By Manvir K. Thiara
Pol Pot is evil. This is the conclusion Philip Short, David Chandler, Kathleen Gough and Ben Kiernan reach even though they all argue and write about different aspects of Pol Pot’s government. What explains Pol Pot’s evil? Was he influenced by domestic or international factors? There are three schools of thought that scholars fall under: international factor school, the domestic factor school, and the comparative genocide studies school. The international factor school argues that political goals like imperialism and colonialism explain Pol Pot’s use of terror, while the domestic factor school argues that looking at the terror apparatuses used by the Cambodian government better explains why Pol Pot used terror. The comparative genocide studies school looks at Pol Pot’s political goals such as totalitarianism, which he used to impose genocide on Cambodians, while also comparing the violence carried out by Pol Pot to the violence carried out by other dictators. The international factor school, the domestic factor school, and the comparative genocide studies school all explain how Pol Pot was able to come to power, but they do not explain how the Khmer Rouge used violence and this is why Chandler’s approach is best. Analyzing the domestic institutions of the Khmer Rouge, like the S-21 (Tuol Seng) prison system, provides a clearer picture of the atrocities carried out by Pol Pot, which cannot be achieved by looking at Pol Pot’s background and how he came to power. I argue that although scholars agree that Pol Pot was evil because he used terror, Chandler’s close-to-the-ground approach is best, as it sheds more light on everyday life.
Scholars assess the atrocities carried out by Pol Pot’s regime in different ways because for Short, Pol Pot is the most important detail in his work, but for Chandler it is the inner workings of the prison. Gough looks at what factors influenced Pol Pot and his movement in order to better understand why using terror was so important to him, and Kiernan studies Pol Pot’s regime as a whole to assess how his government imposed genocide on its own people. Even though Short is a journalist, Chandler and Kiernan are two of the leading historians studying Cambodia, and Gough is an anthropologist, they draw a similar conclusion about the Khmer Rouge’s violence. They all examine the political context of the time to see how Pol Pot was able to come to power, but they do this in varied ways. For example, Short critiques colonialism as being one of the reasons why Pol Pot used terror, while Chandler compares Pol Pot’s regime to other dictators who also used violence to illustrate the experience of civilians living under Pol Pot. In Gough’s work she critiques capitalism as the reason that allowed Pol Pot to carry out brutal violence. Kiernan looks at Pol Pot’s totalitarian ambitions to study how his regime imposed genocide on its own people. Short and Gough fall under the international factor school because their works focus primarily on what external influences affected Pol Pot’s use of terror like colonialism and capitalism. Chandler falls under the domestic influence school, as his book analyzes one example of the terror used by Pol Pot inside the Khmer Rouge. Kiernan falls under the comparative genocide studies school because he focuses on the leader’s crimes. Kiernan and Chandler’s approaches are similar because Kiernan also provides examples of how the Khmer Rouge used violence, while Chandler examines one institution in great detail. Short, Gough, and Kiernan all do a fine job of explaining the rise of Pol Pot, but Chandler helps us understand what Pol Pot did when he was in power.
Short is a British journalist who has worked for the BBC, which has allowed him to travel to Cambodia and other Asian countries. Besides writing about Pol Pot, he has also written about Mao Zedong and Francois Mitterrand. Short explores Pol Pot’s life and describes the international and political context to better explain how Pol Pot came to power. He argues that without imperialism, and without the West, it would have been impossible for Pol Pot to rise to power. He writes extensively about Pol Pot’s background to explain how the “[underpinnings] of the Cambodian revolution were first and foremost French.” He also argues that the Soviets, Chinese, Vietnamese and Americans all played an important role in the “making of Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea.”
