Wednesday 7 January 2009

End of a tyrant

Thirty years ago today, Pol Pot was deposed by the Vietnamese, ending one of the most murderous regimes the world has ever seen. He and his Communist Khmer Rouge guerrillas had taken control of Cambodia in 1975. Inspired by Chairman Mao, they drove millions of people – some still in their hospital beds – out of its cities into the country.

“Bourgeois” professionals like lawyers, doctors and teachers were killed along with their families. Even wearing glasses was enough to put your life in danger. In addition to those deliberately murdered, thousands of others died from the hardships and hunger of Pol Pot’s labour camps so that by the time he was driven from power, 1.75 million out of a population of 8 million were dead.

As Israel today continued its bombing and bombardment of Gaza for a twelfth day, it is interesting to note the key role played by the US bombing of Cambodia from 1969 onwards in bringing Pol Pot to power. One Khmer Rouge leader remarked: “Sometimes the bombs fell and hit little children, and then their fathers would be all for the Khmer Rouge.” Assaults designed to destroy resistance often have the opposite effect.


  1. Yes indeed. The Americans have a lot to answer for. Everybody knows about Vietnam but how many know that the US dropped more bombs on Laos than were dropped in the whole of Europe during the Second World War. That equates to one plane load of bombs every eight minutes for nine years! I'm enjoying your book "A Disastrous History of the World" by the way, which is immensely readable. The first chapter on volcanoes was absolutely fascinating.

  2. Thanks for your kind comment. Glad you're enjoying the book. That stat on Laos must have taken quite a bit of working out!

  3. Can't wait to start it. Loved your previous books. Would this not make great television? Or is Celebrity big Brother disaster enough?

  4. There was an interesting nature programme last night about swarms, called er, Swarms, I think. Apart from the fascinating photography of ten trillion flies making their own impressive smoke, and millions of starlings over Rome producing momentary Caulder-like shapes in the sky (making mockery of a falcon's attempts at ninety degree murder), there was a vivid demonstration of how wildebeest (pretty thick) as a herd can ford a dangerous crocodile-infested river without casualty. The zebra, op-art, modish intellectuals in comparison, have consultation meetings on a muddy bank – wide ranging, inclusive, probably more than one keynote speaker with maps – sneering at the mass of dimwits panicking and pushing, their way across. The zebras, having decided that they must cross, do it in doubtful, bet-hedging, zig-zaggy style. This results in a feast for the crocs and miserable time for the zebs. The wildebeest, importantly, get across unscathed, finding a way up the opposite bank to safety. The zebra did have sense to spy where the wildebeest, or whatever they were, made landfall, and shot up the opposite bank, exhausted and probably feeling slightly depressed and ashamed. The conclusion was that the swarm (big herd) has its own intelligence which seems to pay dividends when the pressure's on. I don't really know how this is relevant, though. Unless there was a really bossy, vain, paranoid zebra who thought he knew best, spouting homilies about rivers, destiny, necessary sacrifice... for others, of course!

  5. Hope you're not disappointed with the book.
    Missed "Swarms" sadly, but there is some evidence (though not conclusive)of animals seeming to be able to detect impending catastrophes, with elephants and other wild animals allegedly heading for higher ground before the Xmas tsunami of 2004 and largely escaping casualties. Chinese scientists apparently monitor animal behaviour in an attempt to predict earthquakes and in 1975 they saved many lives by evacuating parts of Liaoning province before a major quake struck. Evidently it's not foolproof, though, because the following year they didn't evacuate Tangshan and perhaps 650,000 died.