on 15 July 2005
Founded during the 1950s, the Khmer Rouge became infamous for their ruthless guerrilla fight against the Lon Nol regime and their murder of about two million people during their 1975-79 rule. Forced out of power in 1979 by the Vietnamese invasion the Khmer Rouge survived the 1980s with the help of Thailand and China. Following the Paris Agreement in 1991, it began to fade and following the death of Pol Pot in 1998 it practically ceased to exist.
This is what Philip Short's biography of Pol Pot is about. It is of course significantly more detailed than the above. Short follows Pol Pot from birth through school to Paris where the Khmer Rouge ideology was founded. And he is right, the similarities with the French Revolution and various aspects of Stalinism are indeed striking. The formation of the Khmer Rouge and their take-over of the country are again explained in detail, so is the gruesome 1975-79 period. When I read the book I occasionally felt that the structure of Cambodian society may have made it easier for the Khmer Rouge to gain power and hang on to it. The Khmer Rouge resistance period of the 1980s is well covered; so are the factors leading up to Pol Pot's arrest in 1997 and his end in 1998.
There are plenty of books on Pol Pot and various aspects of the Khmer Rouge rule. This should be one of the best.
on 8 May 2006
As a rule, I'm not very keen on biographies of political leaders. They often focus narrowly on the individual, leaving an impression that they far more central to historical events than is often the case. Philip Short avoids this pitfall by using the chronology of Pol Pots life to explore the wider history of Cambodia from the 1920's onwards. Eye witness testimony is used heavily throughout the book, with a careful balance of opposing views. Unlike many biographies, this one doesn't try to "pschoanyalyse" its subject, and is all the more convincing for it.
By the end of the book, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge comrades come across not as monsters, but as idealists who let their dreams of a Communist utopia override the welfare of ordinary Cambodians. When the dream proved impossible to acheive they were reluctant to admit defeat, so rather than compromise they purged the middle ranks of their regime and tried to impose the same policies again. Each successive attempt ended in greater disaster, as the purges left fewer and fewer competent personnel. Crop yields spiralled downwards, and the urban population that were forced to work on the massive collective farms were the first to die.
The deaths of ordinary Cambodians were not only the result of economic mismanagement and the resultant famine. Suspected political opponents, intellectuals and the professional classes were tortured at places like the notorious S-21 prison. The motives behind the targeting of particular social groups are clearly explained in the book, the terrible result of the ideological path that Pol Pot and his colleagues followed. The way this ideology evolved is covered in great detail - the most interesting aspect of which is the strong influence of post-war French philosophy that the Khmer Rouge leadership were immersed in as students in Paris. This combined with Stalinism, Maoism, (both popular amongst French Communists) and particular Combodian traits such as the Buddhist suppression of individualism to form the Khmer Rouge version of Communism.
In conclusion, you can learn a great deal from this book, whether you're just interested in Pol Pot as an indivudual, or interested in the wider history of the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia.
on 9 December 2011
At a time when Pol Pot's collaborators face trials for their actions anyone wanting an accessible introduction to the rise and fall of the Khmers Rouges could do no better than read this excellent book.
Having completed a landmark biography of Mao, Philip Short turned his attention to one of the least known of the last century's political despots. Given the retiring nature of his subject, the depth and quality of the research lifts this biography among the best of its kind (though I add the caveat that, reading this book as a prime source of information on a subject with no prior knowledge, I am unable to judge its accuracy objectively).
Thankfully, this is not just a biography of the main protagonist. Here too is the history of Cambodia, portraits of those indicted for crimes against humanity and those who may have deserved the same but survived and prospered untouched by the International Criminal Court.
The book is well structured and, with so many players (and so many changes of names), the inclusion of a dramatis personae is greatly appreciated. The photographs and maps complement the text.
Why not five stars? Well, as has been expressed, the quality and size of the printing in the paperback edition renders it difficult to read. Writing of this quality deserves better presentation.
on 9 March 2013
I was drawn to the biography of Pol Pot partly because of the heinousness of his regimes crimes. Most interesting were the methods employed by the Khmer Rouge. The whole scale deportation of city populations seems unbelievable but he did it. The book starts slowly and it took about a hundred pages before the pace of events drew me in. Until that point I would definitely not call it a page-turner.
