Ben. How Pol Pot Came to Power: Colonialism, Nationalism, and Communism
in Cambodia, 1930-1975, 2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).
425 pp., $22.50.
Khmer Rouge regime has become shorthand for genocidal political extremism.
Because the leadership consistently revised its own history, it is particularly
difficult to get at the truth. Untangling the mess was, and remains, a historical
challenge of the first magnitude. Ben Kiernan, Professor of History and
Director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University, was among the
first to take up that challenge. Based on Kiernan's 1983 doctoral thesis,
the first edition of How Pol Pot Came to Power broke ground for all
those who would later study the origins and development of the Cambodian
book's opening chapters deal with Cambodian anti-colonial resistance from
the 1930s through the Japanese occupation to the anti-French resistance
of the First Indochina War. In 1951, at the height of the Indochina War,
Communists organized the Khmer People's Revolutionary Party. Surprisingly,
given the policies with which the movement would later be associated, the
party's initial goal was very modest: "simply independence" . As part of
a united front backed by the Viet Minh, the KPRP over time managed to mount
a serious political challenge to King Sihanouk and his French backers.
Sihanouk, facing guerilla resistance as well as political opposition from
the nationalist Democratic Party, launched his own "royal crusade" for independence,
effectively co-opting the nationalist cause. Achieving international recognition
and the withdrawal of Viet Minh forces at the 1954 Geneva Conference, Sihanouk
portrayed himself as Cambodia's liberator. In disarray, the nationalist
opposition was further undercut by the king's adoption of a neutralist foreign
policy and his shameless manipulation of electoral as well as constitutional
Geneva, many senior Vietnamese-trained Khmer communists relocated to North
Vietnam, opening opportunities for new men to take power in the party, among
them Saloth Sar (Pol Pot). Kiernan, who draws sharp distinctions among communist
factions, characterizes Sar and his French-educated associates as a new
breed of Cambodian communists. While the pro-Vietnamese "veterans" had been
relatively moderate, Sar 's faction was ideological, chauvinistic and extremist.
Over the next decade, Sar became increasingly important in party circles,
eventually became party secretary in 1963.
the course of the 1960s, Khmer communists were gradually driven underground
as a result of an "increasingly rebellious Party posture" combined with
"a gradual but sporadic increase in government repression". While Sihanouk
adopted neutralist and "socialist" policies identical to those favored by
the left, he also closed down legitimate avenues of dissent, ironically
pushing moderates into the arms of an underground communist leadership which
by 1966 had become implacably hostile to the regime and increasingly devoted
to armed struggle against it.
divides the resulting civil war into two phases. The first produced only
limited successes for the newly renamed Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK)
and "provoked the final eclipse of the urban left". By 1970, however, the
spillover from the war in Vietnam began to work decisively in the CPK's
favor. A right-wing coup which removed Sihanouk from power opened the door
to a tactical alliance between the deposed monarch and the CPK, which could
now capitalize on Sihanouk's prestige and support in the countryside. Further,
the enormous devastation caused by U.S. bombing and the 1970 U.S.-South
Vietnamese invasion worked to CPK advantage by draining support for the
Lon Nol regime. Finally, while the heavy U.S. bombing of 1973 may have saved
Lon Nol in the short term, Kiernan believes, it ultimately aided Pol Pot.
By prolonging the fighting, it allowed the Pol Pot faction of the CPK to
finally overpower the party's pro-Vietnamese faction. As these rivals disappeared,
Kiernan suggests, so did the last potential source of moderation and the
last possible obstacle to the kind of "instant" communism which Pol Pot
and his associates were well on their way to implementing even before the
fall of Phnom Penh.
Cambodian history would certainly be of interest to teachers of world history
contemplating issues related to anti-colonial nationalism, postwar Marxist
party organization, and genocide. While Kiernan's book can be a useful reference,
it should not be confused with a general introduction. The dense, meandering
narrative makes this book anything but an easy read even for those with
previous exposure to the subject. Non-specialists looking for an accessible
introduction to modern Cambodia or to Pol Pot would probably have better
luck with one of several volumes by David Chandler on the subject.
it should be noted that while the book is advertised as a second edition,
it is really the first edition with a new preface. The preface, based largely
on Kiernan's recent articles published elsewhere, briefly traces developments
from 1975 to 2003. Given the fact that the book was originally published
more than 20 years ago, one might well wonder if additional information
or the work of other scholars have in any way modified or added to our knowledge
of the subject. A survey of the state of the field or a bibliographic update
would have been a welcome addition. For such inquiries, however, readers
will have to go elsewhere.
Ohio University, Zanesville