The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79 
by Ben Kiernan.
Yale, 477 pp., £25, April 1996, 0 300 06113 7
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Northern Ireland, the Basque Country, Corsica, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Nagorno-Karabakh: this list of familiar trouble-spots is neither complete nor extended beyond Europe, in which case it would be at least eight times longer. Originally coined to describe the situation in Ireland, ‘troubles’ in this sense have multiplied and become global, notably since 1989. No serious newspaper and few TV bulletins are without their quota of violent trouble items, which often enough make up most of the news. Under such a barrage it is easy to feel ‘trouble’ as a climate of the age, and link it to one indiscriminate ‘-ism’ or another. Yet even from the restricted sample quoted something else, not so easily classified, may spring to the eye. Most such ethno-nationalist conflicts seem to happen in predominantly rural situations. Nor are they rural merely in the sense of being agricultural or non-urban – like East Anglia, say, or the Beauce plain in central France – they are areas where ‘rural’ tends to mean ‘peasant’: areas where a historical pattern of small landholding prevails, or has until recently prevailed, one marked by intense heritable rights, rigid morality or faith, customary exclusivity and an accompanying small-town or village culture.

It is certainly also true that the troubles are not literally confined to the countryside. Thus, Sarajevo was a key site for a good deal of what was nonetheless more accurately described as the Bosnian ‘village war’. ETA is notoriously active and supported in the industrial suburbs of Bilbao and San Sebastian, as well as in the Basque mountain heartland. Belfast has undeniably been the focus of much of the Ulster conflict, and there has been forced segregation of the contending communities into different streets or quarters in the city, as well as into separate farm-towns or hamlets in the country.

However, in none of these examples did the conflict itself originate in the cities. In Ireland, for instance, it derives on both sides from a centuries-old struggle over land rights – in Colm Tóibín’s words, from the ‘good and bad blood’ derived from a process of violent expropriation, involving both literal and land hunger. Whatever else it may have become, today’s Sinn Féin is the inheritor of Republicanism’s old social ideal: the rural and pious peasant-family utopia which inspired the Irish Constitution, and regulated most of its strategic development from 1922 until Ireland’s entry to the European Community in 1975. The resultant generational warfare may penetrate or even take over cities, the urban sites to which extended families of land-dwellers have moved or (sometimes) been expelled. But the violent side of the conflict invariably has its origin in the peasant or small-town world they have left behind.

Such violence may also for a time – maybe quite a long time – be aggravated by the transition itself. ‘Urbanisation’ is the smooth-sounding, impersonal term for what is often an agonising process, during which rural emigrants look backwards as much as forwards, and pass from the remembrance to the often elaborate re-invention of the worlds they have lost. They are helped in this by other strata without direct connection to the land. Some urban classes – above all the intellectuals – have a parallel if different motivation: they are seeking to ‘mobilise’ lost-world psychology in order to build a new world, that of the modern nation-state. Eventually this may owe very little to the old rural existence and its folk memories; yet while the original nation-building alliance holds good the debt feels important, and will go on finding expression in myths of rootedness. Hence many traits of the abandoned world may continue to ‘haunt’ an existence in other ways apparently broken in to city existence and civic conditions.

There is another term for such haunting: ethnic nationalism. Ethnic nationalism is in essence a peasantry transmuted (at least in ideal terms) into a nation. Granted, the formation of modern national identities has involved a multiplicity of other factors: states, frontiers, literacy, industrialisation, school systems, symbols and complex cultural artefacts. But it can be read along this other axis too. Underneath the accumulating paraphernalia of the modern lies a prolonged and massive social Calvary arising from the move from peasant subsistence to eventual urban interdependence. On that journey terrible accidents have been common. Peasantries may be ‘re-imagined’ essentially as a form of leverage, a way of helping to erect the modern nation. However, it is not impossible for the instrumental lever to assume a life of its own and at least for a time to dominate the nation-building process.

