One of the genocidal rulers of the 20th century

David P. Chandler, who was the research director at the Centre of Southeast Asia Studies at Monash University in Australia (now emeritus there, he is also an adjunct professor at Gergetown University), is a historian of post-World War II Cambodian history rather than a biographer. The notes of Brother Number One show not only his familiarity of seemingly everything written in English about Cambodia during the second half of the twentieth century but with the archives of the torture state of the Khmer Rouge (Cambodian communists/Angkar) and a large number of interviews with those who survived knowing Saloth Sar, who took the revolutionary name “Pol Pot.”


Chandler’s goal in Brother Number One (revised edition, 1999, first edition 1992) looking into the life of Saloth Sar (1925-1998), aka Pol Pot, is to try to understand how a not-especially-bright Khmer urbanite (who had lived in Phnom Penh and Paris) became the paramount leader of a regime that literally emptied the cities of Cambodia, pretty much destroyed its economy, mythologized peasant virtue, and killed off one out of every seven Cambodians in four years in power (and drove another one of seven into refugee camps and beyond). Chandler did not reach his goal, which seems to be an impossible one. Pol Pot covered his tracks too well, left practically no writings other than a memoir in which most everything is demonstrably false, and the disjuncture between the bland and pleasant man those who knew him recall and the delusional government he headed does not seem bridgeable.

It is not just that Chandler is interested in the policies of the Khmer Rouge more than in the private life of Saloth Sar/Pol Pot but that no one knows very much about the man’s life other than as a revolutionary. Hence the modifier “political” before “biography in the subtitle.

Chandler provides plausible views of Khmer Rouge roots in Khmer pride and Buddhist exhortation (like most males in the Thervada Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia before or other than communist-ruled ones, Sar was a monk for a time) and in the Stalinist/Maoist tradition that the Khmer Rouge carried to a level of destructiveness of life and traditional lifestyles beyond even the forced collectivization and incessant search for enemies within the reigns of terror of Stalin and Mao. I want to provide my own view of this context that is only partly based on what Chandler wrote but is consistent with what he wrote. Anyone interested solely in a review of the biography as biography might skip the following section—though, as I have already said, so little is known about the interiority and very guarded private life of Saloth Sar that there is not much conventional biography that can be done.

The path from Marx to the disasters for their peoples of 20th-century communist states

The most fundamental part of the eschatology of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto and elsewhere is that human misery in its modern form stems from private ownership of the means of production. Engels in particular saw history as proceeding from barbarism to feudalism to capitalism to communism and expected the workers (the proletariat) in industrialized capitalist societies to unite across ethnic, religious, and racial lines to seize control of the means of production and to develop the utopia of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” (“his” in the generic sense).

What happened instead was that in no industrialized state did the workers seize the means of production. There was also a total failure of working-class solidarity across national lines demonstrated during the First World War… and nationalism has been very, very prominent in all the states in which communist revolutions succeeded in seizing state power (Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia). Neither nationalisms nor the state have withered away in those countries or in the imperial conquests by postrevolutionary communist regimes. (Lenin’s linkage of imperialism to capitalism was also falsified by 20th-century history.)

Like Russia and China at the times of their communist coups, Cambodia had very little industry—and, therefore, few industrial capitalists—and in classical Marxist “science” were not ready for communism, having not reached the stage of capitalism. This is why there is some sense in the claim that, like Christianity, Marxism is an idea that has never been tried. (Unlike Christianity, the Marxist utopia was supposed to be of this world.) But history has provided abundant disconfirmations of the view that eliminating private ownership of the means of production leads to equality (or the withering away of the state). Communist regimes have somewhat masked inequality by calling everyone “comrade” or “brother,” but to borrow from George Orwell, some have been more equal than others, and/or there have been elder brothers telling younger ones what to do. State-run economies have been colossally inefficient and all communist societies developed managerial elites and political elites: a dichotomy between party members nonmembers (with party members having privileges nonmembers lacked) and hierarchies within the parties. (Managerial elites getting rich as well as powerful without owning the means of production have also typified capitalist societies, but this is nearly as contrary to Marxist “science” as the stratification within communist societies.)

Back to Pol Pot

Saloth Sar joined the communist party in France ca. 1951, before the death (in 1953) of Josef Stalin, who dictated policies to the International. (The French communist party was the most rigidly Stalinist European communist party.) Saloth Sar found reading Marx too difficult. The less subtle (less dialectical) writings of Stalin were easier to grasp, and along with 19th-century French poets, it was Stalin whom he read. (Back in Cambodia having not completed any degree, he taught French literature. His former students reported that Saloth Sar could recite many French poems from memory, but, in power, Pol Pot took particular aim at those who were biliterate.)

What the man who would later call himself “Pol Pot” emulated) many of Stalin’s traits—the relative austerity in which he lived, the continual search for traitors to blame for failures (“sabotage”) and root out, promulgation of grand plans (Stalin’s 5-year ones), an imperviousness to the cost in human life of his endeavors, and the isolation from reality that is common to rulers who are able to eliminate anyone who says anything they don’t want to hear. Chandler points out that Saloth Sar/Pol Pot was very isolated from news about what was going on in the world after fleeing to the protection of the North Vietnamese army and some Hill Tribesmen in northeastern Cambodia during the 1960s. In power in the mostly empty Phnom Penh, Pol Pot pored over confessions extracted under torture at Tuol Sleng, but had neither any training or any inclination to evaluate economic data.

