Tolstoy said ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ I’m starting to think it’s the same with countries.
I read Elizabeth Becker’s ‘When The War Was Over’ when I was in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap last week.
Everyone knows the Khmer Rouge was one of the shittiest regimes of the 20th century. But it wasn’t just shitty like it was murderous and cruel. It was also shitty at *being a dictatorship*.
I mean, if you were designing an authoritarian regime from scratch, you would do everything differently from what they did.
First of all, the Khmer Rouge never released any propaganda. It was two years after they came to power than Pol Pot even announced his existence. The world, and the Cambodian population, didn’t even know it was a communist regime until the year before it crumbled in on itself.
Second, from its inception until its end, the regime prioritized political purity over all other considerations.
Its ostensible goal was kick-starting Cambodia into an industrial revolution in just a few years. Yet it assassinated all the engineers, economists and intellectuals that could have helped it achieve that goal.
It was more important to them that you were a ‘true’ peasant and revolutionary than that you knew what you were doing.
So they assigned untrained farmers to do things like build dams and construct large-scale irrigation systems. All of which, duh, failed as soon as it rained.
Third, they believed their own insane accusations.
In the face of this hurtling disaster, the regime blamed deliberate sabotage, not its own ill-advised policies. So they tortured their generals until they ‘confessed’ to being paid by the CIA or the Vietnamese to destroy rice crops.
The regime couldn’t shine a light on itself, since it would reveal all the cracks.
Overall, the Khmer Rouge is maybe the purest 20th century example of what happens when you rule through fear and violence alone.
Hitler, Mao and Stalin, when their regimes began, had significant public support. The Khmer Rouge, on the other hand, wasn’t even known to the population, much less supported.
In 1975, as their troops marched into Phnom Penh, the party consisted of only 100,000 people, aiming to control a population of 7 million.
It failed not because of popular resistance but because its leadership was petrified of its fragility being revealed.
It took the regime four years to wipe out a century of development and almost a quarter of the population. Thirty years later, it turns out annihilation is the only thing it was ever any good at.