Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - 'Am I a savage person?' Denials from Pol Pot

'Am I a savage person?' Denials from Pol Pot

'Am I a savage person?' Denials from Pol Pot

In Anlong Veng

P OL POT is dying. He's helped slowly out of the backseat of a blue four-wheel

drive truck, then stands unsteadily in the dust of the narrow road, smiling shyly

and raising his clasped hands to his face in a traditional greeting.

He needs to grasp my arm to walk the 25 meters to an open-air hut, in a clearing

hacked out of the dense jungles of the Dangrek mountains. His breathing labored,

he eases himself down at a simple wooden table.

A deferential young KR cadre places a plastic bottle of water and a coffee jar

filled with salt in front of him. Pol Pot adjusts his traditional peasant scarf,

his face drawn and eyes blinking rapidly, and looks sadly across the table at the

nearest thing to an interrogator he has ever faced.

The man who presided over the Cambodian holocaust is about to give his first interview

in 18 years. It's his chance to make some kind of peace with his bloodstained past,

to try to atone for a four-year reign of terror that left a million or more of his

countrymen dead.

He refuses.

"I came to carry out the struggle, not to kill people," he rasps, his

voice almost a whisper. He pauses, fixing his interviewer with an almost pleading

expression. "Even now, and you can look at me, am I a savage person? My conscience

is clear."

In a two-hour interview, Pol Pot is chillingly unrepentant about the horrors of

his 1975-1978 rule over Cambodia. His humanity shows only when he talks about himself

or his family; he describes in detail his youth, the origins of his political ideology,

his health problems and his 12-year-old daughter's difficulties in school.

Grilled on his culpability for the mass murders, disease and starvation of the

late 1970s - when his regime tried to turn Cambodia into a collectivist agrarian

utopia - he comes back time and again with the same basic line: The KR made "mistakes,"

but without their unrelenting struggle Cambodia would have been swallowed by Vietnam.

"I do not reject responsibility - our movement made mistakes, like every

other movement in the world. But there was another aspect that was outside our control

- the enemy's activities against us. I want to tell you, I'm quite satisfied on one

thing: If we had not carried out our struggle, Cambodia would have become another

Kampuchea Krom in 1975," he says, referring to the Mekong Delta region, seized

by Vietnam from the Khmer empire in the 17th century.

Pol Pot even claims that the notorious Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, where

the KR meticulously documented their torture and execution of 16,000 suspected "enemies,"

was a Vietnamese propaganda exhibit.

Yet the rare trip into the KR stronghold of Anlong Veng yielded some stunning

revelations. The KR commander who ousted Pol Pot in June, Ta Mok, acknowledged in

his first interview ever that "hundreds of thousands" of people had died

during the group's time in power. Neither he nor other KR leaders interviewed would

admit personal responsibility; instead, they point fingers at Pol Pot or one another.

Pol Pot does admit that he ordered the killing of his longtime comrade-in-arms

Son Sen, slain on June 10 along with 14 family members, including grandchildren.

"You know for the other people, the babies, the young ones, I did not order

them to be killed. For Son Sen and his family, yes. I feel sorry for that. That was

a mistake that occurred when we put our plan into practice. I feel sorry. You asked

me to say something." Then he says abruptly: "Now I want to talk about

the present situation in Cambodia."

It was Son Sen's killing that brought about Pol Pot's ouster from the helm of

the revolutionary movement he led for 37 years. Ta Mok, who was also targeted but

escaped, arrested Pol Pot on June 19. Five weeks later, Pol Pot was brought before

a "people's tribunal" in Anlong Veng and sentenced to life imprisonment

for Son Sen's murder.

The KR decided to make Pol Pot's ouster public, hoping to win international support

for their battle against the government of Premier Hun Sen. They allowed this journalist

to witness the July 25 tribunal, the first time Pol Pot had been seen by a journalist

in 18 years. But an interview with the deposed leader took months more to arrange,

through intensive contacts with a series of secret operatives both inside and outside

of Anlong Veng. It took place on October 16.

For now, that's as far as the KR will go. Pol Pot is not going to be turned over

to an international tribunal to face charges of crimes against humanity, Ta Mok said

in a separate interview. "I will turn Pol Pot over no problem, if you bring

Hun Sen and they go together," he says, setting an unrealistic condition.

Trial or no trial, Pol Pot's line of defence is the same: His youthful, inexperienced

movement made "mistakes" under pressure from its enemies, but they saved

the country from Vietnamese annexation. Asked whether he wanted to apologize for

the suffering he caused, he looks genuinely confused, has the interpreter repeat

the question, and answers: "No."

"We had no other choice. Naturally we had to defend ourselves," he says.

"The Vietnamese... wanted to assassinate me because they knew without me they

could easily swallow up Cambodia."

The anti-Vietnamese rhetoric isn't surprising: the ultra-nationalism of the KR

became evident when they started raiding the territory of their erstwhile Vietnamese

communist allies in Vietnam in the years after seizing power. But Pol Pot reveals

that distrust between the two communist movements dates back to at least 1970, when

Le Duan and other Vietnamese leaders tried to persuade him to take nominal command

of a combined Cambodian-Vietnamese-Laotian army to fight the American-backed governments

in Phnom Penh and Saigon.

