Like many book lovers, I am loath to leave a bookstore without making a purchase. I was in one of the best independent stores in the United States, Elliot Bay Books in Seattle, and after several hours of browsing found many fine books but none that I simply had to buy. Then I looked again, and in the religion section I discovered a book that I could feel content leaving the shop with (after paying for it, of course). The book was called Buddhism in a Dark Age: Cambodian Monks under Pol Pot, and its author was a British academic named Ian Harris.
Communist regimes the world over have sought to suppress not only rival political parties, but also religious institutions. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Lenin and Stalin worked assiduously to marginalise the Orthodox Church to which a majority of their compatriots owed allegiance. Thousands of priests were murdered, and hundreds of church properties confiscated. However, during the World War II there was a partial reversal of this policy, when the Orthodox Church was asked to contribute to the patriotic cause of defending Mother Russia against the German invaders. After the war ended, the attitude of suspicion and hostility took precedence once more.
In China, where the Communists came to power in 1949, the approach to religion was even more hostile. Mao Zedong sanctioned the burning and looting of thousands of churches, temples and mosques. The savagery was particularly extreme in Tibet, where many ancient and beautiful monasteries were razed to the ground. Across China, priests and monks were forcibly disrobed and married off.
These acts of Stalin and Mao were consistent with the Communist desire to monopolise and dictate how citizens thought and acted.
But even by Communist standards, the conduct of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia was barbaric in the extreme. The majority of this country’s citizens were practising Buddhists. Within a few months of the Khmer Rouge taking over in 1975, virtually all the monasteries in Cambodia had been shut, abandoned or destroyed.
In 1978, the Pol Pot regime’s Minister of Culture, Information and Propaganda triumphantly told a visiting Yugoslav journalist that ‘Buddhism is dead and the ground had been cleared for the foundation of a new revolutionary culture’.
Ian Harris’ scholarly book documents this suppression of an ancient faith and its traditional representatives. Thus Buddhist monks were forcibly disrobed. Some had worn their robes for 30 or 40 years, and could not imagine life without them. To further humiliate the monks, Communist cadre piled up on the ground the robes the enemies of the party had been made to discard, and urinated on them.
After being disrobed, the now former Buddhist monks in Cambodia were put to forced labour. Accustomed to and trained for a life of study, contemplation, and preaching, they were made to plough paddy fields and raise animals. Buddhist precepts forbade the slaughtering of animals by monks; and so, simply to spite and torment them Cambodian Communists ordered monks to kill cows and chickens.
The places that the monks traditionally lived and worshipped in were treated equally harshly. Some pagodas were converted into offices and warehouses; others were razed to the ground. The bricks of the pagodas that the Communists had demolished were reused for houses, bridges and the like. One former Communist whom Harris interviewed said that the destruction of Buddhist sites and shrines ‘had two basic goals; to provide building materials and to ensure that future generations would never be aware that the Buddhist religion had once flourished in Cambodia’.
Despite this systematic persecution, many monks continued to practise their faith. They continued, albeit in secret, to meditate, and to pray for the well-being of the communities they had so long served. Many villagers supported them, at great risk to their own lives.
Stalin and Mao are two of the three greatest mass murderers in modern history (Hitler being the third). However, the Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, exceeded even those monsters. This was in part a consequence of his own deranged personality; and in part because Buddhism played an even more important role in the society, politics and culture of pre-Communist Cambodia than had Orthodox Christianity in pre-Revolutionary Russia or Buddhism and Daoism in pre-Revolutionary China.
The Pol Pot regime fell in 1979, and the regime that replaced it, although also authoritarian in character, was not so opposed to religion per se. These new commissars sought to make Buddhism compatible with Marxism, which meant that monks could once more maintain their spiritual discipline without however questioning the political order.
Ian Harris’ book on the destruction of Cambodian Buddhism makes for instructive, albeit extremely chilling, reading. Religious persecution is normally seen as the handiwork of religious people themselves. But it appears that atheistic Communists carried out such persecution as comprehensively as anyone else. When it comes to the treatment of rival worldviews, Communists have been as savage and brutal as religious fundamentalists.
Reading this book, I was reminded of a witticism from the beginning of the Cold War, about the essential difference between capitalism and communism. In capitalism, Man exploits Man. In communism, it is the other way around.