Cleaning Up

Tom Nairn

  • The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79 by Ben Kiernan
    Yale, 477 pp, £25.00, April 1996, ISBN 0 300 06113 7

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.

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