Commentary Magazine

Pol Pot in Retrospect

That the Khmer Rouge committed some of the most despicable crimes against humanity of the modern age is today almost universally acknowledged. An official of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights has gone so far as to call the Cambodian atrocities “the most serious that had occurred in the world since Nazism” and “nothing less than autogenocide.” The very concept of autogenocide—the attempted obliteration of entire classes of one’s own people—was born out of the Cambodian experience. Yet in contrast to earlier cases of mass murder, the motives and ideology which spawned the Cambodian reign of terror are but dimly understood, even now, eight years after Pol Pot and his accomplices were driven from power in the first shooting war between Communist states. Although the actions of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao at times seemed irrational or mad, the driving force behind their specific policies could be grasped by the outside world, whether race hatred, fear of an independent peasantry, or apprehension over potential rivals. But where Cambodia is concerned, many would be hard-pressed to identify the combination of circumstances, personalities, and ideas which led to what in fewer than four years may proportionately have been the worst bloodbath of the 20th century.

There are a number of reasons for the gaps in our knowledge about Cambodia, not the least of which was the country’s extreme isolation during the Khmer Rouge period. Democratic Kampuchea, as Cambodia was renamed after the Khmer Rouge victory in April 1975, was almost inaccessible to the outside world. Foreign journalists, even those from other Communist nations, were unwelcome, and foreigners unfortunate enough to stray onto Cambodian territory were invariably tortured and executed, usually after “confessing” to service in one or several foreign-intelligence agencies. Thus, whatever information reached beyond Cambodia’s borders had to be supplied by refugees, most of whom were located in camps along the Thailand-Cambodia border. It was these refugees’ stories, told to reporters like Henry Kamm of the New York Times, which alerted the world to the unfolding tragedy.

Those early accounts of killing, starvation, and slave labor made somewhat less impact than might have been expected, given the horrifying nature of the refugees’ experiences. As we now know, the refugee accounts were highly accurate; if anything, they understated the dimensions of the terror. Yet many in the United States and other democratic countries viewed the refugee stories with indifference, extreme caution, or even outright skepticism. Although these attitudes cut across ideological lines, they were most frequently encountered on the antiwar Left, those who had desired a Khmer Rouge victory or, at a minimum, preferred a Communist triumph to the prolongation of U.S. involvement in Indochina.

In a few cases, antiwar partisans attacked the credibility of the refugees or hinted that charges of Khmer Rouge human-rights violations were part of a CIA-inspired disinformation campaign. For example, in May 1977—over two years after the fall of Phnom Penh—the Washington-based Indochina Resource Center, one of the most influential antiwar organizations, wrote to William Shawcross, who was then working on a book about U.S. policy toward Cambodia, asking for information concerning “CIA-operated radio stations designed to spread ‘disinformation’—especially in regard to Cambodia.” The Center also asked for material on CIA “debriefing of Cambodian refugees.” More often, however, antiwar veterans simply ignored the news from Cambodia.

A set of similar attitudes complicated the response of those best-equipped to interpret developments inside Cambodia—the reporters and scholars who had worked there prior to the war’s end. Reporters based in Phnom Penh were familiar with accounts of atrocities against civilians committed by the Communists during the civil war. They had also heard reports from defectors that the Khmer Rouge were organizing the “liberated zones” along rigidly totalitarian lines. This news was not suppressed; there were a number of stories in major Western newspapers which hinted at the brutal nature of Cambodian Communism. But since the prevailing disposition among the press corps was acute hostility to the war conduct of the United States, it was generally assumed that conditions would improve once “Cambodians ruled Cambodia.” Revulsion against American policy grew so powerful as to evoke a curiously relativist attitude among some reporters toward the draconian measures associated with the evacuation of Phnom Penh during the first weeks of Communist rule. Genuinely appalled by Khmer Rouge inhumanity, reporters like Sydney Schanberg of the New York Times nevertheless pointedly refused to cast judgment on the new regime.

