Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Pol Pot; Anatomy of a Nightmare, by Philip Short

Even though I haven't taken a history class in many years, I still like to pick up a biography or another kind of history to fill in the blanks in my head. My emphasis in college was in 20th Century European history, although I took a lot of American history courses as well. It's always fascinating to see the same century from another perspective.

Pol Pot was the leader of the Khmer Rouge that terrorized Cambodia in the mid-1970's.
This book traces his life from his days as a young teenager to his death in 1998. I had heard of Pol Pot from news articles that emerged after details of the horrors of his regime came out. I read about the movie The Killing Fields but couldn't see it because I was still a teen and no way were my parents going to let me see it. What little I could glean was that he was a communist dictator in the same vein as Stalin and Mao. Now that I know more about him, I think I can say, "yes and no". He was the impetus behind the deaths of over a million of his own people; the carnage he created, the secret organizations, and some of the chilling doublespeak reminiscent of Orwell is there. The inability to actually keep a country running without destroying it sets him apart from Stalin and Mao.

The culture of Cambodia (or Kampuchea)is fundamentally different from the United States and Europe. Short describes an experience an American consultant had there, as he was trying to show Cambodian farmers the benefits of certain chemical fertilizers. He showed them how the fertilizer could double their crop years. The farmers were delighted. He went back the next year to see how they were doing, and he was amazed to find the farmers had only planted half the land they used the year before. He asked why they didn't plant their entire acreage, and they said if they could get the same crop they usually got with half the land, that was enough. Theravada Buddhism, which discourages one from getting caught up in the pursuit of riches, could be one factor; the unfortunate dilemma of having local lords taking away a percentage of each harvest so why bother, another; and, according to the French (former colonial occupiers) their reluctance to work more than necessary another.

For centuries, the Cambodians had been operating on a feudal system of lords, and overlords, whether of their own making (Kingdom of Angkar) or imposed on them by foreign powers, (France, or Vietnam). Their version of Buddhism also stressed obedience without questioning. Life was hard for the rural peasants. Pol Pot wanted their lives to be better, but on Cambodian terms, not on European or Vietnamese terms. His obsession with secrecy, the people's acquiesence to frequent government bungling, and the incompetence and inconsistency of his organization led to starvation of those he had pledged to help. Fortunately his regime only lasted about three and a half years.

Torture and executions of people suspected of being spies and saboteurs inspired a cycle of purges and witchhunts. No one was safe. Private property was gradually banned. Towns were emptied and the goods left behind were looted or confiscated by Pol's cadres. Even personal thoughts were supposed to be rooted out of people so they no longer thought of themselves as individuals. Husbands and wives were housed separately, family meals forbidden, children over the age of seven were taken from their mothers to be raised by the community. Teachers and professionals were taken from the cities and forced to work as farmers, whether they had agricultural skills or not. Local village leaders manipulated the policies towards their own ends.

What shocked me more than the depictions of the atrocities committed, was the revelation that Pol Pot died in his sleep. He was never taken to trial for "crimes against humanity". He lived out his later life in exile, but no one ever held him accountable. I know that shouldn't surprise me anymore, considering how many others in similar positions have managed to "get away" with the violence they ignite without any seeming call for restitution or even prison time.

You'll need a strong stomach for this one. If your teens read it, you will want to discuss how abuse of power and isolation from others can lead to amoral reasoning and justification for treating human beings as objects to be used.


  1. I let your Dad read your comments and he said they were good. He was THERE when this happened. He liked your review and agreed with you.

  2. What a great blog you have here :)


Have you read this book? What did you think of it?


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