Charismatic leader or ruthless zealot?
Gayatri Rajwade

Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare
by Philip Short. John Murray.
Pages 656. £12.99

Philip Shortís biography on Pol Pot deals with an enigmatic man, complex and shadowy. The attempts to recreate Pol in his historical, social and political milieu interpret Cambodian history without playing on the accepted notions of the man. Consider the havoc Pol wrought on the people of Cambodia; is a dispassionate approach possible? The reader should decide.

Pol Pot, Prime Minister of Cambodia between 1975 and 1978 and leader of the leftist Khmer Rouge, conducted one of the most terrifying regimes in modern history.

In the early 1960s, to much of the outside world, Cambodiaís fame was associated with the magnificent temples of Angkor Wat. Regarded as one of the powerful nations in the region, Cambodiaís decline began with the waves of foreign intervention from the 1500s to the 1800s. The French arrived in the mid-1800s and ended up ruling Cambodia until 1954.

Post-Colonial Cambodia was ruled by Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Throughout the 1960s, Sihanouk pushed to keep Cambodia neutral, as neighbouring Laos and South Vietnam came under increasing Communist influence, spurring a similar movement at home along with the added pressure of the war between Vietnam and the US raging on at its borders. However, Sihanoukís autocratic style of governing, compounded with corruption and mismanagement and a disastrous foreign policy, alienated the masses and helped the Khmer Rouge to come to the forefront after a bloody civil war.

The ensuing four years were the most horrific in Cambodian history. Estimates indicate that more than a million persons were either executed or just starved to death during Polís reign. Short conveys the history in a matter-of-fact manner. "An entire country was put in thrall to a dystopian ideal that negated anything and everything that was human."

The authorís intricate account along with a vast array of sources, including eyewitness accounts of Polís life behind his carefully constructed veil of a secret existence, arouses curiosity and empathy, making for compelling reading, albeit for avid history buffs.

For anyone reading about Cambodiaís killing fields, perhaps its most notorious period, for the first time, the book offers concise facts backed by handsome research, with a presentation style that is surprisingly straight off the cuff with scarce personal opinion clouding the information. This is not easy, as the subject is too disquieting, but Shortís biography is admirable for its neutral yet informative stance, which is not to say that all readers will agree with all of Shortís summation of motives.

As Short himself points out: "It is too simple, too comforting, to blame the Khmer Rouge atrocities on the peculiar feudal culture of an exotic tropical land, just as it is to attribute these to the individual perversity of a handful of warped leaders." The Khmer leaders were obsessed with the idea that their revolution be "pure". This absolutism manifests itself in an attempt to create a rural, agrarian egalitarian society, completely cleansed of educated elite from the urban areas. In this bizarre bid, cities were emptied of their population; agrarian movements in the form of co-operatives with communal eating were developed; markets and money were abolished and all private property and holdings banned.

Neurotic secrecy and mistrust ruled the roost, where the entire population had to be entirely dependent on "Angkar", the organisation, for its every single need. The punishment for disobeying was instant death for the "wrongdoer" and the whole family.

What did get achieved in the end was what Polís old mentor, Keng Vannsak, referred to as "an immense apparatus of repression and terror, as an amalgam of party, government and state. It was, in a way, political-metaphysical power, anonymous, omnipresent, omniscient, occult, sowing death and terror in its name".

The downfall of the Khmer Rouge began with the invasion of the Vietnamese forces in 1978. A Vietnamese supported government came into being, led by Hun Sen. Civil war broke out again. After years of skirmishes, a peace treaty was signed by all of Cambodiaís warring factions (the Khmer Rouge, Hun Senís government and Prince Sihanoukís groups) in October 1991. Pol Pot was tried and sentenced to life imprisonment by the remaining Khmer Rouge in 1997.

Short ends with Polís death in 1998, but not before giving the reader one last antipathetic glimpse of Polís conviction in his philosophy in an interaction with American journalist Nate Thayer. Thayer who met Pol three months after his "vilification" and sentencing found him "chillingly unrepentant". "Look at me; am I a savage person? My conscience is clear."

Whichever way one looks at it, Shortís biography underlies that "state-sponsored evil flourishes wherever democratic checks and balances are absent".