Edward Thompson insisted that the working class was present at its own birth: it was not only modelled by impersonal forces, he said, it helped to make even its early history. But most workers originated as ex-peasants. In many parts of the world they for long tried to combine aspects of both fates, and still do so today – most strikingly in the East Asian societies that represent the latest round of industrial development. Nor, when it came to making their history, have they operated exclusively in the social, forward and outward-looking spirit most approved by our century’s socialists. Escape or flight backwards or sideways have also figured prominently – movements away from the rules of a ‘progress’ whose burdens or sacrifices came to seem (or were made to seem) insupportable. Occasionally such flights have taken the form of shortcuts to utopia, a magically foreshortened end of history.

One of the most revealing took place in Cambodia, between 1975 and 1979. There, a significant and concentrated historical attempt was made literally to reverse the entire process – to truncate urbanisation altogether and forcibly reconstitute peasant society into a different sort of nation, what Ben Kiernan calls ‘the indentured agrarian state’. Everyone has heard of the horrors accompanying this attempt, yet the episode itself remains ill-understood. In its own day the Cambodian revolution was interpreted by the outside world primarily in terms of Cold War dogmatics, as an aberration of Communism or Marxist ideology. But in the retrospect so thoroughly divulged by The Pol Pot Regime one can see the inadequacy of that prism. Other co-ordinates were much more important. The Cambodian hell was more truly an aberration of nationalist development than of socialism. Hence from the vantage-point of 1996 it appears as an extraordinary precursor of today’s ocean of ‘troubles’. Twenty years before such crises became common with the collapse of Communist state-power, it demonstrated how devastating the exercise of that power could be on an explicitly ethnic or racial-nationalist template.

‘In this book I shall show ... that Khmer Rouge conceptions of race overshadowed those of class,’ Kiernan states firmly in his Introduction. ‘In terms of population as well as of territory, history was to be undone,’ through absolute central control devoted, with ever increasing fervour and ruthlessness, to what was then not yet known as ‘ethnic cleansing’. The aim of Pol Pot’s revolution was a pure-blood and almost entirely rural, self-sufficient Khmer nation-state The shadow cast across history by the retreating peasantry is generally much longer and deeper than most analyses have acknowledged. And in Cambodia, certain exceptional circumstances let it attain for four years to an unexampled and murderous darkness. There, the political instruments of ‘revolutionary’ modernity were consecrated to the reconstruction of a nativist countryside – the rooted, Edenic community that had supposedly existed before the time of cities, social classes and individual guilt or shame.

His real name was Saloth Sar. ‘Pol Pot’ – an emblematic title in the tradition of 20th-century Communist rebaptism – was not disclosed to the world until 14 April 1976, when he became prime minister of the new revolutionary government in Phnom Penh. The Saloth family were peasants all right (12 hectares, six buffaloes) but with a difference. They had royal connections. Pol Pot’s cousin was a palace dancer and ‘favourite wife’ to a king. An elder brother found employment as a lackey, and the future dictator joined him at court when he was six. As Kiernan points out, ‘he never worked a rice field or knew much of village life ... few Cambodian childhoods were so removed from their vernacular culture.’ Pol Pot went on to a royal monastery and a Catholic school for the privileged. It is still astonishing to recall just how privileged the pupils were: with a population of about seven million and after nearly a century of French colonial occupation, there was very little secondary education in Cambodia and no higher education at all. When independence was granted in 1953 only 144 Cambodians had the baccalauréat. When he first reached Saigon in 1948, on his way to study in Paris, Saloth and the other 20-year-old with him felt themselves to be like ‘two dark monkeys from the mountains’. While in France he met Khieu Ponnary, who became his wife in 1956: she was the first Khmer woman to graduate from high school.

His scholarship was meant to turn him into a radio electrician, but it failed. He joined the French Communist Party (Cambodian Sect ion) instead, and took part in the exiled independence movement. To avoid persecution the émigré cadres habitually used noms de plume like ‘Khmer Worker’, but Saloth Sar’s was unusual: khmaer da ’em or ‘original Cambodian’, an anticipation of that fidelity to native essence which, twenty years later, would turn Phnom Penh inside out and create the skull mountains at Tuol Sleng extermination centre.