Still, the performance of the press was infinitely more honest than that of the small community of Western academics—mostly Americans and Australians—who specialized in Cambodian history and culture. In their approach to the Indochina war, these scholars were firm believers in academic “concern” or “engagement,” euphemisms for outright partisanship. When the news filtering out of Cambodia challenged their assumptions about the salutary effects of revolution, these specialists developed intricate theories to refute or rationalize the mountain of evidence of a bloodbath. Eventually, the evidence became too overwhelming to deny; thus the pathetic admission by an Australian scholar, Gavin McCormick, that

The Kampuchean question is shrouded in a dense fog of prejudices, distortion, propaganda, and half-truth. But, and here is a tragic irony, it becomes increasingly likely that some of the most malicious fantasies of propagandists, conceived with little or no regard for truth, may actually be close to the truth. This is a difficult and unpalatable conclusion.

McCormick is admittedly an extreme case; yet others, while conceding the accuracy of the refugee stories, have argued that terror was not inherent in Cambodian Communism, but was caused by a few excessively brutal regional leaders. Or, alternatively, that responsibility ultimately rested with the United States, whose bombing policies and support for Lon Nol lengthened the war, thus contributing to the demise of various “moderate” Khmer Rouge leaders.1



But as Elizabeth Becker concludes in her new and extremely valuable history of postwar Cambodia,2 ideology—Communist ideology taken to its most insane extremes—was crucial in determining the course of events in Democratic Kampuchea. A former reporter for the Washington Post, Miss Becker was based in Phnom Penh during the war and was subsequently one of three Western journalists and scholars invited to tour Cambodia in the waning days of Pol Pot’s regime. As a war correspondent, she shared the predominant revulsion against America’s role in Cambodia and even today places partial responsibility on America (and Vietnam) for the Cambodian tragedy. Subsequently, while voicing dismay at the direction of the Cambodian revolution, she dismissed the first book-length account of the tragedy, Murder of a Gentle Land by John Barron and Anthony Paul (1977), as “a cold-war propaganda piece” and derided the authors conclusion that the horrible fate of the Cambodian people resulted from “the tyranny of Communism.” In fact, the account of Cambodia in the period immediately after the fall of Phnom Penh laid out by Barron and Paul has stood the test of time, an assessment reinforced by Miss Becker’s own analysis of the factors which produced the Khmer Rouge genocide.

Her emphasis on the specifically Communist nature of the Khmer Rouge is especially important because so much scholarly and journalistic treatment of the period evades or clouds the question of Pol Pot’s ideology (for example, a description of the Khmer Rouge as “anarchists” in a major British tabloid). Pol Pot, it is true, diverged from traditional Communist practice in several important respects. Moreover, the Khmer Rouge gained power at a time when most other Communist regimes, having long since crushed internal resistance, had abandoned the use of mass, naked terror, thus contributing to the impression that the Cambodian situation was something of an aberration. Nevertheless, the fact is that the history of Communism provides numerous precedents for Khmer Rouge policies, including the most inhumane. What differentiated the Khmer Rouge from the rest of the Communist world was the zeal with which these policies were prosecuted.

As Miss Becker reminds us, the upper echelons of Khmer Rouge officials were not drawn to Communism under isolated circumstances in their native land, but as students in Paris during the early 1950’s. Saloth Sar (later to adopt the nom de guerre Pol Pot), Ieng Sary, and Khieu Samphan were among a generation of Paris-educated students who were later to form the inner nucleus of Cambodian Communism. Their first political mentors were members of the French Communist party, then as now one of the most dogmatically pro-Soviet parties in the non-Communist world.

It should be remembered that Stalin—and Stalinism—were very much alive at the time. This was a period when party purges were being carried out throughout Eastern Europe, and purges, with considerably less serious consequences for the victims, were also being conducted in Western Communist parties, including that of France. And to the anti-colonialism and nationalism which came naturally to the Cambodians, whose country was then under French domination, was added a virulent strain of anti-Americanism, then de rigueur on the French Left. Paradoxically, the example of Yugoslavia, which had only recently broken away from the Soviet camp, may also have left its impression on the Cambodians. Saloth Sar apparently worked briefly in a Yugoslavian labor brigade, and it is no mere idle speculation to suggest that the Cambodians may have drawn parallels between Tito’s Yugoslavia—a small Communist state fending off the imperialist designs of a Communist superpower—and Cambodia’s later situation vis-à-vis Vietnam.

