Thirty years ago, during the last days of the Lon Nol regime in Cambodia, people in Phnom Penh began to ask with an increased urgency and interest: Who was leading the forces of the Khmer Rouge? Who was going to take over in Cambodia? By April 1975 the city was surrounded and cut off by river and land. The airport was about to fall to the insurgents, whose broadcasts could be heard every night. The titular head of the provisional government was the former king, Prince Norodom Sihanouk. But he was living in Beijing, and nobody supposed that he had any very tight control over events in the country, let alone in the Communist Party.

Sihanouk was understood to be valuable as a figurehead for the insurgency against the Lon Nol government, for he was still overwhelmingly popular, and the monarchy itself was still, to a degree, venerated. He had been ousted, five years earlier, by a coup, since when the fortunes of Cambodia had sunk. That Sihanouk would return after a Khmer Rouge victory, and bring back happy days, was a powerful thought among the poor. They tended to believe that the presence of the King would bring good fortune to the land. You could think this with the magical side of your brain (magic was always important in Cambodia), and still be under no illusions about the temporal prospects of the King’s restoration.

Another theory held that the people who took over would be the North Vietnamese or, colloquially speaking, the Vietcong. But this, by 1975, was a discredited line of argument. It was a long time since the forces defending Phnom Penh and the other cities had encountered any Vietnamese on the battlefield in any significant numbers. Cambodians knew—indeed the fact made them angry—that in this war Khmer was fighting Khmer.

So it was with a sense of having seen through two false versions, inspired by propaganda, that people came to the view that, at the head of the insurgency, which for a long time had held the majority of the countryside and was now poised finally to take the cities, there were Cambodian leaders who could be known by name: Hou Yuon, Hu Nim, and, preeminently, Khieu Samphân. And this view was not entirely false.

Hou Yuon was indeed one of the leading figures in the group. What none of us in Phnom Penh knew was that he was in the process of falling out of favor for his outspoken criticisms of Khmer Rouge policy. In Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare, Philip Short tells us that he was reputed to have criticized the speed of the imposition of the Khmer Rouge’s “cooperative system,” and to have accused the Party of cheating the peasants over compensation for requisitioned rice. He was later widely credited in Khmer Rouge circles with telling Pol Pot in 1974, “If you go on like this, I give your regime three years. Then it will collapse.” The next year, when the victorious Khmer Rouge leadership ordered the emptying of Phnom Penh, Hou Yuon was appalled. “It’s not normal,” he said later, “it’s not reasonable, to evacuate everyone like that. What the Standing Committee has done is wrong.” He died in 1976, in circumstances that are unclear, after some time spent under house arrest.

Hu Nim, the brilliant student who became director of the Treasury under Sihanouk at the age of twenty-six, and later the ranting minister for information for the Khmer Rouge, was killed at the torture center of Tuol Sleng a year after Hou Yuon’s death, after making a detailed confession of having worked for the CIA (such confessions usually contained a bizarre mix of fact and fantasy). Only Khieu Samphân, the Khmer Rouge head of state, survives to this day in the old sapphire-mining town of Pailin, on the Thai– Cambodia border. He claims that, despite appearances to the contrary, he never participated in major decisions such as the evacuation of the cities, never killed anyone or sought to have anyone killed, never even thought of becoming a leader.

Of the three men, Khieu Samphân was the most charismatic, and to my mind has the most to answer for—not in the sense that he may or may not have been involved in this or that decision, but because of the personal prestige he lent to the enterprise. He had a reputation for honesty and incorruptibility, as well as for a modest way of living and a sincere love of the poor. People would tell the story of how he had been beaten up in the street, stripped naked, and photographed by security thugs in 1960, after publishing in the newspaper he edited details of a threatening interview he had had with the security minister of the day. His response, after someone gave him a scarf to cover himself, was to walk straight to the Central Police Station and lodge a complaint.


