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Pol Pot Revisited

Now, in the monsoon season, Cambodia is verdant, cool and relaxed. The rice paddies on the low hill slopes are flooded, forests that hide old temples are almost impassable, rough seas deter swimmers. It’s a pleasant time to re-visit this modest country: Cambodia is not crowded, and Cambodians are not greedy, but rather peaceful and relaxed. They fish for shrimp, calamari and sea brim. They grow rice, unspoiled by herbicides, manually planted, cultivated and gathered. They produce enough for themselves and for export, too — definitely no paradise, but the country soldiers on.

Socialism is being dismantled fast:  Chinese-owned factories keep churning tee-shirts for the European and American market employing tens of thousands of young Cambodian girls earning $80 per month. They are being sacked at the first sign of unionising. Nouveau-riches live in palaces; there are plenty of Lexus cars, and an occasional Rolls-Royce. Huge black and red, hard and precious tree trunks are constantly ferried to the harbour for timber export, destroying forests but enriching traders. There are many new French restaurateurs in the capital; NGO reps earn in one minute the equivalent of a worker’s monthly salary.

Not much remains from the turbulent period when the Cambodians tried to radically change the order of things in the course of their unique traditionalist conservative peasant revolution under communist banner. That was the glorious time of Jean Luc Godard and his La Chinoise, of the Cultural Revolution in China sending party bonzes for re-education to remote farms, of Khmer Rouge marching on the corrupt capital. Socialist movement reached a bifurcation point: whether to advance to more socialism Mao-style, or retreat to less socialism the Moscow way. The Khmer Rouge experiment lasted only three years, from 1975 to 1978.

Surprisingly, Cambodians have no bad memories of that period. This is quite an amazing discovery for an infrequent visitor.  I did not come to reconstruct “the truth”, whatever it is, but rather to find out what is the collective memory of the Cambodians, how do they perceive the events of the late 20th century, what narrative has been filtered down by time gone by. The omnipotent narrative-making machinery of the West has embedded in our conscience the image of bloody Khmer Rouge commies cannibalising their own people over the Killing Fields and ruled over by a nightmarish Pol Pot, anybody’s  notion of ruthless despot.

A much quoted American professor, RJ Rummel, wrote that “out of a 1970 population of probably near 7,100,000 …almost 3,300,000 men, women, and children were murdered …most of these… were murdered by the communist Khmer Rouge”. Every second person was killed, according to his estimate.

However, Cambodia’s population was not halved but more than doubled since 1970, despite alleged multiple genocides. Apparently, the genocidaires were inept, or their achievements have been greatly exaggerated.

The Pol Pot the Cambodians remember was not a tyrant, but a great patriot and nationalist, a lover of native culture and native way of life. He was brought up in  royal palace circles; his aunt was a concubine of the previous king. He studied in Paris, but instead of making money and a career, he returned home, and spent a few years dwelling with forest tribes to learn from the peasants. He felt compassion for the ordinary village people who were ripped off on a daily basis by the city folk, the comprador parasites. He built an army to defend the countryside from these power-wielding robbers. Pol Pot,  a monkish man of simple needs, did not seek wealth, fame or power for himself. He had one great ambition: to terminate the failing colonial capitalism in Cambodia, return to village tradition, and from there, to build a new country from scratch.

His vision was very different from the Soviet one. The Soviets built their industry by bleeding the peasantry; Pol Pot wanted to rebuild the village first, and only afterwards  build industry to meet the villagers’ needs. He held city dwellers in contempt; they did nothing useful, in his view. Many of them were connected with loan sharks, a distinct feature of post-colonial Cambodia; others assisted the foreign companies in robbing people off their wealth. Being a strong nationalist, Pol Pot was suspicious of the Vietnamese and Chinese minorities. But what he hated most was acquisitiveness, greed, the desire to own things. St Francis and Leo Tolstoy would have understood him.

The Cambodians I spoke to pooh-poohed the dreadful stories of Communist Holocaust as a western invention. They reminded me of what went on:  their brief history of troubles began in 1970, when the Americans chased away their legitimate ruler, Prince Sihanouk,  and replaced him with their proxy military dictator Lon Nol. Lon Nol’s middle name was Corruption, and his followers stole everything they could, transferred their ill-gotten gains abroad then moved to the US.  On top of this came US bombing raids. The peasants ran to the forest guerrillas of Khmer Rouge, which was led by a few Sorbonne graduates, and eventually succeeded in kicking out Lon Nol and his American supporters.

