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Short on Evidence

Cover of Pol Pot book Pol Pot by Philip Short
John Murray (Publishers), 2005

If you want a short review of Philip Short's Pol Pot, here it is: It's interesting, but it's short on proof.

Short is a good storyteller, and he's picked a fascinating subject. Pol Pot, one of the 20th century's most notorious despots, presided over the death of roughly two million people. Compared to the reams of data available on other tyrants, however, we know relatively little about the leader of Cambodia's brutal Khmer Rouge.

Why was Cambodia's revolution so much more violent than that of other regional regimes? Communists in Laos and Vietnam were guilty of human rights abuses, certainly, but Cambodian atrocities exceeded those of their neighbors by orders of magnitude. If Pol Pot succeeded in shedding light on the roots of Cambodia's violence, it would be an exceptionally valuable addition to the scholarship of the region. Unfortunately, while Short puts forward a number of interesting ideas, he consistently fails to provide compelling evidence to support them.

Perhaps popular books should be held to a different standard than scholarly works. Readers searching for a basic overview of a particular event don't necessarily want to be bombarded with footnotes and endnotes. Short's book seems to be trying to split the difference: although it has many pages of sources and documentation, many incidents are left unsourced, and many analyses are offered with scarecely any supporting evidence.

In the early chapters of the book, Short does an admirable job of piecing together the life of Saloth Sar, the quiet, charismatic young man who would later become known by the nom de guerre "Pol Pot."

Oddly, it is in the later chapters of the book -- where details are more readily available from other sources -- that Short's documentation is marred by carelessness. At times, Short's narrative seems at odds with itself. Describing the aftermath of the fall of Phnom Penh, for example, he writes that "the fall of Phnom Penh was not marked by rivers of blood." (p. 271). Immediately after making this pronouncement, however, he continues:

"At the Hotel Monorom, a few blocks south of the railway station, where the deputy front commander Koy Thuon established his headquarters, a 'Committee for Wiping Out Enemies' was set up. Its first action was to approve the execution of Prime Minister Long Boret, Lon Non, and other senior republicans, who were taken out and killed in the grounds of the Cercle Sportif, not far from the Information Ministry where they had been detained. Altogether, in the following days, seven or eight hundred politicians, high-ranking officials, police and army officers were killed and thrown into common graves on the road to the airport."

This is not the only instance in which Short's opinions seem disconnected from the evidence. Discussing rice production, for instance, in a footnote for page 352, Short remarks that "Although there is no way of proving it, I tend to agree with Michael Vickery that between a half and two-thirds of the population were, at least in relative terms, reasonably fed until 1978." (p. 503) On page 353, however, Short notes that Pol Pot acknowledged, at a closed party meeting at the end of 1976, that "serious food shortages existed in three-quarters of the country's communes."

Short's discussion of the grandiose irrigation projects of the Khmer Rouge is similarly inconsistent. "There will probably never be a final verdict on the pharaonic labours the Khmers Rouges undertook." (p.351) In the very next sentence, however, he continues: "All that can be said for certain is that their irrigation system was an improvement on that which had existed in Sihanouk's day." Not only does that sound like a final verdict, it's a verdict is wrong by any sensible standard. Elizabeth Becker and William Shawcross have both written about the consequences of ill-conceived and poorly-executed dams. Becker's conversation with an engineer who examined the irrigation projects led her to describe their haphazard construction was "criminal neglect." (When the War was Over, p. 240-241.) Pin Yathay, meanwhile, described the surreal experience of laboring on a canal where no one had bothered to survey the land to ensure that the canal was actually downhill from the lake that was supposed to supply its water. "The Khmer Rouge seemed to think that revolutionary fervour could replace the laws of physics." (Stay Alive, My Son, p. 63.) Short's claim also ignores the economic implications of the productivity lost by relying on manual labor for tasks that could easily have been been completed in far less time with even a small amount of machinery.

It's hard to escape the conclusion that Short is willing to oversimplify history in order to provide pat explanations. Discussing policies in Vietnam, for example, Short declares that property in Vietnam was nationalized in order to break Chinese power (p. 379)... and again, he cites no sources to bolster his case.

To his credit, Short does recognize the complexity of the Khmer Rouge. It is entirely unhelpful to simply brand the Khmer Rouge as evil, and leave it at that. As Short notes, "The prevailing image of the Khmers Rouges as uniformly mindless automatons, bent on destruction, was fundamentally wrong." (p. 281). Unfortunately, Short's own explanation for why the Khmer Rouge behaved as they did is not much better: " was the eternal Khmer dichotomy between serenity and uncontrollable violence, with no middle ground between," he writes. "Alongside terror and cruelty, virtually every deportee had a story to tell of at least one 'decent' Khmer Rouge, who offered help when it was least expected."

"There were many reasons for the disparities in Khmer Rouge behavior," Short writes.

