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Posts Tagged ‘Cambodia’

A Review of Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare

Posted by Scott Holstad on April 20, 2016

Pol Pot: Anatomy of a NightmarePol 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.

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A Review of Brother Number One

Posted by Scott Holstad on February 18, 2016

Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol PotBrother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot by David P. Chandler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The first “review” I read when I came across reviews for Brother Number One was one by “Annie,” which stated, “More objective, non-sensational and honest than than ‘Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare’.” Funny, having finished both books now, I couldn’t agree with that statement less. I’ll get to the Nightmare book in another review (I think it’s an excellent book), but Brother Number One is for this one. It’s an interesting book. Since this is the “political biography of Pol Pot,” a mysterious man who I have wanted to know something of for quite some time, I thought this book would help me. And in a way, it did. But only in a way. For this book was published in 1992, five years before Pol’s death in 1997. It’s therefore an incomplete work. Moreover, and more importantly by far, the author claims that the subject is so very mysterious and so little is known about him and he has hidden himself in shrouds of mystery, at times for many years at a time, that it’s impossible to know anything of his whereabouts for years at a time. So that gives the author free reign to speculate as much as he wants, and boy, does he do that. First, he includes everything he possibly can about Pol’s, or Saloth Sar – as he was known most of his life – upbringing, including his childhood in a country village, to his upbringing with a brother and other relatives in the king’s palace, essentially, to his French education, first in Cambodia, then later as an elite student, in Paris where he became a communist, most likely around 1951. We learn of his return to Cambodia in the mid-50s, his rise in the Indochinese Communist Party, his helping to form the Cambodian Communist Party in 1960, his dealings with the Vietnamese, whom he needed yet always resented, his dealings with the Chinese, his resentment toward the French, toward the Cambodian monarchy, toward the US, his paranoia, his marriage, etc. But whole years are eliminated in this book. His whereabouts are claimed to be unknown. But that doesn’t stop the author, who begins numerous sentences with things such as, “It would be interesting to suppose,” or “One might assume,” or “It might be possible to guess,” etc, et al. If I had a dollar for every time the author speculates about Pol’s thoughts, feelings, or motives, I would be a wealthy man. Because that is all the author can do. He can only guess. There is very little recorded documentation at all, anywhere. The Vietnamese have some. The Chinese have some. Pol conducted some interviews in the late 1970s. Other than that, little accounts for the 1950s, ‘60s, and early ‘70s.

The author relies on numerous interviews for this book, but I’m assuming, as he often does, as Pol was still alive while the book was being written, that so many interviewees were aware of that fact and were scared to death of him, that few of them were willing to share many details of him or say many negative things about him. For instance, many of his secondary and college classmates were interviewed. He was known as a mediocre student, at best, but seemed to be liked by most. He had a pleasant smile, a decent laugh, and people differ on his effect on people and groups. Some say he had no influence on the Parisian communist groups, while others say he played a leading role. As a teacher in the 1950s, even though he never came close to completing his degree, he was known as a wise and good teacher, patient, well spoken, thoughtful, etc. The image doesn’t jibe with the genocidal maniac of the 1970s.

In fact, it’s hard to reconcile any image of him, pre-1970 or so, until 1975 really, when he started coming out of the woodworks and into the public eye. When he became public circa 1976, it was a shocker. No one knew who he was. He was alleged to have been a rubber plantation worked named “Pol Pot,” but when former colleagues saw him on TV making speeches, they knew at once he was Saloth Sar, the former teacher, childhood friend of the king and themselves, and they were shocked. How could this kind, good man be their new revolutionary prime minister, responsible for the deaths of a half a million people in the civil war which had just ended in 1975, and unbeknownst to anyone, about to become responsible for the deaths of one and a half million people in a probable genocide of epic proportions over the next three years? That’s over one fifth of the country’s population. Yes, Mao and Stalin killed many more people, but there were many, many more people to kill from. They didn’t kill one fifth of their country’s population. So, this was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before.