Not, as Kiernan immediately observes, that much of this showed on the surface, either in Paris or later. A consensual social view of Saloth emerges from the many careful references in this book: only with some difficulty would butter have melted in his mouth. In public he always displayed the palace façade – personally ‘charming, self-effacing’, cultivated, ‘genteel’ and quite humorous, rarely showing anger in public. There is one account of Pol Pot breaking someone’s leg in a vicious punishment session: that of his own Deputy Prime Minister, Vorn Vet. But in general, the outstanding serial killer of the age shrouded his resentment so well that few could have known what it portended.

This composure was tragically relevant to the episode to which many UK readers will turn in such a definitive volume: the murder of Malcolm Caldwell. In December 1978 a small group of independent Western observers was finally allowed into Democratic Kampuchea, as the country had been renamed. This group included two American journalists and Caldwell, who was then teaching at London University, all of them seen by the regime as broadly sympathetic to its revolution. In addition to his journalism, an impressive academic record made Caldwell’s support particularly important: in contrast to conventional Marxism, his studies such as The Wealth of Some Nations advocated rural-centred development and self-sufficiency as the revolutionary path most appropriate for Third World conditions, and he was working on a development of this thesis to be called ‘Kampuchea: Rationale for a Rural Policy’.

The group was toured round and lied to in the usual fellow-travelling way, but proved quite stubborn: ‘This group ... is not yet clear on human rights ... Whatever way we try to explain it to them, they refuse to understand,’ the tour reporter wrote. They kept on asking to see people already slaughtered, which called for an endless parade of unlikely excuses. Armed overseers and children in rags insistently obtruded on the view, and Caldwell’s diary soon included potentially lethal comments like ‘I have seen the past, and it works’ or ‘They’ve not much to show us in the way of development projects.’ Like many socialist intellectuals of the time, Caldwell’s disenchantment with USSR-style development inclined him all too strongly to favour alternative formulae. But he was also a very honest man, and less inclined than some others to ignore eyewitness evidence. This alone was enough to ensure execution in Democratic Kampuchea.

Caldwell may also have unwittingly displayed other credentials which served to distinguish him from his companions (Elisabeth Becker of the Washington Post and Richard Dudman from the St Louis Post-Dispatch). As a Scottish nationalist, he wrote that he found DK’s wish to ‘make new things Cambodian’ quite sympathetic – yet far too crudely and chauvinistically anti-Vietnamese. This sentiment, Kiernan notes, was ‘unlikely to have pleased his hosts’. Unusually among Western leftists of the era, he also clung to a vaguely neo-Calvinist religious faith, which made him much too concerned with what had happened to Buddhism (the near universal culture of pre-1975 Cambodia). The Buddhist religion had been proscribed and many of its temples destroyed. In short, Caldwell ‘understood’ Pol Pot’s project, including its ideological dimension, better than anyone else – yet his conduct on the visit showed he could never be trusted simply to regurgitate such sympathy.

At the end of the tour an interview was granted with the Leader, described as ‘friendly’ and mainly concerned with agriculture. At 1 a.m. the next morning an intruder broke into the government guesthouse and shot Caldwell dead. Then the intruder was shot dead in turn by guards, who were themselves almost immediately executed after ‘confessing’ to being in the service of Vietnam. A few days later Hanoi did indeed launch the great military offensive which would put an end to the Khmer Rouge state. The truth will never be known, since no witnesses survive and Pol Pot may now be dead as well (though any reader of this book will want solid evidence of a stake through the heart). Kiernan obviously thinks the Vietnamese had nothing to do with Caldwell’s assassination. The mild-mannered despot who looked ‘incapable of killing a chicken’ knew an obdurate and unbiddable character when he met one. And the fact that Caldwell ‘understood’ so well made him more dangerous, not less: who could keep tabs on him back in London? The informed criticisms of a respected sympathiser would be much more telling than the routine anti-Communist rhetoric which at that time passed for comment on the Cambodian Revolution.

