Born in Bristol, England, in 1945, journalist and biographer Philip Short studied
science and literature at Cambridge University before beginning a 30-year career
strewn with frontlines, bylines and deadlines.
Philip Short says the enormities of the Khmer Rouge do not meet a rigorous definition of genocide, and the real purpose of the coming trials is not to achieve justice.
A roving BBC foreign correspondent between 1967 and 1997, Short was stationed in
Africa and Moscow before opening the first BBC bureau in Beijing. He covered the
1972 genocide in Burundi when the Tutsi regime of Michel Micombero slaughtered 150,000
Hutu, and cites his coverage of the death of Mao Tsetung as one of his proudest professional
Short has held postings in Paris, Tokyo and Washington and wrote biographies of Malawi
dictator Hastings Banda (Banda, 1974) and Mao (Mao: A life, 1999).
He spent four intermittent years in Cambodia speaking with Khmer Rouge leaders and
rank-and file cadre before publishing Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare in 2004.
"To write a good story, you must be concise and encapsulate the essence of the
situation, but more than that, you must know what moves you," Short was once
quoted as saying.
He talked to Charles McDermid on January 22 about elastic words, academic lebensraum
and the "angelic smile" of Pol Pot.
What was Pol Pot like in person?
I met him in 1977 in Beijing. It was a tiny press corps at the time, and there were
very few Westerners. I was able to follow him around and watch at close quarters.
What struck me, and it's been borne out by some of the memoirs and Khmers who met
him, is that Pol Pot was immensely charming. He had an angelic smile. That's why
on the cover of the book we had him looking charming. You warm to the smiling face
and then it just faintly suggests the terrible things he did. This interested me.
Do you believe that people today have a complete understanding of who, and what,
Pol Pot was?
I don't think people in the West have any clear idea of what Pol Pot was, why he
came to power or what he tried to do. It's far easier to depict him as a monster.
Full stop. End of story. In Cambodia, most Cambodians have not really thought much
about what Pol Pot was. There needs to be some sort of discussion process. There
has to be more discussion and openness. The sad truth is that isn't going to happen.
The trial isn't going to make that happen and those in power don't want it to happen.
Why has this "discussion process" been avoided?
I think it's more natural than you may think. People don't necessarily want to scratch
into old wounds, they'd rather let them heal - even if the healing covers over a
lot of pain and contradictions and suffering. I think it is natural: Look at America
and slavery and segregation. It's something people would rather not think about it.
It's the same in all countries.
Will the coming Khmer Rouge trials provide this discussion process?
I don't think the trial will scratch any wounds. It's heavily symbolic and won't
have much to do with justice. Will the trial really take place in the way it is supposed
to? Or will restrictions be placed, for instance, on the rights of the defense?
Then who is this trial for?
Hun Sen. He is the one who has allowed it to go forward. It will produce verdicts
which delineate the KR leadership as having been a small group and nothing to do
with the present regime. To the extent that the powers that be can distance themselves
from what will be condemned as a self-contained criminal group - the cleaner they
Did Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge commit genocide?
No, not if words have any meaning. I think it's dangerous to make words elastic;
to stretch their meaning to cover whatever you want them to cover. Genocide has a
concrete meaning: it means an attempt by one group to exterminate another group because
of who they are, not what they are. The Nazis exterminated Jews because they were
Jews, not because they were bankers. That didn't happen in Cambodia. Pol Pot didn't
cause the deaths of a million Cambodians because they were Cambodians. So crimes
against humanity yes, but genocide no.
Then "genocide," in your opinion, is one of these "elastic words?"
It's the peculiar characteristic of spin doctors, totalitarian regimes and propagandists
of every sort to deform the meaning of words to buttress a political case. Who first
used the term genocide on Pol Pot? The Vietnamese, for eminently political reasons.
This was swallowed by Western scholars and part of the international legal fraternity.
It doesn't help the cause of truth.
Should they be charged with genocide?
If they're charged with genocide, I would argue there is an extremely strong case
for acquittal. Pol Pot, for all his abominations, did not set out deliberately to
exterminate the Cambodian people, and to pretend otherwise is to fall into the same
trap that made the [1979 People's Revolutionary Tribunal] such a farce. Cambodia
deserves better. Unless the tribunal establishes clearly what the Khmer Rouge leaders
did and what they did not do, the closure that so many Cambodians hope for will remain
What other problems do you see with the ECCC?
Another problem is who should be charged. Not to charge Ieng Sary would deprive the
tribunal of all credibility. But is it credible to try a handful of top leaders who
created a regime in which murder and starvation were the norm, but not try the district
chiefs and their men who actually carried out the murders? What is being proposed
for the ECCC is like a version of Nuremberg in which the Nazi leaders are tried,
but the concentration camp commandants, the SS guards, and all the rest are allowed
to walk free. To me, that is a bastard compromise, and the UN should never have agreed
to it....I have reservations about the process that is getting under way. I hope
very much I am wrong.
What do you think of Serge Thion's description of genocide as a "political
I am not saying that genocide is by definition a political commodity, but the term
applies in two cases. First, "genocide studies" have been a career for
numerous academics. There's nothing wrong with that: genocide studies, like any academic
discipline, have value. The problem is that most academics, like most of the rest
of us, constantly wish to expand their territory. Not many have the courage to go
against the tide and say: No, what happened in Cambodia was not genocide; it was
terrible, but it was not genocide. Instead, the common reaction - it is certainly
that of most of the academics who hold forth about the Khmer Rouge - is to try to
expand the field as much as possible. It's like Parkinson's law: the definition of
genocide expands to take up the academic space available.
Second, the term "genocide" was first applied to the actions of the Khmer
Rouge regime by their Vietnamese opponents. That fact alone - that the term first
surfaced as part of a polemic - should have given academics pause. It didn't mean
it was wrong: maybe the Vietnamese were justified in calling it genocide. But at
least Western scholars should have examined the question critically, to try to see
whether the use of the term was correct or whether "genocide" was being
used simply as a political epithet.
The reverse happened. The term was adopted in the West without critical appreciation,
to the point nowadays it is difficult to find an article about Pol Pot in which the
term "genocidal" is not automatically prefixed to his name. It's no longer
enough to say the Khmer Rouge leaders were an abomination; that they were responsible
for the deaths of a greater proportion of their own people than any other regime
in history; that they created the first slave-state of modern times. None of that
suffices. Unless you call the Khmer Rouge genocidal, you are accused of whitewashing
How will history remember Pol Pot?
It's too early to say, but I think history will have to conclude that he was both
evil, tragic and an incompetent failure. In everything he tried to do, he achieved
the opposite and caused enormous suffering in the process.