Buddhism and the Khmer Rouge – Nuon Chea’s Curious Theology

I am not a Buddhist scholar, but I have some grasp on the religion and the precepts of it. It does not flow into you naturally just because you live in Cambodia, but I know this much from a college Buddhism course and the Zen books my semi-observant grandfather gave me. Buddhism involves: the destruction of the ego, the avoidance of materalism, the import of meditation and self-introspection.

1. Life is suffering;
2. Suffering is due to attachment;
3. Attachment can be overcome;
4. There is a path for accomplishing this.

On Dec 13, Khmer Rouge”Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea was questioned by the French judge Lavergne about his own definition of Buddhism – more specifically, Mr Chea’s own definition of the word “compassion.”

“When you use the word compassion,” Lavergne asked, “Should people understand that it has a religious connotation for you, that it refers in some way to Buddhist religion?”

“It is also related to Buddhist religion,” Chea said. With that admission, a theological discourse of sorts began on the beige and overly-air conditioned floor of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal Hall (and there were monks present in the audience, because there always are).

And in that discourse, Nuon Chea presented the Khmer Rouge as not just a socialist experiment, but a Buddhist experiment, with as much to owe to Southeast Asia’s dominant spirtuaity as to Lenin and Stalin ad Mao.

Victory breeds hatred
The defeated live in pain,
Happily the peaceful live,
Giving up victory and defeat

“I had the compassion for the people as an individual,” Chea said, “and not from the point of view of a revolutionist, because I did not yet join the Revolution at that time.”

Lavergne tried to catch him out, noting that “Cambodians are Buddhists, even if they join the Communist Party, they respect Buddhist principles. Can you tell me what those principles were? Rejecting violence? Respect for human life?”

Undeterred, Chea noted that materialism was the enemy of both Buddhism and the Khmer Rouge. “My personal view is that revolution is based on notions of materialism in Buddhism,” he said.

“In revolution, the notion of dialectical materialism is similar to that in Buddhist religion…people are educated to feel compassion for one another, to help one another.”

As for violence, and compassion for human life? “However, in revolution…if confronted with arms, we will respond appropriately.”

The question was staged by Judge Lavergne primarily in terms of violence – IE, Buddhists adherence to non-violence was flouted often and always by the Khmer Rouge. But to Nuon Chea, it seems, the warrior-Buddhist mentality was more key.

Buddhism does provide for fighting, in the context of a “righteous” king maintaining a standing army. In the ‘chakkavatti- sihanada sutta’ (The Lion’s Roar on the Turning of Wheel), the Buddha tells one such righteous king that it is part of his obligation as a leader to protect his people from enemies – and a righteous king, in Buddhist belief, would use such an army defensively, and with great thought.

The Buddha refers to “soldiers” and “armies” often in the metaphorical sense, comparing a good monk to a good soldier.

But key to our discussion of the Khmer Rouge and Buddhism is the notion that an army, if it exists, should protect the people – not devour them from the inside out, as Khmer Rouge forces did.

Chea noted that Khmer Rouge notions of morality were “pure” and similar to those of the Buddhist notion of a “righteous king,” pointing out that his revolution “restrained from using power of authority to be womanizers, or heavy drinkers, or relying much on money.”

(Forced marriages and rape are apparantly not to be included in this equation).

So could the warfare and violence of the Khmer Rouge co-exist with Buddhism, to Nuon Chea?

Absolutely, according to the Khmer Rouge #2 himself.

“The two approaches could co-exist, based on my personal view,” he told the court.

“It is not identical in every aspect [the Khmer Rouge revolution]” Chea admitted, as close an admission of certain flaws of his socialist revolution as we are likely to get.

“The revolution means to use physical labor to build the country, to make it progressive…the religion, on the other hand, relies on compassion and sympathy. If there is no use of labor in revolution to build the country and forces, it wouldn’t get results.”

As for armed struggle? “I do not deny there was an armed struggle, but armed struggle was not the basic struggle we adopted,” said Chea. “It was the political struggle we chose as our principle.”

Chea also pointed out that “meditation is a form of self re-building, so that our mind is clean and pure. In the revolution, we had to get rid of self-ego.”

The Khmer Rouge were intent on keeping people silent and “pure” – a perverse interpretation of Buddhist precepts.

“If there is self-ego, there is individualism,” Chea mused to the court. “If there is individualism, there is privatism. If there is privatism, there are conflicts.”

Buddhists must get rid of self-interest – and the Khmer Rouge were pretty intent on it, too. Unless you were a well-connected and well-fed party cadre with a good class background and no party enemies. (Considering most of the dead at Tuol Sleng prison were culled from the ranks of party cadres, the favor of the Khmer Rouge was a short lived and amorphous thing).

To work, Nuon Chea seemed to indicate, was a form of meditation, of “practice.”  To work until you dropped, as was often the case in the Khmer Rouge era, was then too a form of meditation.

Buddhist ascetics deprive themselves in the name of faith, and here, the only difference was that the people were forced at the point of a gun into an ascetism they had not wanted, or requested – but an asceticism that they would be given anyway.

“For daily living in Buddhism,” Nuon Chea said, “we relied on our intelligence, our meditation. In the revolution, we tried to work hard, we tried to focus on our work. That is also a form of meditation.”

Lavergne referenced the swift and brutal evacuation of Phnom Penh in his questioning of Nuon Chea. According to Chea, this famously sweeping action was taken for what roughly comes down to three reasons: humanitarian, strategic, and philosophical.