"Le Duan and Le Duc Tho, they told us: 'You don't have to fight. You should

wait until the Vietnamese victory then the Vietnamese will come and liberate you',"

Pol Pot says.

Instead, he raced to beat the Vietnamese to victory. He says that by capturing

Phnom Penh on April 17, two weeks before the communist victory in Saigon, the KR

saved Cambodia from Vietnamese communist occupation. And immediately, he contends,

he took steps to balance Vietnamese influence in Cambodia. "In May 1975, I sent

my foreign minister to Thailand because I knew that the east is very savage... what

I wanted was to have a friend in the West. Vietnam was furious at me."

There may be truth in Pol Pot's claim that Vietnam had designs on Cambodia. But

he goes on, outrageously, to blame even the mass starvation during his rule on the

Vietnamese. Nobody knows the precise figure, but during their 1975-1978 rule the

"Democratic Kampuchea" regime killed perhaps 200,000 people, many from

its own ranks. For every person executed, perhaps seven more died of starvation or

disease as a result of the KR's inept central policies.

"To say that millions died is too much. Another aspect you have to know is

that Vietnamese agents, they were there. There was rice, but they didn't give rice

to the population," Pol Pot claims.

Even more outrageous is Pol Pot's claim that Phnom Penh's notorious Tuol Sleng

prison was a "Vietnamese exhibition" set up for propaganda purposes after

Vietnam invaded Cambodia in December 1978 and drove the KR from power. Scholars say

the KR documented each of the 16,000 people whom they tortured and executed, often

on Pol Pot's direct orders.

In fact, admissions he makes in the interview link Pol Pot directly to Tuol Sleng.

He acknowledges that he ordered the arrest and murder of political enemies, accusing

them of collusion with Vietnam. These included Vorn Vet, Hu Num, and Hu Yuon, fellow

standing committee members killed after the KR took power. "Those people were

in the central leadership of Democratic Kampuchea, but they were not the people of

Democratic Kampuchea," he says. "In 1976... that group of people you were

talking about, they set up a coup d'etat committee, especially against me. In that

committee there were Vietnamese agents in the majority." He names "Comrade

Ya" - the nom de guerre of Men San, who commanded the northeast region - as

chief conspirator.

KR documents obtained by the Post show that Ya was tortured to death on Pol Pot's

orders at the Phnom Penh prison. In a handwritten September 1976 note accompanying

a "confession" extracted from Ya under torture, notorious Tuol Sleng chief

Duch writes that he "reported this morning at 0910 to the Organization about

Ya." The Organization is how Pol Pot was officially known.

"The Organization decided that if this guy continues stubbornly to hide his

traitorous linkages and activities, that he should be executed and not allowed to

play games any more ... Therefore, with this Ya you can forcefully use the hot method

and for prolonged periods, even if you slip and it kills him." The document

ends with a chilling addendum: "Ya to read so that he can think it over carefully."

Pol Pot demonstrated that same willingness to turn on his closest comrades 21

years later, when he ordered the killing of Son Sen, his longtime defense minister.

In a soft monotone that contrasts starkly with the subject matter, he tried to justify

the murder, saying that he had discovered proof that Son Sen was conspiring against

him. The principle evidence? "The brother of Son Sen, Son Chhum... even let

his daughter marry people who worked with Hun Sen. So the connection has been established."

Pol Pot's paranoia may have helped him survive as a guerrilla fighter, but it ultimately

led his movement to self-destruct, fracturing into rival factions. It's a process

that began soon after the group took power, and resumed with new intensity in mid-1996.

As a result, separate KR groups are now scattered throughout the country, many of

them aligned with Funcinpec or the CPP - whose premier, Hun Sen, himself defected

from the KR in 1978.

"Pol Pot's stance got even loftier, and our territory got even smaller,"

says an elderly Anlong Veng villager. "He saw enemies as rotten flesh, swollen

flesh. He saw enemies surrounding. Enemies in front, enemies behind, enemies to the

north, enemies to the south... leaving us no place to breathe."

Indeed, only six of the original 22 members of the Democratic Kampuchea party central

committee survived their years in power unscathed, according to documents obtained

from Tuol Sleng. The rest died, or survived only because they were rescued from Tuol

Sleng, ironically, by the invading Vietnamese army.

After that, the KR rose from the ashes, with military or political support from

China, Asean and Western powers opposed to Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia. They

capitalized on the animosity towards Vietnam that permeates Cambodian society.

But since the 1993 UN-run elections, which the KR boycotted, the movement's cannibalization

has resumed. Of the nine younger military commanders chosen in 1985 to form the new

generation of leadership, six have defected to the Cambodian government and two were

arrested for killing Son Sen. In August 1996, senior leader Ieng Sary and more than

half of the KR fighters in the northwest broke with Pol Pot, Son Sen, Ta Mok and

Khieu Samphan, rallying around the town of Pailin.

