Political Religion & the Khmer Rouge


A review of Pol Pot’s Total Revolution: An Inquiry of Democratic Kampuchea as a Political Religion, by Steven Michael DeBurger.

Pol Pot’s Total Revolution offers a fresh reading of Cambodia’s Democratic Kampuchea period. This dissertation consists of 12 chapters and an appendix. Chapter 1 opens with a gloss on the pre-revolutionary violence that served as the condition of possibility for the emergence of Democratic Kampuchea, and second, the subsequent genocidal violence of Pol Pot’s revolutionary regime. The author follows this opening discussion by helpfully warning the reader that his dissertation will not focus on the questions that traditionally occupy research on Democratic Kampuchea. Rather, the dissertation will focus on what he identifies as critical “aporia” in the literature, namely those “aspects of the regime of terror historians and political scientists have been unconcerned with, or chose not to explore” (p. 4). This opening chapter also introduces Eric Voegelin’s key concept of political religion, which will be deployed in the subsequent chapters’ analyses of Democratic Kampuchea’s violent replacement of Khmer Buddhism with the regime’s totalitarian ideology.

Chapter 2 focuses on the genre of the survivor memoir. The author draws on the harrowing survivor narratives of Haing S. Ngor’s A Cambodian Odyssey (1987), Pin Yathay’s Stay Alive, My Son (1987), U Sam Oeur’s Crossing Three Wildernesses (2005), Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father (2000), Laurence Picq’s Beyond the Horizon (1989), and Denise Affonco’s To the End of Hell (2005), among others, to reconstruct life under Democratic Kampuchea, and more crucially, the political religion introduced by Angkar, the Khmer Rouge’s feared central organization. Khmer Buddhism, the spiritual life-world that was violently suppressed by the regime, is the subject of Chapter 3. After a brief discussion of the place of Khmer Buddhism in pre-revolutionary Cambodian society, the author turns to its near-destruction at the hands of the violently anti-clerical Khmer Rouge, and the regime’s strenuous efforts to indoctrinate Cambodians to embrace Angkar as a quasi-religious totem. This spiritual overthrow was accomplished in part by the mass killing of monks and the forced disrobing of the surviving members of the Khmer Buddhist monastic order. The author briefly discusses the Khmer Rouge’s parallel suppression of the Cham Muslim minority, and returns to survivor memoirs to flesh out the regime’s violent disruption of the traditional Cambodian life-world.

Following Chapter 3’s account of the overthrow of Khmer Buddhism in Democratic Kampuchea, Chapter 4 focuses on its replacement with the regime’s deployment of radical agrarian utopianism as a political religion, which while ostensibly secular, constituted “an authentic religious phenomenon which exhibited the trappings of many Khmer Theravada Buddhist religious experiences yet ultimately led to a construction of an entirely new spiritual identity” (p. 62). For example, the regime’s evacuation of Cambodia’s urban dwellers from cities to forests and collective farms short-circuited the traditional Khmer cultural binary of wild and civilization, and the author reads this forced migration as a means through which the regime undertook the spiritual transformation of its citizens into authentically Khmer revolutionary subjects. Eric Voegelin’s notion of political religion, from his Die politischen Religionen (1938), is crucial to this analysis, and the author draws parallels with Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Bolshevik Russia, and Maoist China.

Chapter 5 turns to the spiritual and aesthetic dimension of Democratic Kampuchea. Drawing on the anthropological work of May Ebihara, the author first reconstructs the spiritual life-world of pre-revolutionary Cambodia, in particular its rich dimension of supernatural belief. Following this, the author reconstructs the violent aesthetic life-world of Democratic Kampuchea through a reading of the revolutionary slogans and songs recounted in survivor memoirs and other documents. The author concludes this chapter with an account of the everyday acts of resistance courageously undertaken by ordinary Cambodian believers against the Pol Pot regime’s totalitarian attempt to obliterate their spiritual life-world. Despite the immense danger, these believers continued their forbidden acts of worship in secret, and this helped Cambodia to rebuild its spiritual life-world after the fall of the Pol Pot regime in 1979.

From the macrocosm of Democratic Kampuchea, Chapter 6 turns to the microcosm of the notorious S-21 prison. The author opens with an extended discussion of Eric Voegelin’s account in his Hitler and the Germans (1999) of the existential tension which affects the subject living under a political religion, when the representation of reality constituted by ideology comes into conflict with reality itself. This notion of “second reality” allows Voegelin to critique the Nazi subject as living under a grossly deluded understanding of reality. The author draws on this Voegelinian concept to explicate S-21’s perpetrators – its executioners, torturers, guards, and administrators – as existing in a thought-space constituted by the paranoid fantasies of the Pol Pot regime. As the author notes, this second reality of S-21 eventually devoured many of its subjects: almost 600 of S-21’s employees ended up getting arrested and executed over the course of its existence. The chapter concludes with a discussion of Rithy Panh’s seminal documentary S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, which memorably brought together a group of S-21’s surviving perpetrators and victims on the prison grounds. The author observes that these surviving perpetrators’ testimonials of their past actions and their chilling reenactments of their prison routines recreates for the viewer the second reality that came into existence with S-21.

