“He was very likeable, a really nice person. He was friendly, and everything he said seemed very sensible.” But he was also one of history’s most accomplished mass murderers, as this portrait shows.
The man born Saloth Sâr in 1925 was something of an accidental communist, suggests former Beijing BBC correspondent Short (Mao: A Life, 2000). As a young foreign-exchange student in 1950 Paris, Sâr had the chance to go camping for a month in Switzerland but, unable to afford the $70 fee, instead took a free work-study trip to Yugoslavia. A revolutionary was thus born, though it appears that Sâr was pushed hard to the left by the intransigent, newly installed Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who suppressed the democratic reform movements of the time. As a guerrilla living among the Montagnard people in Cambodia’s eastern highlands, Sâr slowly elaborated a city-dweller–hating ideology that, Short writes, would form the basis of a modern slave state: farmers outside the zone of urban corruption were the vanguard of a nativist revolutionary movement; urbanites were first in line to be imprisoned and executed. He adopted his new name (the Pols had been royal slaves) in 1970, the year the American invasion of Cambodia swelled the ranks of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot’s peasant cadres drove the Americans away and, once the foreigners were gone, turned their weapons on their own people—often, Short writes, cannibalizing their victims. As many as 1.5 million Cambodians died from 1975 to 1978, when a Vietnamese invasion ended the terror. (Pol fled, dying 20 years later, still “chillingly unrepentant.”) Yet, Short argues, recent attempts to try the surviving Khmer Rouge leadership for genocide are legally inexact and in all events seem intended to disguise America’s role in the bloodbath, as well as the involvement of still-powerful figures like Sihanouk, who only recently abdicated.
A superbly wrought, richly nuanced study in evil, though more likely to attract discussion for its controversial conclusion than its careful rendering of its murderous subject.