturday suggested he would not return to Cambodia as he had previously promised, saying that like liberators King Father Norodom Sihanouk and Charles de Gaulle, he would only do so at a “favourable time”. “I will go back to Cambodia

  • US Embassy urged to stop ‘disrespecting sovereignty’

    The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation called on the US Embassy in Phnom Penh on Saturday to respect the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations after it called former opposition leader Kem Sokha “an innocent man” – a move deemed to be “disrespecting Cambodia’s

  • NagaWorld casino sees net profit of more than $390M last year

    Phnom Penh’s NagaWorld casino posted a 53 per cent net profit increase last year at $390.6 million, a sum which is almost equal to the combined net profit of all Cambodian commercial banks in 2017. NagaWorld’s parent company, NagaCorp Ltd, is listed on the Hong Kong