Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare by Philip Short
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I found this book very engaging. While it is not a “true” biography of Pol Pot, in that this isn’t what the entire book is about, the book is instead a study on twentieth century Cambodia, its politics, culture, international manipulations, military struggles, and yet, to a certain degree, one Saloth Sar, aka Pol Pot.
I have read a number of biographies of Pol Pot now, as well as studies on 1970s Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge and just what happened between 1975 and early 1979, and I am currently reading a book on S-21, Pol Pot’s infamous “interrogation” center (ie, torture and extermination center) located at the former school, Tuol Sleng. It’s difficult reading. Suffice it to say, I have never read anything more unbelievable in my entire life! That these atrocities could be committed by multiple leaders for generations and that the entire culture of Cambodia would permit this to occur without complaint, to accept genocide as a way of life/death is incomprehensible to me. To try and understand how Pol Pot and his fellow former school teacher colleagues could be so utterly ruthless and so completely naïve, stupid, paranoid, and utterly inept is almost beyond belief. To think that after fighting a five year civil war against a US-backed ruthless Cambodian government, on the first day of their victory in 1975, the Khmer Rouge emptied all cities, towns, and villages within 24-48 hours, completely, totally, is surreal. To think they would ban money, markets, education, religion, personal names, families, even laughter, upon pain of “disappearing” one night and being shot is so insane, it almost makes one crazy trying to understand it at all. Imagine living in New York City or Los Angeles and being told after a largely welcome revolutionary victory that you have 24-48 hours to leave all you have, walk out of the city, and go to the countryside to begin working as agricultural workers (they weren’t even told this much), or you will be shot by ten year old children wearing black pajamas carrying AK-47s. Try to picture that. Try to picture NYC and LA totally empty in two days. Except for the dead bodies. Try to picture the anarchy on the roads and kids in black pajamas with big guns herding you along to God knows where with no food or drink, people falling down dead due to malnutrition, hunger, disease, etc. Not knowing where their family is, where their spouses or kids are. Seeing everyone wearing eyeglasses taken away and shot because all such people “must” be intellectuals, who are naturally anti-revolutionary, and therefore must pay the ultimate price. Picture that. Picture 14,00-20,000 people going through S-21 in three years with only seven to 12 surviving to tell their tale, only possibly a dozen alive out of all of those people. This is Cambodia for three plus years in the 1970s. And this was the government that the US government backed, solely because they were anti-Vietnamese. And after the Vietnamese invaded and threw Pol Pot out in 1979, and he escaped to Thailand, he stayed and rebuilt his army and fought in northwest Cambodia with US aid until the late 1990s when he died a natural death, even though the entire world knew of his fucking genocide! Our own government has Cambodian blood on its hands and it’s fucking disgusting!
Yes, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao killed more people than Pol Pot did. But Pol Pot killed a much higher percentage of his people than any of those men did, his own people, and most likely, more than any man in history ever has. He was responsible for the deaths of over one and a half million people, up to one fourth of Cambodia’s population! Think about that. One fourth of your country is wiped out by one man and his insane, secretive regime. In three years. And for what? No one knows. There’s no good reason. To create some sort of completely imaginary neo-Marxist society that bears no resemblance to Marxism at all. The Khmer Rouge were the most inept Marxists in world history, barely able to understand basic concepts like class consciousness, or even what the proletariat is. It was not these concepts that brought them to power, nor even served as the mechanism behind Tuol Sleng.
The fact is that the Khmer Rouge was a total nightmare, but one brought about by many entities. The stupefying US bombardment of Cambodia is probably the most probable reason for the Khmer Rouge’s vicious and fast rise to power. The US, France, Vietnam, the USSR, and China — all of these countries brought about the rise of the Khmer Rouge, and especially in the case of China and America, catered to the exiled Pol Pot throughout the eighties and the nineties, even after the full horror of his genocide was made obvious. The next time someone talks to you about Reagan, America’s hero, make sure they know that under his watch, we kept this group of mass murderers armed for years. Simply because we and the Khmer Rouge shared one longtime enemy: Vietnam. Unreal.
And where does Pol Pot figure in his own biography? As an average, unambitious student, not good enough to get into the best schools, yet an early French and then Indochinese Communist, good enough to rise in the ranks. Good enough to take control of the Cambodian party in 1960, although the party remained hidden and unknown. And no one knew who he was, except for the few at the top with him. He remained a secret, an enigma, even after the Khmer Rouge attained power, not coming out into the public eye until close to a year and a half later. He gave interviews to two western journalists during his lifetime, both American, both during his time in power. They didn’t learn much, but they learned to fear him and his regime. And yet, even though he was “Brother Number One,” by the time of his death in 1997, his body was thrown onto a rubbish heap with a pile of tires and burned. No one ever got their vengeance. No one. Once, late in his life, he was asked if he knew how many deaths he was responsible for. He said a hundred or so. He said it would have been fewer, but some “mistakes” had been made. He had no grasp on reality. I don’t think he ever did. I think he was completely mad his entire life. His wife went mad. Maybe his madness drove her over the edge. No one will ever know, but that’s my theory, for what it’s worth.
Today, Cambodia is still struggling to recover. It still has problems. It’s still an uneducated, agrarian society. It needs help. Who will help the Cambodians? It would be nice if some of the countries that used that country so willingly and brutally during the twentieth century stepped up to the plate. It would be good if Cambodia could survive and one day thrive. They say it is beautiful there, or at least once was. It would be nice to work to regain some of that.