And the sweeping changes. Doing away with money. I mean, what the hell??? Emptying the cities? Seriously? Driving everyone out into the countryside, no matter where you were from or where your relatives were. Who cared if you lived or died? No one. Least of all the 12 and 13-year old Khmer Rouge soldiers. Illiterate peasant boys who couldn’t even read passports that were expected to be presented at all times. It was insane. Doing away with virtually all exports except for rice, and then if/when the rice crop fell through, what the hell happens to your country then? And the “base” people versus the “new” people. If you weren’t fighting with the revolutionaries when they “liberated” Cambodia in 1975, you were a “new” person, meaning you weren’t one of them, meaning you were an enemy combatant. Even if you were a peasant refugee who had merely fled to the city to escape the countryside fighting and had no irons in the fire one way or the other. You were the enemy.

S-21. It was the torture/interrogation center. Every communist regime has one, right? Hell, every regime of any sort has one. We have Guantanamo. The French had theirs too. S-21 was a former school. Over 20,000 people were processed through there in the three plus years it existed. Unless my facts have gotten jumbled up, and they may have, only about a half dozen people survived. All were tortured extensively, confessions of up to thousands of pages extracted, and all were killed, most brutally. The confessions typically said the person was a CIA agent, a KGB agent, and a Vietnamese agent. That the likelihood of one Cambodian person being all three, let alone any of these, was absurd as hell appeared to not have sunk in to Pol Pot and his colleagues. It made perfect sense to them that the Russians, their Vietnamese protégés, and the US, whom the Khmer Rouge believed they had defeated militarily in 1975 and who they thought had it out for them and was willing to work with its adversaries, would all be working together. Insanity sees reason everywhere.

This book is only 250 pages long, less than half as long as Nightmare is. It’s not nearly as detailed or in depth. It’s not nearly as well researched nor as well written. It relies far too extensively on speculation; at least 70% of the book is nothing but speculation. But as an introduction to Pol Pot, it’s an interesting book. I would suggest that, if it’s read, it’s read with this information in mind and then one would immediately read something more recent, ideally written after Pol’s death, such as Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare, which as I said, I think is an excellent book and which I hope to review soon. It relies on speculation almost not at all. One of the things that struck me most about Pol, the man, was that in one of these books, and I can’t remember which, sorry, he was asked if he knew how many people his administration was responsible for killing after he had been deposed. His answer was somewhere between several hundred and several thousand and that was because he had been kept out of the loop, or it would have been fewer than that. Stunning, really. Interesting to know if he really believed that or not. Somehow I doubt it. But there does seem to be evidence that he was actually kept out of the loop on a lot of the executions and that many of the “zones” were self sufficient and didn’t really report much back to headquarters and communications were so bad that it could take weeks or more to communicate by messenger, so by that time, things would have happened with or without permission. So things happened. How much was due to Pol? I guess we’ll never know. Of course, since Pol set the tone, ultimately it was all his responsibility. Everything and everyone was ultimately under his control. Anyone who displeased him was purged. He had complete control. Virtually all of his old communist colleagues from Paris and the old days in early communist Cambodia were purged to ensure his power. So, if he thought anyone were abusing their authority by acting genocidal without his permission, he could have done something about it. And he didn’t. So, obviously, the buck stopped with him.

So, I could go on and on, obviously. But I won’t. I’ve got to save some stuff to say for my next Pol Pot book. I learned a lot about a bizarre, incredibly secretive, insane man, responsible for the deaths of millions of people. It was surreal to read about, because this occurred during my lifetime and I remember a great deal of this, although of course not personally, obviously. The book itself is interesting, but for reasons already mentioned, not very good. Even though the author probably tried hard, he didn’t try hard enough. It’s probably a two star book at best, but I believe I’m going to give it three stars for effort because it’s one of the early Pol Pot books and it did make an impact of Pol Pot research, so that’s worth something. Still, it can’t be relied upon on its own. It’s not that trustworthy. It’s got to be supplemented by something more current in its research, so keep that in mind. I’m really not sure that I can recommend it. I can suggest reading it if interested in the subject matter, but only if you intend to read more than one source on the subject. If you intend to read only one book on Pol Pot, don’t let this be that source. It’s not reliable enough.

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