Another important influence was Maoism. The Cambodians admired the Chinese for their independence, their emphasis on youth, their revolutionary purity, and their willingness to undertake ambitious, and risky, experiments to move the revolution forward. Not surprisingly, the Maoist projects which provided the greatest inspiration for the Khmer Rouge were the two greatest calamities: the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.



The Khmer Rouge, in other words, took ideology with the utmost seriousness. In the hands of Pol Pot, Communist dogma became a lethal weapon, supplying justification for monstrous crimes committed in the name of economic development, independence, and national sovereignty. The Khmer Rouge may not have set out to cause the deaths of between one and two million Cambodians, but their plans for the drastic reshaping of Khmer society preordained such an outcome. As Khieu Samphan reportedly told Zhou Enlai, the Khmer Rouge intended to do what no previous Communist regime had achieved: “Our country’s place in history will be assured. We will be the first nation to build a completely Communist society without wasting time on intermediate steps.”

Pol Pot was well aware of what this grandiose program implied for the Cambodian people. In addition to their study of Stalin and Mao, the Khmer Rouge, as noted earlier, had tested out their theories in the areas they controlled during the civil war. Cities and towns were emptied, and whole villages relocated. Other features of life behind Khmer Rouge lines included reeducation camps, the execution of dissenters, religious persecution, and the transformation of agricultural work into a form of prison-camp labor.

One major difference between Cambodian Communism and more traditional systems was the stress on agriculture. Although the Communist blueprint for Cambodian development called for a program of crash industrialization, in practice industrial expansion was ignored by the leadership. In fact, those who had been industrial workers in the old society were perceived not as part of the revolutionary vanguard but as urban exploiters who enriched themselves off the sweat of the peasantry.

The Khmer Rouge were also fanatically opposed to the institution of private property, an attitude which helps account for the otherwise mysterious evacuation of the capital. Certainly the Khmer Rouge detested city life for its corruption and parasitism, but they also believed that the very existence of a traditional urban society stood as an insurmountable obstacle to the abolition of private property. The Communists were quite candid on this score: “If we had kept Phnom Penh, [private property] would have had much strength. . . . We were stronger, had more influence than the private sector when we were in the countryside. But in Phnom Penh we would have become their [the capitalists’] satellite. However, we did not keep Phnom Penh, and private property has no power.” This is another way of saying what numerous Communist theorists, from Lenin on down, have admitted: Communism or state socialism cannot prevail over capitalism under normal conditions; if Communism is to succeed, capitalism, inherently the stronger system, must be repressed, and its re-emergence prevented at all costs.

Much as the Soviet Union relied on crash industrialization as the foundation of economic modernization, Pol Pot envisioned the modernization of the Cambodian economy through the massive expansion of agricultural production. He confidently predicted that Democratic Kampuchea would join the ranks of the advanced industrialized nations within fifteen or twenty years, and would furthermore achieve this ambitious goal without foreign assistance. Pol Pot was blunt about the source of capital for this monumental project: “Our capital comes essentially from the work of our people. . . . We also have another source of capital. That is the fact that we have no salary. The absence of salary constitutes in itself a great source of capital.”

This was indeed a breathtaking admission. Stalin, of course, had made widespread use of slave labor in the construction of canals, hydroelectric projects, and other public-works enterprises. But the Soviets have always denied that the prisoner population constituted a crucial element in their economic strategy. Pol Pot, by contrast, turned Cambodia into one huge collective farm, whose workers, though nominally free, had the status of military penal-colony inmates. Failure to work was treated as desertion, and punished accordingly. Peasants were forbidden to maintain a private plot for family consumption. In some of the more harshly controlled regions, peasants were executed if caught foraging for food. And as Miss Becker points out, while the Khmer Rouge in theory elevated the peasants to the exalted status of revolutionary vanguard, in reality they retained the age-old contempt of the urban elite for the ways of the countryside, believing that peasants would work hard only if force and terror were employed. Thionn Prasith, a foreign-ministry official, exemplified this attitude: “In the former society, peasants worked only three or four months a year. . . . Now with the cooperatives we have organized them so they can work all year ’round. . . . In the old society, the wife stayed home and only the husband worked. Now everybody works. . . . Especially the young girls and boys who only danced and ate in the old society.”