What I find educational are the origins of the Khmer Rouge and the peculiar way they developed communism. Classical Marxist-Leninism sees communism as the rising up of the "working class" the proletariat. I had mistakenly believed that this was anybody who worked for a living. This is not correct however. It specifically refers to people working for others. This breeds the question of the worker receiving an equitable share of what they produce. In Cambodia subsistence farmers were not asking whether they had an equitable share of the produce of their hands. They had 100% of what they produced - and it was barely enough. The Khmer Rouge "adapted" communism with a cultural interpretation based on Buddhism, the traditional religion of Cambodia (p150) and the model of the French Revolution of peasants led by bourgeois intellectuals (p72).
Therevada Buddhism is intensely introspective. The goal is not to improve society or redeem one's fellow men; it is self-cultivation, in the nihilistic sense of the demolition of the individual. So it was that using the vocabulary of Buddhism the emphasis was on "proletariat consciousness".
There was a precedent in the case of China in which Mao said there was no need to go through the stage of bourgeois capitalism. Instead a "democratic revolution" followed by a "socialist revolution" would suffice (p70).
What is more difficult to explain is the cruelty and indifference. In reading of the flat denial of atrocities I was struck by the similarities with the Nambari in Babylon 5. Indeed was I not a fan of the series I doubt I would have understood the cultural roots which led to the denial of atrocities. One of the Nambari lies about who was to blame for a bar fight. This is amusing and innocuous but becomes crucial later in a murder trial. The witness is said to be lying but "Nambari do not lie". Fact is that lying is "permitted" if it is done to "save face" for another. This comes close to explaining the Cambodian ease of lying where a straight answer would cause loss of face (p207).
The reason for the mass deportations is more difficult to explain. There is a clue in the belief that "private trade like private ownership implied the pursuit of gain and attachment to individual possessions. It was by definition dishonest." (p247)
There were many other points, one of which was the use/control not only of the private lives but the language used to express thought.
· The ownership of private land was forbidden
· Cooking food in your house was forbidden (communal canteens) p334
· Foraging for food was forbidden (this was an individualistic activity) p346
· Married couples were separated (weekly "visits")
· Ownership of anything above the bare minimum was forbidden
· The educated were killed in villages (they were privileged like the rich) p254
· Mother and Father replaced by Aunt and Uncle p324
· Free choice of spouses was explicitly condemned and marriages were celebrated collectively for a minimum of ten couples.
· Money was printed in China for issue, but with no markets, no wages it was withdrawn and the state issued food etc... for work (I now have a Khmer Rouge banknote as a bookmark)
From a spiritual point of view one of the worst pronouncements of Pol Pot came on page 176 said in the context of executions, `I do not care if I am sent to hell,' he cried, `I will present the relevant documents to the Devil himself.'
In terms of language there are scattered examples throughout the 450 pages of the book. Most sinister was the concept of `spiritual private property' p316. "To destroy physical private property the appropriate method was the evacuation of the towns... But spiritual private property is more dangerous, it comprises everything that you think is `yours', everything that you think exists in relation to `yourself- your parents, your family, your wife.' Everything of which you say, `It is mine...' is spiritual private property.
The knowledge you have in your head, your ideas, are mental private property. To become a true revolutionary you must... wash your mind clean. That knowledge comes from the colonialists and imperialists ... and has to be destroyed."
The fullest discussion is on pages 324-325. Nuon Chea (the Khmer equivalent of the Nazis regime's Goebbels). "...words conveying lyrical or bourgeois sentiments like `beauty', `colourful' and `comfort' were banned from the airwaves. The goal was that outlined in 1984, a book which neither Pol nor Nuon had read but whose principles they grasped intuitively:
The whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought... In
the end we will make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because
there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that
will ever be needed will to be expressed by exactly one word, with
it's meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed
out and forgotten... Every year fewer and fewer words, and the
range of consciousness always a little smaller... In fact there will
be no thought as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not
thinking... Orthodoxy is unconsciousness."
on 17 February 2015
For starts I would more call this book something like "The Rise and Fall of Communism in Cambodia" as it focuses just as much on Pol Pot's opposition as it does on Pol Pot. That being said, this is a fascinating insight in the Khumer Rouge and Pol Pot.
