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Nightmare of a History: Philip Short's Pol Pot

Nightmare of a History: Philip Short's Pol Pot


Philip Short's new book, Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare, is required

reading for anyone with a serious interest in the Khmer Rouge or the modern

history of Cambodia. However, many readers will likely find the experience a

combination of fascination and frustration, as the book veers from a masterful

beginning to a less than satisfactory conclusion. It reads almost as if the

author ran out of time, and was unable to apply the same incisive touch to the

late chapters as he managed to lavish on the earlier material. Even so, there is

much to recommend in this book.

ARCHITECTS OF MASS MURDER: Pol Pot (front row, center) and colleagues pose for a group photo at the Communist Party of Kampuchea's Third Congress held in the jungle near the Chinit River in 1971. The Congress, attended by some 60 delegates, confirmed Pol Pot as Secretary of the party's Central Committee and Chairman of its Military Commission. Other Khmer Rouge members pictured above include: Son Sen (back row, second from left, with glasses), Pol Pot's first wife Khieu Ponnary (second row, third from right), Ta Mok (back row, thrid from right), Deuch (back row, seventh from right), and Khieu Samphan (back row, eleventh from left). The banner reads, in English: "Long live the Communist Party of Kampuchea".

Pol Pot is a complex and ambitious work,

attempting to penetrate to the very marrow of the ultimate existential question

about the violence of the Khmer Rouge revolution: "Why?" Short writes that his

"cardinal issue is what it is about Cambodian society that has allowed, and

continues to allow, people to turn their backs on all they know of gentleness

and compassion, goodness and decency, and to commit appalling cruelties

seemingly without conscience [sic] of the enormity of their acts and certainly

without remorse." [13] Short situates his answer to this difficult query in the

interstices of history, geography, culture, and the political and social


Not content with mere context, he adds, "Evil is as evil does."

[13] He wisely admonishes his reader to understand that however horrible the

history he is about to recount may be, it does not spring from some uniquely

Cambodian malady: "When we contemplate what happened in Cambodia, we are looking

not at some esoteric horror story but into darkness, into the foul places of our

own souls." [14] Modern Cambodian history is a cautionary tale for all of

humanity, and Short aims to fashion that tale in an epic morality play.

The story Short relates is framed around the life of Saloth Sar, later

to become known as Pol Pot. But strictly speaking - notwithstanding the book's

title - this is not a biography of Pol Pot. Instead, Short uses the Khmer Rouge

leader's life as an organizing device to trace the trajectory of the Cambodian

revolution. Thus the story begins in Kampong Thom's Prek Sbauv village, Saloth

Sar's birthplace, with a description of the social and economic conditions of

the time.

The narrative subsequently moves into the hothouse of life in

1930s Phnom Penh, where the young Sar is introduced to religion as a novice

Buddhist monk at Wat Botum, later moves in to live with his brother Suong while

attending the Catholic school, Ecole Miche, and then on to a French Vichy

school, the College Preah Sihanouk in Kampong Cham. Because Sar's sister,

Roeung, is a consort of the King, the future revolutionary leader is also

exposed to the mores of King Monivong's palace.

In one example of the

impressive color Short adds to our existing portrait of Pol Pot's life, he

relates how, according to Keng Vannsak, at age 15 when he was living among

servants of the royal household, Saloth Sar was sexually molested by young women

of King Monivong's harem. [27] It would be tempting to project this youthful

experience forward onto the policies that were eventually imposed by Pol Pot

regarding sexual matters, but Short prudently refrains from such psychoanalytic

speculation in this instance.

As the narrative moves on to Saloth Sar's

time in Paris, Short begins to introduce other characters who will play major

roles in Cambodia's drama. While the ferment of decolonization bubbled away at

home in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Cambodian students in Paris assessed the

various models for throwing off the yoke of the French overlords. Ieng Sary,

Thiounn Mumm, Mey Mann, Hou Yuon, Khieu Samphan and others were soon drawn down

the communist path to securing Cambodia's independence.

