A Master of Delusions

by Kenneth Champeon, May 15, 2004 | Destinations: Cambodia / Phnom Penh

The now defunct punk rock band The Dead Kennedys had a song called "Holiday in Cambodia" ("It's a holiday in Cambodia, where people dress in black"), and at one point lead singer Jello Biafra simply repeats the name of the country's infamous dictator: "Pol...Pot...Pol...Pot." As with many punk rock songs, it's hard to determine this one's point, except that such a horrible world must be countered by Mohawks and safety pins. And probably many of the song's fans didn't know much about Cambodia except that it used to be a nasty place to live. At any rate, Jello Biafra introduced me to the name Pol Pot, and if that doesn't prove the bankruptcy of the American media and educational system (I was thirteen), I don't know what does.

Of the past century's numerous mass murderers, Pol Pot may have been the most reclusive and secretive, and consequently the least written about. He also died only in 1998, and David P. Chandler has classified his superb biography Brother Number One as "political" because so little is known about the personal. Until recently there was even disagreement over Pol Pot's year of birth, and for a long time few people knew that he was born Saloth Sar and was the ruler of the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea (which was neither democratic nor a republic) from 1975 to 1979. Not even his family knew until late in his reign; one brother never did, because he died as a result of the staggering evacuation of Phnom Penh in 1975.

Yet from what little we know about the man, it appears that while he was certainly paranoid, vengeful, and fanatical, he was also a man of great charisma, warmth, even charm - not something one tends to associate with Hitler or Stalin. And one gets the impression that he was not so much evil as incompetent - a poorly-read, uninformed, and impractical ideologue who had absolutely no idea how to govern a country, much less industrialize one in the space of a few years, which is what he set out to do.

To the end he insisted that he had acted out of patriotism, which may have been true of the revolutionary struggle that ended in the collapse of the corrupt, US-backed Lon Nol regime. And somewhat justifiably he claimed that the Khmer Rouge forestalled the disappearance of Cambodia as an entity altogether, threatened as it has been by its stronger and more acquisitive neighbors Vietnam and Thailand. (As late at 1848, writes Chandler, most of Cambodia was a Thai protectorate; the southern portion of Vietnam known to the Khmer as Kampuchea Krom used to be, well, Kampuchean.)

But a patriot is just as capable of ruining his country as a traitor is, maybe even more so, if in seeking the greater glory of the nation he begins to lose touch with the universe. Besotted by his "victory" over the United States, Pol Pot grossly overestimated the power and indeed the willpower of the Khmer people, and just as grossly ignored the geopolitical game in which Cambodia was at best an abject pawn. He apparently revered Mao, but in doing so he adopted Mao's most disastrous experiments, which relied for their failure on ignorance of both human nature and economics. And virtually everyone who could have run Cambodia sensibly - intellectuals, engineers, doctors - were shunned, if not killed, because their education could have come only from bourgeois, Western institutions. Yet Pol Pot, no peasant himself, was a product of those same institutions - and like Ho Chi Minh, he had become radicalized in France, the very country that had started the mess in the first place. He was his own worst enemy.

Grimly recounting the holocausts of the past century, comedian Eddie Izzard remarked that less attention is paid to Cambodia because Pol Pot killed his own people. "Well done," quipped the Briton Izzard. "We've been trying to kill you for ages." Sadly there is some truth to this, although perhaps Cambodia has received excessive attention because it helps to "prove" the fundamental wickedness of communism. But communism is not so much wicked as it is unworkable: Chandler painstakingly critiques the Khmer Rouge's first "Four Year Plan", a mishmash of vague economic targets and revolutionary ideology, a kind of parody of its Soviet and Chinese inspirations. He makes the excellent point that revolutionaries are usually qualified only to make revolutions, as was seen in Vietnam to name one. (America was a notable exception.)

Many former Khmer Rouge cadres, including Pol Pot, have tried to defend themselves by delineating the crimes of other nations and by insisting that, whatever else is the case, Cambodia has never been an aggressor in recent history. For arguably the genocide could have been avoided had Vietnam and the United States honored Cambodia's neutrality; in some sense the Pol Pot years represented a kind of national insanity caused by the Vietnam War's awesome energy inflicting itself on a medieval people. (Chandler notes that until the French "re-discovered" Angkor, most Cambodians believed that it had been built by supernatural creatures.)

We all know that in trying to preserve something called the Free World against Communism, the United States has very often supported more or less fascist governments. But following the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978, the United States sided with Communist China in supporting the Communist Khmer Rouge, all because the US was angry at Vietnam (and because it had allied itself with China against the Soviet Union, of which Vietnam was a satellite.) The US was unable to argue that Vietnam should be punished because it had violated Cambodian sovereignty, which had already been violated by the US among others. Even Thailand, no friend to Vietnam either, backed the Red Khmers, and for some time Pol Pot resided on the Thai side of the Thai-Cambodian border.

With such good friends, it's little wonder that the Khmer Rouge has escaped any punishment worth the name. Having allowed the organization to keep its seat in the United Nations well after it had been deposed and its crimes revealed, the UN lacks the moral authority to form a war crimes tribunal, while Cambodia itself lacks the courage. Pol Pot died peacefully and - if he is to be believed - with a clear conscience. Or was it an absent conscience? Like Mao, the most he would admit to were "mistakes". When asked to estimate the casualties of his reign, he would say hundreds or thousands. From beginning to end, he was a master of delusions.

It is somehow fitting that eventually the Khmer Rouge deemed Pol Pot a traitor, given that he had applied that label so generously to others. Of course by then the gesture was rather meaningless, as both parties were moribund anyway. According to Chandler, the Cambodians now refer to the years 1975-1979 as samai a-Pot, or the era of "contemptible Pot" - that is, when they refer to the era at all. Chandler writes that Pol Pot was "cremated beneath a pile of rubbish and personal possessions" with a complete lack of ceremoniousness. And so, like Hitler, Pol Pot died a shabby death, and like Mao he was repudiated by the very people he had pretended to serve. And that's something to sing about. Take it away, Jello.

- The End -

Review of David P. Chandler's Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot, Silkworm Books, 1999.

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