In late July this year, international television networks flashed pictures of a sensational ´show trial´ of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot being conducted by his own mutinous troops. As the world watched, his former comrades in arms denounced Pol Pot, now old and frail, accusing him of treason. He was sentenced to lifelong house arrest. It was easily the kindest ´punishment´ ever meted out to anybody in the nearly five-decade-long history of the extremist group, notorious for its barbaric methods of executing both enemies and old friends. Many observers suspect that the entire trial, willingly lapped up by the international media, was a farce – probably the brainchild of Pol Pot himself and meant to assist the Khmer Rouge in its efforts to re-enter mainstream Cambodian politics. By publicly distancing themselves from their leader, who led the Khmer Rouge´s genocidal spree in the mid-seventies, the group stands a better chance of being accepted back into the fold by ordinary Cambodian citizens.
Over two decades ago, in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge came to power by routing US troops during the Indochina war, many within war weary Cambodia welcomed them as harbingers of peace and stability. Their hopes were dashed bizarrely when the Khmer Rouge launched a programme of abolishing cities, executing intellectuals (often identified as such because they wore spectacles), and turning the country into one large agrarian commune.
In the words attributed to one of the Khmer Rouge leaders at that time, Pol Pot´s attempt was to “outdo even Comrade Mao”. The results were horrendous, as tens of thousands of urban Cambodians perished in the countryside due to starvation, hard labour and torture. In its last days, before a group of Khmer Rouge defectors backed by Vietnamese troops overthrew it, the Pol Pot regime executed hundreds of its own cadre suspected of turning against the leadership.
Though the media popularly likes to call the Khmer Rouge ´communist´ or even ´Maoist´, the group´s ideology (if one can call it that) was in a league of its own. Though initially part of the larger Indochina Communist Party under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh during the 1940s and 1950s, the Khmer Rouge broke away accusing the Vietnamese of promoting their own interests over Cambodian concerns. In the 1960s, the group did move closer to Mao´s China, where it found patronage and even ideological inspiration, but under Pol Pot´s leadership the Khmer Rouge developed a dubious ideology of extreme nationalism (particularly anti-Vietnamese), combined with utopian ideas of forming a moneyless, cityless and ideologically pure peasant society.
Though a self-proclaimed champion of the peasantry and responsible for the killings of thousands of ´bourgeois´ intellectuals, Pol Pot, whose real name is Saloth Sar, himself never did a day´s work on the farm. He was a failed student of radio engineering in Paris during the early 1950s.
Historians argue that what really brought Pol Pot and his bunch of fanatic nationalists to power was the infamous bombing of the Cambodian countryside by the US air force claiming to be attacking Vietnamese troops in the area. Between February and August 1973, US B-52 bombers and other aircraft dropped over 250,000 tonnes of bombs on Cambodia, estimated to be 50 percent more than the total tonnage dropped on Japan during the Second World War, including the two atom bombs.
“That is what really drove the Cambodian peasantry into the arms of the Khmer Rouge, which was only a marginal force in Cambodian politics at that time,” says a senior official in the Cambodian foreign ministry, who himself served in the Khmer Rouge two decades ago. Ironically, it is the United States which is now heading the international chorus for an international tribunal to try Pol Pot for crimes against humanity.
On the other hand, some Maoist groups in South Asia tend to dismiss all criticism of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge as the result of Western propaganda. While it is true that the global media seldom mentions the responsibility of Western governments, and the United States in particular, for the genocide and tragic civil war in Cambodia, there is no denying that the Khmer Rouge leadership was so blinded by its utopian ideology that it chose to eliminate thousands of people rather than accept that its ideas were wrong or inadequate.
Mao Zedong said, “Revolution is not a tea party.” Sure, but revolution should not be a slaughterhouse either.
S. Sivaraman is a journalist and filmmaker presently based in Chiang Mai in Thailand.