Pol Pot: Cambodian Hero or Evil

Pol Pot: Cambodian Hero or Evil


Much of what has been written about Pol Pot since his time in power has been intemperate, reflecting the prevailing human reactions towards the brutal dictator rule responsible for the killing of close to one million Cambodians in the years 1976-1979. The horrors of his crimes against his Cambodian people and the sort of ignominy he inflicted on his victims have all been well documented. This paper will state a case for why he should not completely be termed as evil, but on the same note it will expound on some of the justifications that have been given for his terming as evil.

An alienated and banal person is one who chooses the structure of consciousness of master and slave, who constantly lives an exteriorized objectified existence and frequently has forfeited his or her own personality. Such a person cannot relate to justice or beauty or to truths or to wisdom. Such a person will not develop his or her personality, or relate to other persons and personalities. Also, it is dubious that such an individual, who is alienated from freedom and from his her own personality, can establish a worthy relation. According to Cargas ( 1999, pp. 124-125), Hannah Arendt spoke of the banality of evil, that may be to diminish is too much, but it is an abdication of responsibility if people refuse to recognize the humanity of evil and its place in all peoples hearts and minds.Arendt examined how to combat the banality of evil. Conformity and going along with the crowd, blind obedience and simple amorality were becoming inscribed in modern culture.

The twentieth century witnessed extreme situations of wicked political regimes and historical societies in which the master-slave relationship almost totally eradicated freedom, and destroyed the possibility of living as a free person. The evil totalitarian regimes linked to the names Hitler, Stalin, and Mao and Pol Pot were probably the most extreme examples of such master-slave political regimes. But other terrible regimes also ruined freedom and personality, such as the regime of Iraq under the evil mastery of Saddam Hussein, and the current dictatorship of the generals in Myanmar. One result of the extreme situation of totalitarianism was the nurturing of individuals who have no discernible personality, who are boring, insidious, banal and evil, and quite willing to perform the wicked deeds (Gordon & Gordon, 2002, pp. 89-90).

Life of Pol Pot

The geographic realignment of the communist movement in Cambodia set in place a drastic reconfiguration, one that would facilitate the emergence of a group of Paris educated Cambodians that included a soft spoken yet charismatic man known as Pol Pot. Born as Saloth Sar in March 1925, Pol Pot spent his formative years first in Kampong Thom and later, in Phom Penh. Pol Pot’s family was far from being impoverished. They had vast wealth and had links to the ruling elite of Cambodia. He went through an education system that was largely in Cambodia except for a scholarship he received to study radio electricity in Paris.

It was in Paris that he adopted his nom de plume, Pol Pot, which means “the original Cambodian” (Tyner, 2009, pp. 115-116). During this time, he developed an extreme sense of nationalism, as well as hostility toward anything he consideredimperialist. He became interested in Marxism and became involved in the Cambodian section of the French Communist Party.Through the movement, Cambodian Communist, he became part of the movement whose objectives were to modernize Cambodia through the promotion of a socialist agenda. By necessity, the movement was both antimonarchical and anti-America. It is through this movement that he was able to cease power and became the default leader of Cambodia.

As was often the practice in Cambodia, new regimes often eliminated their predecessors and political opponents. The Pol Potregime was not any different. He imprisoned and executed not just direct or suspected opponents, but also those whose backgrounds suggested that they might not promote the revolution(Weltig, 2012, p. 101). This system was extended even to local leaders of his government who killed people for the simplest of reasons, for example those who simply complained of exhaustion or hunger.

His government also radically restructured Cambodian society. It eliminated urban life, redefined fundamental social units such as families, and forced nearly all its citizens to work from early morning until late at night. But instead of increasing productivity and equally distributing wealth, the regime’s policies bred the worst hardship and violence Cambodia had ever experienced.Between April 1975 and January 1979, hundred of thousands of people died of execution, disease, overwork and starvation (Weltig, 2012, p. 103). The dead included more than 25 percent of the April 17 people and more than 15 percent of the Base people. Close to 50 percent of Cambodian Cham people died. The regime killed or deported all Vietnamese Cambodians. About one-fifth of the population was killed through executions, torture, and exhaustion under the Khmer Rouge communist regime that was led by him (Bergin, 2009, pp. 7-8).By late 1978, Pol Pot’s policies put Cambodia, then renamed Democratic Kampuchea in a precarious position. His anti-Vietnamese stance made an all-out war with Vietnam inevitable. His violent purges had strengthened opposition to him. In 1979, Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea and deposed Pol Pot from power.

