Twenty years after Pol Pot died a broken man, his memory looms large

The body of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot lies in state in a shack in a village near the Thai-Cambodian border on April 16, 1998, after he allegedly suffered a heart attack. AFP
The body of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot lies in state in a shack in a village near the Thai-Cambodian border on April 16, 1998, after he allegedly suffered a heart attack. AFP

Twenty years after Pol Pot died a broken man, his memory looms large

Two decades have passed, but Mea Chron still stands by Pol Pot. Most days he also stands by the mass murderer’s cremation site, keeping guard in the Khmer Rouge’s last stronghold of Anlong Veng.

Pol Pot, the widely reviled despot who spearheaded the Khmer Rouge regime that presided over the deaths of at least 1.7 million people, died 20 years ago on Sunday. Today, despite the horrors of the killing fields having long since been brought to light, he remains a revered figure for some.

“I regret that when Pol Pot died, I could not go to the funeral,” said Chron, now 65. The former chief of a Khmer Rouge bodyguard unit, Chron found Pol Pot a strict operator, but one he considered a close companion whose ideology he admired.

“Pol Pot’s opinion is not bad – he liked to help people and he did not want to discriminate between poor and rich. Everyone has a fair life,” he said. “But the lower level cadre started killing people. That’s why [the movement] became bad.”

Rampant paranoia and factional splintering ultimately led to the movement turning on the man who created it.

Ever an enigmatic figure, some mystery still shrouds the circumstances of his death, which came hours after the Khmer Rouge leadership had decided to hand him over to an international tribunal.

What was sceptically reported as a “heart attack” was later reported as a suicide by a nevertheless ailing and finished man, according to journalist Nate Thayer.

Thayer, who covered a 1997 jungle show trial in which Pol Pot was convicted of ordering a hit on senior Khmer Rouge figure Son Sen and his family, went on to conduct the first interview with Pol Pot in 18 years.

“He was an old and frail and broken and defeated man who had seen his life’s work and his life’s vision rejected by his own people,” Thayer said this week.

Hearing reports of the dictator’s death, Thayer crossed the Thai border to view the body. He stuck his hand in the mouth of the deceased and pulled out two front false teeth. Thayer had no doubt this was Pol Pot.

Pol Pot poses with his grandchildren in Anlong Veng in the 1980s. dc-cam
Pol Pot poses with his grandchildren in Anlong Veng in the 1980s. DC-CAM

Pol Pot’s movement to drive people out of the cities to fulfil the dream of an agrarian utopia, which ultimately amounted to forced labour and mass murder, had ultimately boiled down to “a bloated corpse in the tropical heat”.

“What a waste,” Thayer said. “Twenty years later, Cambodians have never felt anything remotely acceptable to justice.”

After a deal was brokered to bring the remnants of the Khmer Rouge back into the fold in the late 1990s, ex-cadres were instated in government positions. They were essentially back in power in the areas they had continued to rule, Thayer said.

“It sends a terrible message to people who maybe want to commit crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes, torture, and other abominations and violations of international law – that maybe they can do it and get away with it too.”

* * *

Pol Pot, born Saloth Sar in 1925, was the son of relatively well-off rice farmers.

As a child, he lived for a time in a Phnom Penh Buddhist monastery near the royal palace, where his cousin was a dancer in the royal ballet and his sister was a concubine at the royal court.

He attended a French Catholic school before turning his hand to carpentry. A scholarship to study radio technology took him to Paris, where he became involved in the communist party and met like-minded Cambodians.

After flunking his studies, he returned to Cambodia and became a teacher before he began building support from ethnic minorities in the east, many of whom had been displaced by American bombing related to the Vietnam War.

Despite reports of coercion and fear during this time, Phi Phoun, a now-deceased Jarai man who served as a bodyguard to Pol Pot in Ratanakkiri in the 1970s, said people from the province “respected him and loved him very much”.

“I was filled with a sense of responsibility and I loved him. I considered him a comrade in arms,” he said. “His words were mesmerising and revealing his goodness, while showing a lot of modesty. We had full confidence in him and were ready to put our lives back into his hands.”

In 1970, then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk was overthrown by US-backed Lon Nol and simmering guerrilla warfare erupted into all-out civil war. It was during this period that the Khmer Rouge cemented and expanded its supporter base after a radio call from Sihanouk for the people to support the guerrilla group. Pol Pot took Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. Immediately, he implemented “Year Zero”.

City-dwellers were evacuated from the capital and so began a regime of enslavement and forced agricultural work. Former members of Lon Nol’s forces were targeted for execution, as were the educated and the wealthy.

His was a secretive leadership. His own siblings, one of whom lost a son to the regime, did not know their brother Saloth Sar was the mastermind of their suffering until 1978, towards the end of the regime, when a portrait of Pol Pot was released.

More than 12,000 people, many of them Khmer Rouge cadre accused as traitors, were tortured and killed at the regime’s most notorious prison, S-21, a bloody pattern that was replicated across the country.

