The Schizophrenic State

by Kenneth Champeon, May 9, 2005 | Destinations: Cambodia / Phnom Penh


Idle believers in progress must find the twentieth century discouraging because it proved to be just as bloody as centuries past. But then there is more blood to go around, and if you put too many rats in a cage they will devour each other. And we rats have devised ever more ingenious ways of doing so. We can now exterminate people like Raid exterminates insects. And while some people still resort to relatively tedious and messy methods, the results have been no less astonishing.

Such was the case in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge (KR). Though the exact death toll is unknown, Reuters accepts the figure of 1.7 million. They died from execution, from disease and starvation. The question, of course, is why.

One common but insipid explanation of mass murder is that it is caused by Evil, a kind of invisible fluid injected into humans by Satan. This is not an explanation but a primitive refusal to explain. Nevertheless it remains common. No less than New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently trundled in Evil to explain September 11th.

Another faulty but favored explanation is this: The KR was Communist; all Communist governments commit mass murder; ergo. Henry Kissinger has used variations on this argument to justify the Vietnam War. Unfortunately both of the argument's premises are false or misleading. Right-wing governments have done their fare share of winnowing, notably in Indonesia under Kissinger's client Suharto.

In his 1984 book Cambodia 1975-1982, Michael Vickery takes on the first premise, that the KR was Communist. To Vickery there is little connection between Marxist doctrine and KR practice. Marx believed that feudalism precedes capitalism, which in turn precedes socialism. Cambodia, Vickery argues, was neither feudal nor capitalistic. Thus the KR revolution could not possibly have brought about socialism. The KR actually reverted Cambodia to the agrarian (but not feudal) peasant society that had existed prior to European colonization. The move to socialism presupposes the technological advancement and industrial base developed by capitalism. The KR more or less tried to do without both. It even tried to do without currency. That its experiment was a failure does not condemn Communism but the KR's misunderstanding or abandonment of it.

Vickery argues that the KR revolution was a revolt of the peasantry against the urban petty bourgeoisie. Countless times he suggests that the peasants were probably quite happy with the arrangement and that only the rich complained. The thesis is compelling if only because it contrasts with the usual interpretation, that Paris-educated "outside agitators" foisted the revolution onto the peasantry.

Was the KR genocidal? Vickery thinks not. Even as late as 1999, he writes, "I did not, and still do not, consider 'genocide' to be an accurate term." He denies that the KR tried to exterminate any specific group for other than political reasons. He also proposes a substantially lower death toll of 740,000. One may detect a fetid whiff of revisionism here.

As pointless as it is depressing, the debate over exact figures nonetheless resumes in Ben Kiernan's 1996 book The Pol Pot Regime. Calling his position "unsustainable," Kiernan arrives at the alternative figure of "at least 1.5 million." He also refutes Vickery's assertion that the KR was not genocidal, citing its willful decimation of the Muslim Chams. He explicitly denies Vickery's "peasant revolt" thesis, saying that while "widespread peasant support for the Khmer Rouge did exist in 1975," the KR's tactics "eventually alienated nearly all ethnic Khmer peasants."

Needless to say, these are two very different books. They are different not only in their conclusions, but also in their assumptions and their style. Kiernan's is a reference book; Vickery's is closer to a political tract. Neither is a straightforward linear narrative. Kiernan amasses figures and writes in plodding prose; Vickery proposes theories and writes like a young Marx. Vickery wears his leftist ideology on his sleeve - he even applauds dismal, starving Stalinist North Korea; Kiernan's ideology is not so readily apparent. Kiernan's book is more convincing and authoritative; Vickery's is easier and even entertaining to read -- if such can be said of a book describing a minor holocaust.

Both authors seem to agree that the United States bears some responsibility for the Pol Pot regime. Kiernan writes that the American bombing of Cambodia, during which 540,000 tons of bombs were dropped and up to 150,000 civilians killed, was "probably the most important single factor in Pol Pot's rise." Vickery refers to the "squalid record" of the United States in Indochina and wishes that American critics of the KR would "shut up." Yet neither author attempts to determine how many of the 1.7 million deaths might have resulted from the long-term effects of the American invasion, which effectively destroyed the Cambodian economy. Certainly many deaths due to starvation could be traced back to this period, before which Cambodia was generally agreed to be innocent of famine.

Vickery's familiarity with the history of pre-Revolutionary Cambodia provides some fascinating insights. "In one infamous project," he writes, "the construction of a resort at Bokor, nine hundred workers' lives were lost in nine months." This project was undertaken not by the KR, but by Cambodia's former French rulers. The human cost, Vickery ventures, is "comparable to the human cost of a Pol Pot dam site."

When the KR seized Phnom Penh in 1975, it drove the city's inhabitants into the countryside. This is usually adduced to prove the KR's brutality. But Vickery points out that in the years 1970-1975 the city's population had exploded from 600,000 to 2 million, and "at least half the increase...consisted of peasants driven from their land by bombing and shelling." In other words, the "evacuation" of the city could be viewed instead as a resettlement of the devastated countryside.