In a three-hour speech delivered on 27 September 1977 Pol Pot included a few words in honour of the national anthem of Democratic Kampuchea: ‘Our national anthem clearly shows the essence of our people’s struggle. As you know, our national anthem was not composed by a poet. Its essence is the blood of our entire people ... This blood call has been incorporated into the national anthem.’ A colossal amount of actual blood was wasted by the Khmer Rouge. Kiernan estimates it as about 20 per cent of the previous population, or ‘at least 1.5 million Twenty years before Rwanda, the DK regime was on a genocidal track. There is no reason to believe the killing would have slowed, had it not been stopped by the Vietnamese Army.’

However, the anthem (which did mention blood in almost every line) was not exalting mere haemoglobin. ‘Blood’ in this essentialist sense is the precious, inherited gist of an ‘entire people’, the secret of a nation passed on in trust from one generation to the next. But ‘entire people’ should not be read literally either: it did not mean everybody who lived in pre-1975 Cambodia, and not even everyone ‘of Khmer descent’ in a certifiable or physical sense. Phnom Penh and the ancien régime had been full of traitors and vendus, as well as foreigners. These false Khmers had to be got rid of, which could only be done with the assistance of a ‘true Khmer’ stereotype. Although the Marxist ideology deployed by Pol Pot prescribed ‘workers and peasants’ for the slot, in practice Cambodia had only peasants. Not just any peasants, however: the well-off ones were no good, since privilege might have aligned them with the enemy. It had to be the poor – or, in terms of ancient piety, the simple – peasants who bore the blood-burden of the national soul. This is why they figured so prominently in the hectorings of Khmer Rouge ideologist Khieu Samphan:

Did university graduates know anything about the true natural sciences? No ... everything was done according to foreign books and foreign standards. Therefore it was useless. By contrast our children in the rural areas have always had very useful knowledge. They can tell you which cow is tame and which is skittish. They can mount a buffalo from both sides ... They are practically masters of nature [and] only this should be called natural science because it is closely connected with the reality of the nation, with the ideas of nationalism, production, national construction and national defence.

Such true Khmers had to re-educate their fallen cousins in the meaning of ‘national’. That was best accomplished on the spot, close to the soil. Instead of taking peasant brigades to the cities, therefore, the cities were emptied out into the fields. Foreign obsessions and selfish individualism would be beaten out of people there, by a regime of productive if arduous labour which would also increase food production and make Cambodia self-sufficient, or ‘truly independent’. This would swiftly bring about ‘a clean social system ... a new society sound, clean, free of corruption, hooliganism, graft, embezzlement, gambling, prostitution, alcoholism, or any kind of hazardous games’.

All those who could not or would not be cleaned up, died. Betrayal of the slightest unclean impulse meant extinction. Pol Pot and Khieu Samphan were of course influenced by the Chinese Cultural Revolution: they thought the Red Guards had chickened out. After beating up a few ancien régime egg-heads they stopped short of vacating Peking and abolishing money. Now it was up to Cambodia. The flames of peasant nationalism had been fanned by Mao’s Great Leap Forward. But the same fire was far more intense among the Khrners, a small and historically vulnerable people equipped with a relegation complex and an indurate hatred for its neighbours. By harnessing and directing that, the Cambodian Party thought it had the possibility of forging an exemplary rural-socialist state. For the first time in modern history, ‘autarchy’ or total self-sufficiency might be realisable. Caldwell had envisaged such a model theoretically, but without imagining its bloody potential.

According to Kiernan, other than ethnic purity, the key theme in the resultant Cambodian frenzy was what he calls ‘the struggle for central control’, or ‘the Khmer Rouge Centre’s unceasing ... struggle for top-down domination’. However, the one really implied the other. Stereotypically simple peasants could not themselves plan or organise their new hegemony, or decide who were the incompatible elements and what to do with them. That was the task of the Party. It spoke ‘in the name of the soil-cultivators’, of course, as orthodox Communists did for the working class. But the ability to distinguish tame and skittish cows did not go very far, and neither did a traditional rankling sense of ‘us and them’. Most of the message had therefore to be made up by the revolutionaries as they went along. General Marxist apologetics was too forward-looking to contribute much: however delusionary in detail, it was at least concerned with an imminent industrialised future, and with out-producing capitalism on its own unclean terms. The ethno-nationalist stereotype, by contrast, offered significant advantages as an instrument of control and coercion.