In 1967, Hou Yuon, Hu Nim, and Khieu Samphân disappeared from Phnom Penh and were generally rumored to have been killed on Sihanouk’s orders. I believe that Sihanouk himself was partly responsible for publicly giving this impression, and Short tells us that in private one of his French advisers claimed to know how the bodies of Hou Yuon and Khieu Samphân had been disposed of. In fact the three left-wing MPs had gone into the maquis and were organizing armed resistance. Three years later, Sihanouk was in Moscow, on his way to boarding a plane for Beijing, when Premier Kosygin informed him that he had been toppled. On arrival in Beijing he set about forming a united front, which at once received support in a declaration signed by Hou Yuon, Hu Nim, and Khieu Samphân.

In Phnom Penh, the new regime of Lon Nol laughed at the thought that Sihanouk, in his downfall, should receive the support of men he had not long before had killed (the “Ghosts,” as the Americans liked to call them). They would have been amazed—Sihanouk himself would have been amazed—had they known how the declaration had been drafted. By pure coincidence, the real head of the Cambodian Communists (in those days a small but not insignificant armed group) was in Beijing at the time. His name was Saloth Sâr, the future Pol Pot. Born in 1925, he was five years older than the three Ghosts, and he had preceded them into the jungle four years earlier, where he had sat, in conditions of utmost secrecy, in a base camp in northeast Cambodia. Short quotes one witness’s description of the camp:

It was surrounded by dozens of pit-falls, containing sharpened bamboos and spears. Along the paths we suspended traps from the trees. We had no mines in those days. But the guards patrolled in five-man groups with bows and poisoned arrows. We had guns, old-fashioned Enfields from the First World War; a few Kalashnikovs, but very few; and muzzle-loaders that the local tribesmen used for hunting.

It was an isolated existence. Guerrillas who have worked in such circumstances are in the habit of saying that their privations put them in touch with the masses, but the “masses” referred to can be a very small number of people indeed.

Saloth Sâr had been in his jungle hideout, surrounded by his Khmer Loeu or “Montagnard” bodyguard, running and planning the Cambodian insurgency. Quite how he did so is something one would like to have been told in more detail, since communications would have been very poor. But one has to accept that certain parts of this extraordinary story will not be retrievable: participants will have died or will not want to tell. The insurgency was planned with fanatical secrecy. It is hard enough to get ordinary people in a frame of mind conducive to talk about the past, let alone to locate such people as these, and to get them to talk freely and truthfully. It is ironic, though, that Saloth Sâr’s Praetorian Guard should have been chosen from the Montagnards. These were people that the American Special Forces also had a special respect for. They felt that they could trust them as soldiers, in a way that it was always hard to trust the Vietnamese. When Short tells us that “to Sâr, the montagnards, even more than the Khmer peasantry, were Rousseau’s ‘noble savages’—simple, pure, fanatically loyal, unsullied by the decadence of Cambodian life,” this sounds to me like American military sentimentality.

Whenever Saloth Sâr wanted to embark on a diplomatic mission, he was obliged to walk the Ho Chi Minh trail to Hanoi. There, he would be at the mercy of the North Vietnamese for his travel arrangements. If he wanted to visit Pyongyang or the headquarters of the insurgency in Laos, and his hosts said that was impossible (which they did), then that was impossible. At the beginning of 1970 he was trying to persuade the North Vietnamese to give direct support to his guerrilla campaign, but as long as Sihanouk was in power in Phnom Penh it did not suit the North Vietnamese to promote the insurgency. Saloth Sâr went on to Beijing. Sihanouk fell from power, and came from Moscow to seek help in Beijing. For once, Saloth Sâr was in the right place.

And yet, to the surprise of Zhou Enlai, he did not want to meet Sihanouk. He was shown a draft of the appeal that Sihanouk was to make to the Cambodian people, in emulation of De Gaulle’s appeal to the French in 1940. Saloth Sâr, Short tells us, “proposed certain changes, the main one being to excise all references to socialism.” Zhou Enlai urged the Cambodian Communists not to dwell on past quarrels but to cooperate with the prince to form a government. Saloth Sâr understood this idea only too well, and it was in this spirit that he drafted a letter of support from Khieu Samphân, Hou Yuon, and Hu Nim, which “purported to have been sent from a resistance base inside Cambodia.”


