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The State of Mind of State

Cover of Pol Pot's Little Red Book Pol Pot's Little Red Book: The Sayings of Angkar by Henri Locard
Silkworm Books, Chiang Mai, 2004

One of the challenges of studying history is its untidiness. History is rarely straightforward. In spite of this, the historian's fundamental task is to ascribe some semblance of order to events which are not necessarily orderly.

One method of approaching this task is to think of states in much the same way as we think of individuals: sometimes rational, sometimes irrational, sometimes right, sometimes wrong. The actions of a state -- its laws, its policies, its public pronouncements -- are a dialogue between the state and its subjects, and between one state and other states.

The historian is eavesdropping, and the overheard dialogue may or may not make sense. Listen to a conversation between strangers, and you are left to wonder: why did they say this? Why did they not say that? To know the answers, you need to hear not only the dialogue, but also the internal monologue of each of the strangers. What are they thinking?

In the case of states, that internal monologue is given voice in the form of propaganda. The slogans and catchphrases of a regime are a reflection of its ideology; they illuminate the thinking of those in power. In effect, propaganda shows us the state's state of mind.

Khmer Rouge Cambodia is a case in point. This is what makes Henri Locard's Pol Pot's Little Red Book such a valuable contribution to the study of Cambodian history, and to the study of genocide in general. Locard examines an extensive collection of commonly repeated sayings from the Pol Pot time, and the picture they paint is chilling. The regime's mindset was a volatile mixture of cruelty, cunning, and unyielding extremism: a government of sociopaths, with no concern for the welfare of its own citizenry. Few phrases illustrate this more vividly than the most widely-known Khmer Rouge saying:

No gain in keeping, no loss in weeding out. (p. 210)

This adage was often expressed even more bluntly: To destroy you is no loss, to preserve you is no gain.

The extremism of the Khmer Rouge regime was perhaps its most unique aspect. It is doubtful that any revolution has ever pushed so hard, so fast, with such disastrous consequences. There were, however, other aspects of the regime that distinguished it from other superficially similar movements. Locard notes that the totalitarianism of the Khmer Rouge differed from the model presented in Orwell's 1984 in one very significant aspect: Khmer Rouge totalitarianism was anonymous. In Orwell's Oceania, the image of Big Brother was omnipresent: Big Brother's face stared out from posters on every streetcorner. In Cambodia, however, the omnipotent power -- Angkar was faceless and nameless. The term -- translated literally as -- "the organization" -- carried a flexibility that added to its effectiveness. Angkar, Locard notes, was simultaneously "the Communist Party of Kampuchea, its Standing Committee, as well as the state security apparatus, represented in every social cell of Khmer Rouge society." (p. 6) Its ambiguity was "the supreme psychological weapon these terrorists used to hold an entire population in a state of fear and abject submission." (p. 11)

That ambiguity, however, also meant that the regime could not pursue the cult of personality so commonly seen in dictatorships. "What a contrast with the worship of Mao or the fervor of Chinese crowds!" (p. 99)

Ultimately, however, the tactic may have contributed to the disastrous results of the revolution:

"Failing to induce adulation and submissiveness, the Angkar could only generate hatred. If concealment was the ultimate ploy for the leadership, it backfired and whipped up abhorrence in the context of total revolution. This might be one of the explanations why repression assumed proportions unknown in other Communist countries. The mask of Angkar was a good tactic to grab power, but it proved disastrous in government." (p. 99)

And, while Cambodian communism's closest ideological relative was probably Mao's China, the differences were significant:

"The history of the People's Republic of China since 1949 has swung like a pendulum between periods of revolutionary fervor, accompanied by waves of repression and economic crises, and periods of return to reality and more moderate policies fostering economic growth. Mao's entourage managed to contain him, and thus, stop him from foundering the ship of state on the rocks. However, nothing like this transpired in Democratic Kampuchea; nothing could contain Pol Pot's absolutism. Any and all opposition was nipped in the bud. The Angkar pushed the country into the abyss, with mass executions, the collapse of living standards, and famine, followed by years of foreign occupation." (p. 158)

By cataloging Khmer Rouge propaganda, Locard illuminates the process which led into the abyss. A few of Locard's examples serve to illustrate just how deep that abyss became:

"Angkar has [the many] eyes of the pineapple." (p. 112)

"You can arrest someone by mistake; never release him by mistake." (p. 208)

"Better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake." (p. 209)

"Better to arrest ten innocent people by mistake than free a single guilty party." (p. 209)

These slogans demonstrate the regime's pervasive suspicion and paranoia. As the first layer of a pineapple's rind is cut away, the spines inside the fruit are revealed in small, round recesses, and the Khmer refer to these as "eyes." Angkar's eyes were everywhere, seeing everything, in all directions. The destruction of enemies was paramount, and if innocent people died in the pursuit of those enemies, no matter.

