Bro_Pair أعرف's Reviews > Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare

Pol Pot by Philip Short
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Jul 01, 12

Read from April 15 to July 01, 2012

An admirably solid book about one of the most bewildering stories of the twentieth century. I was never a fan of Lewis Carroll as a kid; "Alice in Wonderland" always scared me. This books inspired the same fear in me. I don't think I've ever been through a looking glass and found myself in a place as brutish and, well - insane as the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. Short is a good writer; his former career as a BBC journalist is apparent, in his unadorned prose, mistrust of simple narratives, and command of facts and characters. And most crucially, he largely does not attempt to produce a grand explanation for the eminently bizarre ideology and policies of Pol Pot; he doesn't really know, we don't either, and Pol Pot, nee Saloth Sar, never really knew, anyway.

What kind of a regime abolishes whole concepts, like "money" or "cities" or even "names"? Orwell shows his age to me now (read "Shooting an Elephant" for his truly malevolent racist colonizer's self-pity) but the Khmer Rouge seem to have distilled the most vicious drippings of 1984. Beyond Short's superb research, as well as his excellent narrative structure, he provides ample historical context for the tragedy of 1975-1978. While these may have been the three *worst* years of Cambodian history, it quickly becomes apparent many of the preceding and succeeding years were little better. Indeed, the canny, ruthless, histrionic King Sihanouk almost steals the book, like some good character actor in a bit movie part. Like J.T. Walsh, he's an intriguing heavy with a weird charm.

If the book has a message, I think it's one that is going to be difficult for most people to digest: we don't really know why we do what we do, and our capacity for remorseless evil is greater than we would like to imagine - more influenced by circumstance than we'd care to admit. The Khmer Rouge are the most inept Marxists in human history, barely able to understand basic concepts like class consciousness, or even what the proletariat is. It was not these precepts that swept them to power, nor even served as the engine behind the Tuol Sleng torture center.

The fact is, the Khmer Rouge was a bizarre nightmare, but one brought to fruition by many makers. The horrifying U.S. bombardment of eastern Cambodia is perhaps the most striking impetus for the Khmer Rouge's blistering rise to power. The U.S., France, Vietnam, China, the USSR, Thailand - all of these country's elites facilitated the rise of the Khmer Rouge, and in the case of China and America, coddled the exiled Pol Pot throughout the eighties, even after the full horror of the killing fields was all too apparent. The next time someone tells you about Reagan the Democratic Hero (TM), make sure they know: under his watch, we kept the fat and happy mass murderers of millions well-armed through Thai interlocutors. All because we and the Khmer Rouge shared one longtime enemy: Vietnam.

Short often essentializes the Khmer as violent, a disturbing theme throughout the book. It's not a convincing argument, anymore than it would be to call Germans or Palestinians irredeemably, culturally-ingrained killers. He tempers this argument in the closing pages of the book, and at least offers one compelling idea in support of a uniquely Cambodian quality behind the killing fields: it cannot have been easy to see the ruins of the Angkor Wat, center of an entire that controlled Southeast Asia, and now you were a small fish, prey to the whims of China, Vietnam, Thailand, and now, the U.S. and USSR.

As for Pol Pot himself? Never has the "banality of evil" been more apparent. He barely figures even in his own life story. A chilling coda - no witnesses can attest to ever seeing him lose his temper. Just smiling a trademark, toothy smile, no matter the subject.
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