Like another major influence, Mao Zedong, when Pol Pot did venture out, what he saw were charades that supported his fantasies about increasing productivity. Pol Pot directly imported the delusion that collectivized rice cultivation could triple rice production. As in Mao’s “Great Leap Forward,” many starved while no one dared to tell the ideologue-in-chief that his belief in agricultural magic was not just wrong, but catastrophically wrong.

Even more than Stalin, Mao was indifferent to deaths related to advancing his agenda of collectivizing agriculture. (Mao also expressed an unconcern about tens of millions of Chinese being killed by nuclear bombs.) Pol Pot/the Khmer Rouge were unconcerned about those driven from the cities dying, valuing peasant virtues and believing city-dwellers were corrupt.

The Khmer Rouge years have been called “autogenocide.” As far as the revolution eating the revolutionaries (in the tradition of the French and Bolshevik and Maoist revolutions) this is certainly accurate, and many Cambodians were killed or starved to death during the Khmer Rouge years. The “base people” (those who did not live in cities when the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975) received more food than the “new people”—that is, those driven from the cities, new to the countryside. A majority of suspect city people were of Chinese or Vietnamese descent. As in other Southeast Asia economies, much of the business (and such industry as there was) had been in the hands of Chinese. Thus, the “social cleansing” of emptying the city and discriminating for the rural natives (in this case, Khmers) cannot really be separated from “ethnic cleansing.” To a considerable extent, the Khmer Rouge was a nativist regime, glorifying the people (Khmers) who had built the monuments of Angkor civilization a millennium earlier.

Chandler makes very, very clear that the North Vietnamese defeated the US-backed Lon Nol regime, which deposed Prince Sihanouk in 1970, and that Pol Pot resented his years of dependency on the Vietnamese a great deal. Many of the Cambodian communists (including himself) had spent time in North Vietnam and been protected by the North Vietnamese army in eastern Cambodia.

The communists purported to be fighting to restore Sihanouk (who was revered by many Cambodians) and reinstalled him—under de facto house arrest—in his palace. The Chinese communists (Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” was still raging) were the patrons of the Pol Pot regime, supplying arms. The PRC support for the Khmer Rouge is one of Mao’s many crimes against humanity. As animosity between the PRC and USSR communist states increased, and Nixon and Kissinger curried favor with the PRC to discomfit the USSR, the PRC/USSR hostility was acted out in Southeast Asia with the Khmer Rouge backed by China (and implicitly by the US), Vietnam by the Russians.

In December of 1978 the Vietnamese (again) swept across Cambodia. This time the Thais (also complicit with the PRC and an enemy of the Vietnamese) provided protection for the Khmer Rouge, and still under the command of Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge sallied across the border to raid western Cambodia. Having spent the 1960s on both sides of the eastern border of Cambodia, Pol Pot spent the 1980s and 90s on both sides of the western border, continuing civil war against a regime in Phnom Penh put in power and supported by aliens (this time the Vietnamese rather than the Americans).

Pol Pot continued to fixate on traitors and was finally deposed as head of the Khmer Rouge in November of 1997 having ordered the execution of his longtime close associate Son Sen (ten additional members of Son’s family were also murdered). Less than a year later he died (ostensibly of heart failure) unrepentant about his policies (or modus operandi of creating and eliminating traitors). He claimed “I did everything for my country,” begging the question of what his country was, but certainly showing yet again that nationalism eclipsed universalism for communist leaders (and making me wonder again if Emerson was right about patriotism being the last resort of scoundrels”—it so often seems to be the first one!)


Pol Pot remains opaque. His ability to maintain delusions about the soundness of his economic and social policies is striking. Chandler illuminates some influences, in particular China’s Cultural Revolution (though Mao only sent Red Guards who had gotten out of his control to the countryside and did not go so far as emptying China’s cities) and the ambivalence toward the patronage (and patronizing) by the Vietnamese. Chandler has sorted out where Saloth Sar/Pol Pot was most of the time, but not what he was thinking.

The book is excellent history, providing much to think about, necessarily thin as biography. Chandler seems to use all available information and seems to cut through the disinformation Pol Pot provided on the rare occasions he made autobiographical statements.

Having started reading the book in Cambodia and after reading Loung Ung’s memoir from just barely above the ground of being forced out of Phnom Penh and enduring the depredations of the Pol Pot years, I was particularly interested in sorting out blame. There is a lot to go around and multiple candidates. Certainly, the ones most responsible are the Khmer Rouge. It is clear from Chandler’s account that they would never have come to power without the North Vietnamese, and the foreign policies of Sihanouk, Nixon, and Mao. And I wouldn’t want to leave out such apologists as Noam Chomsky, either. (As far as I know, Chomsky has not recanted what he wrote about the Khmer Rouge—patriotism is not the only refuge of scoundrels…) The Vietnamese to some extent remedied their earlier errors by removing the Khmer Rouge from power, while the US, Thailand, and the PRC in various ways are responsible for the continued depredations by the Khmer Rouge after 1978.


©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray


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