Elizabeth Becker was one of the only journalists to gain entry into the isolated country during Pol Pot’s reign, on a trip in which a fellow traveller, academic Malcolm Caldwell, was shot dead after a private audience with the dictator.

“Pol Pot is a reminder of the menace of rulers who amass total power over a state. When I interviewed him he was a dictator who exuded more than a hint of megalomania,” she said this week. “He was also charming and confident that he would rule Cambodia for decades to come.”

He was overthrown by the Vietnamese army and force of Khmer Rouge defectors, led by current Prime Minister Hun Sen, just a few weeks later, on January 7, 1979. He was sentenced to death in absentia in a show trial that same year.

Pol Pot’s forces fled to the Thai border and regrouped, continuing to wreak havoc on the country from their Anlong Veng stronghold during the 1980s and early 1990s.

“When Pol Pot died it was as if the world had already moved on and considered him a monster of the past,” Becker said. “I would say he is rightfully the embodiment of the horror of Democratic Kampuchea.”

A man prepares to add a log to the burning pyre containing the dead body of Pol Pot April 1998. THAI ARMY/AFP
A man prepares to add a log to the burning pyre containing the dead body of Pol Pot April 1998. Thai army/AFP

The fact he died before facing an international tribunal was “a gross injustice perpetrated by geopolitics”, Becker said. China supported Pol Pot, while the Soviet Union supported Vietnam. The UN, Europe and the US for years continued to recognise Pol Pot as the legitimate ruler of Cambodia despite the mass murder committed by his regime.

“I can’t help but imagine that Cambodian history if Pol Pot had been arrested and tried. Transitional justice would have been achieved at the beginning of peace,” she said in an email. “Revisionist history would have been difficult. The world would have acknowledged Cambodia’s suffering rather than put it under the rug for decades. That would have greatly aided Cambodians’ difficult recovery.”

Political analyst Ou Virak agreed that Cambodia’s tragedy had been largely forgotten.

“Given that the vast majority of the people are born after that period, I fear history could repeat itself,” he said. “It’s a huge opportunity to try to learn a very tragic and important lesson and to commit to prevent it from happening again.”

While Hun Sen’s government often justifies its actions, including arrests of political opponents, as necessary to prevent a return to civil war, this is also a “double-edged sword for the ruling party”, Virak said.

“They want to be seen as the saviour for ending it but their connection to the Khmer Rouge past as well as communism itself could undermine their narrative,” he said in a message.

* * *

Both Hun Sen and Funcinpec leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the joint prime ministers in the 1990s, were courting the Khmer Rouge bloc in order to oust each other.

Ever paranoid, Pol Pot suspected his comrades Son Sen and Ta Mok of making alliances with the Cambodian government. Son Sen and at least 10 of his family members, including children, were shot dead and run over by trucks.

As Pol Pot, aged and ailing, fled into the jungle on a stretcher, Ta Mok seized power and put him on trial in an ad hoc “people’s tribunal”. Pol Pot was kept under house arrest.

By this time, Pol Pot was a diminished man. He’d had a stroke, was blind in one eye and was plagued by heart problems. The Post at the time questioned whether the Khmer Rouge had “cut off the head to save the body”. Historian David Chandler penned an article on the dictator under a headline reading: “A small, muddled, erratic, frightened man.”

Yet the soft-spoken, even “gentle” Pol Pot still cut a charismatic figure, and without him, the Khmer Rouge as a movement was ultimately proved untenable.

But Pol Pot was hardly a lone wolf, and his “Brother Number Two”, Nuon Chea, and head of state, Khieu Samphan, have since been convicted of crimes against humanity, as has S-21 prison operator Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch.

“Even though Pol Pot has passed away 20 years ago without a fair trial of what he did to nearly 2 million Cambodians who lost their lives under his rule, he remains in the hearts of many of his former comrades,” said Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia.

That was not true for former soldier Sou Nat, 65, who had few words for the man who caused such a rupture in Cambodia’s psyche that the ripples of the damage are felt even now.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post

“I never heard of anyone regretting his death. I never heard anyone crying,” he said.

Reflecting that same mood, former Post reporter Peter Sainsbury described Pol Pot’s cremation in Anlong Veng on a hot April day as a “rubbish fire” – a makeshift coffin piled high with car tyres and scrap wood, a heap bearing little resemblance to the funeral pyre of a beloved leader.

“Pol Pot died empty,” he wrote 20 years ago. “He had long ago rid himself of humanity and compassion.”

Read Sainsbury’s account here

For Youk Chhang, it is important to remember Pol Pot and the monster he created.

“It is a risk if we failed to educate our young generations about what happened during his rule,” he said in an email. “Sometimes, we just cannot escape from such a terrible memory; though we should not be enslaved by it.”

Additional reporting by Yon Sineat and Kong Meta

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