POL POT: Anatomy of a Nightmare
By Philip Short. Henry Holt. 537 pp. $30
When Pol Pot sat down in 1978 for his first-ever interview, the Yugoslav journalists conducting it asked him a simple question: "Comrade Pol Pot, who are you?" The man behind Cambodia's killing fields offered only some half-truths. A few months later, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and drove Pol Pot out of power and into the shadows. In the decades since, a handful of Cambodia scholars have tried to lift the shroud of mystery surrounding a tyrant who seemingly emerged from nowhere. True to form, the most detailed interview about his life came just six months before his death in April 1998, when an American reporter, Nate Thayer, tracked him down in a jungle hideaway near the Thai border.
That interview and a handful of books (especially Ben Kiernan's How Pol Pot Came to Power and The Pol Pot Regime, as well as David P. Chandler's Brother Number One) have been the main sources of our knowledge about the man. But the Yugoslav journalists' question remained. Philip Short's 537-page book goes a long way toward telling us who Pol Pot was; unfortunately, it is marred by superficial generalizations about Cambodian culture and a bizarre attempt to exonerate the Khmer Rouge of genocide.
Short, a veteran correspondent for the BBC and the author of a widely praised biography of Mao Zedong, does not claim any special expertise on Cambodia. Interviews with former members of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime -- including such top officials as Ieng Sary, Pol Pot's foreign minister and brother-in-law -- were the most noteworthy tools of his research. "The aim," Short writes, "has been to tell the story of the Cambodian nightmare, to the extent that that is feasible, from the vantage point of those who created it, rather than solely from that of the victims." Indeed, victims' voices are rare here. Despite being supplemented by archival and published materials, the book essentially remains an account of Cambodia's darkest period as seen from the perspective of French-speaking Khmer Rouge cadres and their associates.
Still, those interviews are valuable inasmuch as they allow Short to paint a vivid portrait of Pol Pot -- the nom de guerre for the man born as Saloth Sar -- in his formative years. From his life of a Buddhist novice in a Phnom Penh pagoda to his discovery of the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin's writings on uninterrupted revolution; from his double life in Phnom Penh as both society boy and clandestine revolutionary to his time as the unhappy sidekick of Vietnamese communists in the jungle; from survival under American bombs to the exhilarating 1975 meeting with Mao after taking the helm of Cambodia -- the author gives a nicely crafted account of Pol Pot's emergence. The story of the future dictator's political awakening and ascent, painted on the large canvas of France's waning colonial moment in Indochina and the rise of communism, makes fascinating reading. Moreover, Short shows us Pol Pot's mounting paranoia about the Vietnamese and demonstrates that his obsession with secrecy far predated his rise to power -- both points that go a long way toward explaining the murderous frenzy that later gripped the Khmer Rouge regime.
After his recklessly utopian drive to build an imagined powerful, egalitarian, pure Cambodia collided with reality, Pol Pot's paranoia produced successive waves of purges. Those who were too tired or hungry to work, as well as squeamish or insufficiently enthusiastic Communist Party members, were denounced as Vietnamese agents and put to death by the thousands. Military setbacks at the hands of Vietnam fueled further killings of Cambodians thought to harbor sympathy for the enemy -- those with "Vietnamese minds in Khmer bodies."
Curiously, the period covering Pol Pot's years in power (roughly a quarter of this massive book) lacks the color and drama of the earlier phase. Pol Pot the man disappears, replaced by faceless quotes from his directives and dry analysis of party documents. Except for Short's account of the forced evacuation of nearly 3 million people from Phnom Penh, the rest of the narrative about the creation of what Short rightly calls "a slave state" is primarily theoretical, focused on the hardships of Khmer Rouge bureaucrats in the capital, who had to plant tomatoes in the streets and clean their own rooms. The 1975 fall of Phnom Penh, he observes, "was not marked by rivers of blood," while gliding past in the same paragraph the murders of 700-800 politicians and officials of the toppled regime. Elsewhere, he calls the death of 20,000 people during the mass evacuation appalling but not exceptional in the aftermath of a civil war -- as if the deportees were combatants, not helpless civilians. The author devotes no more than a few pages to the brutish and often short lives of millions in the countryside. This is an anatomy of the Khmer Rouge nightmare without the cries of its survivors.
