258th Meeting – Tuesday, February 8th 2005
Khmer Rouge Ideology, as drilled into people’s ears under
Present: Allan Adasiak, John Aloia, Hans Bänziger, Jackson Braddy, Manus Brinkman, John Cadet, Guy Cardinal, Alain Couderc, Bernard D. Davis, Bill Dovhey, Katrina Gardner, Deborah Greenaway, Annelie Hendriks, Peter Hoare, Susan Hodgins, Reinhard Hohler, June Hulley, Trasvin Jittidecharak, Wayne Judd, Ken Kampe, Gianni Lia, Jere Locke, Linda Markowski, Ben Munro, Jean-Claude Neveu, Thomas Ohlson, Michael & Margaret O’Shea, Atchareeya Saisin, Mathew Smith, David Steane, Bryan Wallis. An audience of 32
in 1939, I first came to
2000, I spent my academic career (except 1969-70 at the Queen’s
October 2000 and have been residing 8 to 9 months a year in
The full text of Henri’s talk:
I – What led me to collect these KR sayings as heard in the collectives?
What is the purpose of this collection and how did I proceed?
First of all, I must apologize for both the book titles: both are inaccurate. It is not a compendium of the main thoughts of an ‘enlightened’ Communist leader - Pol Pot - over the decades, as the original Mao’s Little Red Book was. Similarly, the sub-title, ‘The sayings of Angkar’, is also somewhat deceptive for I have not made a kind of lexicon or glossary of the jargon of Angkar or of the main idioms used by the revolutionary leadership. That would be what we call in French “la langue de bois”, or the “newspeak” used by the Upper Brothers. Indeed, I believe it is a research that would be worth pursuing for anyone interested to dissect how Pol Pot and his followers wrangled the Khmer language. For those desirous to probe the semiotics of the language used by Communists, that would be a good subject in linguistic research. This is not what I set out to do. [I have asked Suong Sikoeun to try and make that collection: he is in an excellent position to do this for he was in charge of the media department at the Foreign Ministry under his mentor Ieng Sary in Democratic Kampuchea (DK) days. So he was himself a sort of machinery churning out that kind of revolutionary rhetoric. Beside, he told me he and his team wrote a number of official speeches that always had to go through Pol Pot’s approval before being broadcast on DK radio.] So both the title and the sub-title are inadequate; they are just a selling ploy, as all books about DK must have either ‘Pol Pot’ or ‘Khmer Rouge’ in their titles. And it is even better add a couple of skulls; Peter Short’s new book has all that. No, my interest has been both political and societal. I wanted this collection to be first a collection of Pol-Potisms, not as expressed in the few Party literature or the writings of the great man himself, nor even as his rhetoric used in the numerous and lengthy study sessions he conducted over almost 40 years. No the bare skeleton of ideology as it was transmitted at the commune level in their so-called sahakor or collective units (and not ‘co-operatives, as those are usually wrongly translated).
By doing so, I have been looking at Khmer Rouge society, not from the vantage point of the leadership in the capital, that is from the point of view of the originators of the criminal policies of Democratic Kampuchea (DK), but from the grassroots in the collectives, at the level of the victims – like the numerous published life stories. This book is the result not of hours of absorbing Party revelations in libraries and archives, but of field research throughout most of the country. This enabled me to collect not only the crude thoughts of local apparatchiks, but, through the interpretations of those ambiguous sayings given by the victims, what those abstract and utopian thoughts meant in the reality of every day life. They become an introduction to the revolutionary society in the provinces where the population was enslaved. The counter-slogans show, also at the grassroots, how first there was widespread opposition to these absurd and criminal policies and also how, through derision, the Khmers could also defend themselves in their heart of hearts in order to survive as reasonable individuals too.
2 § – How did I proceed?
This book is the result of first my writing down of the testimony of Moeung Sonn, Prisonnier de l’Angkar, Fayard, Paris 1993, who spent eighteen months (six months and later a whole year) under DK in the regime’s prisons. He gave me a couple of those sayings that I noted in the book. Some are very well known, like “Angkar has the many eyes of the pineapple”, “One hectare, three tons”. Or the less well known: “Physical beauty is an obstacle to the will to struggle”, or “On the worksite until death”.