Vickery also argues that "patterns of extreme violence...have very long roots in Cambodia." Add to this the flood of modern weaponry into the region as a result of the Vietnam War, and the carnage becomes less surprising. It even pales in comparison to the some 2-3 million Vietnamese civilians that lost their lives next door.

Despite Vickery's own ideological bias, he takes pains to remind readers of the bias in every account of the Pol Pot regime. "Let no one imagine," he bellows, "that any writer on contemporary Cambodia is merely searching for objective historical truth." Bookstores in Thailand usually contain books condemning Democratic Kampuchea in far greater number than books condemning America. The atrocities of the KR permit Americans to believe that their intentions in stemming the Red Tide were good. But no similar scale of atrocities occurred in Communist Laos or Vietnam, and the Americans may have actually caused the Red Tide to rise in Cambodia in the first place.

The US intervention helped the KR to assume power. But what caused the KR to abuse its power? Both Kiernan and Vickery refer to the Khmer as being possibly the most vengeful and violent people in Southeast Asia - a racialist explanation worthy of the KR itself. And as the regime evolved, it became increasingly paranoid and delusional. Everyone became a potential spy or "lackey" of Russia, the US, or Vietnam. The CIA and KGB came to resemble supernatural forces. Unable to wreak vengeance on the Americans, the KR attacked anybody who might betray Cambodian sovereignty. But the criteria for "treason" were innumerable and arbitrary, and Cambodia began to resemble nothing less than Hobbes' "state of nature," a war of all against all. "Kill them all," wrote the director of the infamous Tuol Sleng prison. (The "all" to which he was referring here included nine children.) As late as 1997, Pol Pot was still ordering executions of former allies.

The KR's schizophrenia was accompanied by an irredentism of the worst kind. The leadership became obsessed with Kampuchea Krom, a portion of Vietnam formerly under Khmer rule. Anyone believed to have been involved in giving up this territory was considered a traitor. In the arrogance of its domestic victory, the KR became convinced that it could restore the glory of the Khmer Empire of Angkor.

The belief proved fatal. After repeated KR incursions into Vietnamese territory, Hanoi decided to retaliate. Its invasion of Cambodia swiftly put the KR to rout. Whatever Vietnam's intentions, it succeeded in putting an end to Cambodia's self-destruction. "There is no reason to believe the killing would have slowed," writes Kiernan, "had it not been stopped by the Vietnamese army."

The recent history of Cambodia is in many ways typical of a post-colonial country. Foreign influence is driven out, leaving a power vacuum to be filled by unseemly autocrats after a long civil war. Meanwhile the country maintains the polite fiction that it is (or intends to be) democratic, even though its familiarity with democracy is nil. In less than 50 years Cambodia was transformed from an oriental despotism into what one KR observed called "one huge work camp," and thence into a puppet of its ancient adversary. Cambodia's elections continue to be marred by suspicious and probably political murders. That it should now step into a telephone booth and come out a democracy is beyond belief.

History teaches us above all how little we learn from history. Kiernan's moral to the KR story is brief, almost banal. "This study has shown the dangers of not only an unbridled lust for power, but also the threat of racism." He does not mention the dangers of carpet-bombing third-world countries.

Vickery's conclusion is rather different. "The Cambodian case," he writes, "adds another instance to those from which Eric Wolf drew his conclusion that peasants, as 'Marxists have long argued,' cannot make a revolution." That is, without leadership able to manage the peasantry's resentment and anarchic tendencies. Kiernan would disagree because he does not interpret the Pol Pot regime as a peasant revolution torn apart by anarchy: "the regime probably extended more power over its citizens than any state in world history." It was not populist or anarchic, but totalitarian and even fascist.

How the Pol Pot regime might have been prevented remains an urgent question. Had Vietnam not used Cambodian territory in its war against America, the latter would have had no reason to invade. Had Vietnam invaded Cambodia immediately after the fall of Phnom Penh, the years 1975-1979 might have seen a relatively benign Vietnamese occupation. The speculation could go on ad infinitum, but to no point. One might as well say, "had there been no ambition or racism in the world..."

But Cambodia and the world continue to wonder whether former KR cadres should be tried for war crimes, and if so, by whom. The UN, which recognized the KR as the legitimate representative of Cambodia, might be prejudiced in favor. But the present Cambodian government is almost surely prejudiced against. In either case, trials would threaten Cambodia's fragile stability. There is also concern that prosecution of the KR will encourage the prosecution of American statesmen like Kissinger, who is already fleeing various subpoenas.

As for mass murder in general, it seems likely to continue. Not because of Evil or Marxism, racism or ambition, but because there are too many of us on this increasingly dead and smoggy and weapons-infested planet. Having all but conquered famine and plague, we have nothing left to conquer but each other.

- The End -

Books reviewed in this article:

Michael Vickery's Cambodia 1975-1982, Silkworm Books, 1999.
Ben Kiernan's The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979, Silkworm Books, 1999.

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The Pol Pot Regime (Yale University Press) is available from ThingsAsian Books.