George Orwell’s dystopian book 1984 is seen as one of the brightest examples of the fictional representations of the autocratic and totalitarian societies. Of course, the reader can hardly believe that, at least, something from the book could have happened in reality. For instance, it is impossible to imagine that people could actually believe in the following statement: “War is peace.
Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is a strength” (Orwell 4). However, when analyzing societies of the twentieth century, it becomes clear that many things revealed in the book actually happened in the real world. Cambodia under Pol Pot was one of the countries where some of the darkest trends depicted in the book became the reality in the middle of the twentieth century.
The State Structure
One of the similarities between Pol Pot’s regime and the regime in Oceania is the structure of the state. Thus, in Oceania, there was the leader, there was the party consisting of a limited number of people and the rest of population comprised the biggest group that had no real power and only a set of responsibilities (Decker 134).
Likewise, in Cambodia under Pol Pot, there are also three groups: Pol Pot as a ruler of the state, the political movement Khmer Rouge (formed by the followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea) that means ‘Red Khmers’ and the population of Cambodia that had no rights and was oppressed by the regime (Boyle n.p.). Of course, the population did not have any alternative and the political party that did not have any opposition soon became corrupted and even paranoid.
The Figure of the Ruler
It is possible to note that it sometimes seems that Pol Pot used the book as a certain kind of guidance for his own ruling. Thus, he chose the name ‘brother number one’ (Chandler Brother Number One 4). The leader of Oceania was known as Big Brother. These rulers created an image of a person who cared for their people and was almost their brothers. Each of the dictators, the real and fictional one, wanted to seem “an invincible, fearless protector” (Orwell 15). Of course, in reality, it was far from being the truth.
Apart from the names that were almost identical, the two rulers lived in secret. No one ever saw Big Brother in person but only saw his face or rather a face of a man “black-haired, black-moustachio’d, full of power and mysterious calm” (Orwell 15). Pol Pot was also very secretive, as after the 1950s he preferred living and working in secret (Chandler Brother Number One 7).
During his rule, only some people knew and some guessed that Pol Pot was, actually, Saloth Sar, “a former school teacher”, but the dictator “admitted his identity” only in 1979, after his overthrow (Chandler Brother Number One 2). There were some pictures of this man and he sometimes appeared on TV. He even gave some interviews with western journalists (Mydans 2).
However, these appearances were quite rare and, of course, he did not participate in events that involved many people. There can be many reasons for that as the dictator could be afraid of his enemies, he would want to create a specific image, which could be impossible to maintain living in open. Of course, these reasons are quite unclear. However, it is obvious that this secrecy contributed to the creation of certain myths.
Brief Facts about the Rulers
As for Orwell’s Big Brother, little is known about him. The author did not focus on the personality of the leader who was rather a symbol. When it comes to Pol Pot, there is some information concerning his personal as well as political life. It is necessary to provide some facts to prove that the person really existed. Thus, Pol Pot, or rather Saloth Sar, as it was his name then, was born in Kampong Thom Province in 1925 (Chandler Brother Number One 8). His father owned some land and he was quite a successful rice farmer.
Saloth Sar obtained quite a good education. Importantly, he studied at a Buddhist school where he learned a lot about religion and philosophy. It is important, as later in his life, the dictator persecuted Buddhists and Buddhist monks. Saloth Sar also studied at one of the Parisian universities. It was in Paris where he started his involvement in social and communist movements. His way to power was associated with military conflicts and the slaughter of his opponents. His regime was one of the most horrible in the history of humanity.
The Idea and Its Corruption
It is important to note that the two societies were based on once good ideas, but the ideas were implemented in a totally wrong way. Thus, Orwell’s people knew that their society was one of the most developed and they also knew that each person had to perform some roles to live in the ‘beautiful’ world. It is noteworthy that the vast majority of people did not know a lot about their roles. They just existed.
Likewise, Pol Pot proclaimed the idea of creation of an agricultural country that would be one of the most prosperous in the world (Del Testa 148). This was a good idea as Cambodian people used to work hard and grow rice. They knew a lot about farming and the country could become a prosperous agrarian state. However, the idea was completely distorted.
Living Standards in the Two Societies
In Oceania, people (the third group that included the vast majority of the population) lived in poverty. The cities were in ruins after numerous wars and people had to live there (Orwell 84). There was hunger and people died of starvation and illnesses. Such living standards were a norm, and the streets in ruins and dirt were a common scene for inhabitants of Oceania.
As has been mentioned above, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge wanted to create an agricultural society. So, they decided to increase the number of peasants forcing people from urban areas to leave their homes (Weaver n.p.). In some cases, people were told to leave their homes as there was a high risk of city bombings and people (as they were told) had to move to rural areas for several days to stay safe.
