[Marxism] They Smashed Banks for Pol Pot. Now They’re Founding Them.

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Mar 23 08:06:58 MDT 2017

NY Times, Mar. 23 2017
They Smashed Banks for Pol Pot. Now They’re Founding Them.

MALAI, Cambodia — For years, Tep Khunnal was the devoted personal 
secretary of Pol Pot, staying loyal to the charismatic ultracommunist 
leader even as the Khmer Rouge movement collapsed around them in the 
late 1990s.

Forced to reinvent himself after Pol Pot’s death, he fled to this 
outpost on the Thai border and began following a different sort of guru: 
the Austrian-American management theorist and business consultant Peter 

“I realized that some other countries, in South America, in Japan, they 
studied Drucker, and they used Drucker’s ideas and made the countries 
prosperous,” he said.

The residents of this dusty but bustling town are almost all former 
Khmer Rouge soldiers or cadres and their families, but they have come to 
embrace capitalism with almost as much vigor as they once fought to 
destroy class distinctions, free trade and even money itself.

Mr. Tep Khunnal helped lead the way, as a founder of an agricultural 
export company and a small microfinance bank for farmers before rising 
to become the district governor. From that position, he encouraged his 
constituents to follow suit.

The local market, fronted by a bright green sign featuring flying United 
States dollar bills — an advertisement for a telecommunications firm — 
is run by a joint-stock company owned by a group of ex-Khmer Rouge 
officials. Inspired by Mr. Tep Khunnal’s original farmer’s bank, there 
are now six such organizations in Malai.

The success of his agricultural venture has spawned about a dozen 
cassava export firms, most headed by former Khmer Rouge soldiers or 
followers. Every weekday afternoon, the town’s main road is choked by a 
queue of brightly painted trucks carrying cassava to the border.

“We joined the communists, and now we have joined the capitalists, which 
is much better,” said Dim Sok, a local official.

Mr. Dim Sok, 65, was a nearly illiterate farmer when he became a 
revolutionary in 1970, fighting in the jungles with the Khmer Rouge for 
five years before they seized power. In an effort to remake the country 
into an agrarian utopia, the Khmer Rouge government swept the urban 
population into the countryside to live like peasants and smashed up 
banks and schools. At least 1.7 million people died under their nearly 
four-year rule.

When they were ousted in 1979, they retreated to strongholds like Malai 
on the western fringes of Cambodia along with thousands of soldiers and 
supporters. While Pol Pot continued to restrict free enterprise in areas 
under his control, residents of Malai were allowed to conduct some trade 
and amass personal property starting in the 1990s.

The area broke away from the Khmer Rouge in 1996, in part to avoid Pol 
Pot’s attempts to recollectivize property, and soon after a few thousand 
ex-communists raised capital to build the market by issuing shares in a 
joint-stock company.

Each shareholder is entitled to quarterly dividends based on rents paid 
by vendors. The rate of return is high: Mr. Dim Sok said he reaps $10 
every three months from an initial investment of around $50.

“It is like a stock market,” he said, beaming.

Mr. Dim Sok said he saw no contradiction between his current life and 
the years he spent enforcing an unstinting brand of communism.

“In communist ideology they accuse capitalism of exploiting people,” he 
said. “But now we are in capitalist society, and there are actually two 
things that can happen: You can be exploited, but you can also prevent 
others from exploiting you.”

Many here seem to have managed that nimbly.

Nget Saroeun, 62, spent over two decades as a soldier, much of it waging 
guerrilla war in the hills around Malai. Today, he is a prosperous 
farmer who hobbles around his fields vigorously despite having lost a 
leg to a land mine. He is a fan of the English soccer team Arsenal and 
likes to check commodity prices and read about new agricultural 
techniques on his smartphone.

“Previously, it was very difficult here,” he said. “It was full of 
forest. Now it is full of concrete houses.”

He praised Mr. Tep Khunnal for teaching farmers “to meet the demands of 
the market” by growing new crops like cassava, a tuber that can be 
processed into starch or animal feed.

Malai was still a malaria-infested jungle stronghold when Mr. Tep 
Khunnal moved here in 1998, bringing with him Pol Pot’s widow, whom he 
married shortly after his boss’s death.

Along with a barely educated but savvy ex-soldier, Soom Yin, he took out 
a bank loan to test some of his ideas. Their company bought the area’s 
first corn-drying machine, imported a new breed of sun-resistant corn 
from Thailand and set up a quality-control system for the corn and 
cassava that moved through their warehouse.

Today, Mr. Soom Yin owns the largest export firm in the area and can 
talk for hours about the minutiae of the cassava trade, from moisture 
levels to price fluctuations. In his spare time, he said, he reads books 
on management.

The Khmer Rouge ways are “very old now,” he said. “Even me, I don’t even 
dream about that anymore. We just do business.”

Mr. Tep Khunnal, 67, retired from government and business a few years 
ago and now devotes his time to spreading Drucker’s ideas across the 
country. He teaches at a university in a neighboring province and is 
translating the theorist’s work into Khmer. He has even compiled his 
favorite bits of Drucker’s wisdom into a small handbook.

“I’m sure that if Cambodia embraces this idea, Cambodia will walk in the 
right way,” he said.

He declined to discuss his finances, but he lives in a large gated 
compound surrounded by lush gardens. When his stepdaughter, Pol Pot’s 
only child, got married in 2014, he threw her a lavish reception 
featuring French liqueur and glass chandeliers hanging from 
pink-and-white tents.

He said he began reading about economics while serving as a Khmer Rouge 
envoy to the United Nations in the 1980s. Although he liked Milton 
Friedman, the free-market economist, and Frederick Taylor, who pioneered 
scientific management, he was most drawn to Drucker’s insistence that 
employees were central to an enterprise’s success.

“What I find interesting for me is that he talks about individuals, he 
gives power to individuals, not to collectivism,” he said of Drucker. 
“Frederick Taylor in the early 20th century, he talked about efficiency, 
but Drucker talked about effectiveness.”

During a recent lecture, Mr. Tep Khunnal exhorted his students to 
remember that good management was just as important as good ideas.

“In-no-vation,” he said, using the English word, “means a new idea, but 
to be successful you need strategy.”

Some of his talking points might have been useful for the Khmer Rouge in 
its final days, when the movement disintegrated into multiple warring 

Asked whether Pol Pot had been a good manager, his former aide demurred.

“I don’t want to make any judgment on that,” he said. “Let history do 
it. I think about the future.”

Neou Vannarin contributed reporting.

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