And so began the elaborate and far-sighted trickery of the United Front. One might hazard a guess that within Zhou Enlai’s immediate circle, there were more Chinese in the know about the realities of Cambodian power than there were in any of the rival Khmer camps put together. Obviously the three Ghosts could not have known until later what had been said in their name, however willingly they endorsed it. Sihanouk knew so little that when Saloth Sâr’s presence in Beijing was revealed eight years later, Short tells us, he refused to believe it. But the Chinese knew the Khmer Rouge secret: within this box, there is another box; but within this box, there is yet another box; and within that box, yet another.

Zhou Enlai then made a calculation of the most spectacular symmetry: asked by the Sihanouk official household to provide $5 million a year to keep the exiled government, in Beijing, in the manner to which it was accustomed, he doubled the sum. Five million was to go to Sihanouk and his retinue; another $5 million would finance Saloth Sâr and his armed struggle. “Each year, for that purpose,” says Short,

five million dollars in notes was wrapped in layers of waterproof paper, packed in rucksacks, and carried down the Ho Chi Minh Trail by Khmer porters, usually students or returnees, who were told they were transporting “secret documents.”

The aid was sent in the form of US dollars, because it was from the Phnom Penh army that many of the weapons and materials would be purchased. This corruption was a source of dismay to the Americans who were financing and supplying the Lon Nol government. Their reaction at the time made me realize how wrong we were on the left to refer to such American clients as puppet regimes: if puppets, they were puppets with minds of their own. I believe, and in this I part company with Short, that the Americans involved in running the support of the Lon Nol regime sincerely wanted it to succeed and to take back the land it had so quickly lost to the insurgency. The problem surely was that an American client, such as Lon Nol or one of his corrupt generals, always felt the need to secure his own power through patronage. In order to finance patronage, he needed funds. The easiest way of raising funds was through selling arms.

Saloth Sâr and the Khmer Rouge, for their part, were for quite a long time referred to as lackeys of the North Vietnamese or the Chinese, and clearly the Vietnamese Communists would have loved to have them as lackeys. But it is also clear that as soon as they could, the Cambodian Communists did everything possible to underline their independence from anything Vietnamese or Chinese. Their authenticity depended on their so doing. Their nationalism was visceral. Their “way” was to be uniquely theirs.


To tell the story of Saloth Sâr and his rise to power as Pol Pot is certainly one way of trying to understand what happened in Cambodia, particularly the appalling brutality of his regime, which lasted a little longer than Hou Yuon predicted—three years, eight months, and twenty days. It is like trying to understand the history of Germany through the biography of Hitler: clearly Hitler had a lot to do with the history of Germany. One difference here is that immeasurably more is known about him.

Short has done extremely well, I think, to put together as much information as there is here about Pol Pot. Nevertheless, we cannot help sometimes wondering how to use the evidence we are given—or whether indeed a given piece of evidence is of any value at all. That Saloth Sâr spent some time, as a child, in a Buddhist monastery makes him no different from millions of other Cambodian boys. Was he struck by the monastic emphasis on detachment? “There is no way of knowing,” says Short. “But subconsciously it must have registered, for in later life the abandonment of personal ties and the suppression of individuality—in both thought and behaviour—would become key elements of his political credo.” This is an early statement of a theme that runs through the book: that there was a strong connection between Khmer Rouge philosophy and Theravada Buddhism, both being “intensely normative.” The “grammar” of Cambodian Buddhism “permeated Khmer communist thought, just as Confucian notions helped to fashion Maoism.”

The young Sâr used to visit the palace of King Monivong in Phnom Penh where his sister and a cousin were secondary royal wives. He knew Sihanouk’s mother, and used to speak of her, toward the end of his life, with affection. In this context Short gives us a most striking and curious fact:

At fifteen, Sâr was still regarded as a child, young enough to be allowed into the women’s quarters. Decades later, two of the palace women, living out their old age on French government stipends in Paris, remembered “Little Sâr,” who used to come to visit them wearing his school uniform, a loose, white shirt with baggy trousers and wooden shoes. The young women would gather round, teasing him, they remembered. Then they would loosen his waistband and fondle his genitals, masturbating him to a climax. He was never allowed to have intercourse with them. But in the frustrated, hothouse world of the royal pleasure house, it apparently afforded the women a vicarious satisfaction.

Vicarious doesn’t seem quite the right word here. But in what mental folder are we to file away this story? Is this evidence for trauma? It sounds more like quite good fun, but we are on the lookout for trauma.