It's not light reading, not by a long shot but it's un-put-downable. It has clearly been meticulously researched and is in-depth while still being quite broad. It can get confusing as there are a lot of people, places, dates etc ut once you get your head around that the writing style just makes it so easy to read.
A must read book for anyone interested in Pol Pot, Cambodia or the Cold War.
on 27 October 2006
Short combines academic rigour, meticulous research and easy-flowing prose to produce a biographical gem! What comes out is as much the biography of a nation people (the Khmer) as of Pol Pot... something Short clearly believes is as important, if not more so, than the politics and cold-war machinations which lead to the rise of the Khmer Rouge in the first place. There is a big cast of actors in this book, which makes it a tough read at times, but if you are looking for a serious and dispassionate study of a dictator and the horrors he set upon a whole nation, this is the one!
on 27 February 2007
Philip Short has set out to provide a pretty much definitive account of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge's rise to power and eventual fall. He has achieved great success in doing so.
`Pol Pot...' charts the rise of the Cambodian left (and Pol Pot's rise within it) from the time of the French Empire until the aftermath of Khmer Rouge tyranny and Pol Pot's eventual death in the late 1990's.
Short goes to great lengths to provide a detailed history of the decades between the crumbling of French Indo-China and the beginnings of the Khmer Rouge. He also gives a detailed account of the early lives, not only of Pol Pot (real name Saloth Sar), but also the other main players in the Khmer Rouge regime, thus giving very personal dimensions to the regime they helped create. This is set in context of the wider issues and history of the region, with particular reference to Cambodia's long-term domination, particularly by Vietnam, but also Thailand. All of this he does with finesse. Regardless of the level of detail, Short manages to engage the reader. This is not his greatest achievement though.
The real strength of his writing is in that he manages to do the seemingly impossible and present the Khmer Rouge with a human face. This he achieves through examining the peculiarities of Khmer collective psychology, the origins of the people who made up the rank and file of the Khmer Rouge, the cold logic governing their particular extremist brand of communism, and how these things drove their behaviour during their brief tenure.
Even within the communist pantheon of the 1970's, Democratic Kampuchea (as Cambodia had been renamed) remained rather an oddity and not simply because of its ideological extremism. Short discusses the influences of the French (and not Russian) revolutions, Buddhism and Pol Pot's desire at once to reclaim the `golden-age' of the Khmer civilisation (identified as the era of the Khmer empire, ruled from Angkhor Wat), usurp the Vietnamese Communists' dominance of the Cambodian revolution and cleanse the Khmer people through purgation. These factors he deftly combines to provide an overall view of Khmer Rouge ideology and how it came about. He also sheds important light on the reasoning behind the genocide committed in the killing fields and why the regime failed so quickly.
Pol Pot: History of a Nightmare, will provide the academic and lay-reader alike, with a detailed analysis of one of the twentieth Century's worst human catastrophes. Highly Recommended.
on 25 May 2012
The book is extremely well-written and detailed, providing a very good examination of Pol Pot's early life (despite the rarity of sources) and his journey from enthusiastic communist believer to modern monster. The struggle of the Cambodian people against first the French and then against their despotic monarchy is well-documented, as is the descent from victorious "liberators" to mass-murderers. A thoroughly good read which has filled huge gaps in my personal knowledge of the Cambodian story and as a recent visitor to the country, much of modern Cambodia makes more sense after reading this. Fully recommended
on 3 August 2013
Well, this book is brilliant in so many ways. Most importantly, the author takes their time to explain for even the most laymen among us, where it went wrong, what Pol's views were, why it did not work (you can't have a Proletariat in an Agrarian society or something.)
He does not overload you with too much , either. It reads well, flows well, keeps you caught up in the whole nightmare.
The only downside? Poorly printed and I suppose-no pics.
on 14 November 2013
A great read from start to finish, Pol Pot by Philip Short provides lorry loads of information on one of the worst regimes the world has ever had the misfortune to witness. I have read many books on Cambodia and this one provides the most information on the regime as a whole and Cambodia's position in Indochina at that time. It's worth noting that Philip Short has written other books on South East Asian countries and has therefore provided the link necessary to understand the outside influences that contributed to the disastrous course Cambodia took. Whilst the print used is a little on the small side, the quality of the pictures and the book itself are fine in my copy. I have however seen other copies in Cambodia being sold which are exactly that: copies; they are terrible quality but cheap to buy.