Chandler falls under the domestic factor school of thought because he argues that looking at the stories and confessions of survivors is essential for understanding what happened under Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Chandler studies the S-21 and its archives to answer questions about how the prison worked, who the alleged enemies were, how torture was used, and what the interrogation process was like. Chandler also compares the torture and executions carried out in the S-21 institution to the Nazi Germany genocide and the Moscow show trials. Through these comparisons, Chandler argues that it became easy for countries to kill victims who were portrayed as racially inferior. While Short focused on the life of Pol Pot to depict how he used terror to mold people’s lives to fit his ideal model, Chandler focused on a specific example of how Pol Pot achieved this goal. Since Short wrote a biography on Pol Pot he had to provide a more general analysis of how the dictator used terror, but Chandler was able to focus on one example of an establishment of Pol Pot’s regime that showed exactly how these horrific measures were carried out. Even though Chandler fits in with the domestic factor school because he looks at what Pol Pot did when he was in power, as a historian he is also interested in international relations because he compares Pol Pot’s use of terror with those of other dictators.
Gough focuses on Pol Pot’s rise to power because as an anthropologist she is interested in human nature, which helps explain why she argues that it is important to look at Pol Pot as an individual first. Gough starts off her article by writing about the “extraordinary atrocities” carried out by the Pol Pot regime. She argues that in order to understand Pol Pot and why he did what he did, it is important to look at who he was, what policies he implemented, and what influenced him. For example, she discusses how assistance from such countries as Vietnam and China led to the rise of Pol Pot. Pol Pot’s main goal, according to Gough, was “to restore a Khmer empire as glorious as that of the 9 to 15 centuries.” To achieve this goal, Pol Pot pushed the Cambodian people back to medieval times through the use of great violence, which nearly left the state in bankruptcy and endangered the population. Pol Pot’s government worked tirelessly to undo the work of “peripheral capitalism” and any industrial development, because these were not the goals of his government. Gough, like Short, also looks at how international factors, such as the French involvement influenced both Pol Pot and his actions. She ends her article by explaining the various lessons that can be learned from Pol Pot’s “frightful experiment,” like how the suppression of capitalism will not always result in a successful socialist regime.
Kiernan, on the other hand, argues that to understand why the Pol Pot regime imposed genocide on its population, one has to examine the racialist preconceptions and totalitarian ambitions of the state. He looks at Pol Pot in a similar way to Short and Gough because all authors explain how Pol Pot was able to come to power. The author, like Gough, writes that Pol Pot isolated Cambodians from the rest of the world and the population was punished if they “[displayed]…knowledge or skill.” The main questions Kiernan attempts to answer in his work are “what kind of regime would enforce such a revolution?” and “what were the conditions of its emergence?” Kiernan fits in with the comparative genocide studies school of thought because he examines the terror used by Pol Pot by describing it as genocide. As a historian, Kiernan looks at genocide and has written a world history on this topic, which tells us why he chose to write about the violence carried out by Pol Pot.
While every scholar has presented a compelling argument about how terror was used by Pol Pot, I fit in with the David Chandler school of thought. It is useful to look at the domestic factors of what was going on within the state and the terror apparatuses used, like the S-21 prison system, to better understand the terror carried out by Pol Pot’s regime. Sorya Sim has interviewed survivors of this prison, one of whom is Chum Mei. He was an innocent man who was forcefully taken to the prison in late 1977 because the Cambodian government belived that he was involved with the CIA. However, Chum Mei never entered the CIA. Chum Mei was interrogated every day while he was chained to the floor. Chum Mei was asked when he entered the CIA, who employed him, and his answer was always that he did not know, which resulted in him being beaten. He was beaten almost every day, was electrically shocked, and his finger was broken as a consequence. Survivor accounts like Chum Mei’s are important because they tell us about the inner workings of the Pol Pot regime. His story sheds light on the type of violence the dictatorship used in order to remain in control at all times. Looking at survivor accounts and examining what happened within the regime, helps answer the question: what explains Pol Pot’s evil? Chum Mei illustrates exactly how Pol Pot viewed the Cambodian people as instruments or tools to be used at his leisure to accomplish his goals. His interview helps us better understand some of the beliefs held by Pol Pot and his government: they believed that it was “better to arrest ten innocent people by mistake than free a single guilty party,” and that it was “better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake.” These sayings show that Pol Pot used terror, like the S-21 prison system, because he had a complete disregard for human life, as his main aim was to remain in control at all times.
