UCLA International Institute
Asia Institute

Advancing collaborative, interdisciplinary research on Asia worldwide


Former BBC correspondent Philip Short speaks on his new biography of Pol Pot

Former BBC correspondent Philip Short speaks on his new biography of Pol Pot

How a Paris Playboy Came to Kill a Million and a Half People

Four to five hours after entry they [the Khmer Rouge] told the entire population to leave [in Phnom Penh], on foot, with what they could carry," Short said. "It took five days to get the first 8 miles; 20,000 died that first week.


Buddhist novice, Paris playboy and bon vivant, and finally fanatical mass murderer of almost two million of his own people, Pol Pot, like the more famous Hitler and Stalin, epitomizes the bloodthirsty ideological movements of our time and time recently past. Former BBC correspondent and author Philip Short cast some light on this mysterious and reclusive dictator in a talk at UCLA March 9 summarizing Short's just published book, Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare. Author of a highly regarded biography of Mao Zedong, Short conducted interviews with top leaders and rank-and-file members of the murderous Khmer Rouge during several trips to their redoubts near Cambodia's Thai border. His informants included no less than Ieng Sary, Pol Pot's foreign minister and brother-in-law. Short's talk was sponsored by the Center for Southeast Asian Studies and was videotaped by CSPAN's Book TV for a later broadcast.

"This is the story of a holocaust," Short said. "In three years and eight months beginning on April 17, 1975, between one and two million Cambodians died, as much as a quarter of the entire population." Hundreds of thousands were executed by the Communist Khmer Rouge. The rest died of malnutrition, disease, and overwork in a nationwide Cambodian gulag that Short described as "the first modern slave state." The man who ordered this carnage was virtually unknown even to Cambodians. Much of what is known of the monster comes from a single interview he gave shortly before his death in 1998, and important additions to the picture from Philip Short's conversations with Khmer Rouge figures.

Despite its image as "an oriental paradise with a playboy prince who played the saxophone," Cambodia had a tradition of ruthless central government that predated though never equaled the horrors of the Pol Pot years. "King Sihanouk was an absolute monarch in the 1940s and 1950s," Philip Short said. "No one could publicly disagree with anything the king said. In the throne room, even ministers had to approach the king on their hands and knees because everyone's head had to be below the level of the king's feet. Ministers were compelled to describe themselves as 'We who carry the king's excrement on our heads.'"

Pol Pot, whose real name was Saloth Sar, was born in 1925 into a family of wealthy rice farmers. One of his sisters was a royal concubine of King Sisovath Monivong. As a teenager he became a novice in a Buddhist temple. After World War II he was among a group of Cambodian students who went to Paris to attend university. There, some of his friends of that period told Philip Short, he was not much of a student but instead "had a reputation as a bon vivant. His friends describe him as likeable but retiring. He liked to dance and to drink red wine. He was said to be engaging."

The Cambodian Communist Party, properly the Kampuchean (or Khmer) People's Revolutionary Party (KPRP), began as a tiny organization in 1951 under Vietnamese tutelage. Its Cambodian members, Philip Short recounted, consisted of three little groups: some Cambodians educated in Thailand in the orbit of the Thai CP, a small group of Buddhist monks, and some of the Cambodian students who went to Paris to study, where they were attracted to the French CP, one of the few organizations in France to support the Cambodian independence struggle from France. Of those in Paris, "a dozen became CP members, including Pol Pot."

France conceded independence to Cambodia in 1953. In the next few years domestic opposition to the monarchy compelled Sihanouk to abdicate, in 1955, and call elections. "Sihanouk founded a political party and contested the elections himself. He sent thugs and police to break up opposition meetings and kill opposition candidates. Communists and all other oppositions were suppressed. Some oppositionists were executed by the military -- the Sihanouk forces made a film of one of these executions and ordered it to be shown in every movie theater."

The Communist Party took refuge in the bush, where in 1962 Pol Pot became the party head. In one of those odd turns of fate, Sihanouk was ousted in a coup in 1970, and took refuge with the outlawed Communist Party in areas they controlled. The Cambodian CP, which began to be known as the Khmer Rouge, grew rapidly from a few thousand in 1970 to some 30,000 by 1973 with control over about a third of the country. On April 17, 1975, the pro-U.S. government of Lon Nol collapsed and the Khmer Rouge marched into the capital, Phnom Penh, a city of 3 million. "Four to five hours after entry they told the entire population to leave, on foot, with what they could carry," Short said. "It took five days to get the first 8 miles; 20,000 died that first week."

