Like many book lovers, I am loath to leave a bookstore without making a purchase. I was recently 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, however, 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. Priests were even exhibited in cages in churches, to be derided and mocked by Communist leaders and their crazed cadre.
These acts of Stalin and Mao were consistent with the Communist desire to monopolise and dictate how citizens thought and acted. The only doctrine that could be preached or followed was that of the Communist party.
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 practicing 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. A party document proudly boasted that ‘90% to 95% of the monks have disappeared, in the sense that the majority of monks have abandoned religion. Monasteries, which were the pillars for monks, are largely abandoned. The foundation pillars of Buddhism are abandoned… [I]n future they will dissolve further’.
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. Monks who refused to disrobe were often executed.
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. Older monks were made to weave baskets or scare birds away from the fields. In some areas, monks were given two choices, each completely foreign to, and violative of, the vows they had taken; namely, to join the army, or to get married.
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. Harris documents an extraordinary case of a monk who lay hidden in a coffin, with villagers bringing him food, announcing their arrival by gently knocking on the coffin at night.
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 in the ferocity with which he demolished shrines and tortured and murdered holy men. 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, run or rebuild their temples and shrines, minister to the laity, without however questioning the political order. In subsequent decades, Cambodian Buddhism progressed ‘from virtual extinction to a simulacrum of normality’. By the year 2010, the number of monks in robes was roughly equal to that in 1970.
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; Protestants persecuting Catholics or vice versa, Muslims persecuting Christians or vice versa. 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 fine but depressing book, I was reminded of a witticism dating to the days of 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.
Ramachandra Guha’s books include Gandhi Before India
The views expressed are personal