Further, Chum Mei explains that he heard other prisoners cry everyday. He stayed at this prison for almost two years. His life was spared only because he was of some use to Pol Pot’s regime, as a mechanic who could do repairs. Chum Mei tells the interviewer that he often thought about why he was taken to the prison and what mistakes he had made. In Chandler’s book he focuses primarily on how the S-21 prison system was used by the Pol Pot regime as a terror tactic; Chum Mei, as a survivor of this regime, tells us what his experience was like in the prison. He says that during the twelve-day interrogation, he was chained together with other prisoners. During the interrogation, when he was again asked about his involvement with the CIA, he said that he made up a story in order to save his life. Chum Mei explains that he is afraid and has trouble sleeping because he is worried someone will shoot him. He tells the interviewer that he feels “afraid because [he is] a witness of Tuol Sleng and [gives] interviews to journalists everyday.” Chum Mei’s interview, like the interviews Chandler references in his book, is extremely important because he tells us how Pol Pot’s dictatorship affected everyday life. The experiences he describes are similar to the ones Chandler references in his book. From this, it can be assumed that his experience was representative of an ordinary civilian living under the Khmer Rouge. Chum Mei says that he was innocent and that he was forcefully taken to this prison and to this day he does not know why he was taken there.
Chum Mei, who was a survivor of the Pol Pot era, describes the hardships he faced while being placed in the S-21 prison. Since so little information is available from this time period, interviews of survivors like Chum Mei are very valuable. This essay looked at the works of four scholars to examine how each of them has approached the theme of terror under Pol Pot. Even though they are from different backgrounds, they come to a consensus that terror was used by Pol Pot to create a state of fear in the minds of civilians, which made it easier for Pol Pot to control them. Short, Gough, and Kiernan all examine how the Khmer Rouge came to power, but they do not explain how the Khmer Rouge used violence. This is why Chandler’s approach to examine one of Pol Pot’s terror apparatuses helps us understand what the Khmer Rouge did when they were in power. While it is important to look at Pol Pot’s background and study him as an individual, studying just this aspect does not tell us anything about the everyday lives of those living under this regime. I agree with Chandler’s argument that looking at survivor narratives is key to understanding how Pol Pot used terror because without these interviews, historians can only make assumptions about Pol Pot’s brutal regime. Chum Mei’s story is similar to the stories told by other survivors, as the Cambodian people were forced to live in a state of apprehension.
Chandler, David. Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
Gough, Kathleen. “Roots of the Pol Pot Regime in Kampuchea.” Contemporary Marxism, no. 12/13 (1986): 14-48.
Kiernan, Ben. “Fields of Interest.” Last modified 2015. http://history.yale.edu/people/ben-kiernan.
Kiernan, Ben. The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
Locard, Henri. Pol Pot’s Little Red Book: The Sayings of Angkar. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2004.
Mei, Chum. Interview with Sorya Sim. Interview with Chum Mei Survivor of Tuol Sleng Prison. Documentation Center of Cambodia. http://www.d.dccam.org/Archives/Interviews/Sample_Interviews/Victims/pdf/Chum_Mei.pdf.
Short, Philip. Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare. London: John Murray Publishers, 2006.
 Philip Short, Pot Pot: The History of a Nightmare (London: John Murray Publishers, 2006), 291.
 Short, Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare, 47.
 Kathleen Gough, “Roots of the Pol Pot Regime in Kampuchea,” Contemporary Marxism, no. 12/13 (1986): 14.
 Gough, “Roots of the Pol Pot Regime in Kampuchea,” 24.
 Ibid., 16.
 Ibid., 43.
Ben Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 9.
 Chum Mei, Interview with Sorya Sim, Interview with Chum Mei Survivor of Tuol Sleng Prison, Documentation Center of Cambodia, http://www.d.dccam.org/Archives/Interviews/Sample_Interviews/Victims/pdf/Chum_Mei.pdf.
 Chum Mei, Interview with Sorya Sim.
 Henri Locard, Pol Pot’s Little Red Book: The Sayings of Angkar (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2004), 209.
 Chum Mei, Interview with Sorya Sim.