The 1.5 millions deaths, Philip Short proposed, were principally due to "two emblematic decisions." The first was the ruthless evacuation of the capital. The second was the abolition of money. "Their idea was, no money, no capitalism. This decision was the root of many of the regime's evils. It abolished the miniscule area of free choice in the economy. People then worked without wages. If they offended their superiors their rations were withdrawn and they starved to death, or you were killed. There was no freedom to marry. This was the first true slave state of modern times."

Philip Short said that during his several visits to the areas still held by the Khmer Rouge near the Thai border he interviewed a Khmer Rouge soldier who had taken part in the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh in 1975. He asked the soldier, weren't there people who didn't or couldn't leave? Yes, the soldier replied. They were mostly old people. "What did you do?" "We killed them," the soldier answered. The soldier showed no remorse.

The great majority of those killed by the Khmer Rouge, Short averred, "died from starvation and overwork." He put the number of those directly murdered by the government and its agents at about 200,000.

The Dark Role of the United States and China

In the late 1970s the Khmer Rouge government launched a series of increasingly violent border clashes with the Vietnamese, ending with Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia in 1979, which drove Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge back into the jungle. This would have been an end of this murderous group, except that Vietnam's enemies decided to throw their support to the Khmer Rouge killers. Primarily this was the United States and China. These two great powers funneled material support to the Khmer Rouge outlaws for a decade. This morally repugnant policy ended only after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when knee-jerk anticommunism (the Chinese variety exempted) began to wane as a determinant of American policy.

Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia in 1989. In 1993 the UN supervised elections in Cambodia and Sihanouk was restored as king. The Khmer Rouge was officially outlawed in 1994. Though some trials of Khmer Rouge figures were begun they were dropped. Pol Pot, Philip Short said, "died peacefully in his sleep" while living under house arrest in the Khmer Rouge areas in a house with his wife and daughter.

Why Did It Happen?

The causes of the Cambodian killing fields have been widely debated in the decades since. All communist states did some of the things Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge did, but only the Stalin regime at the height of the purges of the 1930s reached the same level of ferocity. There are certainly recognizable elements of the patterns seen in Cambodia in the mass starvation of China's Great Leap Forward of 1958-60, when government-imposed policies caused one of the most devastating famines of modern times, or in the intolerance and often killing of intellectuals and the technically trained by Maoist fanatics during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. The Cambodia devastation was more sweeping for the comparatively small population involved.

Philip Short offered his own, somewhat controversial, list of contributing factors. He pointed to the steady shrinking of the Khmer state from its dominance of what is now south Vietnam and south Thailand 600 years ago to the comparatively tiny Cambodia of the 1970s. "There was national paranoia that the Khmer faced extinction. The Khmer Rouge wanted to develop at breakneck speed to resist an impending Vietnamese takeover. This had other and unexpected consequences."

Secondly, he said, was the Khmer Rouge's antipathy to the cities and its reliance on a rural peasant revolution. "A peasant revolution was intolerant and illiterate, like the violent, bloody European peasant revolutions of the Middle Ages."

Finally, he looked at the national culture. Where Maoism was "colored by Confucianism," he said, in Cambodia Stalinism-Leninism was influenced by Theravada Buddhism, the belief system of some 90 percent of the Khmer people. "This is a religion of compassion, but it teaches renunciation of the material world." This impersonal fatalism, he argued, insulated the Khmer Rouge leaders and soldiers from guilt for their deeds. He concluded that the Khmer Rouge were "a violent monastic sect" with similarities to a cult.

Did the Khmer Rouge Commit Genocide?

The question period raised an issue that has come up in reviews of Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare. This was Short's decision not to use the word genocide to describe the mass killing. The Washington Post, for example, sharply criticized the book for this. One member of the audience asked if there wasn't genocide in the killings as a whole, and at least in the massacres of ethnic minorities, the Vietnamese, Chinese, and the Cham, an ethnic group that migrated to Cambodia from Vietnam in the 1450s and later embraced Islam.

Philip Short replied that genocide in the UN resolution that defined the word means attempts to exterminate an ethnic group. It is not used to designate mass killing by a government of its own people of the same ethnicity. He gave as examples of the proper use of the word the holocaust of the Jews by the German Nazis and the mass murder of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda in 1994.

Regarding the three minority nationalities, he said that most Vietnamese in Cambodia were forcibly deported to Vietnam, not killed. The Cham, he said, were dispersed and their communities broken up but they were not killed in any greater proportion to their numbers than were Khmer. And Chinese may have had fewer per capita deaths than Khmer. Short said he preferred to use the term "crimes against humanity," which he felt was more accurate and sufficiently strong.