Ethnic boundaries are for the most part both murky and alterable. They compose a sign-system which lays claim to natural and self-evident status – something like the obvious contrast between, say, a Rwandan Hutu and a Chinaman. But in reality comparatively few signs carry such blatant meaning, and for these the subethnic category of ‘race’ tends to be employed. Most ethnic markers rely on language (learnable), customs (adoptable or forgettable), faith (acquirable), or still more imprecise configurations like ‘national character’, common history or memory. One implication is that it often is quite difficult to contradict a verdict about just who is a what. When authority decides the matter, in effect it decrees that so-and-so either is or is not a ‘Khmer’ or (more to the point after 1975) a ‘true Khmer’, genetically patented to sustain the revolution of authentic Khmerism rather than to betray it. Mercifully, people do not carry around DNA birth-charts or gene-tattoos to refute such decisions and so in practice contesting them involves something like an argumentative legal battle, with the production and weighing of evidence before a qualified and preferably impartial tribunal. But few are ever really in a position to undertake such procedures – and in the fury of revolutionary warfare, none at all was. Hence the decree was normally immediate, and final. In Democratic Kampuchea the Centre (Angkar, ‘the organisation’) tailored Khmerness to fit the rules of its rural-national Utopia; but as time passed that meant simply to suit itself, or the day’s message from the Leader. Central control gains its own momentum, in other words, and turns nationalism into the most malleable instrument of absolutism. This is why, as Kiernan underlines in his too brief Conclusion, ‘despite its underdeveloped economy, the regime probably exerted more power over its citizens than any state in world history.’

A further advantage of nationalism for autocrats lies in its fictive kinship. The idealised nation is perceived as a vastly extended family. This is supposed to bestow a general sense of psychic belonging and community (or, in the Cambodian case, of rural-commune solidarity). In many cases what it most observably does is to legitimate the actual extended-family behaviour of a leadership clique. As in Syria and Iraq, Cambodian central power gravitated quite naturally into the hands of family relations: the ‘people one can trust’ from a particular kin-network or village area. Nationalism sanctifies nepotism; but also, nepotism can be in a sense exalted by a genetically-oriented or ethnic nationalism. As another South-East Asia scholar, Karl Jackson, wrote some years ago: ‘In essence the concept of collective leadership was infused into the tradition of Khmer family power ... Rivals within the Communist movement were tortured and executed in large numbers along with their spouses, indicating the degree to which the Khmer leadership perceived power as flowing along family lines; to destroy an important political opponent it was necessary to root out the entire family.’

This procedure can never be completed. Behind it lies a violent struggle for top-down domination requiring a constant flow of new evidence of the enemy or anti-nation. Since it serves directly to justify power, such evidence must be made visible and catalogued for future time: proof of true descent, as it were, the birth certificate of utopia. The function of the extermination centre of Tuol Sleng was to provide this evidence. The agony of its victims was secondary, and their possible repentance unimportant: only seven survived (accidentally) of more than fourteen thousand sent there. The aim was proud commemoration. Their piteous confessions and photographs were filed for the gaze of Pol Pot and his lineage, and much of the archive has survived. In May this year BBC 2’s Works programme followed the activity of two American photographers in Phnom Penh, Chris Riley and Doug Niven, who are still labouring to complete the record, unearthing dusty negatives and yellowing log-books, and interviewing ex-prison guards.

Hell-holes are as distinctive as the revolutions they serve. Although Hitler and Stalin dealt in much larger numbers than Pol Pot, the latter excelled in puritanic zeal and ethnic thoroughness. ‘Smashing’ was the favourite Khmer Rouge term, and simple rustic methods – boot, knife, water immersion, a blow to the head to save bullets – realised their purpose better than the high technology of Auschwitz and Sobibor.

