How Pol Pot Came to Power: Colonialism, Nationalism, and Communism in Cambodia, 1930-1975

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Yale University Press, 2004 - History - 430 pages
2 Reviews
02 How did Pol Pot, a tyrant comparable to Hitler and Stalin in his brutality and contempt for human life, rise to power? This authoritative book explores what happened in Cambodia from 1930 to 1975, tracing the origins and trajectory of the Cambodian Communist movement and setting the ascension of Pol Pot’s genocidal regime in the context of the conflict between colonialism and nationalism. A new preface bring this edition up to date.Praise for the first edition:“Given the highly secretive nature of Pol Pot’s activities, the precise circumstances and manoeuvres that propelled him to the top of the heap will perhaps never be known. But Kiernan has come impressively close to it. . . . And he has presented it in a wide perspective, drawing interesting comparisons with communist movements in Indonesia, Thailand, Burma and India. . . . Incisive.”—T. J. S. George, Asiaweek, “Editor’s Pick of the Month” “A rich, gruesome and compelling tale. . . fascinating, well-researched and measured. . . a model of judgement and scholarship.”—Fred Halliday, New Statesman“[Kiernan’s] capacity for dogged research on three continents, and his mastery of every ideological nuance. . . [are] awe-inspiring.”—Dervla Murphy, Irish Times
How did Pol Pot, a tyrant comparable to Hitler and Stalin in his brutality and contempt for human life, rise to power? This authoritative book explores what happened in Cambodia from 1930 to 1975, tracing the origins and trajectory of the Cambodian Communist movement and setting the ascension of Pol Pot’s genocidal regime in the context of the conflict between colonialism and nationalism. A new preface bring this edition up to date.Praise for the first edition:“Given the highly secretive nature of Pol Pot’s activities, the precise circumstances and manoeuvres that propelled him to the top of the heap will perhaps never be known. But Kiernan has come impressively close to it. . . . And he has presented it in a wide perspective, drawing interesting comparisons with communist movements in Indonesia, Thailand, Burma and India. . . . Incisive.”—T. J. S. George, Asiaweek, “Editor’s Pick of the Month” “A rich, gruesome and compelling tale. . . fascinating, well-researched and measured. . . a model of judgement and scholarship.”—Fred Halliday, New Statesman“[Kiernan’s] capacity for dogged research on three continents, and his mastery of every ideological nuance. . . [are] awe-inspiring.”—Dervla Murphy, Irish Times
 

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Part 2 of review
In the chapter “The First Civil War", the book tells of how the CPK began to organise uprisings in the country. These uprisings were unsuccessful largely because of Sihanouk’s
popularity. However, the government of that time took many repressive measures which drove much of the population in the rural areas towards the communist rebels. Kiernan notes the heavy involvement of the Vietnamese in the training of the CPK. He also shows how little the government knew about communist activities or even who was leading them. With the overthrow of Sihanouk by Lon Nol, the CPK intensified their armed struggle, this time against the US-backed Khmer Republic.
In the final chapter, “The Second Civil War, Kiernan gives a blow-by-blow account of Pol Pot’s movements including the formation of an alliance with the now-deposed Sihanouk. He also discusses the many accounts of Cambodia’s entry into the Vietnam War in 1970. More importantly, he highlights 1973 as a watershed year in the Civil War. US air strikes in Cambodia had resulted in huge civilian casualties which only bolstered the strength and popular support of the CPK against Lon Nol’s government. It also had the effect of discrediting moderates within the CPK. In this environment, Pol Pot’s radical group was able to consolidate more power within the CPK; already purges were being conducted in the CPK against Hanoi-trained members. Kiernan is of the opinion that the purges restricted the CPK’s popular base such that the only way for the party to survive politically was to mobilise a “Khmer national chauvinism under its banner” which eventually led to the war with Vietnam.
As mentioned above, this book is very much event-driven and is light on drawing an overarching theme or hypothesis. In essence, the book is interested in how things happened as opposed to why things happened. It is also important to note that the author has been involved in efforts to document the atrocities of the Pol Pot regime ; he was awarded about US$500,000 by the US congress for these purposes. Several journals have attacked him, including the Wall Street Journal, calling him the “wrong man to investigate Cambodia”.# The writer in the journal asserts that Kiernan was a staunch supporter of the Pol Pot until Vietnam’s invasion ended the regime. Kiernan apparently changed his tack as more and more details came to light of the massacres. While a book review should focus on the book and not the author, it is difficult to judge the book without trying to second guess the author's motives for the book. Nevertheless, the book, in dealing mainly with the time before the Pol Pot regime, steers clear from this controversy and gives a good picture of his rise to power.
 

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Part 1 of review
In “How Pol Pot Came to Power: Colonialism, Nationalism, and Communism in Cambodia, 1930-1975”, Ben Kiernan traces how events and decisions made by the Great Powers came to enable
and help bring Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to the fore. The book begins by setting a background of the stage, examining Khmer politics pre-1940s. He then discusses how there were “contending colonialsims” in the years 1940-49 and “contending nationalisms” in the years 1949-52. After a few chapters on the international intervention, he shows how during “contending communisms”, the radical faction in the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) gained strength and eventually won the civil war in 1975. The book does not present a clear thesis, but rather, provides a chronology that is heavy on details and facts.
In the first chapter, “The origins of Khmer Politics : Kampuchea between the Wars”, Kiernan delves into the politics of Cambodia in the 1920s to the outbreak of the Second World War. Some attention is paid to Khmer Buddhism and how it relates to Khmer politics but most of the chapter is devoted to the formation of the modern Khmer elite, retelling the histories of the main players including Saloth Sar (Pol Pot), Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan. The deficiency of higher education facilities in colonial Cambodia resulted in the lack of intellectuals and generally slowed the advance of modernity in the country. Kiernan argues that this was to have implications later when education was expanded rapidly in the 1960s.
In “Contending colonialisms”, Kiernan focuses on actions of the invading Japanese and the French colonial authorities without much analysis of the events. The next chapter, “contending nationalisms” provides most of the detail of the communist factions in the 1940s as well as the Vietnamese connection via the Indochinese Communist Party. Khmer groups fighting for independence from the French (such as the nationalist Issarak) had difficulties linking up due to the disparate ideologies defining each group. Kiernan explains that the traditionalist attitudes “cut across that of independence”. Nevertheless, by 1950, the rebel Khmer forces were putting up stiff resistance to French colonial forces.
In the next few chapters, Kiernan details the events leading up to the independence of Cambodia as a constitutional monarchy with King Norodom Sihanouk as its head. Sihanouk’s attempts to constantly reposition himself among the various factions in the Khmer politics in order to stabilise the country began to fail with the US and Vietminh incursion in the Eastern parts of the country. In the chapter, “Changing of the Vanguard : “political struggle’, 1955-1967, Kiernan shows how Pol Pot’s radical group began to gain stronger support in the CPK.
 

Contents

Preface to the Second Edition
iv
Introduction
xxxix
Kampuchea
1
194049
41
194952
65
195254
117
International Supervision
140
Political
169
The First Civil War 196770
249
The Second
297
Epilogue
412
Glossary of Terms and Abbreviations
424
Copyright

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About the author (2004)

Ben Kiernan is the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History, professor of international and area studies, and the founding director of Yale’s Cambodian Genocide Program and Genocide Studies Program (www.yale.edu/gsp). Other books by the author include, Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur and The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979, published by Yale University Press.

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