BOOK REVIEW / 807: Licensed to kill: 'Brother Number One' - David Chandler: Westview Press, 16.95

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The Independent Online
ONLY A few people each century join humanity's list of super-

demons. Hitler and Stalin, I would imagine, top this century's bill. Then you would most likely add an obscure Cambodian schoolteacher who has only recently remarried and fathered a daughter. His name: Pol Pot. It is a name synonymous with fear, terror and death; with mass murder, secrecy and ruthless social experiments.

Whether he lives into the next century, or dies tomorrow at the age of 64, Pol Pot's reputation will not change. He is in the same league as Tamerlane and Genghis Khan, the other oriental tyrants who are remembered only for their cruelty. The difference between Pol Pot and the rest is that much is known about them, and very little about him. His adult life has been purposefully cloaked in mystery, his name and background changed to suit each bend in the revolutionary path. Even when he had won Cambodia in 1975, his paranoia did not allow him to show his face before the people and not even the faithful knew his identity.

The mask was dropped in a moment of hubris a few months before he fled Phnom Penh for Thailand in January 1979, to escape the Vietnamese army. Now it is firmly back in place and Brother Number One is Grandfather 87, the philosopher king of the Khmer Rouge. He has taken his latest name from the code (870) for the Central Committee of Cambodia's Communist Party, an organisation the world was told in 1981 had been abolished.

Any foreigner who seeks to penetrate this labyrinth has an unenviable task. David Chandler admits as much in a moment of honesty that exposes the difficulty of writing about a man many Cambodians believe is a ghost. 'There is something transparent and elusive about him that makes a biographical inquiry unsatisfactory and incomplete,' he writes. 'Often in my research I had the uneasy feeling that Saloth Sar (his given name) was just outside my line of vision observing me. This elusiveness . . . indicates the kind of impression Pol Pot has always preferred to leave . . . while proceeding in secret with incandescent revolutionary tasks.'

This is not an incandescent biography, but it is a worthy compilation of all that is known about Pol Pot. It is written as a textbook by an academic, and the average reader might find the kindergarten approach of headings and sub- headings a bit condescending. But David Chandler has important things to say on Cambodia and the nature of the Khmer Rouge (which, readers might like to know, is still controlled by Saloth Sar / Pol Pot / Brother Number One / Grandfather 87). Nothing there has changed. Cambodia's Communists (the Pol Pot branch as opposed to the Phnom Penh branch) apparently admit to mistakes, but continue to blame it all on Vietnamese subversion.

Neither Chandler, nor any other author, has yet managed to explain how a perfectly nice boy from the countryside, gentle and softly spoken, bright but far from brilliant, sent to France to complete his formal education, a popular, sensitive and successful teacher, a person of Buddhist principles, a passionate nationalist first and a passionate Communist second, could end up responsible for one of the greatest acts of genocide this century - the purposeful destruction of a nation and the deaths of more than 1 million people, including friends, family and tens of thousands of dedicated party workers in just over three years.

There are some signposts to explain his political growth to this ghastly authoritarianism. The model for his decision to turn Cambodia into a vast work camp came from Yugoslavia, where he went as a student volunteer from Paris at the height of Tito's clash with Stalin in the Fifties. China's Cultural Revolution, with its leitmotiv of total and violent upheaval, was his other inspiration.

In China there was a brake on the madness - the People's Liberation Army. In Cambodia there was nothing to restrain the clique of inward-looking and inexperienced Cambodian revolutionaries led by Brother Number One who won their country's civil war. From the time they headed for the jungle in the Sixties, their only contact was with fellow believers. The same is true today.

Perhaps the most disturbing fact to emerge from Chandler's research is the affection Cambodians have for the man once they have met him or worked with him. No defector has ever singled out Pol Pot as his reason for betraying the party. Instead, says Chandler, they came away with memories of a man they regarded almost as a saint; a Cambodian ideal. They talk about his goodness, his kindness, his humour. He shows no remorse, his ideas have not changed, his view of the world is constant - a conflict between contending good and evil forces. And his followers seem quite certain Pol Pot will triumph again. To me that is the most frightening thing of all.