In Peasants (1966), his classic introduction to peasant anthropology, Eric Wolf observes how rural history has been punctuated by extraordinarily cruel uprisings: jacqueries (a 14th-century term) where ‘the peasant band sweeps across the countryside like an avalanche’ and tries literally to drown its oppressors in blood. This ‘seems in curious contradiction to the everyday life of the peasant, which ... appears to be spent in such docile drudgery upon the land’, and was often associated with milieunialist visions of an imminent new order. Inevitably, such convulsions generated an even more violent reaction, like that called for in Martin Luther’s infamous pamphlet of May 1525 – Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants. The cure was to be cruder than the ailment: ‘Therefore let everyone who can, smite, slay and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or Devilish than a rebel.’

In more modern circumstances, Wolf goes on, peasant-based movements occur most readily ‘in countries so devastated by war that they experience a breakdown of traditional leadership and social order’, in situations equivalent to that occasioned by the Black Death which preceded the great English Peasant Revolt of 1380. This sort of crisis creates a sense of total, oneiric alteration in which, since the time-honoured no longer functions, almost anything can be attempted. The world can be turned upside down. For Cambodians apocalypse came out of the air, in the shape of the prolonged American bombardment of their country during the last years of the Vietnamese War. ‘The most important single factor in Pol Pot’s rise,’ Kiernan writes,’ was the 1969-73 carpet-bombing of Cambodia’s countryside by American B-52s.’ As the Vietnamese Army made increasing use of a sup posedly neutral Cambodia, it was pursued and harassed there by the US Air Force. Naturally, most of the resultant carnage was Cambodian.

The beginning of Roland Joffe’s film The Killing Fields tries to evoke something of the climate fostered by the attacks. One sees the New York Times correspondent Sidney Schanberg visiting a border town ‘accidentally’ flattened by the bombers, and over its ruins the Khmer Rouge rebels advance to the capture of Phnom Penh. The Nixon-Kissinger Administration had not even the excuse of ignorance. One of the most telling of the declassified CIA documents quoted by Kiernan was already outlining the consequences in 1973:

The Khmer Rouge are using the damage caused by B-52 strikes as the main theme of their propaganda. The cadres tell the people that the Lon Nol Government has requested the airstrikes and is responsible for the ‘suffering of innocent villagers’ ... [hence] the only way to stop ‘the massive destruction of the country’ is to defeat Lon Nol and stop the bombing. This approach has resulted in the successful recruitment of a number of young men [and] been effective with refugees and in areas subject to B-52 strikes.

– which by that time meant most populated parts of Cambodia. However, this was only the wooden tongue of a disregarded espionage service. Even more tellingly, Kiernan quotes from eyewitnesses. Near Angkor Wat (the emblem of Cambodia’s once glorious nationhood), for example: ‘The ordinary people sometimes literally shat in their pants when the big bombs and shells came ... Their minds just froze up and they would wander round mute for three or four days. Terrified and half-crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told, that was what made it so easy for the Khmer Rouge to win people over.’ The Killing Fields continues with the sufferings of the Phnom Penh press corps and the evacuation of the American and French Embassies. It would have been more costly to re-create on film what was happening in the background: the blowing-up of the Cambodian Central Bank, after which millions of bank-notes were allowed to flutter through the capital’s deserted streets, and the stone-by-stone disassembly of the Roman Catholic Cathedral. Thus economics as we know it was ended, and no trace of Western religion remained. After apocalypse, the ground-plan of millennium was being laid: no mere simple-soul vision, but an organised framework to fill the void, egalitarian kibbutzim of peasant-warriors where Adam would delve and Eve spin once more, free for good of cash, gentlemen and (above all) foreigners.

Much of Kiernan’s study is devoted to the downfall of the Khmer Rouge state, fortunately, the infernal machine of Party-guided ethnicity had an infernal contradiction built into it. The maintenance of mass chauvinist tension inside the country demanded a parallel mobilisation against foreign foes, and particularly against the old national enemy, Vietnam.

Vietnam’s population is eight times that of Cambodia, and in the later Seventies it was the only country to have defeated a superpower on the ground. But the Khmer Rouge ideology made light of this. It was possessed by voluntarist delusion: a version of the ‘triumph of the will’, via Mao, but ultimately stemming from Schopenhauer and Leni Riefenstahl rather than Lenin. Before they learnt better, British troops in the world wars used to think each one of them was worth three Germans – or occasionally, stretching it a bit, five. Pol Pot popularised the demented idea that any true Khmer was the equal of 30 Vietnamese weaklings. Hence Democratic Kampuchea was perfectly capable of invading its neighbour and ‘taking back’ the lower Mekong River area with its partly Khmer population.

