History of a Nightmare

Book Review: Pol Pot, The History of a Nightmare by Philip Short (Published 2004 John Murray)

Philip Short begins his acknowledgements by commenting that “History is to a great extent detective work”. He thanks the many people who helped his “assemble the mosaic of fragments of truths, half-truths and lies” on which the book is based.

This book is remarkable in several ways. Firstly, Short has paid attention to the details in an exhaustive examination of what happened at each stage as Saloth Sar gradually developed into Pol Pot, brother number one. Secondly, Short places this development in the wider context of Cambodian politics after the Second World War. Thirdly, Short analyses the complex internal struggles of the Cambodian Communist Party as it separates itself from Vietnamese tutelage. The result is a biography unlikely to be surpassed in scope or comprehensiveness for many years to come. If you want to know or to try to understand how Pol Pot became who he was, this is the book to read.


The first chapter traces the early years of Saloth Sar in Prek Sbov village in Kompong Thom in a farming family which lived reasonably comfortably and showed no special or strange characteristics, marking it out from other families in the community. At the age of nine, Sar was sent to a pagoda in Phnom Penh for a year before attending the “Ecole Miche” one of the Catholic schools in Phnom Penh. During his time at the Wat, he learnt all the traditional “rules” for men and women which have become part of the Khmer cultural heritage. Sar used to visit his sister Roeung at the Royal Palace as she was one of the King’s concubines. Even though Sar did not do well enough academically to go to University, he moved on to the technical school of Russey Keo. He still won a technical scholarship to go to Paris for further studies in 1949.

The second chapter follows Saloth Sar’s experiences in the French captital, the City of Light. Paris was a hot-spot of political discussion and intrigue. The policies of Mao-Tse-Tung in China and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam were analysed “ad nauseam” by radicals and students alike. A small group of Khmer students used to meet in the house of one Keng Vassak. They gradually became aware of the three distinct pro-independence movements in Cambodia, the original Khmer Isaraks led by local war-lords, the “Khmer Viet Minh” who had thrown in their lot with the Vietnamese and then the Khmer Democratic Party. By analyzing the emergence of Khmer political consciousness in this way, Short shows how independence and not political ideology was the key. When Sihanouk welcomed the independence leader, Son Ngoc Thanh, back from Paris, the Khmer student movement in Paris moved sharply to the left. A small “Cercle Marxiste” emerged but was kept secret. Saloth Sar and the others studied Stalin’s History of the Communist Party which emphasized the need for ruthless struggle against enemies both without and within. Sar put a picture of Stalin on his wall. He discovered his vocation in life – from now on he would dedicate himself to revolution. He remained a quiet back-ground figure, cheerful and humble.

The third chapter describes Sar’s return to a war-torn Cambodia in 1953. Even though the violence was not wide-spread, Short succeeds in outlining the appalling savagery and cruelty with which Kmer freedom fighters treated those who collaborated with the French and vice-versa. Eventually Sar fled to the Viet Minh Eastern Zone.

The fourth chapter describes the struggle for political influence in the newly liberated Cambodia. Sar returned to Phnom Penh where he lived a double-life. He met up again with Khier Ponnary, the elder sister of Ieng Sary’s wife, Thirith. Short fills out the details of the awful disappointments that followed Sihanouk’s initial successes. Sihanouk systematically persecuted all political opponents using a violent secret police service. Eventually the communists like Sar fled to the forests again.

The fifth chapter describes the Spartan conditions in the Vietnamese Communist training camps for Cambodian communists. Early in 1964 Sar persuaded the Viet Cong to allow the Khmers to set up their own camp. The first plenum of the Central Committee ever held on Cambodian soil and endorsed all “forms of struggle” including “armed violence”. In January 1965, the Central Committee affirmed the role of “revolutionary violence” and identified Sihanouk as a “lackey”. The third plenum took place in October 1966 in the Cambodian forested region of Memot. The leaders took three crucial decisions to change the name of the party from a “Workers Party” the “Communist Party of Cambodia”, to move the headquarters to Rattanakiri, and that each Zone committee should prepare to launch armed struggle in the rural areas. Short shows convincingly how all these decisions were Khmer decisions. He also shows how the future was still open at this stage. None of the future horror was yet preordained.

The sixth chapter clarifies the unplanned nature of Lon Nol’s coup and the naivete of the Phnom Penh middle class and intellectuals who remained ignorant of what was happening in the liberated areas. Short, once again, underlines the vicious violence unleashed against the Vietnamese by this regime and its corruption. Army generals sold weapons to the Khmer Rouge with which their own young soldiers would be later massacred.

The seventh chapter shows how the American bombings saved Lon Nol from early disaster but only delayed the inevitable defeat. Short shows how the Khmer Rouge had begun to purge the population of traitorous elements as a result of internal forces. The bombings accelerated this tendency but it was already well under way before them. Sihanouk aligned himself with the Khmer Rouge.

The eighth and ninth chapters describe the Khmer Rouge regime. The tenth chapter describes the degeneration of the internal purges into a widespread massacre of Khmer Rouge cadres. Pol Pot ruled the people through the Organisation by a secret terror similar in style to Stalin and Hitler. The goal was still to create a model state for the whole world to see and admire. The Khmer Rouge began to attack Vietnam in order to regain Kampuchea Krom. Pol Pot believed that the Vietnamese had become weak and so one Khmer Rouge soldier could kill ten Vietnamese soldiers to ensure an eventual victory. The eleventh chapter shows how the efforts deal with “Stalin’s microbes” had weakened the Khmer Rouge army. It could not resist the Vietnamese invasion on Christmas Day 1978.

The twelfth chapter shows how the Khmer Rouge quickly recovered on the Thai border and how they reformed some of their more objectionable policies in order to win international support. However after the Paris peace agreements, the Cambodian rural population refused to give them the support that they previously enjoyed and the movement began to implode from within. Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan and perhaps Son Sen were ready for compromise. Pol Pot and Ta Mok were not.

Pol Pot died from natural causes and was cremated on a pile of used tyres not far from the Thai border.


Author: gaudiummundi

After twenty-seven years on Mission in Cambodia, teaching Mathematics and Philosophy, running Student Hostels and helping in parishes, I have finally returned to Ireland. Now I am back where my Jesuit journey started at Manresa House in Dollyount on the north side of Dublin where I will help the Spirituality Team. The old enemy's sea scout den is close by. (5th Port Dollymount vs 9th Port Malahide!)

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