In 1975, Pol Pot took over the country, devastated by a US bombing campaign of Dresden ferocity, and saved it, they say. Indeed, the US planes (do you remember Ride of the Valkyries in the Apocalypse is Now?) dropped more bombs on this poor country than they had on the Nazi Germany, and spread their mines all over the rest of it. If the Cambodians are pressed to name their great destroyer (and they are not keen about burrowing back into the past), it is Professor Henry Kissinger they name, not Comrade Pol Pot.

Pol Pot and his friends inherited a devastated country. The villages had been depopulated; millions of refugees gathered in the capital to escape American bombs and American mines. Destitute and hungry, they had to be fed. But because of the bombing campaign, nobody planted rice in 1974. Pol Pot commanded everybody away from the city and to the rice paddies, to plant rice. This was a harsh, but a necessary step, and in a year Cambodia had plenty of rice, enough to feed all and even to sell some surplus to buy necessary commodities.

New Cambodia (or Kampuchea, as it was called) under Pol Pot and his comrades was a nightmare for the privileged, for the wealthy and for their retainers; but poor people had enough food and were taught to read and write. As for the mass killings, these are just horror stories, averred my Cambodian interlocutors.  Surely the victorious peasants shot marauders and spies, but many more died of American-planted mines and during the subsequent Vietnamese takeover, they said.

In order to listen to the other side, I travelled to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, the memorial where the alleged victims were killed and buried. This is a place some 30 km away from Phnom Penh, a neat green park with a small museum, much visited by tourists, the Cambodian Yad va-Shem. A plaque says that the Khmer Rouge guards would bring some 20 to thirty detainees twice or thrice a month, and kill many of them. For three years, it would amount less than two thousand dead, but another plaque said indeed that they dug up about eight thousand bodies. However, another plaque said there was over a million killed. Noam Chomsky assessed that the death toll in Cambodia may have been inflated “by a factor of a thousand.”


There are no photos of the killings; instead, the humble museum holds a couple of naïve paintings showing a big, strong man killing a small, weak one, in a rather traditional style. Other plaques read: “Here the murderous tools were kept, but nothing remains now” and similar inscriptions. To me, this recalled other CIA-sponsored stories of Red atrocities, be it Stalin’s Terror or the Ukrainian Holodomor. The people now in charge of the US, Europe and Russia want to present every alternative to their rule as inept or bloody or both. They especially hate incorruptible leaders, be it Robespierre or Lenin, Stalin or Mao – and Pol Pot. They prefer leaders keen on graft, and eventually install them. The Americans have an additional good reason: Pol Pot killings serve to hide their own atrocities, the millions of Indochinese they napalmed and strafed.

Cambodians do say that many more people were killed by the invading Vietnamese in 1978; while the Vietnamese prefer to shift the guilt to the Khmer Rouge. But the present government does not encourage this or any other digging into the past, and for good reason: practically all important officials above a certain age were members of the Khmer Rouge, and often leading members. Beside, almost all of them collaborated with the Vietnamese. The present PM, Hun Sen, was a Khmer Rouge commander, and later supported the Vietnamese occupation. When the Vietnamese went home, he remained in power.

Prince Sihanouk, who was exiled by the Americans, also supported the Khmer Rouge. He returned home to his neat royal palace and to its adjacent silver temple with Emerald Buddha after departure of the Vietnamese. Unbelievably, he is still alive, though he transferred the crown to his son, a monk who had to leave monastery and assume the throne. So the royal family is not keen on digging up the past, either. Nobody wants to discuss it openly; the official story of Khmer Rouge alleged atrocities is entrenched in Western conscience, though attempts to try the perpetrators bore scant results.

Looking back, it appears that the Khmer Rouge of Pol Pot failed in their foreign policy rather than in their internal one. It is fine that they canceled money, dynamited banks and sent bankers to plant rice. It is fine that they dried up the great blood-sucking leech, the big-city compradors and money-lenders. Their failure was that they did not calculate their position vis-à-vis Vietnam, and tried to push beyond their own weight. Vietnam was very powerful – it had just  defeated the US – and would brook no nonsense from their junior brothers in Phnom Penh. The Vietnamese planned to create an Indochinese Federation including Laos and Cambodia under their own leadership. They invaded and overthrew the stubborn Khmer Rouge who were too keen on their independence. They also supported the black legend of genocide to justify their own bloody intervention.

We talk too much about evils committed under futurist regimes, and too little about the evils of the greedy rulers. It is not often we remember Bengal famine, Hiroshima holocaust, Vietnam tragedy, or even Sabra and Shatila. Introduction of capitalism in Russia killed more people than introduction of socialism, but who knows that?