At the same time, I wanted to check if
Moeung Sonn’s horrendous descriptions of the KR jails in Prey Nup
near Kompong Som (Sihanoukville), were the norm or the exception. In
of 1991, I started to tour the countryside and asked the people in the
countryside if they had heard of local prisons under DK. Invariably I
answer: ‘mien’. There was not a
single district (and there are some 150) where I was told there
everywhere the descriptions were similar. This was a dismal and
investigation. As a relief and for fun, I started taking down in little
notebooks more slogans collected from west to east, from north to
south. One of
my clever colleagues at the
In actual fact, as I explained on pp.6-10, Angkar has at least two meanings: first, it is the collective name of the revolutionary leadership, for the KR had even collectivized their names! More specifically, it is the individual name of Saloth Sar who was so secretive that he chose to cloak himself but completely dominated, like other communist leaders (Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Kim Il-sung), the political scene of their respective revolutions. But also, by an abuse of language the leadership denounced [100-1] but could not ban, it represented any local cadre that wished to impress or even terrorize the local population under their authority. The dictums here collected are above all the maxims and instructions given at the collectives level for the benefice of the populace the local cadres were supposed to win over or indoctrinate.
After finishing this collection – although
I am sure there must be others that I have not preserved. But they
bear the same messages, as in fact KR ideology was so simplistic and
it could be summarized in one paragraph or a few basic slogans –
indeed those I
have underlined in the book. After completing this collection from the
provinces, I looked at the KR archival material preserved in the
Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam) in
Well, this is my justification for looking
beyond the collectives, as the latter slogan is better understood in
context of how the Ultimate Leader (Pol Pot) proceeded during meetings
Standing Committee. This enabled him to call “democracy”
what was the century
old tyranny of a single individual, This time he did not receive the
the gods, as ancient monarchs of divine rights, but better from the
of Revolutionary communism –
3 § – Who concocted those slogans?
I do not know for sure. In my
introduction, I surmise that they were concocted by the Party centre,
mainly Pol Pot himself and his close associate Khieu Samphan who was
and in spite of all his denials the principal ideologue of the regime.
Short, in his remarkable and recent Pol
Pot, the History of a Nightmare, [
“How do we make communist revolution? [he asked us]. The first thing you have to do is to destroy private property. But private property exists on both the material and the mental plane … To destroy material property, the appropriate method was the evacuation of the towns …but spiritual property is more dangerous, it comprises everything that you think is ‘yours’, everything that you think exists in relation to yourself – your parents, your family, your wife. Everything of which you say, ‘It’s mine’ is spiritual property. Thinking in terms of ‘me’ and ‘my’ is forbidden. If you say ‘my wife’, that’s wrong. You should say ‘our family’. … The Cambodian nation is our big family … That is why you have been separated: the men with men, the women with women, the children with children. All of you are under the protection of Angkar. Each of us, man, woman and child, is an element of the nation … We are the child of Angkar, the man of Angkar, the woman of Angkar.
knowledge you have in your head, your ideas, are mental private
To become a true revolutionary, you must wash your mind clean.
[…] To put
yourself on par with the ordinary people of
This perfectly summarizes the ideology of the KR and makes it truly totalitarian. It is also a reduction ad absurdum of the arguments in favor of perfect communism – a dream, a utopia and at best an aspiration.
Short claims [324-5] that it was Nuon Chea
“who masterminded the changes when language was stripped bare of
allusions and devised neologisms often based on scholarly Pali terms to
political concepts for which no equivalent existed in Khmer”. As
a proof of his
assertion, he writes that, “most former KR cadres I have spoken
to believe the
new vocabulary was the work of Nuon Chea” .
This of course does not quite mean the
slogans, although the slogans contain many neologisms that made them
arcane to uneducated listeners. For
Angkar was totally unable to
translate the fundamental Marxian notion of “proletariat”
for the very good
reason that practically such people did not exist in pre-industrial
Once the main slogans were concocted by
the worthies of the Party leadership and droned during lengthy
sessions for cadres in
II – In praise of the regime
I deliberately chose as the first slogan
in this collection a counter-slogan, as one of the aims of this
to show that the Khmers were not just passive sufferers of the tragedy,
their own ways, developed various forms of
‘Résistance’. I found it very
perceptive [p. 5]: “The Angkar originates
from the society of apes”. I experienced that feeling when,
on top Phnom Sampouv, west of Battambang, I was described how victims
to death while their vital fluid was collected into a gutter. No one
me for what purpose. I was being described the human sacrifices of
times and DK had made
Also, as an epigraph to this collection, I chose the rallying call of the new recruits joining the revolutionary movement after the fall of Sihanouk in 1970: “Long live Samdech Euv! You’re not going? I’ve gone already!” While chronologically such sayings came first as they belong to the time of the struggle for power, but, more importantly, without the full support of the figure representing both the traditional monarchy and the victorious struggle for independence, the revolutionaries would never have been able to recruit so many adolescents and youths. This is where Peter Short’s recent book is most useful, as it fully documents under the Sangkum Reastr Niyum period (1955-1970) and then the Republic, Sihanouk’s first indirect (by banning any form of opposition to his rule) and later direct contribution the seizing of power by the revolutionaries, when he gave his full support to the violent guerrilla. Tactfully, of course, Short never says this in so many words.