"One was the entrenched individualism of Khmer society. Despite constant indoctrination and ferocious discipline, the communist troops remained Khmers, heir to a culture which holds -- in contrast to that of China and Vietnam -- that each family, each individual, is an island, and its primary task is to defend its own. To such a people uniformity does not come easily, especially not to those among them who hold a particle of power. It produced, in the case of the Khmer Rouges, a system which was not so much 'communist' as inherently unpredictable... Capriciousness and uncertainty were as characteristic of the Khmer Rouge regime as violence and barbarism." (p. 282)

Short expounds on the same basic theme later on. "Cambodians are naturally attracted to extremes," he proclaims. (p. 317)

They are? Could we have some evidence for that, please? Something substantial? Something with a basis in anthropological or sociological studies? Is there any reason to believe that the Khmer are more attracted to extremes than, say, the Thai, or the Lao? Or the Americans, or the Germans, or any other group?

Throughout the book, there are numerous instances in which Short fails to provide references that would support his arguments. The footnotes are hit-and-miss: sometimes sources are listed, sometimes they aren't. Discussing the early stages of rebellion in 1968, for example, Short writes that "In the country as a whole, more than 10,000 villagers left their homes to join the rebels." (p. 174). No source is given. And on page 185: "One senior American general said later that the US aim in Cambodia was to mount 'a holding action. You know... the troika's going down the road and the wolves are closing in, and so you throw them something off and let them chew it.'" Who was the general? When and where was it said? No source is given. Then, discussing Sihanouk's attempts to put pressure on the Vietnamese to minimize their presence in Cambodia in the days leading up to Lon Nol's coup, Short tells us that "[Sihanouk] planned to travel home from France via Moscow and Beijing to ask the Soviet and Chinese leaders to put pressure on their proteges to be more discreet. To dramatise his plea, he had proposed to Lon Nol that 'spontaneous protests' be organized against the Vietnamese beforehand." (p. 194) Again, no source is cited; in fact, for roughly five pages of text describing the events in the days leading up to the coup, there are no sources cited at all. Short's narrative is probably correct... but nonetheless, it's hard to understand why source notes are absent.

Some of Short's positions are controversial; he argues, for example, that while the Khmer Rouge were guilty of crimes against humanity, their actions did not fit the strict definition of genocide. Is he correct? This is a difficult question that deserves more attention than Short gives it, and no discussion at all would probably have been preferable to an incomplete discussion. This is also true of his contention that there is nothing to be gained by attempting to try those accused of instigating the violence. "[T]rying the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders for past crimes offers an alibi for doing nothing about present ones." (p. 447) "Maintaining the status quo is always the easiest option," Short writes. But this is exactly backwards: trying the leaders for their crimes is not the status quo. It is impunity that has been the status quo.

All of these criticism, however, should not overshadow the book's virtues. Pol Pot remains an impressive achievement. In spite of its flaws, the book is worthwhile, mainly on the strength of its retelling of Saloth Sar's life before the revolution. The book boasts many intriguing anecdotes, and an impressive collection of rarely-seen photos.

When he is at his best, Short homes in on important ideas with admirable clarity. His overview of the regime is insightful and precisely accurate:

"What Pol and his colleagues approved [in May 1975] was a slave state, the first in modern times.

"The term is emotive and requires definition. Stalin, Hitler, and a plethora of Third World despots enslaved their peoples metaphorically by depriving them of basic rights and freedoms. Pol enslaved the Cambodian people literally, by incarcerating them within a social and political structure, a 'prison without walls', as refugees would later call it, where they were required to execute without payment whatever work was assigned to them for as long as the cadres ordered it, failing which they risked punishment ranging from the withholding of rations to death. Food and clothing were, in theory, provided by the state. But there were no wages. In the Soviet Union during the period of 'War Communism' in the early 1920s, in the Yan'an period in China a decade later, or even in contemporary North Korea, workers were paid at least a pittance. No matter how paltry the sum, it meant they had some measure of choice, even if it amounted to no more than whether to buy a packet of cigarettes or a tablet of soap once a month. There was a miniscule space for the exercise of free will. In Khmer Rouge Cambodia, there was none -- which marks a qualitative difference that only those who experienced it can comprehend. Not only were there no wages, there were no markets. With time, as the system grew more rigid, even barter was discouraged. Like true slaves, the inhabitants of Pol's Cambodia were deprived of all control over their own destinies -- unable to decide what to eat, when to sleep, where to live or even whom to marry." (p. 291)

Discussing the Khmer Rouge's final days in power, he summarizes the very essence of the regime elegantly: "Khmer Rouge policy, right up to the last hours, remained wholly consistent with everything that had gone before," Short notes. The guiding principle had been described by Nuon Chea: "'If we lose members but retain the leadership, we can continue to win.' The corollary -- that ordinary people were expendable -- had been Khmer Rouge practice ever since the evacuation of Phnom Penh in April 1975. The lack of concern over loss of life and the squandering of material resources was exactly the same as three and a half years earlier." (p. 399)

Ultimately, Short sets his sights too high: He tries to explain the entire Khmer Rouge phenomenon, rather than simply explaining Pol Pot himself. In one sense, this is perfectly reasonable. It's probably not possible to understand Pol Pot without a broader understanding of the historical and cultural factors that empowered the Cambodian communists.

Readers searching for a broad overview of Khmer Rouge Cambodia should look elsewhere. For those who want to know more about Pol Pot, however, Short's book is definitely worth reading, in spite of its flaws.

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