Pol Pot is also a biography that seems reluctant to face up to the enormities committed by its subject. Short writes that perhaps 1.5 million people perished (less than other experts' estimate of 1.7 million), a sizeable minority of whom were executed. (Others died of starvation and disease caused by malnutrition and back-breaking labor.) The outright slayings, he argues, constituted crimes against humanity for which the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders may "legitimately be convicted," but they should not be jailed "for genocide, of which they are innocent." The killing fields did not constitute a genocide, Short writes, because the Khmer Rouge did not set out to "exterminate a "national, ethnic, racial or religious group."
But this quotation from the famous definition of genocide in the U.N. General Assembly's 1948 Genocide Convention is fragmented, omitting the document's key qualifying phrase: "in whole or in part." Moreover, decades of research -- and, indeed, information in Short's own book -- have clearly shown the racist motivation of the Khmer Rouge, including the now infamous call by Pol Pot himself "to crush" all of the Vietnamese. "In terms of numbers, [each] one of us must kill 30 Vietnamese," he wrote in a 1978 commentary for Radio Phnom Penh. "We need only two million troops to crush the 50 million Vietnamese and we will still have six million Cambodians left." Short does not even mention the systematic killing of an estimated 10,000 ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia. He also explains the Khmer Rouge's repression of Cambodia's Muslim Cham minority not as racially motivated but as the consequence of Cham resistance to abandoning their culture and religion, as demanded by Pol Pot's henchmen. Short does not see the displacement of 150,000 Chams as "racism in the normal sense of the term." Instead, he writes that the Khmer Rouge's "aim was uniformity," rather than "the suppression of a particular group" -- as if it were possible to make an omelet without breaking eggs.
Moreover, Short does not really explain the mental processes driving Pol Pot and his colleagues to order mass murders. Instead he offers examples of how this was simply the thing to do in Cambodia. He writes that Khmer Rouge atrocities were rooted in the country's history and tradition -- in "pre-existing Khmer cultural models." He even calls Buddhism (whose most basic precept forbids the taking of any life) a factor because its "impersonal fatalism . . . erects fewer barriers against evil than the anthropomorphic God of Christianity or Islam who sits in judgement and threatens sinners with hell-fire." Among other exotic explanations, he implies that Pol Pot's hatred of cities had deep roots: "In Khmer thought, the fundamental dichotomy is not between good and evil, as it is in Judaeo-Christian societies, but between srok and brai, village and forest." By going to the maquis, the Khmer Rouge had moved to "to the jungles, the wild places, where dark, unknown forces roamed."
Some of this book's conclusions were foreshadowed in a November 2000 essay Short wrote in the Phnom Penh Post. Published just before he sat down to interview Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Sary, that article argued that the Khmer Rouge leaders should not be tried because Pol Pot did not act alone. In the book's afterword, Short approvingly quotes a Buddhist leader (who said that "millions of Cambodians worked with" the Khmer Rouge) to argue that the best and brightest of Cambodia's intellectual elite bought into Pol Pot's hideous vision. A war crimes tribunal, Short suggests, would only help foreign powers whitewash their own less than honorable role in Cambodia's suffering; for instance, former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright's call to try the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders for genocide "would allow the US to turn the page with honour and regain the moral high ground." A tribunal would also offer foreign governments an alibi for doing nothing about the current, thoroughly rotten Cambodian regime, which let a minister's wife go unpunished after disfiguring a young girl's face with acid -- a crime that Short likens to the Khmer Rouge atrocities. It would be more convincing to argue for a war crimes tribunal because Cambodia's current lawlessness cannot be curbed unless the mass murderers are brought to justice. (Imagine Germany in 1946 with Himmler walking free.)
Short's muddled arguments against trials for the Khmer Rouge high command may be an apt end to his book. He is a talented writer, and he had truly unusual access to the perpetrators of the killing fields. It is a pity that this combination produced only an interesting but ultimately flawed history of one of history's great horrors.
Nayan Chanda is editor of YaleGlobal Online, a former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review and the author of "Brother Enemy: The War After the War." He covered Indochina for more than two decades.