Thus the Communists set out to smash every institution, every aspect of Cambodian society which in any way drew the peasant’s attention and energy from the rice harvest. Organized religion was destroyed. Where Cambodia had between 60,000 and 80,000 Buddhist monks during the civil war, there are now fewer than 1,000 who perform their religious function. The rest were killed, forced to marry or bear arms (making them ineligible for the priesthood), or simply disappeared. Temples were torn down or turned into prisons. Praying within the family was strictly forbidden; those who disobeyed were subject to execution.

Even more insidious was the Khmer Rouge effort to destroy the family and to regulate sexual relations, marriage, and the raising of children. The transformation of the most intimate personal relations and the destruction of centuries-old Khmer traditions did not occur haphazardly; nor was this the result of the chaotic degeneration of the revolution. As Molyda Szymusiak, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge period, testifies,3 the war against traditional family relations began with the evacuation of Phnom Penh. Twelve years old at the time, Molyda recalls the imposition of a new language as one of the very first changes under Communism. On the basis of orders issued by sixteen- or eighteen-year-old Khmer Rouge soldiers, Cambodians were deprived of their names; no longer were they permitted to use family names. They were assigned new, often monosyllabic names and were instructed not to address one another any longer as father, aunt, or daughter, but rather as met, or comrade. Molyda and other children were also closely interrogated by party cadres, intent on discovering incriminating evidence about a family’s class background. Molyda, for example, was asked her father’s occupation, whether her family owned property, whether she could read or write. The wrong answer could mean a death sentence for her father, and possibly the entire family.

She also learned, early on, the dangers of sexual relations between unmarried men and women. The Khmer Rouge gave the broadest possible interpretation to sexual misconduct to include flirting, holding hands, or becoming engaged to marry without party permission. Molyda was repeatedly warned to stay away from boys; otherwise, she was told, “the plastic bag awaits,” a reference to the Communist practice of placing the bodies of executed Cambodians in plastic bags before disposing of them in a river or lake. To drive the point home, she and a group of girls her own age were shown a gruesome exhibit: a group of boys and girls, still holding hands, whose throats had been cut for the crime of planning to marry without approval. (In the area of sexual relations, the Khmer Rouge were not hypocrites. For example, while prison officials were permitted to torture female prisoners, they were strictly forbidden, subject to execution, to take sexual liberties with the women.)

Molyda’s family was eventually settled in a village that was typical of Democratic Kampuchea. The village comprised three classes: a small group of party officials at the top; “base people,” that is, the peasants who had lived there before the revolution; and the “new people” who had been resettled from the cities. Life consisted of long, arduous hours in the rice paddies, constant battles against the tropical diseases which struck especially hard at the new people, mind-numbing indoctrination sessions in the evenings, and an all-consuming, never-ending struggle for food. Food, in fact, became the basis of a class system far more vicious than that of the most inegalitarian capitalist society. Membership in the wrong class could literally be a sentence of death by starvation (Molyda’s large extended family was practically wiped out by starvation). Class vengeance was exacted on a mass scale, with peasants and shockingly young Khmer Rouge soldiers taking retribution for every real or imagined grievance held against the city people.



Democratic Kampuchea exemplified not only the hegemony of the countryside over the city, but the rule of the young over the old. The Communists were convinced that the old would never adapt to the new order they were intent on constructing, except through iron repression and coercion. With the young, however, things might be different. Molyda recalls how her younger brothers and sisters were filled with ideas of “equality”; in one poignant incident, her father, who ultimately starved to death so that the children could have more, was refused a mouthful by one of her sisters, with the words, “You’re on your own.”

