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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - An enigma in life, a mystery in death

An enigma in life, a mystery in death

WAS he pushed? Did he jump? Did he fall? With no autopsy there is little likelihood

of a definitive answer.

However, inconsistencies in the various accounts of Pol Pot's demise and the subsequent

actions by the Khmer Rouge and the Thai military will only add to the speculation

that he did not die a natural death.

There are certainly a number of unusual factors about Pol Pot's death. The first

is the variation in the factual accounts of what happened.

Pol Pot's jailer Non Nou initially said that Pol Pot died at 11:15pm after suffering

a heart attack and choking, and that this was witnessed by his wife. That story was

then revised. His wife found him dead when she went to place a mosquito net over

him at that time.

Nou's comment that "it is impossible for a wife to inject her husband to death"

was curious, given that at that interview no-one suggested that anyone had injected

Pol Pot with anything.

What did not change was the place of death. Non Nou said that Pol Pot died in a two-story

house about 3km from the border, where he reportedly lived after his trial last year.

His wife Mea Son said that after his death, the corpse was moved as government forces

advanced, and taken into one of a motley collection of three shacks, on Cambodian

territory, about 300m from the Thai border at Sa-gham Pass.

This begged several questions. If he died at 11:15 after going to bed, why was he

still fully clothed, including his underwear? If he was dressed after death, how

was this managed given that rigor mortis had stiffened his limbs? Why were his sandals

tucked underneath a bed he supposedly didn't die in? If he had died in his sleep

he would not have been wearing anything on his feet, so why go outside and find them

and transport them with the body? The same goes for the water bottle on his bed,

and his fan.

He died at 11:15 at night, yet by morning the body had been embalmed with formalin:

where did it come from? A text book on embalming by American John Rhodes quotes a

rule-of-thumb figure that a gallon of preservative is needed for each 50 pounds of

body weight. In Pol Pot's case this would be about 3 gallons - an unusual chemical

to have on hand in such quantity at a guerrilla base.

The speed with which everything happened was nothing short of unbelievable.

Non Nou said that the widow told him that Pot was dead at about midnight. He then

contacted other senior Khmer Rouge leaders. Within hours the body had been moved

through the jungle, embalmed. The Thai military viewed it, left again and returned

with a film crew, reconfirmed it was him, and within 12 hours of death had made arrangements

for journalists to gain access.

Another intriguing aspect to the death is the dyed hair. The first reason given by

Non Nou was that Pol Pot had his hair dyed two weeks earlier because he was upset

that young Khmer Rouge thought him pathetic, weak and old. Then the story changed

to: He was being moved around a lot because of the fighting so it was a disguise.

The role of the Thai military in taking body samples was odd. They took fingerprints,

but that is only of use if there are records with which to compare them. The same

with teeth.

The only protein sample was of his hair, which would not register a number of poisons

that could been taken, including the most likely, digitalis.

Digitalis in small doses is a heart stimulant that is often used to treat patients

with weak hearts, like Pol Pot's. In excess it causes vomiting and can induce a heart

attack. It is readily available as a prescription medicine or in alternative medicines

from foxglove and fuchsia flowers, the same flower used in Pol Pot's funeral wreath.

Against any conspiracy theory is a 73-year-old man who had suffered malaria, a stroke,

respiratory ailments, a weak heart and was under constant stress; maybe his time

had come.

But his death was a doubtless relief to many countries, countless number of people,

and to the Khmer Rouge itself.

Many suggest the timing of it was "too much of a coincidence", coming days

or maybe hours before some expected him to be seized for prosecution for war crimes,

an action the US recently began vigorously pursuing. The Clinton administration had

reportedly formed an inter-agency working group in late March to decide on action

should Pol Pot be captured.

Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, said "people

saw the body, but how did he die [as] the US was working to set up a tribunal, [during]

mass defections and what some claim to be the imminent end of the Khmer Rouge?".

One well-informed government source asked: "Why on the eve of the 23rd anniversary

of the KR takeover? Why did they burn the body? If it was the PR machine of Ta Mok,

Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea and whoever, they had more than enough reason to turn the

body over."

Numerous sources suggested that it would not have been hard to murder an ailing man

with serious heart disease.

"Who can verify that? That is the question," said Mong Hay, who said he

had heard of a plot to kill Pol Pot only a week before his death. "One could

ask is there anyone, any group of people who at that time had an interest in the

death of Pol Pot?" Mong Hay said.

He and others suggested that Pol Pot had become a burden to his captors who needed

to be washed clean of the 1975-79 legacy before they could negotiate with the government.

Pol Pot's death facilitates Cambodia's relations with countries such as China, Thailand,

France and the US who themselves long supported Pol Pot - either when he led the

country or when he later joined a tripartite resistance to the Vietnamese-backed

government that ousted him.

"To my knowledge, some people, including China, have not been keen to see the

Khmer Rouge leader tried," Mong Hay said. "When journalists mention Pol

Pot, it is news around the world. People are interested in that demon. It is worth

inquiring into the cause of his death."

Opposition figure Sam Rainsy said similarly: "His former accomplices [in the

government and among the rebels] have blamed him for everything...

"They must be happy he is dead. They were afraid he would testify before an

international tribunal. Pol Pot would have had many things to confess that would

have embarrassed many powerful people and some countries."

Mong Hay suggested that Pol Pot's death was in perfect sync with his life, mysterious

and disputed. "It was bound to be a mystery."

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