Though we are

already familiar with the outlines of this period in Saloth Sar's life from

David Chandler's Brother Number One, again, this book adds considerable depth to

the portrait. Saloth Sar did not immediately follow his colleagues toward

communism, initially preferring the republican-leaning Son Ngoc Thanh. According

to Short, it was not the writings of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao that captured

Sar's imagination so much as the Russian anarchist, Pëtr Kropotkin, who in his

book, The Great Revolution, analyzed the alliance of intellectuals and peasants

that overthrew Louis XVI in 1789. [72-74] Here was a model that resonated deeply

with the young Cambodian intellectual.

The story line then refocuses on

Cambodia, where the returning students are gradually integrated into the

communist underground. It was here that they first came into extended contact

with "Khmer Vietminh," Cambodian revolutionaries who struggled against French

colonialism, and who were closely tied to the Vietnamese communists. The

frictions between this older combat-tested generation and the younger generation

with mere book-learning would become a central nexus of the revolutionary saga.

At a 1960 party congress, Saloth Sar was elevated to third in the party

hierarchy, and Ieng Sary to the fourth position. Two years later, party

secretary Tou Samouth was liquidated by Sihanouk's secret police, providing an

opportunity for Sar to leap-frog over deputy secretary Nuon Chea and grasp the

reins of leadership. He would firmly hold that leadership for the next 35 years.

Short skillfully analyses the perhaps unconscious but nonetheless

elemental ways in which Buddhist metaphysics influenced the Khmer Rouge

synthesis of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist theory. In orthodox Marxist dialectical

materialism, it is the reality of the material world -- economic relations and

class structure -- which determines super-structural factors such as

consciousness. But, Short argues, the Cambodian communists turned this article

of communist faith on its head, echoing elements of Theravada Buddhist doctrine

in their conclusion that class relations are a mental attribute. [149] Thus,

peasants could be imbued with the proletarian consciousness of an industrial

worker, and hence they could become the driving force behind the transformation

of Cambodia into a purely communist system. This is a valuable insight,

something only hinted at in previous works, such as this reviewer's own Rise and

Demise of Democratic Kampuchea.

A key historical juncture occurs during

Saloth Sar's extended visit to Hanoi in 1965. There the Cambodian revolutionary

wrestled with Vietnamese communist chief Le Duan and other Vietnamese leaders

over questions of doctrine and strategy, and perhaps more importantly,

Vietnamese assistance to a revolution that was contemplating armed struggle.

These seminal meetings have previously been documented in studies such as Steve

Heder's Cambodian Communism and the Vietnamese Model, but Short identifies one

particular episode in this period as the crucial turning point in the

development of Pol Pot's thought. As part of his effort to persuade Pol Pot that

it was premature for the Cambodian revolution to launch armed struggle, and that

Vietnam had the best interests of the Cambodians at heart, Le Duan suggested

that Pol Pot review the history of relations between the Vietnamese and

Cambodian revolutionary organizations by studying Vietnamese party archives. Pol

Pot spent days examining the archives, but came away with a rather different

conclusion that his fraternal comrade expected. "Until I read those documents

myself, I trusted and believed the Vietnamese," Pol Pot later wrote. "But after

reading them, I didn't trust them anymore." [158] Thereafter, the Khmer Rouge

would go their own way.

Through the subsequent decade between the time

the party began to prepare for armed struggle in 1966 and the victory of the

revolution in 1975, Short meticulously traces Saloth Sar's movements, aliases,

and ever-shifting headquarters. He chronicles these shifts in more detail than

in any previous scholarly analysis. It is almost as though Short is searching

for the answer to the big question somewhere among the constantly changing code

names. And it is here, after Sihanouk's overthrow and the expansion of the

Vietnam War into Cambodia, in July 1970, that Solath Sar becomes Pol Pot.


Short addresses the important question of why so many people

starved to death under the Khmer Rouge. Previous analyses, such as Ben Kiernan's

The Pol Pot Regime, have argued that a central factor in food shortages during

the Democratic Kampuchea regime was a decision to export massive quantities of

rice to China in exchange for military equipment. Short persuasively

demonstrates that Khmer Rouge rice exports, whether to China or elsewhere, were

never a significant factor in the Democratic Kampuchea famine. [352-353 and

596-598] Instead, he attributes the food shortages to a range of factors

including large-scale waste due to improper storage, dispersed manpower as a

result of the mobile brigades, a lack of motivation by the agricultural

workforce, and dissembling by cadre who correctly feared punishment for failure

to meet the regime's unrealistic production targets.