The young most favored by Pol Pot were those from the most isolated and destitute regions of the country and therefore the most anti-urban as well. During the war, the Khmer Rouge developed a policy of removing these children, some as young as ten or twelve, from their villages, indoctrinating them, training them as fighters, and promoting the notion that these youths would eventually constitute the ruling elite of the new revolutionary society. Kenneth Quinn, an American researcher whose studies of Khmer Rouge policy toward civilians during the civil war were unfortunately ignored by U.S. policy-makers, concluded that the indoctrination of these ignorant, peasant children was, from the Communist point of view, highly successful:

Youths returning from these [indoctrination] sessions were fierce in their condemnation of religion and the “old ways” rejected parental authority; were passionate in their loyalty to the state and party; were critical and contemptuous of customs; and had a militant attitude which expressed confidence in mechanical weapons and rejected the mystical aspects of religion.

One of the most important objectives of Khmer Rouge training was to infuse the young cadres with a callousness toward violence, pain, and killing. A key technique was the torture game. Animals, including domestic animals like dogs and monkeys, were systematically dismembered or burned by the children-soldiers. Prince Norodom Sihanouk, kept under house arrest during the Khmer Rouge period, witnessed these barbarities:

Young recruits began “hardening their hearts and minds” by killing dogs, cats, and other edible animals with clubs or bayonets. Even after their April 17, 1975 victory, the Khmer Rouge kept in practice with a game consisting of throwing animals into the “the fires of hell,” since they had no human victims handy. . . . Another favorite was torturing monkeys, so much like humans in their reactions. Their tails were hacked off. They were chained by the neck and strangled as they ran behind their young captors, who pulled harder and harder on the chains. The screams of the poor beasts were heart-rending. The sight and sounds of them were unbearable. But the young Khmer Rouge youtheas (youths) couldn’t get enough of it.

The result of the indoctrination and the torture games was the creation of an army of hardened, teen-aged killers, an army considered among the most effective guerrilla movements in history. These youtheas were totally devoted to the Angka, or party organization; told to kill, they obeyed, unquestioningly, whether the victims were Lon Nol’s soldiers, religious believers, minority groups, peasants, fellow Khmer Rouge, or, finally, the Vietnamese. Equally disturbing, demobilized Khmer Rouge soldiers were often placed in charge of collective farms, factories, or other economic or social entities. They were also given responsibility for raising the younger generation of Cambodians, those children, aged six and older, who were taken from their parents, housed in dormitories, and isolated from the lingering influences of the old society.

These children were treated much like adults; in Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea, the very idea of childhood had for all practical purposes been abolished. Mainly, children worked; they were quickly integrated into the nationwide work-camp system, assigned to jobs which, although quite strenuous, were economically useless. Molyda, who endured several work projects for young girls, recalls a particularly horrible experience which suggests a great deal about the ignorance and inhumanity of the ruling group. On this occasion, she and a group of girls were set to work building a dirt road. The work was for the most part done at night, and as a result of this and of the inadequate diet, Molyda and other girls soon developed night blindness. The peasant woman in charge of her unit assumed in typical fashion that Molyda was shirking; as a test, she took the girl, in the dead of night, to a graveyard, where she was abandoned. Molyda in fact could not find her way out, thus demonstrating that she was not faking her condition and probably saving herself from execution for refusal to work. But while the Khmer Rouge finally had to admit that blindness had become a problem, they remained undeterred in their determination to complete the project. The blind girls were led to the work site; while other girls broke the soil with pickaxes, the blind girls collected the dirt in baskets.



Closely related to the Khmer Rouge’s hostility to the family was a policy of open war against minority groups. The motive was apparently a Nazi-like sense of racial supremacy—an absurd notion to begin with, given the diverse racial origins of what is generally considered the Khmer people. Nevertheless, for the ethnic Chinese, Vietnamese, Thais, and other groups who had co-existed in Cambodia for years, the coming of Communism meant cultural death. In their typically direct fashion, the Khmer Rouge issued a decree abolishing minorities:

There is one Kampuchean revolution. In Kampuchea there is one nation, and one language, the Khmer language. From now on the various nationalities . . . do not exist in Kampuchea.

