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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Burned like old rubbish

Burned like old rubbish

POL POT, DIED 15.4.98

It was a rubbish fire, not a cremation.

When a young Khmer Rouge civilian, who happened apparently to be passing near-by, took out his yellow plastic cigarette lighter and ignited the gas-soaked funeral pyre containing the body of Pol Pot, it was just another chore in a day of work.

There was no grief at the demise of a loved one - his wife and daughter stayed away. There was no elation here at the passing of a despot. Aside from the witnesses - his jailer, Non Nou, and a single Thai army officer - there were only the barest number of people needed to build a simple box and burn it.

Pol Pot died empty.

He had long ago rid himself of humanity and compassion.

His final usefulness as a doddering old man was as a political bargaining chip, and in death his body was a devaluing public relations prop for the "revamped" hardline Khmer Rouge.

Even as a symbol he was at best worthless and, recently, little more than an embarrassment.

He had nothing else to offer. Even the ashes of his diseased-wracked body, soaked in formalin as it had been, are unlikely to provide much nourishment to the soil - soil in which he once saw the future of the Cambodian proletariat.

"Pol Pot is dead and I am very happy." With those words Non Nou confirmed the rumors on Thursday morning, April 16 - the day before the 23rd anniversary of the Khmer Rouge take over of Cambodia.

He told reporters that Pol Pot had died at 11:15 the previous night in the two-storied house the family lived in just north of Anlong Veng. He was apparently discovered by his wife Mea Son when she went to put a mosquito net over him.

From there the curtain went up on a bizarre freak show, with Thai soldiers acting as ushers as Khmer Rouge wheeled out the main attraction.

The Post was among a small number of news organizations that gained access to Pol Pot's body.

Non Nou drove reporters from the border post at Sa-gham pass in a late-model Toyota Landcruiser.


It travelled about a kilometer through a KR village, past a rusting Russian tank and stacks of cut logs. The sight of foreigners provoked mirth and comments from the locals.

Most people were wearing the traditional KR Mao-style hats and green fatigues, though one soldier had opted for a Cindy Crawford T-shirt. Grief was not evident.

The Landcruiser pulled up outside a communal kitchen. From there it was a short walk to a simple wooden-planked house - empty but for a bed and a gray old body. It was dark. Two young Khmer Rouge soldiers, Te Rou and Ban Te, acted as attendants.

Smiling and obliging they opened the shirt of one of the 20th century's most feared and reviled despots to show off tell-tale scars of old cancer operations.

Pol Pot's nose was stuffed with wadding but his mouth was still partially open after Thai military personnel had photographed his teeth. His eyes were also partially open. They were cloudy and dull like those of a week-old fish.

He had been soaked in formalin in a hasty and unsucessful do-it-yourself attempt at embalming. By the second day of his death Rou and Te were relying on ice to keep putrefaction at bay.

The corpse lay on a green plastic sheet with ice below it. His sandals were placed neatly under his bed, and there was a plastic water bottle at his head.

As the ice had melted the water soaked into his body, bleaching and puckering the underside milky white and puffy. There were no longer the red bruising marks of rigor mortis.

His right arm showed no signs of having had an intravenous drip in it. His hand was contracted like a claw.

An artillery shell from Cambodian government forces attacking the area landed close by. At that point Non Nou urged the reporters to leave, saying it was too dangerous.

Rou and Te then lowered the curtain and placed big blocks of ice on Pol Pot's aged chest. There was a brief pause as people wondered if the weight would crush or burst the frail body.

They put a garland of pink and white fuchsias around his head, neither it seemed with reverence nor disdain. It was just all part of the package.

Bou and Te then wrapped him up in plastic like a birthday present, neatly folding and tying the seams.

The next day three soldiers knocked together a coffin from planks. The only sign of ornamentation was a small foot at each corner that gave it a visual balance, but even that had an air of the builders' frustrated craftsmanship rather than respect for the dead.

Despite the huge stacks of cut timber rotting in the village, Pol Pot's pyre was erected from old tires and off-cuts from the coffin's construction.


A younger, healthier Pol Pot in what may have been happier days for him, next to a gun mounted on a 4-wheel drive utility. This is an undated photo that was taken from Anlong Veng.

His few remaining possessions were tossed on to burn with him: his favorite chair, the mattress he rested and died on, his blankets. Even his simple cotton bag was dumped in the coffin for disposal.

His wife and daughter had performed a Buddhist ceremony earlier in the day, an ironic finale for a man who once dismissed such practices as superstition.

It was the only sign he would be missed. The rest of the disposal was summed up by the Thai military witness: "No ceremony, just burn. Just burn."

Non Nou said Pol Pot had requested his ashes to be spread in three areas - Ratanakiri, the Tonle Sap and the Dangrek mountains.

It is not known who will do that. Or whether it'll be done at all.



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