Now we may cautiously reassess the brave attempts to reach for socialism in various countries. They were done under harsh, adverse conditions, under threat of intervention, facing hostile propaganda. But let us remember: if socialism failed, so did capitalism. If communism was accompanied by loss of life, so was and is capitalism. But with capitalism, we have no future worth living, while socialism still offers hope to us and our children.


33 Responses to Pol Pot Revisited

  1. Ariadna Theokopoulos September 17, 2012 at 11:23 pm #

    Fascinating read. Why should it not be different from everything we have been told? We have been told only lies.

  2. who_me September 18, 2012 at 12:23 am #

    two in a row. shamir is on a streak. the one i posted in the pussy riot thread is also very good.

    the “iraq has wmd” goebbelsian big lie style propaganda didn’t start with 9/11, it goes back to before goebbels, even, to the days of ww1, and naturally, as it is now, was pretty much a jewish enhanced and adapted device of population manipulation. the material accepted fact about the “evil, godless reds” in the west is the same sort of horseshit as their horseshit about muslims now. muslims are just the “new reds” the fascists are demonising.

  3. David Holden September 18, 2012 at 3:18 pm #

    this piece of revisionist commie agitprop is an outrageous slander on the memory of a great historian and diplomat. in fact, as records show, the US did not drop many bombs on Cambodia, the intense aerial ‘bombardment’ campaign was mainly an exercise in dropping food parcels (hamburgers, begels and beef jerky), together with translations of the Scofield bible with a special dust-jacket featuring the Stars and Stripes. this humanitarian exercise was one of the reasons why Prof. Kissinger received his Nobel Peace Prize.

    • Ariadna Theokopoulos September 18, 2012 at 5:59 pm #

      If there is something I hate even more than lies, it is truth based on less than careful research, wrong on details. We all know what the truth is, but it is important when we set out to demonstrate it to do our homework well or else the conclusion sought does not obtain.
      The US never dropped bagels–you are confusing them with the IDF, known to have shown a certain amount of insensitivity to the Lebanese culinary customs when they executed their humanitarian missions there known as Bagel Bombardments.
      The US only drops MRE (meals ready to eat), whose high concentration in corn syrup is known for its unparalleled nutritional value, especially when potentiated with simultaneous intake of DU.

      • David Holden September 18, 2012 at 11:23 pm #

        point taken, Ariadna. i was indeed confusing the ordinance used in the IDF bagel initiative over Lebanon with the drone doughnut prototypes deployed in combat for the first time during the American liberation of Cambodia.

        this error is inexcusable as i was fully aware, despite a certain similarity of components, the doughnut drones were equipped with small on-board computers, which of course was never the case with the IDF bagels due to a restrictive clause in the relevant transfer-of-technology agreement between the All-American Aerated Bread Company and the Herzliya-based Kosher Bagel Corporation.

        attentive students may recall that in the late 1970’s, as a result of information passed by celebrated spy Jonathan Jay Pollard a few hundred drone-bagels were in the possession of the Israeli military in the early 1980’s, but these were for training purposes only and never (officially) used on IDF humanitarian missions to Lebanon.

        a certain irritation with the situation was expressed during an angry exchange in which Likud MK Michael Eitan suggested to Shimon Peres that:

        אתה גורם לי לרצות לרתך כעכים לפנים שלי,
        ואז להסיר אותם עם קלשון

        – a remark originally attributed to Al Yankowitz, who, however used the verb ‘staple bagels to my face’ rather than ‘weld bagels to my face’.

        • Ariadna Theokopoulos September 18, 2012 at 11:39 pm #

          Whoever said they prize the comments as much as or even above the articles in deLib was correct, even if it was you who said it.
          Although still learning and often making mistakes due to your excessive elan, you often manage to present quotations that no one else has found anywhere else, a priceless scholarly contribution to modern history. Like the Eitan quote.
          I am of a mind to start a separate collection of these rare quotes, perhaps under the influence of a novel recently finished in which the author describes a so-called Library of Forgotten Books, which he places in Barcelona.
          It is an enormous library that houses only books no one has ever read, or heard about, whether because they did not sell even one copy or for unknown reasons.
          Scaling that down to forgotten quotations is a more manageable task. You would clearly be the primary source due to your unsurpassed scholarship in the domain.