Official slogans are mere self-indulgent
proclamations of triumph and optimism, trying to paper over the
consequences of the policies of Angkar.
Those were the dithyrambs Sihanouk heard on the radio from the golden
In their self-praise and complete lack of self-criticism, the Khmer Rouge revolution was autistic, which means totally self-centered and unable to listen to any advice coming form outside. The leaders knew best and did not need to copy any model. In actual fact they took most of the theories/revolutionary recipes from Stalin revised by Mao while claiming they followed a purely nationalist path. They were inward looking and just as the Khmers had built the most grandiose shrine on earth (Angkor Wat), they were about to build the most advanced revolutionary society that would serve as a beacon to the poorer nations of the earth. This is shown by Pol Pot’s translation of the refrain of the Internationale (p. 36) and the very message contained in the title: proletarian solidarity throughout the world will defeat capitalism. Instead of the notion of international solidarity of mankind (le genre humain), Pol Pot had most significantly substituted the utopian vision of the dreamer (if not the psychotic) of the sangkum anakut, the society of the future. He was thus projecting the revolutionary society he was planning to create out of the human sphere, far from reality.
III – The question of Maoism
Were the KR diehard Maoists as they are
usually labeled or did they misinterpret their model? They proved that
Maoist recipes for the organization of society led to disasters.
showed that twice with the disastrous consequences of the Great Leap
and of the so-called Cultural Revolution. The Chinese supervisors and
of the Kampuchean experiment did not need one more proof of their
(danger). But, as Philip Short has shown, geopolitics and Chinese
ambitions in Southeast Asia took over from ideology from 1978, after
“de-ideologisation” of the regime in
summarize this complex issue in the introduction to the second chapter
“Maoist-inspired slogans”. By and large this was a
difficult task as, once
again, the KR ideology and their pronouncements are full of
one stage, I assumed that since the short-lived DK regime was
the last throes, not only of the of Mao himself (or “supreme
guide” in KR
parlance), but of his most radical policies, I thought the Gang of Four
their supporters used DK as a life size laboratory to prove that their
in total revolution were correct. If the Great Leap Forward and the
Cultural Revolution had been two disasters for China, it looked as if,
power struggle in Beijing around Mao’s death, the diehard
have used Kampuchea to demonstrate that, by following all the Great
policies to their logical conclusion, all revisionist theories would
the end of revolution. Pol Pot did meet members of the Gang of Four
protracted stays in red
“There is a continuous, non-stop struggle between revolution and counter-revolution. We must keep the standpoint that there will be enemies 10 years, 20 years, 30 years into the future…If we constantly take absolute measures, they will be scattered and smashed to bits” (Tung Padevoat, June 1976).
in the autumn of 1976, while Pol Pot was supposed to have resigned
from his Premiership as a ploy to nonplus his potential enemies, he
secretly once again to Beijing in November, shortly after Mao’s
death which had
been the occasion in Phnom Penh for state mourning and paeans of praise
KR’s “supreme guide”. Pol Pot was congratulated by
Hua Guofeng for having “stripped the enemy’s
analysts, and Peter Short in particular, claim the ideological
were more ambiguous. While all the main tenets of Maoism were developed
Khmer Rouge, as illustrated by their slogans, on those visits, the
leaders, Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, Khieru Samphan and Son Sen, were warned
make the same mistakes. But the Khmer revolutionaries took no notice.
needed no prodding, their radicalism was theirs. It is claimed that the
leadership became diehard Maoists in spite of the warnings from
For instance, when Pol Pot was received by Mao near his private swimming pool on 21st June 1975, Mao had accepted by then that the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s had been a disaster, causing a famine that resulted in 20 to 30 million dead. But did he really warn Pol Pot on that day as Short seems to infer? (301) If so, why should Pol Pot have launched his “Super Great Leap Forward” campaign? Why should Angkar have decided that rice yields should be suddenly be multiplied by three? Why should not Mao also have warned the victorious revolutionaries that making a clean sweep of the past during the Cultural Revolution had brought nothing but misery and chaos? Pol Pot was to continue relentlessly to fight against ‘revisionism’ throughout his short-lived regime.