Certainly it is a reminder that this future peasant leader came from a family that had its privileges. His father owned fifty acres of rice paddy, a substantial holding. Sâr was from the same milieu as the later oligarchs for whose downfall he fought. Lon Non, the notorious brother of Lon Nol, was a close schoolboy friend; he ended up as one of the “Seven Traitors” for whose death the Khmer Rouge were calling as Phnom Penh fell. It would have been perfectly possible for Sâr to remain a part of that world. Indeed, one of his brothers, whom I knew, remained associated with Prince Norodom Chaintarainsey, the warlord and former leader of the anti-French resistance group called the Khmer Issarak.

Despite a completely undistinguished academic record, Sâr was able to win a scholarship to study in France, where he and fellow Cambodians observed, as a Khmer student magazine of the time put it,

Strange places which deafen you with bawdy, syncopated music, [where] lithe young adonises dislocate themselves, each more frantically than the next, in a kind of collective hysteria…and a girl with pouting lips and upturned trousers takes you off to join a group of intense young men, wearing bow-ties and slicked-back hair, who are earnestly discussing whether “essence” precedes “existence” in the case of peas and gherkins, or should it be the other way round?

Here we are told that Sâr earned a reputation as a bon vivant, although not too much weight should be placed on the phrase: he was, after all, a poor student. (A few pages earlier we were told that “a love of music and roman-tic French poetry—Verlaine was one of his favourites—remained with him into old age.” But if he had a love for either, he had an unusual way of expressing it. Probably he had some lines of Verlaine by heart, and could recite them, as it were, as a party trick.)

Sâr and his fellow scholars reached Paris on the day (October 1, 1949) that Mao proclaimed the founding of the Chinese People’s Republic which, as Short tells us, marked the beginning of the end of the French presence in Indochina. The young Cambodians considered themselves patriots, and the question of Marxism did not at first arise for them. However, in the summer of 1950 we find Sâr and friends in Sarajevo in an “international labour brigade,” working on postwar reconstruction. It was a typical progressive free holiday of the period: manual labor three days a week, the rest of the time spent on “cultural activities” and sport.

Since most of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge generation shared this experience of scholarship study in France, it has always been tempting to see the source of their ideology in French Stalinist theory of the time. In some sense, this was the scene of their politicization. But it is worth paying attention to Sâr’s claim that when he read “the big, thick works of Marx…I didn’t really understand them at all.” One guesses that he might not have read them with very much attention. Years later, when Mao met Pol Pot, his instinct was to offer him “30 books written by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin” to study. And Short says that fifty years later the only title that the aged Pol Pot could remember from his Paris years was Kropotkin’s The Great Revolution.

Here is a good example of the tempting nature of historical evidence. Short has consulted the 749-page Kropotkin volume and found that

there are long sections on eighteenth-century French feudal land rights, emphyteutic leases, acapts, arrière-acapts, censives, surcens, champarts, lods, quints, requints, soètes, tasques, treizains, venterolles and other untranslatable fiscal terms.

Naturally this does not mean that the young Sâr did not read the book, or imbibe its spirit. But there might be less to the influence than meets the eye.

When Khieu Samphân, in 1998, told a Le Monde reporter, “Prime Minister Pol Pot and I were profoundly influenced by the spirit of French thought—by the Age of Enlightenment, of Rousseau and Montesquieu,” he was putting a brave but fatuous spin on his reputation. Short finds three core notions that Saloth Sâr would have derived from Kropotkin:

that revolution requires an alliance between the intellectuals and the peasantry; that it must be carried through to the end, without compromise or hesitation; and that egalitarianism is the basis of communism.

Well, I don’t say he didn’t, but he might just as well have derived them from the Zeitgeist.

Certain aspects of Pol Pot’s political practice might well be traceable to individual sources. The conscious exclusion of the urban proletariat, the factory workers (not that there were many of them), noted by Short, seems like a specific-enough part of the Khmer Rouge idiom to have a particular history. The conscious division of political work into legal, semilegal, and illegal (also typical of Vietnamese communism) is another. We saw this in operation in the Philippines, where activists knew very well in which political sphere they were working, and how the different activities complemented each other. And we see it still in Ireland, where the legal Republicans are trying to close down their own illegal activities—something difficult to pull off, as Southeast Asia shows. I imagine that the history of such a division of labor could be set out (no doubt it has been).

