Thursday, 11 July 2013

Book review: The Pol Pot Regime (Third Edition)- Ben Kiernan (2008)

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In the case of such a secretive regime as Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea (DK), access to accurate information about the period for historical study can be challenging. Many questions remain unanswered regarding what really happened between the closed borders of Cambodia between April 1975 and January 1979, but studies such as Ben Kiernan’s into the Khmer Rouge era provide valuable sources of information. The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79 is the culmination of extensive research on the part of the Australian historian and author of Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur (Yale University Press, 2007); it draws upon evidence of five hundred interviews with survivors of the Cambodian genocide as collected by Kiernan himself. With this information, Kiernan offers two key arguments that form the basis of this work: that Khmer Rouge conceptions of race overshadowed those of class; and that the regime struggled for top-down domination.

Based on his own evidence and that of other historians, Kiernan estimates that 1.7 million Cambodians, ethnic minorities and citizens of neighbouring countries were killed in the period in which Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge held power over Cambodia in a regime that he describes as an “amalgam of communism and racism”. Cities were emptied and the population relocated to the countryside to work on an ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful national project of dam- and canal-construction to increase dry-season crop yields. Under a regime that “probably exerted more power over its citizens than any other state in world history”, control was maintained by uprooting and dispersing communities and by assigning individualised work targets in a communal setting. “The CPK [Communist Party of Kampuchea] atomized its citizens to assure maximum social control”, Kiernan argues.

During this period, all aspects of the country’s pre-revolution past were effectively nullified; nineteen seventy-five was renamed Year Zero by the new government and those who had been educated, lived in cities or were ethnic minorities were particularly targeted. Cambodia became an agrarian society in which preferential treatment was given to those who were peasants (the ‘base’ people) with no relation to city-dwellers (the ‘new’ people). In May 1979, Heng Samrin, Khmer Rouge defector and chairman of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, established after the Vietnamese overthrow of DK, revealed to the outside world how citizens under Pol Pot had been classified as ‘full rights’, ‘candidates’ and ‘deportees’ in relation to their background, family and ethnicity and their subsequent perceived eligibility for ‘rights’. Furthermore, Kiernan was the first writer to note in print how deportees from Eastern Cambodia, where rebellions against the regime had occurred, were forced to wear blue when relocated to distinguish them for execution.

Besides the devastating death toll (believed to be over 20% of Cambodia’s 1975 population), family life, culture and society was decimated with lasting impacts. The third edition of this book, published 2008, includes a preface that takes the story up to the ongoing tribunal by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) to try former leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Established in 1999, the UN-sponsored tribunal found five former leaders guilty of crimes against humanity in July 2007. However, the KR figurehead Pol Pot died as a free man in 1998 and in March 2013, DK deputy prime minister, minister of foreign affairs and Number Three in the party hierarchy Ieng Sary died of natural causes before he could be found guilty of the genocide crimes he was charged with in 2009. Justice is coming slowly for Cambodians, and the surviving pioneers of the genocide are becoming very old. Fortunately, studies such as Kiernan’s and work by DC-CAM, the largest resource base for information on the Khmer Rouge era, are increasing global awareness of the devastating events of Cambodia’s recent history. Notably, it was Kiernan who founded the award-winning Cambodian Genocide Programme at Yale University which was to become DC-CAM, the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, now based in Phnom Penh.

Kiernan’s interest in Cambodia is far-reaching. He first visited the country in his early twenties, before the expulsion of all foreigners in 1975. He has subsequently learnt Khmer and written several books on the subject of the Cambodian genocide. The Pol Pot Regime is an incredibly detailed work that covers the functioning of the CPK party and state- from government to regional and district levels- living conditions under the regime, the persecution of ethnic minorities, rebellions against the regime and Democratic Kampuchea’s foreign relations. The quantity of information available is impressive and Kiernan’s arguments are convincing. Particularly interesting for me is his assertion that the Khmer Rouge were primarily motivated by racial, and not class, distinctions: “Non-Khmers, who comprised a significant part of the supposedly favoured segment of the peasantry, were singled out for persecution because of their race. This was neither a communist proletarian revolution that favoured the working class nor a peasant revolution that favoured all farmers”. He denounces the claims of other historians that the revolution was peasant-led, favouring the view that the revolution initially held peasant support, but often out of “fear”.

For the purpose of my project, this was perhaps not the best choice of reading for information on Pol Pot’s Cambodia. This is a very academic book and was not easy to read; it took me a long time to get through. I would not recommend it as introductory reading to Khmer Rouge history, only to those who are studying this period in depth. Nonetheless, I gathered a great deal of information from this book and reading it gave me an appreciation of the value of the information Kiernan has collected in the context of such information being difficult to come across and to confirm. Finally, I find the arguments that Kiernan has produced to be well reported and convincing, particularly as they seem to have been drawn from a large pool of extensive and reliable evidence. He has done well to explain the functioning of a regime that was at the same time so devastatingly brutal and curiously self-destructive.

More: Read my reviews of two women's memoirs of the Khmer Rouge period and its aftermath:

To The End Of Hell by Denise Affonco

After They Killed Our Father by Luong Ung

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