solely on one’s own self had been an essential plank of Maoism
along with the
‘Juche” of the North Koreans, while both revolutions had
helped by the
- Complete equipment for three artillery regiments, two anti-aircraft regiments
- Equipment for a tank regiment, including 72 light tanks and 32 amphibious tanks
- 30 fighter aircrafts, 15 bombers
- 12 high-speed torpedo boats, 10 escort ships, 4 anti-submarine vessels, etc. …
All that with corresponding military trainers, and with 10,000 tons of military equipment, including 1,300 military vehicles. As to the financial aid it exceeded one billion US dollars, the equivalent today of 3.4 billion dollars. (301-302)
links between the Thai border at Poipet on the one hand, and to the sea
At the same time many of the Maoist dogmas had been followed to the letter: belief in the superiority of revolutionary consciousness over and men over machines; “pre-eminence of ideology over learning (being ‘red’ rather than ‘expert’”); the strategy of using the countryside to surround the city and the need to eliminate the differences between them; the concern to bridge the gulf between mental and manual labour; the temporary closure of schools and universities during the Cultural Revolution. For the latter, the KR were planning to re-open schools for children as textbooks had already been prepared and a teachers’ training college was about to open before the Vietnamese invasion. (300-301)
Pol Pot flew secretly once more to Beijing in September 1978 to ask for
help and troops, Deng Xiaoping, while fiercely condemning Vietnam,
“suggested the Khmer Rouge were partly
responsible for bringing these troubles on themselves by their
radicalism and their failure to unite the country behind them”.
“He also made it clear that, while China
would give the Cambodians all the military help it could, …
China would not
send troops” (389). In other words, the Chinese had done all
they could do
to fan the revolutionary flames in
IV – Angkar – or a concealed leadership
The KR leadership camouflaged itself because it was weak, because it used lies and deception as a matter of policy, because it was afraid of its own people. Those who spread terror were too terrified to show their real faces. Angkar was the regime at all levels, from Pol Pot and the Standing Committee to the lowest village militiaman (chhlop). It was omnipotent and baleful, impersonal and remote, the incarnation of revolutionary purity, demanding and receiving quasi-religious reverence from all with whom it dealt. Pol’s old mentor, Keng Vannsak, called it:
“An immense apparatus of repression and terror as an amalgam of Party, Government and State, not in the usual sense of these institutions but with particular stress on its mysterious, terrible and pitiless character. It was, in a way, political-metaphysical power, anonymous, omnipresent, omniscient, occult, sowing death and terror in its name.” (296)
This proved a clever ploy to protect the authorities from the wrath of the population. It made the people utterly nonplused, confused, bewildered and therefore unable to rebel, but it failed to create an allegiance among the vast majority of the population. One cannot worship an abstract and faceless Organization. The main tactic of the Party and its original contribution to the revolutionary form of government, communist-wise, – secrecy – proved a disaster once in office.
(338), Philip Short speculates about the modern Angkar
This was the Angkorean model
of statecraft dressed in communist garb. There was no intermediate
power, no pyramid of responsibilities, as in a modern state. The feudal
Quite clever and telling parallels, but Short overlooks the notion of totalitarianism which has made the Pol Pot regime leap into the modernity of the XXth century, but by the back door, through the gates of Hell.
Along with the evacuation of all cities, the abolition of money and markets, together with communal eating, the KR contribution to the art of governing states was their invention of a faceless leadership. I do not say government, or Council of Ministers or even administration for those institutions never really existed under DK. The Standing Committee of the Party ruled everything, and inside this restricted and ever changing coterie, Pol Pot was making all decisions, usually with Nuon Chea’s approval. But ordinary people had never heard of those two names. Behind Angkar, which was not only the ‘Upper Brothers’ in Phnom Penh and the local leadership in the collectives and offices, but even a single individual giving an order, only two names were known by some: Ieng Sary (alias Vann) and Khieu Samphan (alias Hem) were know respectively as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Head of State, after Sihanouk’s resignation in early 1976.The reason for this was that secrecy has been a long tradition in the Communist movement in Cambodia because of first the repression of the colonial power and then of the Sangkum government. The word Angkar was first used in the mid-1950s to ensure greater secrecy and hide the communist nature of the movement amid various appellations over the decades. From his coup d’etat in 1955 to his fall in 1970, Sihanouk had established a one-Party State that admitted of no dissent. De facto, he had re-established the absolutism of the Monarch that the French hade taken 90 years to destroy. After unexpectedly winning power on 17th April 1975, the KR were unable to change and kept their identities concealed as they had always done. This had allowed them to survive and they were determined to continue, convinced as they were that if the leadership disappeared, this would be the end of the Revolution.