To this point in his

narrative, Short weaves together an impressive variety of primary and secondary

materials, skillfully mining existing scholarly accounts, a welter of previously

available interviews, documents and other written sources, and brings to bear

previously unknown archival materials from France, China, and elsewhere. The

contacts that Short developed in China during his research on a previous book,

Mao: A Life, have obviously been put to good use in this current effort. Then

there are Short's extensive interviews with senior Khmer Rouge.


interviews with Khmer Rouge figures add great depth to his chronicle, but these

sources simultaneously introduce a major element of uncertainty. Occasionally

the author appears to lend too much credence to claims by senior Khmer Rouge

officials. After all - as Short clearly documents -- these people have spent

their entire adult lives, in a very real sense, not merely living a lie, but in

fact constructing multiple, entirely false realities to conceal themselves in

their obsession with secrecy and subterfuge. After they have been so conditioned

by a lifetime of reflexive falsehood, it is hard to see how we should take

anything they say at face value, without confirming it through multiple,

independent non-Khmer Rouge sources.

For example, Short writes that Pol

Pot, Nuon Chea and Son Sen comprised the "ultra-secret Security Committee

responsible for the suppression of internal dissent" in the party. [359] He

bases this assertion on his interview with Ieng Sary. [601] Yet, on August 25,

1996, when Ieng Sary was negotiating for his pardon, the former Khmer Rouge

Deputy Prime Minister published a document asserting that the members of the

regime's Security Committee were Nuon Chea, Son Sen and Yun Yat. Both of these

claims by Ieng Sary cannot be true, and it is not clear what gives Short

confidence that the version of events he happened to extract from Sary is the

correct one. This is puzzling, particularly in view of the fact that at another

point in his narrative, Short catches Ieng Sary in a lie, and observes that

"many of his statements" appear to be untrue. [419] The evident credulousness

with which Short accepts many things from his senior Khmer Rouge interviewees is

a worrying characteristic of the treatment through-out the narrative.

The author also displays a penchant for sometimes overly broad

generalizations about Cambodia. Some of Short's most disconcerting

generalizations have to do with the national character and culture of

Cambodians. In his zeal to penetrate the mysteries of the revolution's

existential essence, he strains to assign universal attributes where first-hand

experience reveals diversity and multiform character. For example, in one

passage, Short discusses at length " ... the innate and essential egoism which

characterizes Khmer behavior. Whatever shortcomings attach to such cultural

generalizations, that was the way Cambodians saw themselves." [232] If so, then

how is it that we know so many Cambodians who are selfless?


when he attempts to elucidate the functional consequences of kum and sângsoek,

Short's descriptive powers fail him. "When the strains and pressures of

existence reach a point where there is no longer the possibility of graceful

withdrawal, when the smiling façade cracks, violence - running amok, as Sihanouk

put it - becomes the only alternative. It is not an aberration. It is an

intrinsic part of Khmer behavior ... " [208] Again and again, Short takes an

underlying grain of truth about Cambodian society and attempts to bake a whole

cultural cake, but the dough fails to rise properly.

Another example:

"In the Confucian cultures of China and Vietnam, men are, in theory, always

capable of being reformed. In Khmer culture they are not." [191] This last

generalization is directly contradicted by extensive empirical research. In

villages across the country, this reviewer has interviewed Cambodians who say

they accepted former Khmer Rouge to return to live in the village on the basis

of their confidence that those Khmer Rouge have "changed their character."

Toward the end of the narrative, the documentation becomes a bit sloppy.

For example, Short relates an incident during the Khmer Rouge regime when Khieu

Samphan was escorting Prince Sihanouk on a provincial tour. Sihanouk had written

in his memoir, Prisonnier des Khmers Rouges, how to his astonishment, even

though his own car carried Cambodia's Head of State, it pulled off the road to

let another vehicle pass, bearing an older woman and a small boy. Short writes,

"The Prince never did work out the passenger's identity. She was Pol's (and Ieng

Sary's) mother-in-law." [347] Only by turning to the notes does the reader learn

that this conclusion "is guesswork" on Short's part. [594]

A further

instance of cavalier research is Short's assertion that the vicious March 1997

grenade attack on a Sam Rainsy-led demonstration "was ordered by Hun Sen."

