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Cambodia's architect of evil

A political history of Pol Pot and the killing fields

Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare
By Philip Short
Holt, 537 pp., illustrated, $30

Finally, after more than two decades of foot dragging, the Khmer Rouge may be brought to trial this year. However late and however compromised, such a trial, under the auspices of the United Nations, would give Cambodians their first full accounting of the evidence amassed against the regime that turned their world upside down and led to the deaths of over a million of their countrymen and women in less than four years.

The timely appearance of ''Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare," by Philip Short, is a reminder of how essential such a reckoning is for Cambodia. With fresh research, especially about the Khmer Rouge leader's early days, and the skillful examination of several foreign archives, Short has done an admirable job of pulling together much of the material documenting the rise and fall of Pol Pot and his movement. The story is still unsettling for the depth of the cruelty inflicted on the people of this cultured Southeast Asian country.

A former journalist in Beijing and the author of a biography of Mao Zedong, Short has written more of a modern political history of Cambodia than a biography of Pol Pot, the man who led the revolution. In the early portions of the book, Pol Pot, born Saloth Sar, does come to life as a young man born into a relatively prosperous farming family who is shipped off to the capital, Phnom Penh. A mediocre student, the future tyrant becomes something of a bon vivant, visiting his sister in the royal palace, where he undergoes an unusual sexual initiation, courting a pretty young woman, and barely winning a scholarship to study in Paris.

In France, Pol Pot finds his political voice. Under the tutelage of other Cambodians, and somewhat lost in the City of Light, he takes up the cause of Cambodian independence from French colonial rule, deciding in the process that communism is the best approach to that goal. From this point onward, Short goes to great lengths to dissect the exact strain of communism that most influenced the blend of Marxism, Maoism, and Stalinism practiced by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to such deadly results. Indeed, this becomes a distinct leitmotif of this ambitious book and, ultimately, one of the least satisfying.

Once Pol Pot leaves France and returns to Cambodia in the early 1950s, the book's focus widens and becomes more a history of the Khmer Rouge movement and the country. In telling how the Khmer Rouge grew from a few thousand marginal communists to an army that triumphed against the US-supported regime in 1975, Short does a remarkable job of chronicling how Pol Pot and his comrades moved around the country building their forces and hiding under various aliases. But Short lacks the hard-won authority of historians such as Stephen Heder, David Chandler, and Ben Kiernan, and advances a new interpretation for Cambodia's downfall that undercuts some of his otherwise impressive scholarship.

The explanation for the Khmer Rouge rise to power is complex, beginning with French colonial rule and continuing through the Vietnam War. Cambodia's unfortunate geography placed it between Thailand, home of American bases, to the west and Vietnam, site of the bloodiest battle of the Cold War, to the east. Cambodia's leader, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, failed in the face of the narrow choices before him, giving in to his impossible ego and making decisions that ultimately opened the way for the Khmer Rouge.

In relating this history, Short paints all of Cambodia's misfortunes as a continuum of a cultural malady. In his thesis, the Khmer Rouge becomes an extreme example of the country's problems rather than an exception.

''The cardinal issue is what it is about Cambodian society that has allowed, and continues to allow, people to turn their backs on all they know of gentleness and compassion, goodness and decency, and to commit appalling cruelties seemingly without conscience of the enormity of their acts and certainly without remorse."

His answer is to blame Cambodian culture itself and the Buddhist faith practiced by Cambodians -- a new version of blaming the victim.

In other instances he pronounces Cambodians lazy, saying the Khmer Rouge addressed this old problem ''of how to make Khmers work" by pursuing radical policies that turned most of the population into slaves.

Oddly, Short places very little blame on the totalitarian nature of communism. On the contrary, he lauds the Confucian nature of the communism practiced in China and Vietnam and says of Pol Pot that his ''cultural heritage was irrational, oral, guided by Theravada transcendentalism [Buddhism] and by k'ruu, spirit-masters, whose truths sprang not from analysis but from illumination. . . . The contrast with Maoist China could hardly be greater."

Never mind that millions of Chinese died in the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution of Mao, or that neighboring Thailand, which also practices Theravada Buddhism and has a culture like Cambodia's, is a successful modern nation. Perhaps if Short had included more voices of ordinary Khmers rather than their leaders, he might not condemn them as part of a cruel, cowardly race. He also might have been less willing to give credence to some of the stories these leaders told him as they faced a possible trial for their crimes.

Indeed, this book's shortcomings as well as its strengths argue forcibly for the need for a full airing of the crimes of the Khmer Rouge to dispel mistaken assumptions, however well-meaning, and to hold them accountable for their crimes against their country.

Elizabeth Becker is the author of ''When the War Was Over," a history of the Khmer Rouge and modern Cambodia. She is the international trade correspondent for The New York Times. 

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