Chapter 7 expands on the previous chapter’s discussion of S-21 with its focus on the prison’s notorious gallery of prisoner mugshots. After deploying aesthetic insights drawn from Gilles Deleuze’s Francis Bacon (2002), Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida (1981), Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain (1985), and Jill Bennett’s Emphatic Vision (2005) to read the disturbing affect of these mugshots, the author extends his aesthetic analysis by offering a Foucauldian reading of the disciplinary regime instantiated by this photographic archive. Chapter 8 continues with the previous chapter’s aesthetic theme with Schillerian readings of first, Democratic Kampuchea’s kill squads, and second, S-21 survivor Vann Nath’s account of the revolutionary aesthetics of Pol Pot’s regime. The chapter concludes with a deployment of Jacques Rancière’s aesthetic philosophy to read the political theater of Democratic Kampuchea. Chapter 9 extends this Rancièrean theme with a discussion of the Pol Pot regime’s totalitarian aesthetics, which are read alongside those of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

Chapter 10 turns from the aesthetic theme of the previous three chapters with a reflection of the position of the peasant in the revolutionary teleology of Democratic Kampuchea. This is read in counterpoint to the Marxist and Maoist understandings of the revolutionary role of the peasant. Chapter 11 focuses on a key deviation of Pol Pot’s revolution from the Marxist and Maoist models: its Khmer ethnocentrism. This violent ethnic chauvinism, which was accompanied by genocidal purges of the Cham Muslim and Vietnamese minorities, brings the analysis back to the earlier discussions of Democratic Kampuchea qua political religion, by focusing on the regime’s ultra-nationalism as an aspect of the revolutionary state’s political religion.

In the conclusion of his dissertation, the author reflects on the applicability of the notion of political religion, in particular Eric Voegelin’s formulation of the concept, to analyze other regimes of terror, including the genocidal regimes of the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. He observes that an understanding of Democratic Kampuchea would be incomplete without a consideration of the transcendental dimension of the regime’s ostensibly secular ideology, and he reiterates the importance of survivor memoirs as a source of insight into this dimension of affect. This concluding chapter is followed by an appendix: a study of Nuon Chea, Democratic Kampuchea’s Brother Number Two and one of the surviving defendants in the ongoing Khmer Rouge genocide trials.

With his deployment of Eric Voegelin’s notion of political religion, and with his focus on political aesthetics, Steven DeBurger fulfills in his dissertation his promise of offering a fresh reading of Democratic Kampuchea. Moving beyond the Pol Pot period, this conceptual toolkit offers the means of new readings of other periods in Cambodian history, including the present neoliberal period.

Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim
International and Comparative Politics
American University of Nigeria

Primary Sources

Democratic Kampuchea survivor memoirs, including:
Affonco, Denise. To the End of Hell: One Woman’s Struggle to Survive Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge. London: Reportage Press, 2007.
Bizot, François. The Gate. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.
Charithy Him. When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.
Chileng Pa with Carol A. Mortland. Escaping the Khmer Rouge: A Cambodian Memoir. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2008.
Criddle, Joan D. & Teeda Butt Mam. To Destroy You Is No Loss: The Odyssey of a Cambodian Family. New York: Doubleday, 1987.
Dith, Pran & DePaul, Kim. (Eds.) Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.
Haing Ngor. A Cambodian Odyssey. New York: Warner Books, 1987.
Keo, Sam. Out of the Dark: Into the Garden of Hope. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2001.
Lafreniere, Bree. Music through the Dark: A Tale of Survival in Cambodia. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2000.
Loung Ung. First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers. New York: Harper Perennial, 2000.
Lunn, Richard. Leaving Year Zero: Stories of Surviving Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Crawley: University of Western Australia Press, 2004.
Ly Y. Heaven Becomes Hell: A Survivor’s Story of Life Under the Khmer Rouge. New Haven: Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, 2000.
Picq, Laurence. Beyond the Horizon: Five Years with the Khmer Rouge. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.
Pin Yathay. Stay Alive, My Son. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.
U Sam Oeur. Crossing Three Wildernesses: A Memoir. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2005.
Vann Nath. A Cambodian Prison Portrait: One Year in the Khmer Rouge’s S-21. Bangkok: White Lotus, 1998.

Dissertation Information

University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. 2012. 279 pp. Primary Advisor: Manfred Henningsen.

Image: Detention and torture room, Security Prison 21 (S-21), Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Wikimedia Commons.
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