[Caption for photos 49 and 50, and page 438] To substantiate this claim, the

only source to which readers are directed is the 4 April 1997 issue of the Phnom

Penh Post. That issue of this newspaper, which went to press four days after the

attack, contains several stories hinting that ruling party figures may have been

involved in the atrocity, and accusations from Sam Rainsy that Hun Sen was

behind the attack, but nothing in the way of definitive evidence that this was

indeed the case.

Cambodia watchers have puzzled for years over the death

of Pol Pot, and this mystery should surely be an important question in a book

titled "Pol Pot." Did he die of natural causes? Or was it suicide, a successful

escape from the humiliation of being handed over to the Americans, a plan Pol

Pot reportedly learned of while listening to American radio a few hours before

his death? Or was it murder, either at the hands of his Khmer Rouge comrades or

his Thai allies, both of whom might have had good reasons for not wanting the

fallen leader to talk? Short resolves this mystery by declaring that Pol Pot

"died peacefully in his sleep" of "heart failure." [442] Unfortunately, however,

he provides no documentation for this assertion, leading his readers to conclude

that this may be another "guess," and leaving the question of Pol Pot's demise


Then there are some assertions that are simply wrong,

bespeaking a hurried editing process. In one of the last sentences of the

central narrative, for example, Short says, "In December [1978], Khieu Samphan

and Nuon Chea were granted royal pardons ... " [443] In reality, Ieng Sary is

the only Khmer Rouge leader to have received a royal pardon, which can only be

granted by His Majesty the King. Any amnesty that may have been granted to Khieu

Samphan and Nuon Chea came from Hun Sen.

Some readers may be put off by

Short's analysis of the nature of the Khmer Rouge crimes. He argues that what

the Khmer Rouge did cannot properly be called "genocide," but rather constituted

crimes against humanity. Most legal scholars and jurists who have examined the

Khmer Rouge crimes do not concur in this view, including the UN Group of

Experts. Cambodia's ethnic Vietnamese minority, for example, was reduced from

perhaps half a million people to essentially zero through extermination and

deportation. The Genocide Convention says that genocide has been committed when

an ethnic group is intentionally destroyed, in whole or in part, by killing or

other acts. Most Khmer Rouge victims were ethnic Khmer, of course, and that is a

far more difficult proposition in terms of the Genocide Convention, but the case

of Cambodia's Vietnamese ethnic minority is a textbook example of genocide.

Nonetheless, the precise label attached to the crimes of the Khmer Rouge

regime is an arguable point upon which reasonable people can disagree. It is an

argument that ultimately should be decided in a court of law. And yet, Short

seems to dismiss the value of a judicial proceeding to assess the crimes of the

Khmer Rouge, saying that "trying the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders for past

crimes offers an alibi for doing nothing about present ones." [447] Others,

including this reviewer, have argued precisely the opposite: that until the

worst crimes are punished, lesser crimes will always be relativized and


In the end, how well does Short accomplish the enormous task

he sets for himself in Pol Pot? He boldly aims to answer the Big Question:

"Why?" Short finely weaves history, geography, social and political systems, and

perhaps a little less successfully, culture, as well as the personality of Pol

Pot, in an attempt knit together a tapestry that shows how Cambodia could have

been so consumed by evil. But despite the brilliant colors of some of the new

yarns he has incorporated into the picture, and despite the elaborate warp and

woof of his design, the resulting fabric is tattered around the edges, and

somewhat faded, so one cannot discern a compelling pattern. This, however,

should not be seen as a criticism, for no other author has yet dared to address

the question on the lips of every Cambodian survivor of Pol Pot's nightmare. It

is a worthy effort, and the early chapters are rich, rewarding and beautifully

written. Despite its shortcomings, Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare is a

valuable and welcome contribution to the literature on the Khmer


Craig Etcheson is a Visiting Scholar at Johns Hopkins University

School of Advanced International Studies. He is the author of The Rise and

Demise of Democratic Kampuchea (1984) and After the Killing Fields: Lessons from

the Cambodian Genocide (forthcoming, March 2005).


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