The logic was suicidal. Ethnic cleansing within and irredentism abroad imposed a burden too crushing for any state, let alone one struggling to rebuild the irrigation works of medieval Khmerdom. However loudly the Party rag ‘Revolutionary Flags’ declared the contrary, people in different parts of Cambodia began to realise this. Often they would be shot on the spot, or sent to Tuol Sleng. But both Angkar and the Army were further weakened as a result; hence still more came to feel that something was wrong, panicked and tried to make a break for it. There was no stopping the rot. The border with Thailand became crammed with refugees. Pol Pot had counted on continuing support from China. However, in the dwindling wake of the Cultural Revolution, Peking was run by superannuated gangsters rather than madmen. They were quite happy to go on financing a diversionary war on their southern borders, believing it gave them an ‘influence’ over the area, But they never intended to take on the most battle-hardened army in the world on someone else’s behalf. In late February 1978 Hanoi secretly decided that the Pol Pot regime had to go, and one year later it had accomplished the task.

Ben Kiernan appears less secure when it comes to overall diagnosis of the Cambodian storm. Was it a peasant revolution? Or was it foisted on the country by a specially evil combination of intelligentsia and hoodlums? The first view has become particularly associated with Michael Vickery, author of Cambodia 1975-19, who perceives the 1975 takeover as ‘a complete peasant revolution, with the victorious revolutionaries doing what peasant rebels have always wanted to do to their urban enemies’. This was the source of the extraordinary violence. Pol Pot’s Centre was an élite of deracinated intellectuals like himself, driven partly by anti-colonial Marxism but more significantly by ‘peasantist romanticism’. Peasantism was their equivalent of Western’ workerism’, a creed obliging them to obey what they interpreted as the impulses of the masses.

The opposite standpoint is presented in Kate Frieson’s The Impact of Revolution on Cambodian Peasants, 1970-75, in which the rural masses of Cambodia are depicted as essentially innocent: ‘unwitting participants’ in a movement directed from outside their ken, by idea-led cadres seizing the unique chance provided by the chaos following the bombardments and the fall of Prince Sihanouk’s regime. By and large, mass motivation remained traditional, she argues, if not timeless: the cultivating class kept its head down and did as commanded – ‘digging in, bending low, and cursing inwardly’. In time they even put up with the Khmer Rouge’s ‘high-level co-operatives’, where communal eating was enforced and the family was phased out. Private land, the family and religious belief – the staples of their existence disappeared, as the peasants found themselves turned into unpaid indentured labourers.

Drawing on a much wider range of interviews and documents than previous scholars, Kiernan comes up with an uneasy compromise between these two interpretations. ‘In my view, ideological as well as economic issues were at stake’: that is, the peasants at first actively supported the Khmer Rouge takeover and then grew disillusioned, above all when they realised that family life itself was under threat. Individual land ownership and Buddhist faith were in the end less important to them than ‘the devastating blows administered by the ending of home meals and the enforced separation of children from parents’. As for the violence and death, Kiernan judges the peasantry to be guilty but with (increasingly) extenuating circumstances: initially they must have had it in for city folk, particularly educated ones, but were later forced to repent. His final conclusion adds little to this save a last-minute emphasis on the significance of racism.

