Pol Pot's engaging smile

People quite often tell me that they find the violent revolution and the following even more violent genocide in Cambodia in 1975 ‘incomprehensible’. Incomprehensible in the same way as the Holocaust is incomprehensible, I presume. I, however, do not find either of them incomprehensible.

On the contrary, the more one learns about human nature, the easier it is to see how capable we are of destructive behaviour.

In general, I would say, we tend to simplify the moral conflicts yesterday’s people were faced with. To us, it might seem like a question of bravery or cowardice – whether one had the courage to do the right thing in a bad time. But every so often people found – and find – themselves with no options left. You are at a crossroads where it is not possible to do what is morally right, and the only way out would be suicide. But, if you have children or other people depending on you, suicide might be even worse than reluctantly supporting a system you despise.

When I started working on my novel Song for an Approaching Storm, in which the man who later would be known as Pol Pot is one of the three main characters, one of my motives was to complicate the picture of the genocidal tyrant. The human mind is inclined towards proportionality – evil deeds are supposed to be committed by an equally evil man. This makes the seemingly incomprehensible more comprehensible, but to me that is merely a comforting illusion.

The people I have met who knew Pol Pot always speak of a gentle, likeable man with ‘an engaging smile’. In his youth, before he became politically aware, he was considered a fun person to be around, who liked poetry, music and having a good time.

We all interpret what we see around us through the prism of our beliefs and values. Most of us strive for rationality, to make the world understandable. So do political fanatics. I would say that Pol Pot created the system that killed a quarter of the Cambodian population – but it also created him. A kind of disastrous interaction over time.

My novel is set in 1955, when Pol Pot has returned to his homeland Cambodia from a couple of years’ university study in Paris. He has not however come back with a university diploma, but with membership to the French Communist party. Cambodia has recently regained its independence from France and the first free general elections are scheduled for September of that year. Pol Pot is living a double life, conspiring with his communist friends at night and working as a much appreciated teacher during the day. But he is also openly campaigning for the main opposition party, hoping to get a good job in the government after the election, a position that would enable him to marry his fiancée, who is of royal descent and whose aristocratic family will not settle for a simple teacher.

I had this story from a close friend of Pol Pot’s. According to this source, things might have turned out very differently if the government had not tampered with the election results. As a result of the election fraud, Pol Pot never got the opportunity to pursue a civil service career, and his fiancée left him for his political arch rival (whose future indeed seemed brighter). With the doors of love and democracy slamming in his face he was left with only one group of friends: the communists.

Every novel with an ambition beyond the political pamphlet has numerous motives and not even the author understands or is aware of them all. But, as mentioned, one part of my project was to replace the genocidal monster with the once-likeable man. In these times, when terrible reports about ISIS violence recall one of the most murderous millenarist movements since the Khmer Rouge, we need to be able to understand what drives people to destruction. In Song for an Approaching Storm, my intention was not to rehabilitate a murderous dictator but to explore the capacity for darkness I believe is latent in all of us.