"If you have a disease of the old society, take a dose of Lenin as medication." (p. 189)

"The sick are victims of their own imagination." (p. 188)

To be sick was to be weak; and to be weak was unforgivable. And what of those who failed to adapt to the new way of life? There were several sayings that made their fate clear:

"He who protests is an enemy; he who opposes is a corpse." (p. 204)

"If someone is very hungry, the Angkar will take him where he will be stuffed with food." (p. 204)

"If you wish to live exactly as you please, the Angkar will put aside a small piece of land for you."(p. 298)

Although the second and third statements are less blunt than the first, the meaning is the same: to be "stuffed with food" is to become a corpse, fertilizing the rice fields; and the "small piece of land" refers to a burial pit.

While Locard's book is narrowly focused on Khmer Rouge aphorisms, he does weave in a number of thoughtful and provocative observations about the fundamental nature of the Communists and the policies they pursued. He raises the interesting point that the Khmer Rouge built no permanent buildings (p. 222); aside from hastily constructed huts and a few Potemkin villages, their construction projects were limited to ill-conceived dikes, dams, and canals. This, it would seem, is a reflection of the fact that the Khmer Rouge imagined their movement to be purely rational and utilitarian. Beauty and grand architecture had no place in such a society.

Locard also touches briefly on the question of whether or not the Khmer Rouge were racist... and by extension, the question of whether or not their actions fit the strict legal definition of genocide. There is no doubt that the Khmer Rouge committed crimes against humanity on an epic scale; but the term genocide, in the context of international law, specifically refers to "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." (http://www.preventgenocide.org/genocide/officialtext.htm)

The violence of the Khmer Rouge was focused primarily along perceived distinctions in class. It was (ostensibly) a conflict between the supposedly noble communists and the allegedly evil capitalists. There are, however, some indications that violence was also focused along racial lines. There is clear evidence that ethnic Vietnamese were deliberately targeted by the communists; most were exiled to Vietnam when the Khmer Rouge seized power. Moreover, statistically speaking, ethnic Chinese and Chams suffered higher death rates than the population in general. Locard, however, raises an interesting point: among all the slogans commonly repeated by the Khmer Rouge, while there are several that refer to the Vietnamese, there are none aimed specifically at the Chams or Chinese. (p. 303) This is a marked contrast to other openly genocidal regimes. In Rwanda, for example, a Hutu newspaper proclaimed that "[A] cockroach cannot give birth to a butterfly.... The history of Rwanda show us clearly that a Tutsi stays always exactly the same that he has never changed." (http://www.gse.harvard.edu/~t656_web/peace/Articles_Spring_2004/Belman_Jonathan_hate_propaganda.htm); and in Nazi Germany, the newspaper Der Sturmer proclaimed on the front page of each issue that "The Jews are our misfortune!" (http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/history.html).

Locard also notes that a slogan repeated to Khmer Rouge cadres supports the view that starvation in Cambodia was not merely an unforeseen accident, but was instead used as a means of control:

"Hunger is the most effective disease." (p. 284)

Locard's book focuses on the slogans repeated by the Khmer Rouge when they were in power. It is worth noting, however, that their mindset remained essentially unchanged after their overthrow. When the invading Vietnamese forced the Khmer Rouge to retreat to camps along the Thai border, the Khmer Rouge dismissed the defeat as a temporary setback: "When the water is high, the fish eat the ants. When the water recedes, the ants eat the fish." Another slogan aimed at "persuading" reluctant refugees to return to Khmer Rouge controlled areas of Cambodia, rather than remaining in the Thai camps: "Those who go back first will sleep on cots. Those who go back second with sleep on straw. Those who go back last will sleep under the ground."

Locard's research is uniformly excellent, and exhaustive. The psychological landscape Locard maps out here has been left largely unexplored. John Marston's "Metaphors of the Khmer Rouge," in Cambodian Culture since 1975, covers similar territory, and is also highly recommended. Locard's work, however, is broader in scope, and more detailed. Those searching for a glimpse of the inner thoughts of a government gone mad will find that Henri Locard has opened a window that few others even knew existed.


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