Pol Pot

Pol Pot : Anatomy of a Nightmare

by Philip Short
Pol Pot

Much of this book is spent charting the development of the Khmer Rouge, particularly in it’s relationship with Vietnamese Communism; it’s place in Khmer culture in general; and most intriguingly, how it was shaped by Cambodia’s tradition of Theravadan Buddhism.

Saloth Sar, who eventually took the name Pol Pot, was a rather poor student who used family connections in order to gain a coveted spot studying in Paris. It was there that he came into the circle of Cambodian leftist nationalist radicals who introduced him to Marxism. He comes off as a bit simplistic, and wasn’t particularly interested in the theoretical basis of Marxism; in fact he may not have even read any of his works.

When he returned from Paris he joined the Viet Minh fighting to rid Indochina of its French colonial overlords. After they were driven from Vietnam in 1954 he turned his attention to Cambodia itself and was eventually forced to flee into the forest to escape the secret police of Prince Sihanouk’s government. It was here in the jungles of Cambodia that the Khmer Rouge movement began.

Short argues that the jungle-based movement appealed to the central dichotomy in Khmer thought, that between srok (village) and brai (forest), as opposed to the Judeo-Christian’s notion of good and evil. Pol saw the cities as having a corrupting influence on Cambodian society and hoped that forcing people to take their turn at farming would reinvigorate the Khmer people. Once the Khmer Rouge took over, it was this influence that compelled Pol to empty the cities of their inhabitants in a chaotic drive into the country-side which resulted in millions of deaths.

Perhaps Short’s most controversial thesis is that it was the particular branch of Buddhism and its exhortations to the negation of ego that resonated in such a tragic way with Communist notions of state planning and control.

“You see the ox, comrades. Admire him! He eats where we [tell] him to eat… When we tell him to pull the plough, he pulls it. He never thinks of his wife or his children.”

He went so far as to ban the use of money altogether, so that people became in actuality slaves of the state, dependent upon them for their very existence.

Some have criticized Short for in effect “blaming” the Cambodians for acquiescing to the tragedy, but this is simply not the point he is making. Buddhism simply colored the tragedy, it didn’t form it. I actually found this to be a rather compelling and challenge argument. People often lay the blame for genocidal tragedies at the foot of theistic mindsets; it was interesting to see how something as seemingly docile as Buddhism have a role in something so barbaric.

Despite pulling together as much information on Pol Pot as we’re ever likely to see, the source of his power remains as much of an enigma after reading the book as before. While Short relates Pol’s colleagues’ assertions that he was an engaging speaker, the remarks do little to allow the reader to gain a visceral feel for his persuasiveness.

There is a welter of one and two-syllable names that can be difficult to keep straight after a while, but it is a neccessary difficulty that has to be accepted in dealing with a book on Cambodia.

» Posted: Friday, August 12, 2005 | Comments (1) | Permanent Link

Dutch Manhattan

The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan, the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America

by Russell Shorto
The Island at the Center of the World

In telling the story of the Dutch settlement of New Netherlands, centered at the town of New Amsterdam on Manhattan Island, Shorto makes a forceful case that they had a much greater impact on the liberal culture of the United States than has been generally acknowledged. He covers the colony from Hudson’s discovery in 1609 to the handover to the British in 1664 and its final gasp in 1673 when New York was briefly retaken by the Dutch during the Third Anglo-Dutch War.

While it is well known that there was an early Dutch presence in New York, about the only detail that is generally recalled is Peter Minuit’s famous “purchase” of Manhattan Island. Nearly everything else, he argues, has been forgotten due to the Anglo-centric view of the English colonists whose foundation myth focused on the ethics of the Plymouth Colony. Much of the recent understanding has come to light due to the efforts of Charles Gehring of the New Netherlands Project who has been translating over 12,000 pages of colonial records written in difficult Dutch script for over 30 years now. Other documents continue to be uncovered in Holland and elsewhere. Characters who would have otherwise been lost to history, such as Adriaen Van der Donck, who fought hard against Peter Stuyvesant’s autocratic governance both in America and back home in Holland, have been brought to light by Gehring’s efforts.

Significantly New York originated as a commercial enterprise and not a religious one, which has shaped the values of the city to this day. This specific point was made by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace in their recent book Gotham, but they didn’t tie it so directly to its Dutch origins.

Shorto shows that a multiethnic society was present in New Amsterdam from its very beginnings, reflecting the general openness of the mother country, which was accepting of other nationalities and religions. This is contrasted with the Puritanism of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which was pressuring from the north. It’s remarkable to consider that values of a city as sprawling as New York or a nation like America could still be derivative of those of a few hundred colonists nearly four hundred years ago, but he develops these points well; for example, he says of the English:

Out of the Puritan’s exceptionalism—their belief that the Old World had succumbed to wickedness and they had been charged by God to save humanity by founding a new society in a new world—grew the American belief that American society was similarly divinely anointed.

At times Shorto seems to minimize any negative aspects of New Amsterdam in his efforts to highlight its liberal nature, such as with his scant descriptions of slavery and the plight of even free blacks in the colony (I thought Burrows and Wallace did a better job in this regard). Also, he writes in a novelistic style which can sometimes seem overdone (how does he know the sun was glistening off the waves on that day?), but overall this was an eye-opening, well researched, highly-readable work.

» Posted: Wednesday, August 3, 2005 | Comments (1) | Permanent Link