          • Jonathon Blakeley September 19, 2012 at 7:28 am #

            Whoever said they prize the comments as much as or even above the articles in deLib was correct,

            It was me who said it. :-/

            But this a great article too

          • David Holden September 19, 2012 at 9:07 am #

            Jonathan deserves the praise for defending the excellent comments section of deLiberation against those, some of whom were both prestigious and forceful in argument, who, for one reason or another, or perhaps for no reason at all, would have liked to see it excised. i have certainly always found this section a wonderful source of instruction and entertainment.

            as for your own excellent suggestion, it may be of passing interest to you that whilst perusing Professor James Hunt’s prescient article On the Localization of the Functions of the Brain with Special Reference to the Faculty of Language (1) i noticed a passing reference to Herophilos of Chalcedon’s notion of τα βιβλία που κανείς δεν έχει διαβάσει. undoubtedly this idea, or more likely its reworking by Jorge Luis Borges in a delightful short story (las palabras perdidas de Don Fernández) from the collection Las Reflexiones De Un Zephyr(2), was the basis of H.G.Well’s posthumous prediction (3) that the internet might become a graveyard for unattributable misquotations.

            1. Anthropological Review, Vol. 6, (Oct., 1868)
            2. Eloísa Cartonera Publishing House, Buenos Aires, 1999 (this is a special centenary re-issue with covers made from recycled cardboard purchased from cartoneras)
            3. delivered through the medium Doris Stokes – c.f. >Procedings of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit (KPU), 1991, vol 6, pp 121-123.

          • fool me once... September 19, 2012 at 10:49 am #

            “Jonathan deserves the praise for defending the excellent comments section of deLiberation against those, some of whom were both prestigious and forceful in argument, who, for one reason or another, or perhaps for no reason at all, would have liked to see it excised. i have certainly always found this section a wonderful source of instruction and entertainment.”

          • who_me September 19, 2012 at 7:18 pm #

            jonathan and roy both. 🙂

          • fool me once... September 19, 2012 at 11:12 pm #

            “jonathan and roy both. 🙂 ”
            Now you’ve said that it don’t seem right not to mention Somoe.
            They all did good! 😉

          • who_me September 19, 2012 at 11:24 pm #

            “Now you’ve said that it don’t seem right not to mention Somoe.
            They all did good!”


          • David Holden September 20, 2012 at 10:23 am #


          • Ariadna Theokopoulos September 20, 2012 at 5:59 pm #

            Furthermore to praise Jon for his comments is like saying Da Vinci was known as a good designer of flying machines…. 🙂

          • Ariadna Theokopoulos September 20, 2012 at 6:02 pm #

            If I have a reservation about the editors, and I do, it is about Somoe. She strikes me as rather intemperate and given to extreme statements, which leads to frequent flare ups that calmer people, like me and others, have to jump in to quell.

  4. who_me September 18, 2012 at 6:56 pm #


    what’s up with the duplication of this article?

  5. deLiberation September 18, 2012 at 7:12 pm #

    Woops sorry bit of gaff #FacePalm. Fixed now. ta xxx

  6. fool me once... September 18, 2012 at 7:13 pm #

    The “Where are They Now” article has a glitch also.

    • Jonathon Blakeley September 18, 2012 at 7:21 pm #

      Yes indeed the errant div tag strikes again.this article explaining this problem in detail and how to fix it.

  7. Lasse Wilhelmson September 19, 2012 at 10:04 am #

    I allways had trouble to evaluate what happened in Cambodia. I remebered the accusations of the connection between Pol Pot and CIA, so I googled on it and found this old article by John Pilger, who I always liked.

    We do not have to like despotes as Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Hussein, Quadaffi, Assad etc to se that they also did a lot of god things for their people. And we all know that history is always written by the victors.

    Shamirs article ends:

    “But with capitalism, we have no future worth living, while socialism still offers hope to us and our children.”

    Well, the Soviet Union was in the lead to get Israel a member of UN in 1948, and the jewish marxists were in front of expelling the Palestinians and creating their socialist kibbuzim for jews only in the new socialist utopia.

    And “capitalism” has many ideologies – even socialist ….

    I think ideologies and religion have bright and dark sides, and are used for different agendas, oppression as well as liberation. I understand them as closed systems for thinking, and not per se good for truthseeking. It is not so importand what things are called, but rather how they work out for people and humanity in praxis. May be the problem is all about power and money, or even money in itself …

    Sad, I think, that Shamir seems to be to much stuck in the limited paradigm “capitalism-socialism”. That he is puching for Putin, we know :).

    But said all this, it is a wellwritten article, and food for thought.