The slogans referring to Angkar were legion and show clearly how the entity that in theory should have been an embodiment of love and a substitute for family and personal emotions soon became associated with dread and even terror. The concept is also associated in the minds of the Cambodians with the necessity of obeying blindly and immediately to orders proffered by a local leader. For the people, it is synonymous of secrecy, deceit and all kinds of particularly wily manipulations. The most striking of those threats is the famous “Angkar has the many eyes of the pineapple” that is the Khmer equivalent of “Big Brother is watching you”. In actual fact, the name of Pol Pot only became known to the people after the Vietnamese invasion in early 1979. Before he was only Angkar, or, for the cognoscenti, ‘Brother Number One’ or ‘Big Brother’. This was no copy of Orwell’s 1984 as none of the leaders had read the book, but that clearly showed that, behind the Maoism, the KR leaders were orthodox Stalinists, and Pol Pot was indeed a Khmer Stalin.
object that the great leader did come out into the open in his speech
September 1977, a little over one year before the fall of his regime,
revealed the Angkar was the CPK and
himself, Pol Pot its Secretariat. But most Cambodians did not listen to
revelation of the radio, and most ignored everything about who was
behind Angkar until after the fall of the
regime. This is what all the Khmers I have interviewed told me. Even in
the Cambodians were once again misled when the Vietnamese told them it
tandem Pol Pot – Ieng Sary that had been leading the country,
while number two
had always been Nuon Chea.
V - The Hunt for “enemies of the People”.
Short called those appropriately ‘Stalin’s microbes”. Here the true nature of the regime is shown: its ruthlessness in arresting, torturing and butchering hundreds of thousands of real or potential opponents. Behind Pol Pot’s benign smiles lie all the horrors of the revolutionary regime. The guerrilla movement could never come to terms with peace time after its victory and continued to wage war against its own compatriots as it had done from 1968 to 1975. That was the main reason for the evacuation of the capital and all the provincial towns. It was to break up and disperse the so-called nests of enemies and spies that were lurking in the towns. After being first all disarmed, the leaders of the ‘old regimes – Sihanoukist and Republican – civilian and military personnel were summarily executed in the first weeks of the regime. In the meantime, 40% of the population became deportees in their own country. The KR were in fact unable to control the cities as they admitted, the multitudinous social groups of the cities did not fit into their oversimplified conception of a society divided between bourgeois and proletariat, exploiters and exploited.
The classification of the slogans I have suggested helps us to penetrate further and further into the paranoia of Pol Pot and his group. The ‘enemies’ are all those who cannot immediately “embrace the proletarian condition”[slogan 34]. The repression was centripetal, that is targeting at first clearly identifiable groups in a communist revolutionary context, then gradually aiming at groups closer and closer to the regime’s centre, until it became indeed suicidal. In the end it exterminated its closest associates for no objective reason whatsoever, like the faithful and long-term militants of Angkar such as Koy Thuon and Hu Nim. Pol Pot even turned against ex Khmer-Issaraks (combatants from the First Indo-Chinese War) like Sao Phim or Vorn Vet, that were arrested in the last weeks of the regime, thus giving a truly suicidal twist to the regime. When the Vietnamese troops massively invaded the country at the end of 1978, Pol Pot had already wiped out his own troops in his massive purges of the East region. But this is not a specificity of the KR regime: all Communist regimes have killed their most ardent supporters. The KR just went a little faster than the others.
Another way of classifying ‘enemies’ would be to identify them first as ‘the enemies of the past’, like the old privileged classes or the Buddhist monks, ‘the enemies of the present’, those who cannot adjust to the very Spartan living conditions, ‘the enemies of the future’, that is those who are not enthusiastic and might eventually rebel. The most perverse category are the so-called ‘hidden enemies’, those who appear to have embraced the Revolution, those who hide inside the ranks of the Party and even, as Laurence Picq (Beyond the horizon, or Au-delà du Ciel) has shown, that might lurk inside the conscience of every citizen who has the slightest doubt about the new society. This is where we enter the realm of the paranormal or paranoia of the leadership. The blade of the executioner could slash anyone: terror ruled supreme. All moderates within the Party became traitors. Kamaphibals were purged throughout the country until most collectives had three sets of leaders, each time being replaced by more ignorant and more cruel cadres.
