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Book Review


Kiernan, 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.

      Cambodia's 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 communist movement. 1
     The 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. 2
     King 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 processes. 3
     Following 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. 4
     Over 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.  5
     Kiernan 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.  6
     Modern 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.  7
     Finally, 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. 8
Morten Bach
Ohio University, Zanesville

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