Of course, those several days turned out to be years and, for some, they never ended. In many cases, people were simply forced to leave cities, as those who opposed the regime were killed right away. Importantly, the dictator believed that private property was impossible and the results of people’s labor had to belong to the society and the country (but, in the case with Cambodia, everything was taken by those in power).
Of course, such economic management was disastrous for the country and its people. Cambodians were starving to death. Cities were empty. Chinese aid experts noted that “streets were deserted”, some “doors of the houses were padlocked; others were swinging open” and in the factories, people were wearing black clothes and “sandals made from car-tires” (qt. in Short 10). Of course, those scenes could seem to be illustrations for Orwell’s book.
Another similarity was the constant fear of the enemy and the state of a continuous war that could be regarded as characteristic features of the two societies. In Oceania, people were always told about wars that took place in different places outside the country.
There was also a certain fear of the enemy coming to the cities. It is noteworthy that this fear was very general and very focused at the same time. For instance, people knew that the other two regimes tried to defeat the army of Oceania and overthrow the rule of Big Brother who was seen as the only possible savior for the people of Oceania.
Besides, Big Brother and the party also made people believe that there were inner enemies as well. The atmosphere of distrust was flourishing in the society and “it was impossible to be sure” whether each of the citizens “was a friend or an enemy” (Orwell 25). Big Brother kept talking about traitors and spies.
Pol Pot also used a similar approach and made people fearsome enemies. First of all, there was quite a distinct threat coming from Vietnam as there were some military conflicts between Cambodian and Vietnamese military forces (Del Testa 148). Just like in Oceania, people of Cambodia were told about inner enemies.
For instance, Pol Pot stressed that within “Kampuchean society there exist such life-and-death contradictions as enemies who belong to various spy networks” (Chandler Voices from S-21 42). Clearly, the two regimes were that strong as they created the atmosphere of fear.
Tools of Control
It is necessary to add that the atmosphere of fear was supported by repressions in both societies. In Orwell’s book, the author focuses on the life of only a number of people. The regime punished them and turned into their slaves through tortures, both psychological and physical. Of course, some ‘enemies’ were simply killed, but some were totally oppressed and converted into creatures without a will (Orwell 295).
As far as Pol Pot’s regime, it also used the same tool, but his tool of struggle against inner ‘enemies’ was more diverse. It is now estimated that more than a million people were killed during the rule of the Khmer Rouge. Out of these, around 500,000 were Cham Muslims and 20,000 were Vietnamese (Boyle n.p.). It is known that people were made to dig their own grave and many were buried alive.
As has been mentioned above, many people were starving and those who resisted were killed while others died of starvation. Of course, the regime persecuted its political opponents as well, killing the most dangerous enemies (Mydans 1). The groups that were persecuted included ethnic minorities (Vietnamese, Chinese and so on), intellectuals (including those who had connections with the western world), religious groups (especially Buddhists), political opponents and so on.
Unity of People
Finally, it is possible to trace another similarity between the two regimes. Big Brother and Brother Number one tried to create a community where people would share similar (or rather their) views. In Orwell’s world, this unity was achieved during the so-called “Two Minutes Hate” (Orwell 9). People were gathered in special areas to watch video depicted horrible scenes of war and only one emotion was evoked. This was hatred. People were united with the help of hatred.
As for the regime of the Khmer Rouge, people had to participate in “propaganda meetings or self-criticism sessions” (Weltig 105). Of course, people were not allowed and the vast majority were afraid to criticize the regime or even reveal their dissatisfaction with their lives.
At the same time, the meetings mentioned above replaced going to the Buddhist temples and the regime tried to create a unified community with the help of these sessions. The strategy accompanied by terror and repressions worked quite well in both societies, the real and fictional one.
On balance, it is possible to note that there are many similarities between the societies depicted in Orwell’s book and the regime of the Khmer Rouge. The two regimes used quite similar tools to retain power and keep their control over the population. Thus, there was no political opposition and there was one ruler in both countries. The two regimes utilized terror as their major tool to control people. The people of both societies live in poverty and often starved to death.
It is possible to note that Orwell’s book is not as horrible as Cambodian reality in the middle of the 20th century was. Orwell focused on the destiny of a few people and he did not depict repression against the population. However, in Cambodia, repressions led to the death of more than a million people. Cambodians were tortured, killed and starved to death. Thus, it is possible to assume that Pol Pot read Orwell’s book but he did a lot more horrible things that the author once depicted in his novel.
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Chandler, David P. Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot. Oxford: Westview Press, 1999. Print.
Chandler, David P. Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999. Print.
Decker, James M. “George Orwell’s 1984 and Political Ideology.” George Orwell. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York, NY: Infobase Publishing, 2009. 133-145. Print.
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Weaver, Matthew. “The Khmer Rouge and Cambodian Genocide: How the Guardian Covered It.” The Guardian 7 August 2014. Web. 27 Feb. 2015.
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