June 8, 2012

Book: Pol Pot – A History of Nightmare by Philip Short

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 9:01 am

Like, Hitler, Pol Pot arouses curiosity among those who knew what he did: How was one mad man allowed to do what he did to a whole nation, without any revolt? In modern times, Pol Pot is always depicted with a huge number of human skulls associated with him in pictures, including the one on the cover of this very comprehensive book.

Pol Pot was responsible for the death of about 1.5 million people in the very short time (about three years) of the rule of Khmer Rouge, the communist outfit that captured power in Combodia at the same time Vietnam and Laos were swept by the Communist armies, and at about the time US withdrew from Vietnam, after unsuccessfully trying to dislodge and defeat the Viet Cong. (See the excellent novel Dispatches by Michael Herr of an inside story of what it was to be in
the US army at that time.  )

In fact, this book is a revelation in more ways than one. We learn, for instance, how brutal Combodian life was, even before Pol Pot or Khmer Rouge. There were widespread reports of war victims being eaten by the conquerors, pillage, rape and looting were commonplace, and human rights as we know them in contemporary times nonexistent as a concept.

Pol Pot was a typical product of his times. He was a typical product of his times, and always had a polite smile on his face, even when he completely disagreed with you or even if he hated you!

He started life as Saloth Sar, and had numerous titles along the way, Pol and Pol Pot being just two of these. The interesting thing is that, even when he was at the top of the echelon of the CPK (Communist party of Kampuchea, or Khmer Rouge) he was so secretive that he did not even sit in the middle of the meetings with outsiders. Everyone else thought that Kieu Samphan, the erudite face of the movement, was its leaders. In earlier photos, you see Saloth Sar (Pol Pot) sitting on a side, even half cut off from the camera angle, leaning attentively to listen to what was being said. This allowed most to underestimate him until he came to power and had to reluctantly step into the limelight.

He said later that his enemies knew who he was but not what he was. The communists included Nuon Chea, whom everyone knew as a Trader (of Sino Vietnamese origin) and whose trade helped as a cover to allow him to travel far and wide, rallying supporters. What is the most surprising is that three brothers from the wealthy aristocratic family including Thiounn Thiounn joined the unlikely party of communists. His wife Mala once boasted that `only kings have more than what we had’. But they also suffered after Khmer Rouge came to power, even when Thiounn was a Minister. Mala saw her partents only once briefly after the revolution, when they had lost all their possessions, and shortly thereafter they starved to death, along with many others in the camps they stayed in.

Pol Pot’s victims (1.5 million) may have been smaller in number than people who suffered in the Great Leap Forward in China but as a percentage of population, these were higher.

Combodia was almost lawless even before Pol Pot and remained so after his death. As recently as 1998. a sixteen year old girl was quietly having soup in a small nondescript restaurant with her younger brother, when a well dressed woman came behind her with bodyguards, gripped her hair and dragged her to the ground, and the guards calmly poured nitric acid on her face and body, irredeemably disfiguring her and almost killing her in the process. Her crime? She was Tat Marina, a stunningly beautiful actress who caught the eye of a Minister called Sray Sittha, who seduced her and put her up in an apartment as his concubine. The wife of the minister, Khoun Sophal, whom a friend described later as `the gentlest soul; a delightful person’ was the woman who took her revenge with acid on the hapless actress.

Pol Pot was able to capture power because the brutality of the previous regimes had already made life hell for the citizens, especially those away from towns like Phnom Penh. The culture is full of cruel images and stories. Their version of the Indian Epic Ramayana (called `Reamker’) is much more violent and gory than the original. The other major religion, Theravada Buddhism, has Dante-esque  descriptions of hell where the torture of souls is described in gory details.

They had to be tough and rough because all their neighbours were too. For many decades, Combodia was repeatedly conquered and oppressed by the Vietnamese and the Thais, who plundered, raped, looted and tortured the vanquished race without mercy. Even Buddhist schools were very strict, where the slightest disobedience earned you a thrashing, and where some teachers made errant students lie down on red anthills swarming with ants as a punishment.

The King was revered as divine and even after French occupation and French rule, was revered within the Royal Palace as an absolute monarch. Sar’s two sisters reached a very coveted status as the King’s concubines.

The King’s court was a strange sight for the uninitiated. Even the princes, mandarins, and other dignitaries (Frenchmen excluded, of course) had to crawl on all fours in the King’s presence. No one had the right to speak unless addressed first. What about those not of Royal blood? They had to address themselves in his presence with “We, who carry the King’s excrement on our heads…” (Really! I am not making this up….)

And they had really strict notions on what a woman’s place in the world is. Their moral code or “cpap”, advised women thus: “Never turn your back on your husband when he sleeps and never touch his head without first bowing in his honour. Respect and fear his wishes and take his advise to heart. If he gives an order, don’t hesitate a moment in responding… Avoid posing as an equal to your husband – and never above he, who is your master. If he insults you, go to your quarters and reflect. Never insult or talk back to him….”