While Khieu Samphan is officially head of the KR remnant in Anlong Veng, Ta Mok

is clearly the strongman. In fact, Khieu Samphan seems to retain sympathy for Pol

Pot. On June 12, in a clandestine radio broadcast, he called Son Sen a "traitor."

Asked if he was a hostage of Pol Pot when he made that broadcast, Samphan replies

unconvincingly: "You could call it something like that." He refuses to


The turmoil has shaken the movement to its core. "All of us - our parents,

our children - are poor peasants. We agreed to abandon everything for many years

to join the struggle," says Khem Nuon, Ta Mok's chief-of-staff. "And ultimately,

in order to kill each other? How can that be?"

So has the KR movement truly turned on its master, Pol Pot? Certainly Ta Mok says

so: "Pol Pot's hands are filled with blood." And from Pol Pot's own words,

the answer also seems yes. "For me it is over. Over politically, and over as

a human being."

Since his sentencing, Pol Pot says he has been confined to a wood-and-thatch hut,

where he's virtually bedridden and sometimes on oxygen. When he discusses his health

problems he becomes animated, a contrast to the implacable way he discussed those

who died under his rule. "You look at me from the outside, you don't know what

I have suffered. If you allow me, I would like to tell you about my sickness.

"One night around 2 a.m. I woke up to go to the bathroom," he says,

describing an apparent stroke he suffered in late 1995. "My left eye was closed.

I thought that maybe nothing was wrong. But when I came back my eye just did not

work any more... Now my left side from my head to my toe does not work. And my left

eye is 95 percent blind. That is why when I walk it is not normal."

As the interview nears its second hour, Pol Pot often licks his parched lips and

sips from his glass of water. Sometimes he becomes annoyed when he is interrupted

or his answers are challenged. But he never raises his voice. And he seems eager

to elicit sympathy. "In Khmer we have a saying that when one is both quite sick

and old there remains only one thing, that you die."

Pol Pot says his days are bleak. His books have been confiscated, and he rarely

gets out of bed. "I have nothing to do now," he says, adding that the hut

is plagued with mosquitoes.

He listens to the radio every morning: both the clandestine Democratic Kampuchea

radio and the Voice of America. "I want to listen to VOA every night as well,

but sometimes I fall asleep," he says, complaining that the morning broadcast

isn't as interesting as the evening one.

"I feel a little bit bored, but I have become used to that. You know, I can't

even play with my daughter or my wife any more because in the morning, even after

I wake up, I can't get out of bed. I stay still while my wife occupies herself with

gardening and sewing. My daughter gathers wood and works in the kitchen. But we are

together for dinner... We dine together at a small table."

He speaks with fatherly affection of his only child, aged 12. "She is a good

daughter, a good person. She gets along with the others quite well. "But he

says she isn't doing as well in some school subjects as others. On that score, "she

is like me." When she grows up, will she be proud to say she is the daughter

of Pol Pot? "I don't know about that. It's up to history to judge," he


Then Pol Pot, with an engaging smile, apologizes and says he needs to go back

to the hut and lie down. "I feel very, very tired," he says.

He is helped to his feet, unable to rise on his own. As he's assisted down the

steps and along the jungle path, he pauses to offer pleasantries to hovering cadres,

who remain grim-faced. Then he raises his hands together again in a polite farewell.

Before climbing back into the truck, he turns to one of his captors and says softly:

"I want you to know that everything I did, I did for my country."


  • Bareknuckle champion wants Kun Khmer fighter

    Dave Leduc, who is the current openweight Lethwei boxing champion in Myanmar, has announced that he will travel to Cambodia this year to challenge SEA Games gold medallist Prum Samnang any time that is convenient, after their planned match later this month in Slovakia was

  • Five-year-old Hanuman dances his way into hearts of Cambodia

    A young talent from a new-established settlement has emerged, captivating the online world with his mesmerising performances of the traditional Cambodian monkey dance. Roeun Kakada is a five-year-old prodigy who has taken the social media sphere by storm with his exceptional dance skills and dedication

  • Fresh Covid warnings as Thai hospital fills

    A senior health official reminds the public to remain vigilant, as neighbouring countries experience an increase in Covid-19 cases, with the latest surge appearing to be a result of the Omicron XBB.1.5 sub-variant. Or Vandine, secretary of state and spokeswoman for the Ministry of Health,

  • Honda shutters Siem Reap football club

    Japanese football legend Keisuke Honda, the owner of Siem Reap football club Soltilo Angkor FC, has been forced to shut the club down, after it failed to attract sponsorship for the upcoming season. Honda, the former manager of the Cambodia men's national football team, said

  • Hun Sen warns of regional tensions

    ASIA is becoming a dangerous geopolitical hotspot, with several countries announcing that they intend to send naval vessels towards Southeast Asia and on to the South China Sea, warned Prime Minister Hun Sen. “Heated geopolitical issues can easily escalate, namely to war. I am not

  • PM declares ASEAN Para Games open

    The 12th ASEAN Para Games officially kicked off on the evening of June 3 at Morodok Techo National Stadium in Phnom Penh, with a spectacular opening ceremony featuring fireworks and performances by some of the Kingdom’s most accomplished talents. Tens of thousands of sports fans