Who hasn't seen The Killing Fields, the Hollywood hit about atrocities in Cambodia under Khmer Rouge rule. (Incidentally, the director of that movie, Roland Joffe, also directed the recently released torture porn movie Captivity.)
In the book's introduction, Short shows that Cambodia's killings is not only comparable to Rwanda's or Germany's, but maybe even worse, in a way, as the killings were directed at the, ethnically, same people who perpetrated the killings. The fact that, technically, therefore, the killings were not a genocide also makes them different from comparable atrocities in recent history. Pop Pot and his minions were out to enslave a population, not kill it. The dying thousands (estimates go up to 2 million) were more like an inconvenient side effect.
Shorts puts a lot of actors on the stage, practically all with names I had to struggle with. That, combined with the lesser well known historical backdrop of South East Asia, makes the story a bit hard to follow at times. That said, Short has put down a strikingly immersive and surprisingly human portrait of yet another man who became a monster, even though Pol Pot is more accurately 'only' a major player in the book, not necessarily the central subject.
One thing I found surprising was that Pol Pot, in his early years, wasn't of the revolutionary type at all, but only slowly drifted to more radical actions and views.
The author makes a point of non-Marxist style of the Cambodian 'communist' movement. For Marx, it was the industrial proletariat who represented progress, development, which was required for the revolution; their class inequality, their economically bad position, being the ultimate driver for a worker's revolution.
In Cambodia, with the absence of a working class, the substitute became the badly educated group of people, with little access to modern amenities, the peasantry. They were, ideologically, put in the place of the proletariat. Meanwhile, the class struggle was replaced by a mental struggle, where the improvement of the 'self', not the goal of economic gain, was positioned as the highest achievement.
Needless to say, a system with a vague definition for 'class struggle' is extremely open to abuse. Although obviously with totally different objectives, the Cambodian revolution was put forward as a communist revolution, extolling the virtues of the peasantry. And, in fact, because the Cambodian workers party, the precursor to the Cambodian communist party, was so out of touch with the actual but tiny working class, the workers, out of fear and perceived risk, they were quickly labeled as traitors, potential liabilities, completely removing the possibility of the 'communists' using the workers as the vanguard of their future revolution.
Now, Cambodia is still very much struggling with its past and although not quite a failed state, also not at the forefront of development. A lot of that, but by no means all, is the result of Khmer Rouge influence, the struggle leading to three years of Khmer Rouge rule between 1975 and 1978, followed by nearly 20 years of war between Cambodia and Vietnam. A war which evolved into a proxy war between the Soviets, backing Vietnam, and the Chinese, in secret supported by the Americans, backing Cambodia.
Interesting fact: Buddhist monks are not allowed to eat between midday and sunrise the following morning.
There's an interesting interview with Short on this book available.