    • who_me September 19, 2012 at 7:27 pm #

      “May be the problem is all about power and money, or even money in itself …”

      well, without money, capitalism becomes rather like a the life of a fish in the dried up pond.

      capitalism is based upon people exploiting each other to survive. in its more extreme forms, which is what we got in the west now, the exploitation even consists of exploiting family and friends, if “the company” demands it, which it often does.

      socialism is a form of collectivism. collectivism is based upon people not exploiting each other, but helping each other to survive. the exact opposite of capitalism.

      • Jonathon Blakeley September 19, 2012 at 11:46 pm #

        Money in its current form must change.
        Banks must be broken up and wealth dsitributed collectively In a new filesharing sytsem using virtual currencies like bitcoin but many other as well.
        Collectivism is about sharing and caring and that is what we definitely need. There is way too much waste and over prodcution.

      • Lasse Wilhelmson September 20, 2012 at 8:47 am #

        who-me: That was not exactly my point, but thanks for the lesson – anyway 🙂

    • botafogo September 20, 2012 at 2:50 pm #

      “…despotes as Hitler……… Assad …”

      hey! we’ve got a replacement here for the much missed Khalid Hamayreh with his ritual “the despotic Hitler of Damascus”!

  8. Jay Knott September 19, 2012 at 11:22 am #

    I just happened to visit Cambodia, so I couldn’t help noticing this article.

    This article misses the precise sequence of events following Nixon’s 1972 visit to China. China aligned with the USA and Britain. After the end of the Vietnam war, China and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in Cambodia fought against Vietnam, which was supported by Russia. The USA secretly trained Pol Pot and his allies.

    All this came out under the ’30 year rule’ in the UK parliament. When George W Bush subsequently gave a speech complaining about the “killing fields”, he was either being a hypocrite or an ignoramus. The Khmer Rouge was the last of America’s crimes in South East Asia.

    • who_me September 19, 2012 at 7:21 pm #

      so jay is an expert on cambodia and the boxcutter method of destroying skyscrapers… 😀

  9. Jay Knott September 20, 2012 at 8:25 am #

    You don’t need to be an expert in biology to work out why Darwin’s theory of evolution is a more economical explanation of life on earth than the book of Genesis. You don’t need to be an expert on physics, aeronautics or even Islamic fundamentalism to work out why all the ‘9/11 truth’ pseudo-theories create more problems than they solve.

    You don’t have to be a genius, but you do need a brain. And you need to use it to acquire a basic understanding of scientific methodology.

    • botafogo September 20, 2012 at 2:46 pm #

      “You don’t need to be an expert in biology to work out why Darwin’s theory of evolution is..”

      of course not, if you’re THE MISSING LINK

      “You don’t have to be a genius, but you do need a brain. And you need to use it to acquire a basic understanding of scientific methodology.”

      oh yes, ML, everybody knows that with a brain like YOURS + YOUR basic understanding of scientific methodology you could easily destroy the 3 Giza pyramids with a box cutter

    • who_me September 20, 2012 at 6:54 pm #

      “You don’t have to be a genius, but you do need a brain. And you need to use it to acquire a basic understanding of scientific methodology.”

      so you are relying upon others to inform you of what to think, then. 😀

  10. Ariadna Theokopoulos September 20, 2012 at 5:45 pm #

    Recordings of conversations held by [names and functions redacted], declassified in 2090:

    –So, what’s the final script then?

    –We’ll say 22 Arab boys with box cutters did it.

    –Why 22?

    — Easy to remember. The number has appeal to Americans, wasn’t there a book called “Seize 22 “or something like that?

    — No, men, no. The most important thing is that the explanation has to be ECONOMICAL!

    — So… shall we say 19?

    — No, that’s not what ‘economical’ means but I don’t care, make it 19.

    –What does ‘economical’ mean?

    — How shall I put it so that you, monkeys, understand? Economical means the simplest explanation: 19 boys with box cutters, that’s it. It’s like Darwin. Get that picture of Darwin from my desk. See?

    • who_me September 20, 2012 at 6:57 pm #

      i’m rather surprised at you, at. “19 boys with box cutters” is not the simplest explanation. the simplest is “the ayrabs did it”. as one can see, it worked on jay. americans need the explanations kept very, very simple. 😉

    • Ariadna Theokopoulos September 20, 2012 at 7:20 pm #

      jay is not American. He can handle a cardinal numeral.

      • who_me September 20, 2012 at 7:41 pm #

        he’s american in spirit and mentality…a typical all-american boy. 😀