‘genocide’, which has been always associated with the Khmer
extermination, appropriate to describe the criminal actions of the
I have always believed that it was inappropriate. The only ethnic group
clearly the butt of Party rhetoric in slogans was the Vietnamese. But
‘genocide’ took place, it was during the Republic, under
Lon Nol, when the
Vietnamese community was reduced to half its size when hundreds or up
thousands were murdered and some 300,000 were expelled from the
remaining Vietnamese were again asked to leave the country in the first
months of the revolutionary regime. The figure of 20,000 is usually
those who have disobeyed the order, being too integrated into the
society. Then, the Vietnamese became a mental or political category in
well-known slogan, “Vietnamese head,
Cambodian body”. Again, those represented Khmers, in the
particular, who might have been in favor of a more orthodox and less
radical form of communist society. The concept of genocide was invented
S-21, now know as Tuol Sleng “was not an aberration. Instead it was the pinnacle … of the slave state which Pol Pot had created” (365). The pinnacle, not because it was the apex of the “slave state” as Short writes, but because it is only the centre of a whole network of similar prisons that enmeshed the entire territory. Short never mentions this. This is where the ‘enemies of the People’ were processed once they had been arrested. Those, as I explain [pp 155-162] are an elastic and expandable category, “representing only one or two percent of the people”, as Pol Pot said in September 1977. This was about the percentage of the population held in the chains of the district prisons. They did not survive long their torture and starvation. The turnover was a matter of weeks. That explains why hundred of innocent citizens were thus exterminated.
That chapter is attempting to explain how the paranoid mind of the leadership and convictions they were surrounded by plotters from all the secret services worldwide. It is claimed that under the pressure of the Chinese in particular, and while the threat of a Vietnamese invasion was looming larger and larger, the regime tried to win over new friends and rally a population it had antagonized. If there is no doubt that the situation changed quite radically, in the last few months of the regime, for the returnees in their re-education camps and Boeung Trabek in particular, contrary to Philip Short’s assertions, I do not believe the orders of Angkar to relax the discipline had much echo in the collectives. The ‘enemy’ continued to the end to be a moving and moveable target. For instance, to the very end of the regime, prisoners were taken to the prisons interrogated under torture and executed. The hunt for the internal enemies continued to the very end. Before running away, KR prison wardens slaughtered the remaining chained prisoners rather than liberate them, as they did at S-21.
VI – Work
Angkar created the only example of a
perfect slave society in the modern world. Slave labour has been a long
Literally going hand in hand were the two paramount tasks of a good revolutionary: ‘work and denounce or catch the enemy’. That is illustrated by some of the best known slogans: “One hand for production, one hand for striking the enemy”, or metaphorically: “One hands grasps, one hand a rifle”. [169-170] In fact this could summarize all that the DK regime was about – working like slaves the year round and forever reporting on and tracking down ‘the enemy’.
on the part of the leadership to work harder and faster are legion.
labour had a fundamental re-educative role. By and large returnee
Khmer-Vietminh from Hanoi during the revolutionary struggle or those
back to their motherland to serve the revolution after 17th
1975, were first put to the test by having to perform hard and
degrading labour (like cleaning toilets or preparing compost from
is what Sloth Sar himself had to endure when, after his return from
The vocabulary of work is the same as the one used in battle and I have a whole sub-chapter on this: ‘The warrior labourer’ [p. 227-233] and no less than 17 slogans in which war and work are metaphorically equated. Philip Short noted the same thing: “the economy was just another battlefield to be conquered by brute force”.
It is the same as in war. There we raised the principle of attacking … whenever the enemy was weak. The same goes for the economy. We attack whenever the opportunities are the greatest … We must prepare offensives for the whole country. (Pol Pot, Tung Padevaat, June 1976)
Short perceptively speaks of: the “militarization of thought and language. People ‘struggled’ to catch fish or collect fertilizer; they ‘waged continuous offensives’ to grow ‘strategic crops’ [mainly yam and maize in newly cleared fields unsuitable for wet rice]; they ‘attacked on the front lines’ (at dam and canal sites) and ‘at the rear’ (in the village rice-fields); they formed sections, companies, battalions, mobile brigades and regiments; they showed ‘fighting solidarity’ to win ‘victory over nature’.
Such so-called ‘victories’ were derided by the people: “You are always quarrelling with nature instead of being concerned about food” . “ If we use rain water for the rice-fields, we eat rice; if we use dikes and canals, we eat bâbâ; if we live in the collectives, we eat shit!” .