Young SalothSar had envisioned a communist utopia. As Pol Pot, he tried to make his dream a reality. His experiment failed.

For Pol Pot, the annihilation of differences was envisioned as part of a high-modernist project of social engineering that would lead society to a revitalized future. Human beings were conceptualized in abstract terms, as units with which to build the new revolutionary society (Hinton, 2005, p. 296). Since some of these units were regressive and threatened to subvert social progress as suggested by food shortages, perceived coups, and supposed betrayal, they had to be eliminated. Even at a distance from the actual killing, Pol Pot’s actions were motivated by local understandings of patronage, the ideological doctrine he had helped to formulate, the atmosphere of suspicion and anxiety he had helped to create, his group interactions with others, and the narcissistic inflation he achieved through the destruction of impure enemies burrowing from within.

Evil is like a fungus, deadly but shallow, never radical, with no depth and nothing demonic about it. Rather than demonizing people as inherently evil, Tymieniecka (2006, p. 655) posits that evil should be seen as something opportunistic that passes like an electric current through the world and through people, or wondering like an infection that  takes up residence in individuals or cultures from time to time. Tymieniecka (2006, p. 655) argues that every age and place  has its own brand of evil, because evil exploits available resources, and this is not any different from the doings of Pol Pot.Pol Pot was a terrible, terrifying totalitarian regime. He was an extreme example of banality and evil, since he had much power to do evil, and daily performed many evil deeds without qualms. It is doubtful that Pol Pot had a conscience, but till, many people alive today, who live in a democratic or semi-democratic country, and who are not far off from choosing and living a way of life which persistently smothers their own personality and embrace banality. Quite a few of these people have also forfeited their conscience in the same way Pol Pot can be assumed to have done

Even for the most bureaucratically distanced and highly constrained of perpetrators, like Eichmann and Lor, killing is never completely banal. People are enabled and, compelled by the contexts in which they live (Hinton, 2005, p. 296). They have multiple motivations and they all invest psychologically in what they do. Though despicable, genocidal perpetrators are meaning-making beings with complex motivations that cannot simply be explained away in terms of ideological fanaticism or obedience to authority. These two motivations play an important role in genocide, but neither leads to an understanding of the complexity of human action. Including those brutal deeds carried out by perpetrators like Pol Pot.

In conclusion, with evil as banality, as the unwillingness to think about what one is doing, Arendt made a convincing case for the power of thinking and of conscience. Once people allow the “wind of thought” to breeze their minds, actions come to a halt (Cotkin, 2013, p. 29). Thoughts of this type might stop people from committing acts of evil which, in a certain context, appear to be perfectly reasonable-indeed even mandated by the power and prestige of the state.

The Pol Pot who the people of Cambodia remember was not a dictator or an oppressor. On the contrary, he was a great nationalist and compatriot, a true devotee of traditional principles and native way of life. He was nurtured in a royal palace and educated in Paris, but instead of enriching himself and pursuing a career, he opted to return home and devoted some years of his life living with forest tribes to learn from the peasants. He was compassionate with the ordinary village people who had continuously been ripped off by the city people. He assembled an army to stand up for the country side peasants for the power wielding urban oppressors.To the people of Cambodia, Pol Pot was a monkish man of simple needs who did not pursue power, fame or wealth for himself. On the contrary he had one great ambition, to end the failing expatriate instituted capitalism in Cambodia and return the country to village tradition and thereafter, reconstruct the country from scratch.

Pol Pot fitted the visionary leaders of Cambodian past.A past heavy with prolonged exploitations and abuses of the foreign powers of the time. At some stage in his life, he countered against the subservience and quietness of the people of Cambodia. The traditional authority of Cambodian monarchy and the monarchy’s indolence depressed him. He saw communism as a set of empowering and liberating system that could be applied to the country to eliminate the traditional authority, economic and social injustice and subservience. He saw it his role to include the peasants of Cambodia as the main instrument, the channel through which social change and transformation could be achieved.

Throughout his life, Pol Pot seemed to have tailored his performance to fit the people he was with, to fit the expectations of his followers making genocidal maniac hard to find. Up until his death, many Cambodian peasants continued to embrace his vision of a new society. This disjunction between his genteel charm and the death toll of his rule, however, remains an enigma that transcends dispositional explanations. As he puts it to Thayer (1997), “look at me, am I a savage person? My conscience is clear.”



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