Vietnamese were the enemies. Most extreme and unlikely stories were believed about them, like this one: “Vietnamese captured three Khmer (Combodian) princes and buried them upto their neck in the earth. Then they put a large plate that straddled their heads, lit a fire in between and made tea on a pot on the plate, enjoining the princes not to move lest they spill the master’s tea.” Every Khmer knew that sugar plums stop growing a few miles from Vietnamese border “because they don’t want to grow in Vietnam”. Though Thai’s also had conquered Combodia many times, they were somehow not as resented.

The French, after conquering Lower Combodia, encouraged Vietnamese migration in such large numbers that it eventually became South Vietnam.

It is easy to imagine one oppressive form of government replacing another, and it makes clear how a regime like Khmer Rouge could take over the country – even welcomed initially by the people…

When the French were defeated and Germany occupied France in World War II, the Vichy regime inherited Combodia but the French were seen as weak and the Vietnamese and Chinese governments worked full time to implant Communism and overthrow the French and the King together from Combodia. Saloth Sar, Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan and other future
leaders of the Khmer Rouge movement went to France to study and formed Celeste Marxiste, a communist organization. Their model was, oddly enough, the French Revolution, rather than the Marxist ideals. By culture and background, rather than intent, they also sprinkled principles of Theravada Buddhist notions of renunciation, sacrifice of the self and other concepts – but not to the higher power but to the State. This was fortuitous, as this helped create a flavour of Communism that was palatable to the masses.

Sensing French weakness, the Prince Norohom Sihanouk, declared Independence of Combodia and also renounced the throne in favour of his father, the ex-King, in order to form a National Party. He ruled but unfortunately with a lot of oppression and authoritarian tendencies, which alienated the population and increased poverty and misery of the people.

In the meanwhile Saloth Sar, the future Pol Pot, came back and joined the Vietnamese organized Communist party. Since the Vietnamese needed the help of the Prince in their struggele against the US, based in South Vietnam, Pol Pot did not get any support and then decided to break away from the Vietnamese tutelage and launch an armed struggle. In the meanwhile, Prince Sihanouk was overthrown by his own Prime Minister, Lon Nol, and took refuge in China. After occupying part of Combodia for years, Khmer Rouge captured Phom Penh, executed Lon Nol and others and formed the government in 1975.

The people danced in the street when the troops entered but next day were ordered en masse out to live in communes. All property was confiscated. All land was confiscated. No use of cars were allowed. People were marched without rest, and many thousands perished, unused to all the hard labour, even before they reached the destimation. All houses had to be identical, thatched roof structures. Even families were not allowed to be together and the men, women and children were all segregated. The weak and the “unreformable” were murdered on the spot. A reign of terror was unleased, the likelihood of which Combodia had never seen. In spite of it, Pol Pot did not reveal that the government was even Marxist! His soldiers looted and pillaged in the name of `Angkor’ the earlier kingdom that signified, for most Combodians, what was the peak of glory of Combodia and also built the world famous “Angkor Wat”. Even Mao Tse Tung, on whose help they were totally dependent, cautioned him several times to tone down his idealism. He got the enigmatic smile in reply and his advice was completely ignored.

The S-71 camp on the border with Thailand became the dreaded “Auschwitz” of Combodia. Those, including the deputies that were close to Pol Pot and fell out with him later, who were sent there never returned alive. Stalinistic purges became the norm and a culture of fear permeated the society and the party itself.

In personal life, after rejection from the girl he loved as a youngster, he marries Khieu Ponnari, who became schizophrenic and unmanageable. After sending her away to her parent’s house, many years later, he married a young girl and fathered a child named Sitha.

His government was chaotic with instructions interpreted differently in different areas and no apparent central control.

Quixotic decisions were taken. The currency was abolished for good, and throughout Combodia, there was only a barter system in place (apparently in accordance with “pure” communist principles). Any real or imagined slight was punishable by death. Private scores were settled in the name of ideology.

When he was finally overthrown, he retreated to the mountains, in a small area still in control of Khmer Rouge, when, finally, aged 71, he was captured. While being tried for war crimes, he passed away peacefully in sleep. He remained unrepentant to his end.

The government that replaced him was beholden to Vietnamese, and after a brief interregnum of democracy, a coup by Hun Sen established another Marxist dictatorship that endures till today.

A really sad tale of an unfortunate country, with seemingly never ending problems. The current economic miracle must be doubly miraculous for them!

The book itself is a mixed bag. The story is interesting but the storytelling is not outstanding – it conveys the story adequately. A huge cast of characters makes the first half very confusing. Throughout the book, events unfold without the full import of the drama being fully explained. Still it is worth a read.

I would say, it deserves overall a 6/10

— Krishna


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