If ‘racism’ was so vital to this story, as the author asserts, then surely a frankly nationalist explanation is more relevant. What bound the revolutionary intelligentsia and the peasant majority together was the historical formation or malformation of the Khmer national identity. A combination of marked retardation and uniquely maleficent external blows produced an equally (and fatally) singular reaction. In relation to its size Cambodia probably had the least developed urban middle class and intelligentsia in the world. Yet this was the country which was, in one of the century’s grimmest phrases, ‘bombed back into the Stone Age’. Twentieth-century history exhibits plenty of atrocities; does it show any more extreme example of identity-assault and battery? Many forms of nationalism have operated by using threats of extinction, often exaggerated or imaginary, and have preached a life-or-death struggle ‘before it is too late’. But in Phnom Penh in 1975 there was nothing at all exaggerated about fear of extinction, and almost everyone must have thought, or half-thought, that it might already be too late. The French had incorporated the Khmers into Indochina, their South-East Asian empire; now, the new convulsions of post-colonial warfare had swamped them in another way and put a decimated and almost helpless land at the mercy of the Vietnamese.

Judging by the testimony accumulated in Kiernan’s book, Khmer nationalism was a powerful yet maimed and lop-sided sentiment. It was quite capable of uniting the peasantry with the country’s tiny, nascent radical élite – but only through the bias of the peasantism described by Vickery. The feeble native kingdom in whose ruins Pol Pot was raised had disappeared. There was no industry, and the cities were inhabited to a remarkable extent by foreign traders or middlemen. Father François Ponchaud, author of Cambodia: Year Zero and one of the last to quit Phnom Penh in the great exodus, wrote later: ‘It is little wonder that Cambodian peasants perceived the centres of wealth and power as being dominated disproportionately by foreigners against whom they already held longstanding feelings of racial animosity’ What gave the sense of ‘zero’ or void was the absence of the articulation nationalist ideas normally undergo in differing upper and middle-class strata. In this void it was possible for a jacquerie to become the state. By exchanging Marxism for the vilest and most wilful form of chauvinism, that state was then able to remain in power for years, though only by the violent erosion of its own foundations. Even so, it took outside intervention to kill it.

And it still would not lie down and die. A Notoriously, the Khmer Rouge is still around, a political as well as a military player. Living partly off the timber and drug business in Cambodia’s western forests, its guerrilla remnant has survived the Vietnamese occupation and successor regimes. In August, on the day I finished reading Kiernan’s book, the Independent ran a main news item titled ‘Pol Pot’s Top Man Quits Khmer Rouge’ – quits, alas, not to spend more time with his family but to run for office in Phnom Penh. Sentenced to death years ago for his part in the atrocities, Ieng Sary is planning to form a new party to contest the next elections. He was a member of the founding Paris élite, and one of Pol Pot’s closest buddies. Joint Prime Minister Hun Sen (himself once a Khmer Rouge combatant) has praised him for ‘saving tens of thousands of lives’ (by defecting), and the official view seems to be that he should be welcomed back ‘if it is the will of the people’.

The weakness of Kiernan’s book lies in its overall or comparative judgment rather than in its detail, and this is not the author’s fault. In what has become an age of nationalism revived, the Cambodian revolution now appears more comprehensible. And yet, the theoretical apparatus associated with the study of nationalism does not embrace sufficiently the subjacent rural dimension of most national identities, nor does it explain the violence plainly associated with that. This defect is especially glaring in the case of Cambodia, where almost no other dimension counted. The prevalent explanatory model remains that of the late Ernest Gellner: the ‘modernisation theory’ of Nations and Nationalism, with its powerful bias towards industrialisation and urban-cultural growth as the key factors in nation-building. It explains a lot, but also leaves out a lot – as I pointed out, almost every day’s news can be seen as a reminder of this, and The Pol Pot Regime is in truth a great rebuke to Gellner’s model.

Nor has it been the only great rebuke of the Nineties. One paragraph in this book gave me an almost physical shock; it is in the Introduction and is no more than a simple outline of the Cambodian scene for the uninitiated:

At first glance, Cambodia seems a society resistant to transformation ... It was geographically compact, demographically dispersed, linguistically unified, ethnically homogeneous, socially undifferentiated, culturally uniform, administratively unitary, politically undeveloped, economically undiversified, and educationally deprived. Cambodia was more isolated and landlocked than any other South-East Asian country except Laos ... mummified by ninety years of a colonial protect orate which preserved, even enhanced the traditional monarchy and social structure ... 80 per cent peasant

Place-names aside, with only one further change (‘ethnically homogeneous’) this is a perfect description of Rwanda.

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