“There were incidents, riots, as many people were unemployed, there were many beggers – soldiers not recieve their salary. And Lon Nol could not control the situation,” said Chea of 1975 Phnom Penh. In his view, Phnom Penh had to be evacuated to “cleanse” and control it.

Then, there was the strategic matter of Lon Nol’s soldiers. “Lon Nol soldiers…womanizers, gamblers, heavy drinkers – what should be done with them? It would be difficult,” Chea said, in reference to allowing these soldiers to stay in the city.

The vast majority of Lon Nol’s former soldiers were ferreted out and killed during the Khmer Rouge days – but in the eyes of the Khmer Rouge, there was no point in attempting to “reform” them.

Finally, there was the philosophical concept that the “base” people, or rural village-dwellers, were inherently superior to “unclean” city people.  “If you compare our livelihood there {in the country} with people living in PP, and there were about 3 million of them, we were better,” Chea told the court.

“We lived in cooperatives, we had one another.” Phnom Penh was evacuated to “prevent a temporary loss of alliance of the people.”

But the haste of the evacuation – where the population of a major capital city was herded into the country at gunpoint, young, old, and sick alike – is now just-about universally considered a shockingly cruel act on the part of the Khmer Rouge.

As Francois Ponchaud notes in “Cambodia: Year Zero” : “Here, one can look in vain for the slightest trace of that oriental wisdom with its great respect for time….The good of the people was not the goal for the evacuation of Phnom Penh: its aim was to prove a theory that had been worked out in the abstract without the slightest regard for human factors.”

As for those Cambodians who died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979?

“Communism only eliminates those people who destroy the country, who could not be educated,” Chea claimed, adding that such “bad people” would be repeatedly reminded of their infractions before some sort of final solution was reached.

But Chea danced around out-right saying that executions took place, implying that people “could be sent to authorities or court to decide” – without admitting, what, exactly, would be decided.

Was the Khmer Rouge, then, some perverse extension of some basic Buddhist precepts?

This is perhaps too extreme a conclusion to make from the evasive testimony of an old man—but then again, Nuon Chea, as “Brother Number Two,” had considerable power over the ideology and intention of the Khmer Rouge.

The future proceedings of the Khmer Rouge War Tribunal, flawed as it is, may provide more insight into the theological feelings of the Khmer Rouge top brass—and to some extent, the underpinnings of one of the cruelest periods in human history.

9 thoughts on “Buddhism and the Khmer Rouge – Nuon Chea’s Curious Theology

  1. Wow, really interesting stuff Faine! The way he talks is so different from my experience with Buddhists in the US. The warrior mentality thing was actually sort of reminiscent of the writings of Zen priests during WWII who were rationalizing Japanese imperialism. Thanks for posting this.

  2. I need to get off my duff and write some things up. Among other things, I have a 2005 interview I conducted, along with Sor Sokny of the Buddhist Institute, with Mr. Nuon Chea in which we deal with Buddhism and his recent beliefs about Buddhism in depth. He does currently espouse a highly modernist and rationalist variant of Buddhism, with a few (I believe rather self-serving) changes. I do not think that the question, “Is Buddhism Partly Responsible for the Khmer Rouge?” can be answered in the affirmative, though I continue to focus on studies which purport to argue such points. Currently, the best source on all of this is Ian Harris’ book, “Buddhism Under Pol Pot,” which can be purchased at the DC-CAM bookstore, and most of the commercial bookstores in Phnom Penh.

    1. Thanks for the tip on the book, Erik! I was hoping someone could point me towards some good resources on Buddhism and the KR – listening to Nuon Chea pontificate in the courtroom has got me very interested in the philosophies of the KR cadres.

      I also feel Buddhism can’t be blamed for the KR itself, as the cadres (as most people do with religion, really) picked the bits they liked out of it and discarded the rest.

      However, considering that Theravada Budddhism influences essentially all aspects of Cambodian culture, whether someone “believes” or not – I’d call that a larger contributing factor.

  3. Nicely observed. It seems to me that while the Khmer Rouge attacked the institution of Buddhism you can certainly see Buddhist elements in their philosophy – the emphasis on purity and cleansing, for example, was a common feature of Buddhist reform and millenarian movements. Having said that, a lot of this was probably subconscious, the result of growing up in a Buddhist environment, and Chea’s claims now sound like just so much retrospective self-justification. And of course if the Khmer Rouge were inspired by Buddhism you’d have hoped that they’d have taken some of the other precepts more to heart. I’d definitely second the Ian Harris recommendation.

  4. In Pol Pot’s later years his living quarters were organized like a religious leader’s retreat: central cabin for the head guy, smaller huts surrounding the main one for disciples. Yeeks.

  5. Crystal Kile

    Sounds like the Communism of that moment and place hitting Buddhism in that moment and place was like lithium hitting water.

    I’m finding your coverage of the Tribunal fascinating. Nice work!!!

  6. I would prefer to compare the relationship between Buddhism and the KR as analogous to the relationship between Peasant Insurrections in the 16th Century (see also: 1525) and Christianity. In the latter case, it was explicitly a religious movement executed on earth; in Cambodia, Buddhism was at best a subterranean influence derived from Buddhism’s influence on Cambodian culture generally. The Khmer Rouge destruction of the Cham remains one of the few examples of clearcut genocide (as opposed to mass murder) in the period; had the USSR not eliminated religion from the definition of Genocide, or the USA eliminate class from the same definition, the KR would have been guilty of genocide against the sangha, and against the elite urban classes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *