Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

Buddhism in a Dark Age: Cambodian Monks under Pol Pot

Academic journal article 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 Ian Harris Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2013.

Buddhism in a Dark Age: Cambodian Monks under Pol Pot is an impressively well-researched examination of Buddhists and institutionalized Buddhism during the rise, reign, and fall of the Khmer Rouge. Between 2003 and 2007, Ian Harris was a senior scholar at the Documentation Center of Cambodia. This provided him with the opportunity to compile and examine an archive that includes unpublished materials held there, confession documents, reports from Lon Nol's government and those of foreign governments, biographical accounts of Party members and prisoners, soldiers' notebooks, memoirs, information presented at the 1979 trial of Pol Pot, and publications of the Party, including magazines, films, and instructional videos. Additionally, Harris utilizes 87 interviews he conducted or participated in and 34 conducted by others.1' From this, Harris discusses widespread horrors perpetrated against Buddhists and members of the sangha but argues that the Khmer Rouge themselves used Buddhist concepts, through both adaptation and inversion, to bolster their own ideology. Furthermore, Harris demonstrates that "although Buddhism was in mortal danger during Democratic Kampuchea, it was never totally extinguished, despite the claims of Angkar to the contrary" (p. 139), as individual actors preserved aspects of the tradition and material traces of Buddhism survived.

Harris organizes Buddhism in a Dark Age thematically rather than chronologically as he analyzes the decline of the Buddhist state headed by Sihanouk, the development of the communism that would take hold over Cambodia, as well as the treatment of monastics and official Buddhist sites (e.g., pagodas and monasteries) and objects (e.g., monks' robes, Buddha images, and murals) during the time period covered. While focusing primarily on events between 1970 and 1979, Harris references Communist activity as early as the 1930s, and the final chapter is devoted to an examination of post-1979 Cambodia and the installation of the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), which would govern under Vietnamese control until 1989.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, leading up to the end of French colonialism in 1953, many monks with a left-wing, anticolonial, revolutionary, and nationalist spirit were inspired by the perceived ideals of communism and its compatibility with Buddhism. However, even in the 1950s it was hard for monks to become full members of the Party, and by the 1960s the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) was distancing itself from Buddhism (p. 35). Nonetheless, the National United Front of Kampuchea (FUNK), bolstered by support from Sihanouk, who was regarded by most of the country as a righteous Buddhist ruler, persisted into the 1970s with monastic and lay support from those who thought the CPK would defend Buddhism against foreign aggressors. On the other side, some Buddhists championed the Khmer Republic headed by Lon Nol. Backed by its Vietnamese and Chinese counterparts, the CPK-an early precursor to the Khmer Rouge and of which Pol Pot was a member-led a coup, which would initiate the civil war that engulfed the country for five years leading up to the formal installation of the Khmer Rouge. Eventually, Democratic Kampuchea was founded at the Special National Congress in Phnom Penh held on April 25-27, 1975, after the "liberation" of cities on April 17. Twenty monks joined that delegation, but from that point forward neither monks nor Buddhism would be referenced in radio or other communications: "From the official perspective, they had ceased to exist" (p. 67). Buddhism was listed alongside imperialism and "reactionary capitalism" as one of the "three mountains" in need of complete eradication. However, the means to accomplish this monumental task had yet to be determined, and Buddhism continued in varying degrees throughout the country.

Buddhism in a Dark Age acutely highlights the debates, processes, and inconsistencies that arose as Buddhist practices came to be banned and institutionalized Buddhism abolished. …

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