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
"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
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
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."