Manoa 16.1 (2004) 21-25
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The Diabolic Sweetness of Pol Pot
In the beginning was the Word/and the Word was with God/and the Word was God./All things were made by Him/and without Him nothing was made.
At the time that Pol Pot was teaching me Verlaine, I had not yet learned to distrust sweet things. In 1957 , he was my French teacher, though later he claimed to have been a history teacher, in order not to appear to have been an advocate of the colonialists' culture. We knew him by the name of Saloth Sar, and nothing he said to us betrayed his engagement in politics—until the day in 1962 when he left for the resistance. I need to revise my memory of that school year: Pol Pot was not just the disciple of Verlaine who, as a good philologue, knew how to win over his students with his explications de texte: "It rains in my heart as it rains on the city. From whence comes this languor that pierces my heart..."
The consequences of the phantasmagoric catastrophe of human judgment that was the Khmer Rouge regime are now widely known, and it is time to take a closer look at the means by which they established themselves. Clearly, there were political and economic causes, but a cultural factor also played an important role, and until now it has been rather neglected: the use of the Cambodian language for propaganda, lie, and illusion. The word, particularly the spoken word, assumes great importance and prestige in countries with an oral tradition. In Cambodia, broadcasts by radio thus dominated the long workday. Before Phnom Penh fell, the radio transmitted Prince Sihanouk's interminable harangues; once the regime was installed, it broadcast the orders of the new masters, descriptions of an ideal society, and edifying biographies of the heroes of the revolution. Paradoxically, these broadcasts also found an avid audience over the border, in Bangkok, for they constituted the most reliable source of information about a country otherwise completely cut off from the world.
The method of the Khmer Rouge was to force together irreconcilable opposites. They presented rigidity as softness. They tangled sweetness and cruelty together until they could not be told apart. The verb to request, for example, became terrifying. You were never ordered, never forced to do [End Page 21] [Begin Page 23] anything; you were requested...You were requested to give them your moped, you were requested to separate from your wife, you were requested to give yourself up to the Organisation supérieure [Angkar]. That is to say, you were requested to die...And Pol Pot, the bloody tyrant, soul of that regime, continued to present himself as a man so sociable and amiable he almost seemed naive. You could even be briefly annoyed with yourself for begrudging him his request for your self-genocide.
It was at the pagoda that Pol Pot learned the Khmer language. Just as Nietzsche drank deeply of Biblical poetry before doing away with God, so Pol Pot, a shaven-headed monk for many years, imbibed Buddhist poetry in the verses of religious literature and then executed Buddha. Realizing the power of language, Pol Pot kills, but he kills with poetry. His wife, Madame Khieu Ponnary, a high-born aristocrat who studied at both French and English universities, has proceeded to excite admiration by her lessons in Khmer philology. Did not Prince Sihanouk, in his Chronicles of War and Hope, praise her as "a woman of superior intelligence"?
It is difficult to render in translation the musicality of Cambodian verses and sayings. Yet I must try; for to do so is to realize how deeply the mass of Cambodian peasants (who knew nothing of Marxism-Leninism) responded to the poetry in the writing done by Pol Pot and Khieu Ponnary when they were in the Buddhist phase of their youth.
With his words, Pol Pot simplifies society. Everything...