Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Buddhism in a Dark Age: Cambodian Monks under Pol Pot

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Buddhism in a Dark Age: Cambodian Monks under Pol Pot

Article excerpt


Buddhism in a dark age: Cambodian monks under Pol Pot


Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2013. Pp. 242. Plates, Notes, Abbreviations and Glossary, Bibliography, Index.

Ian Harris passed away in late December of 2014, just as I finished this review. His passing is a loss to Buddhist Studies, and especially to Cambodian Buddhist Studies. Harris's early training was in Buddhist studies; his research into the political aspects of Buddhism led him to realise the dearth of scholarly attention paid to Cambodian Buddhism, and specifically to the impact of the Khmer Rouge revolution on Cambodian Buddhist monks and institutions. This book focuses on that problematic.

This book is an important contribution as a resource, collection, and chapter-by-chapter analysis of how Buddhist monks in Cambodia fared under Democratic Kampuchea (Khmer Rouge) and their successor socialist regime, the People's Republic of Kampuchea. The highlights are the painstaking work of collection and narration, rather than a single sustained argument. Undoubtedly this is in part a result of the way in which the book relies on a vertiginous archive of documents of various sorts, from various perspectives, in addition to Harris's own interviews. To the extent that Harris makes an argument throughout the book, it is that 'some elements of Buddhist belief and practice were subsumed into the Khmer Rouge worldview' (p. 139).

The finest contributions in the book are those in which Harris sorts through a monumental amount of material to construct several narratives of how Buddhism and Buddhist monks fared before and after Democratic Kampuchea. Although much of this material has been available in other sources, it has been scattered, episodic, and largely in specialist documents, many of which are hard to obtain. As Harris notes in his final chapter, he hopes in part to aid the process of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia) through this effort. Harris's treatment is excellent, and these chapters will help readers understand the complex and diverse ways in which Cambodian Buddhist monks interacted with --and sometimes were--Cambodian communists.

Chapter 3, where the book-length argument is first presented, is less successful. As noted earlier, Harris argues that there was a subsumption of Buddhist beliefs and practices into the Khmer Rouge worldview, but it is unclear what this subsumption means, or what Buddhism Harris refers to. If he means that the previously hegemonic worldview, ritual practices, and moral discourse influenced Khmer communism and its discourse, he makes a good case: certainly the Khmer Rouge leadership employed (a distinctly Buddhist discursive tactic of) redefining words with moral values so that true morality was re-coded to mean the new moral and practical norms of Democratic Kampuchea. …

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