Philip Short also addresses taboo questions around the cultural habits of the Khmers touching work. The Khmers do not have a reputation – like the Laotians and contrary to the Vietnamese – for being a very hard-working nation. He notes that “the problem was to make the Khmers work” (294), but prudently notes the opinion of other people and the Khmers themselves on the subject. The Khmer farmer has tended to produce little for his surplus has tended to be taken by the rapacious tax collector in colonial days, by the Chinese moneylender or the local mandarin of old. Khieu Samphan noted in his thesis (95) that “on average the Khmer peasant worked only six months of the year, and sometimes much less”. The kind of remarks that Short made in his book led to controversy in the bi-monthly Phnom Penh Post with Craig Etcheson that those kinds of cultural generalizations were improper. Short defended himself by saying that, first, one should not dismiss such generalizations altogether, two, that he is merely repeating what the Khmers have been saying about their own selves. I do believe that Short here is right again and part of the reasons why the Angkar has turned Cambodia into a slave and forced labour camp is that a fair proportion of Khmers are traditionally not hyper-active.
VII – ‘Collectivism: the dissolution of the individual’
in the last chapter aim to show what the collectivization meant in
life. People had to completely adhere to the model imposed by Angkar, and ‘proleratarianise’ their
identity meekly obeying all the diktats of the Party. All the survivors
tell that they kept a low profile and did as they were told. They
and would never stick their neck out if they could help it. They had
become an atom in a larger mass, a drop in the ocean. One had to
oneself into a proletariat if one did not come from a poor peasant
According to Philip Short, and I think he is right in this, by an
‘consciousness’ which is the usual translation for the
Buddhist vinhian, ‘consciousness’ or
‘soul’ (vijnana in Sanskrit), “the animating force of all human endeavour,
all one had to do was to acquire a proletarian consciousness’
(149). Class, which to Marxists everywhere else,
including the Chinese, was determined by a person’s economic
activity, was for
Cambodian Communists a mental attribute.… Theravada Buddhism is
introspective. The goal is not to improve society or redeem one’s
it is self-cultivation, in the nihilistic sense of the demolition of
individual” (Short 150). The techniques used for this was
both physical and
mental: physical with the redeeming value of manual labour; mental with
numerous and endless re-education sessions. For ordinary citizens, it
regular nightly meetings of mutual criticism and self-criticism. For
members, the same, but besides those they had long weekly sessions in
“The aim of those ‘introspection meetings’ as they were called, was to make the participants look into their own souls and strip away everything that was personal and private until their individuality was leached out, their innermost thoughts exposed before their peers and existence outside the group made meaningless. Mutual surveillance and denunciation were a key part of the process, which required a climate of perpetual vigilance and suspicion. Like monks at confession, opening their hearts to God, the young Khmers Rouges ‘gave themselves to the Party’, becoming one with the revolution which, in theory at least, replaced all other relations.”(234, after a long quote from Le Portail, p. 84-86).
What Short does not tell us in this very fine analysis is that this was the same in all Communist Parties throughout the world – including the French Communist Party.
Another saw of the regime was that everyone had to rely solely on his own strength, again echoing Buddhist teaching that says the enlightenment will come from within one oneself. Then, they could survive if, as Buddhism was teaching, every individual had abolished all desire and accepted to dissolve in an anonymous and invisible Being – the Angkar. François Bizot in Le Portail had perceived the same connection, to the great anger of Duch. Angkar was absolute and impersonal, as Buddhism was. It demanded the same unconditional determination, refusing to take into account the human aspect of things, as though it were dealing solely with matters of the spirit. (234-35). “The Party theoreticians had substituted Angkar for the Dhamma, the primordial Being who [in Buddhism] personifies the notion of “Instruction”. In place of the monks’ ten vows of abstinence (sila) , the KR had ‘Twelve commandments’ (also called sila) (234).
returnees from Europe and
Short added further: The ultimate aim was to destroy personality,… to destroy the individual. … with increasing refinement, through self-examination and public confession, until a new man emerged who embodied loyalty to Angkar, alacrity and non-reflection. Laurence Picq compared this to membership of the Moonies or a sect. … Cut off from the outside world, people no longer saw themselves as individuals, but as cogs in an occult machine whose workings, by definition, they could not fully understand.
The destruction of ‘material and spiritual property’ was Buddhist detachment in revolutionary clothes; the demolition of the personality was the achievement of non-being. ‘The only true freedom’ a document proclaimed, ‘lies in following what Angkar says, what it writes and what it does’ Like the Buddha, Angkar was always right; questioning its wisdom was always a mistake. (318-9)
Claire Ly, in Revenue de l’Enfer: Quatre ans dans les camps Khmers Rouges (2004), claims that in Battambang city, a Khmer Rouge leader told all teachers at the Technical University of Battambang on 24 April 1975 “Comrades, I beg you to leave everything like Preah Vesandor has left his kingdom.” Preah Visandor, in Buddhist mythology was supposed to have been the last previous re-incarnation of Buddha who had abandoned a prosperous kingdom, had given as alms his wife Metri and his two children to live as a hermit. This made her realize that her Buddhist education was totally inadequate to withstand the KR regime. Pol Pot used the Buddhist tradition of enlightenment that is the fusion with the ultimate Truth connected with the nature of the Buddha. Pol Pot used a similar approach, substituting Revolution for Enlightenment and Angkar for the Buddha. “We cannot do the Revolution on our own since the Party, the Revolution and the people are always welded. We are all like droplets that can merge together to create a mighty ocean” (p. 260). This was precisely what Claire Ly refused to be … “Je me sens comme une goutte d’eau particulière qui ne ressemble à aucune autre goutte d’eau, une goutte d’eau qui ose pretendre qu’elle est unique et différente de la nature même de l’océan !” “I feel like a very particular drop that resembles no other drop, a drop that dares to claim that it is unique and event different from the very nature of the ocean!”(166)
The Buddhist renunciation of the self had to be practiced in daily life with the disappearance of the ‘I’. Instead, people had to say ‘we’. A child called his parents ‘uncle and aunt’; every relation became collective. This process was to continue until the ‘student’, whatever his class origin or his place in production, had achieved ‘proletarian consciousness through illumination’ (in Vietnamese Archives). Theravada Buddhism taught that nirvana, the realm of selflessness, could be attained only when ‘the thirst for existence’, made up of worldly and emotional attachments, had been totally extinguished. (328). Pol Pot himself in his preaching appeared to be ‘serene like a monk’ In Sopheap:
For a monk, there are different levels. At the first level, you feel joy. And it’s good. Then there’s a second level. You no longer feel anything for yourself, but you feel the joy of others. And finally, there is a third level. You are completely neutral. Nothing moves you. This is the highest level. Pol Pot situated himself in that tradition of serenity. (340)
This is what I would call the definition of a totalitarian society and the blunt or brute recipes for this are given in this collection of slogans.
collecting and classifying all these slogans, can we say there exists a
philosophy that could be termed Pol-Potism? Yes. Philip Short calls it
“the Angkorean model of statecraft dressed in
communist clothes.… The King was now replaced by Angkar,
personified by Pol Pot”. When I
come to think of it, I am not sure the
policies coherent? No, quite incoherent. They wanted people to work
than before, but gave them no reward. They wanted citizens to be
also blindly obedient; they wanted the population to boom, but starved
thousands to death. They had put a smoking factory in the centre of the
arms (patterns) that represented the symbols of revolutionary
What these slogans show is that the KR leadership knew, as David Chandler pointed out in his preface, how to use the rhetoric of traditional sayings and give them a revolutionary twist. Similarly they (and Pol Pot more than anyone else) aped the manners of the traditional gurus or Buddhist monks to lull their audience to accept their most preposterous suggestions. While abolishing all religions, the KR not only followed the teaching methodology of the monks of learning by rote, they took advantage of the fatalism induced by the notion of karma and strove to make individuals dissolve into the greater will of Angkar, the embodiment of Revolution, which assumed the status of a kind of supernatural truth.
My comments and explanations can certainly always be improved. But I hope at least the corpus of 433 sayings of Angkar, the bare words of KR slogans will stand the time as examples of what a group of power-hungry men can concoct to exercise total control over their fellow human beings. In fact many of them are crude and even silly: they are the verbal equivalent of brute force. As most of the ideas were totally irrational, incoherent and contradictory, the technique of persuasion used by the KR leadership was not rational arguments, not facts and figures, but merely repetition. Repetition stood for rationality. Still, 18 months after sending the final proofs to the publisher, I am aware I would have plenty more details to add, on Pol Pot or on Buddhism and am prepared to admit I could have been mistaken or misinformed in many of those comments. This is why now I am expecting your critical comments and your queries ……
After a most informative question and answer session, the meeting adjourned to the Alliance Cafeteria where members of the audience engaged Henri in more informal discussion over drinks and snacks.