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Cambodia's Bad Dream: A new look at Pol Pot's horror show

By Bertil Lintner

Pol Pot: the History of a Nighmare, by Philip Short. John Murray, London: 2004: 656 pages

Was it genocide or "just" a crime against humanity? Philip Short, a former foreign correspondent for the BBC, sets out to answer that question in his book about the rise to power of Pol Pot in Cambodia, and what actually happened there during the Khmer Rouge era, from April 1975 to January 1979. It is not pure semantics. If it was genocide, it would require a special kind of justice under international law. As a crime against humanity, domestic justice would suffice. Short reaches the conclusion that the Khmer Rouge did not "exterminate a 'national, ethnic, racial or religious group'"--the definition of genocide. Pol Pot and his men, Short argues, "conspired to enslave a people," their own. They were brutal mass murderers, yes, but not comparable to the Nazis.

Quite predictably, that conclusion has provoked a strong response from those who argue that the Khmer Rouge are indeed guilty of genocide. Ben Kiernan, director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University, Connecticut, wrote a scathing critique of Short's book for the Times Higher Education Supplement in London [February 25, 2005.] He accuses Short of ignoring the 1999 legal report of a group of United Nations experts, who recommended that Khmer Rouge leaders face charges of genocide, having "subjected the people of Cambodia to almost all the acts enumerated in the [genocide] Convention." The present Cambodian government has agreed to the formation of an international tribunal to try surviving Khmer Rouge leaders for genocide, and the findings of Kiernan and other researchers would then be presented as evidence. Short's assertion undermines those efforts, which explains the criticism of his book.

But some of Kiernan's arguments are convincing. Short dismisses evidence that Pol Pot's regime perpetrated genocide against large parts of Cambodia's majority Buddhist community and its ethnic minorities, such as the Vietnamese, Chinese and Muslims. What is a bit unfair, however, is to bring out the fact that Short "is unable to read Khmer," and, therefore, his findings are questionable and unreliable. If the right to research Cambodian history were limited to the handful of foreigners who speak and read Khmer--and, of course, Kiernan is one of them--we would be left with very little to read.

Such arguments aside, the strength of Short's book is its detailed account of modern Cambodian history. He takes us into the palaces, schools and monasteries in Cambodia of the 1940s and 1950s, to student hostels in Paris, where many of the future leaders of the Khmer Rouge studied, and to the jungle camps were they later ended up as ruthless guerrillas. He goes to small villages in the countryside in an attempt to analyze the "Khmer psyche," and attempts to get to the heart of Khmer culture. But therein also lies its main shortcoming. Short tends to view the origin of the Cambodian tragedy in racial and ethnic stereotypes. He finds, as Kiernan also critically points out, a "core of truth" in the colonialist gibe that "the Vietnamese grow the rice; the Khmer watch it grow; the Laotians listen to it grow." The extent of anti-Vietnamese sentiment in Cambodia, past and present, should not be underestimated. But it does not explain why Pol Pot came to power and inflicted a reign of terror on his own people.

It is likewise doubtful whether the Cambodians are unique in that they "live parallel sets of lives; one in the natural world, among the laws of reason; the other, mired in superstition, peopled by monsters and ghosts, and prey to witches and fear of sorcery." To Short, this makes Cambodia "a medieval country," at least partly explaining "Cambodia's descent into madness." But modern laws co-exist with superstitions and a strong belief in spirits also in Thailand, Indonesia, Burma and many other countries in the region, even in well-developed territories such as Hong Kong.

In that regard, Kiernan's 1985 book How Pol Pot Came to Power is far more useful as it is less anecdotal and more analytical in its approach to modern Cambodian history. David Chandler's Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot, published in 1992, is also a more academic study of the emergence of Cambodia's communist movement. But Short's book is still a good read and his style is more easily digestible, perhaps because he not an academic but a journalist. It also has an extensive Dramatis Personae, thumb-nail biographies of prominent Khmers and other players in the Cambodian drama, a well-annotated bibliography, and copious endnotes. Regardless of whether the Khmer Rouge committed genocide or a crime against humanity, it is a must-read for anyone who cares about the tragedy of modern Cambodia.

This review first appeared in The Irrawaddy, March 2005

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