The high value put on secrecy is clearly one of the basic tenets of Khmer Rouge philosophy. It worked in their favor up to victory in 1975, and then in later phases we see it working against them, as the paranoia begins, and with it the purges that destroyed Pol Pot’s own organization and left it vulnerable to the Vietnamese. Most Communist parties have shared a gift for secrecy. Not all would have taken it to the point where the fact that the supreme organization, the Angkar, was identical with the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party was itself a secret.

Cruelty, for which the movement is so notorious, has its precedence in the older opposition movements, and in the local practice of war. Here is a Khmer Issarak leader, Bunchan Mol (from whose memoirs Short has drawn well), describing what used to go on in the anticolonial struggle:

If we thought a Cambodian was spying for the French, we tortured him and then [killed] him…. If the executioner clubbed him to death cleanly with a blow on the back of the neck…it was not so hard to look at. But sometimes they used other means…. They had a method called sra-nge pen. First they beat up the suspect. Then they made him kneel beside an open grave, with his hands tied behind his back, and formed a circle around him. The executioner took a sharp sword and started dancing round the man and making horrible grimaces. He gradually got closer and very slowly started cutting the man’s throat—sucking the blood as it came out and spewing it onto the blade of the sword. It was terrible to see. The victim shook with pain…. I was against that way of doing things…but the other Issarak leaders didn’t agree with me. They said the suspect had to be killed like that as a warning to people not to work for the French.

The practice of eating one’s opponent’s liver can be traced back well before the rise of the Khmer Rouge, and was seen on the Lon Nol side of the conflict. It was a magic practice, well attested.

Short is a highly respected journalist who has worked in Africa, the USSR, and China. He has written a biography of Mao. He has researched this book with the help of a Cambodian assistant, and has done an impressive job. I do not find myself convinced by what he says about Cambodian national character, about for instance the “entrenched individualism” of the (pre-revolutionary) society, or about the resemblance between the Khmer Rouge attack on this individualism and the tenets of Theravada Buddhism.

It would seem to me that Buddhism, or religion as it was found in Cambodia, was a highly powerful social organization, and that the Khmer Rouge had to attack its social values root and branch. They did so with a kind of traumatic success. When large parts of the population began to flee Cambodia, for the first time, in the refugee camps, one began to see Christianity making headway with Cambodians. Their religion hitherto had been bound up with their sense of place. Now they were going into exile, having lost God, the tutelary and evil spirits, the genius loci, the monastery as the principle of village life, and the king as principle of national existence.

No doubt the Cambodians who chose American exile have been well studied in their new settings. It is striking to me, from limited experience, that the influence achieved by evangelical missionaries in the refugee camps (some of us thought this not unconnected with the desire to acquire American visas) did not come to an end once Cambodians arrived in, say, California. Something new was needed to replace what had been lost, and that new thing spoke not only to the private being but to the family as a whole, and might be seen as, in itself, a new society. The abiding nature of this need, as felt in exile, is a testament to the value and strength of what had been left behind, ruined, in Cambodia.

By the end, Saloth Sâr is still a mystery. Here he is, remembered by a former colleague as he was in the 1980s, at the height of his destructive power:

He was very likeable, a really nice person. He was friendly, and everything he said seemed very sensible. He would never blame you or scold you to your face. He would imply things, so that we would have to think about them ourselves…. [Because of this indirectness], it was sometimes very difficult to figure out what he was getting at. So we were very cautious, because we used to worry about misinterpreting his meaning.

And you have to remember that Saloth Sâr, on his side, would have been worrying as well. He was not well educated, a certificate in carpentry being his highest formal achievement. He was not well read. He was an atrocious economist and political thinker, and I do not think that he would make any short list as a great general. He once thought of starting a cult of his personality, but it never got very far. All his achievements were already crashing down around him. He ruined everything he set his hand to. That is his epitaph. I suppose, though, that the fact that he died in his sleep may be counted, in the circumstances, a very great achievement indeed.

This Issue

June 9, 2005