Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare


Please forgive me for the month-long hiatus. It is cold here in Gifu and I have not been feeling very inspired to write much. I started reading a great book last week and so decided to push myself to post again. Get the ball rolling as it were.
Before my trip to Cambodia in 2012, I did some research in the country and its history. Although the Khmer Empire has a vast and quite long history, the Khmer Rouge often dominates our image of the Kingdom of Wonder. That period of 3 years and 8 months annihilated a nation, erased all of its industries and traditional culture as well as killed a quarter of the population, so the disproportionate focus in the KR is understandable.

Philip Short’s Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare is an exhaustive biography of the mastermind of the Khmer Rouge. At 560 pages long, it covers the life of Saloth Sar (his original Khmer birth name) from his fairly privileged childhood to his education (academic and political) to his taking of power and his life post-Khmer Rouge.

Saloth Sar was born into a Chinese-Khmer family that was relatively prosperous compared to others around him. He had the opportunity to attend the French schools in Phenom Penh, a rare opportunity not available to the majority of his countrymen. It seems that he was not a stellar student but he still got accepted to study in Paris. Assuming family connections took care of this.

In Paris, he spent more time studying Marxist theory and meeting Vietnamese Marxists. Similar to Stalin and Lenin, he got much of his political education abroad. One thing that struck me was that while the Khmer were inspired by the revolutionary efforts of the Vietnamese, Ho Chi Minh in particular, the centuries-old ethnic tensions between the two group frequently got in the way of their “glorious struggle”. The Vietnamese often saw the Khmer as lazy and unintelligent while the Khmer frequently perceived the Vietnamese as treacherous and manipulative. Not a good start to any relationship, to be sure.

I will assume at this point that many of you are already aware of the Khmer Rouge and its atrocities. For this review, I chose to focus on the early life of a man who was known to be quite easy going and a rather unmotivated student and later became the leader of one of the most genocidal regimes in the 20th century.

Grim reading to be sure, but this biography helped me to see where Cambodia came from and served to explain much of the corruption and poor infrastructure of the nation today.


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