Among the most tragic victims of this policy were the Chams, doubly vulnerable for their ethnic distinctiveness and because they were Muslims. A Khmer Rouge decree put the matter bluntly: “The Cham mentality is abolished. Those who do not abide by this order will reap all consequences.” For the Chams (who, paradoxically, had supported the Khmer Rouge during the civil war), this meant adopting Khmer names, giving up their language, abandoning their distinctive dress, shaving their beards, and giving up their religion. And, of course, their children were taken away, thus preventing the passing on of the Cham cultural heritage. Unlike other groups, who accepted their fate passively, the Chams fought back. Inevitably, they were crushed; whole villages were destroyed, and Elizabeth Becker estimates that half the Cham population died during the years of Khmer Rouge rule. Moreover, those Cham villages which were not destroyed were broken up, and the villagers dispersed into predominantly “Khmer” collective farms.



Today, despite having been overthrown by Vietnam, their far more powerful neighbor, the Khmer Rouge remain a force to be reckoned with in Cambodian affairs. Of the three resistance movements engaged in guerrilla war against the Vietnamese occupation, the Khmer Rouge maintain the most formidable army. The Chinese, apprehensive about Vietnamese domination of Southeast Asia, are much more generous in assisting the Khmer Rouge than the non-Communist movements headed by Prince Sihanouk and former Prime Minister Son Sann.

For its part, the democratic world has never effectively come to grips with the Khmer Rouge dilemma. Although the high point of the Carter administration’s human-rights offensive coincided with the most brutal phase of the Cambodian terror, officials of that administration were surprisingly restrained in their criticisms of the Pol Pot regime, apparently for fear of damaging the chances for future relations with the Communists. The Reagan administration, although somewhat more vocal about the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, has based its policy on the ultimate withdrawal of Vietnam, a position which requires our continued support for the Pol Pot government-in-exile as the legitimate Cambodian representative at the United Nations.

Yet even if the Vietnamese were to agree to withdraw their troops, Cambodia would be faced with political problems of monumental proportions. Among the most serious of these problems is the future role of the Khmer Rouge in a Cambodian society they nearly succeeded in destroying. Will Khmer Rouge soldiers, conditioned to revile every aspect of the old society, be allowed to serve in a reconstituted army? Will Pol Pot and his lieutenants, those directly responsible for mass murder, be permitted to enjoy full civil and political rights? These questions will not lend themselves to easy resolution, given the correlation of military forces within Cambodia and the current legitimacy enjoyed by the Khmer Rouge.

It is thus essential that the Khmer Rouge be stripped of the credibility they have been accumulating over the past eight years. One worthy proposal, advanced by David Hawk, a foremost authority on the Khmer Rouge era, is a worldwide campaign to indict and condemn Pol Pot and his group for the crime of genocide, with the further objective of ensuring that those most responsible for the reign of terror are prevented from playing a political role in a future, free Cambodian state.

Such a campaign might have important repercussions outside Cambodia. For it now develops that the Khmer Rouge, whose very name is associated with the most abominable totalitarian tyrannies of the century, actually hold a dismaying appeal for certain revolutionary movements in the Third World. Front and center is the New People’s Army of the Philippines, which has drawn inspiration from the Cambodian “model,” especially in its conduct of guerrilla war. Another ruthless guerrilla army, the Sendero Luminoso of Peru, has many characteristics which closely resemble those of the Khmer Rouge. Clearly, a crucial lesson of the Cambodian tragedy is the utter folly of believing that it cannot happen again.




1 Although the writings of Cambodian specialists do not reach a wide audience, their research has provided a scholarly veneer for journalists and more popular writers. Noam Chomsky, for one, has frequently cited the research of one of the most important Cambodian authorities, Ben Kiernan, to buttress his argument that mass murder did not take place in Cambodia. Kiernan eventually changed his mind; Chomsky, to my knowledge, never has.

2 When the War Was Over, Simon & Schuster, 502 pp., $19.95.

3 The Stones Cry Out: A Cambodian Childhood, 1975-1980, Hill and Wang, 245 pp., $17.95. The author eventually reached Thailand and was adopted by Polish exiles living in Paris, whose name she took. A first-rate book, gripping, at times almost unbearably sad, The Stones Cry Out has unaccountably received little attention in the United States.

A similar and equally good personal account of life under the Khmer Rouge is Cambodian Witness by Someth May, edited and with an introduction by James Fenton, Random House, 288 pp., $17.95.

About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.

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