A NLONG VENG - The so-called "People's Tribunal" for one of this century's
most notorious and elusive mass murderers began at noon on July 25 in Cambodia's
remote, malaria-ridden jungle near the Thai border.
"Long live! Long live! Long live the new strategy!!!" chanted hundreds
in unison, clenched fists pumping toward the sky. Old artillery pieces and a captured
Russian tank stood near the open air mass meeting hall.
"Crush! Crush! Crush! Pol Pot and his clique!," shouted the crowd on cue,
a chorus of clenched fists striking down in unison toward the ground.
There, in a simple wooden chair, grasping a long bamboo cane and a rattan fan, sat
Pol Pot - the architect of Cambodia's "Killing Fields" - an anguished old
man, frail eyes struggling to focus on no-one, watching his life's vision crumble
in utter, final defeat.
This was how the People's Tribunal began for Pol Pot, long sought by much of the
world for personally orchestrating a reign of terror that left more than a million
human beings dead and many millions more with lives shattered.
The crude podium held a microphone, and crackling loudspeakers, powered by a nearby
car battery lying on the earthen floor, began to spew public denunciation and humiliation
from a series of speakers.
A shocking percentage of the participants stood on crude wooden stumps, sat in home-made
wheelchairs, or were missing eyes, the fruits of revolutionary sacrifice serving
the cause of Pol Pot that had now come to this.
Some were unable to join in the frequent clapping, arms blown off by landmines, as
speaker after speaker denounced Pol Pot.
"Our ultimate goal today is that the international community should understand
that we are no longer Khmer Rouge and not Pol Potists!" roared Ta Neou, the
civilian administror for the 60,000 population under Pol Pot's control until weeks
The carefully orchestrated performance evoked a surrealistic image of a grainy, black
and white film clip from China's cultural revolution. But the message was starkly
"Long live the emergence of the democracy movement!" shouted single crowd
participants, periodically interupting leaders offering carefully crafted lectures
at the microphone. A chorus would repeat the slogan, followed by prolonged applause
by the roughly 500 participants: "Crush!! Crush!! Crush!! Pol Pot and his murderous
Pol Pot sat alone, near three other manacled loyalists. Many in the crowd of women,
children and soldiers seemed more concentrated on the spectacle of the first westerner
they had ever seen than the traumatized old man sitting alone in a chair.
Each speaker, representing a sector of society - the farmer, the intellectual, the
armed forces, women - got up to denounce and humiliate Pol Pot "and his clique".
Pol Pot seemed often close to tears as the vitriol was unleashed. The three younger,
senior army commanders sat silently, in contrast, and had menacing, almost arrogant
expressions, staring coldly and directly in the eyes of a visiting reporter, the
speakers, and members in the crowd. They showed no fear.
The accusations were horrifying. "We have sacrificed everything for the sake
of the movement," Ta Neou said. "Our parents and all of us are children
of peasants and farmers, we have sacrificed everything for the sake of the movement,
but at the end we kill each other."
He was refering to a violent series of purges and counter purges at the very core
of the Khmer Rouge leadership on June 9, which sparked internal turmoil that led
to Pol Pot's final demise six days later.
It was then, having fled through jungles toward the Thai border that Pol Pot finally
surrendered, with only seven people. He was being carried in a green Chinese-issue
army hammock slung on a bamboo pole. With him were his young wife in her 30s, his
12-year-old daughter, a young niece, a handful of bodyguards and the Khmer Rouge
political leader and Prime Minister of their party, Khieu Samphan. Khmer Rouge leaders
say Pol Pot was near death and had to be given oxygen as he was brought back to their
headquarters in a Toyota landcruiser captured from UN peacekeeping forces prior to
the 1993 elections.
And the dispute at the core of the leadership is deeply rooted in the violent coup
in early July that shook Phnom Penh and toppled it's elected first prime minister,
sending Cambodia back into the throes of more strife and suffering that seems to
define this nation of 10 million.
"On the 9th of June at 12:15 am, Pol Pot issued a direct order to take two Toyota
pick-up trucks loaded with 20 to 30 soldiers to kill Mr Son Sen," General Khem
Nguon said in an interview after the People's Tribunal condemned Pol Pot. "The
events that happened in recent weeks are because of problems that occured within
the top leadership of our organization."
The assassination of long-time Defense Minister Son Sen was only the beginning of
a last ditch purge attempt by Pol Pot of a number of senior officials, including
powerful army commander Ta Mok, who has long controlled much of the Khmer Rouge forces
in this area of northern Cambodia, say Khmer Rouge leaders.
It was a final, desperate attempt by Pol Pot to seize control of a movement that
had been rapidly splintering since July 1996, when most of the Khmer Rouge forces
in western Cambodia split from the northern forces here in Anlong Veng.
"In July 1996, Pol Pot sent Ta Mok to western Cambodia to settle the problems
within our organization in that area. But once Ta Mok arrived in that area it was
too late," explained commander Nguon. "The people rejected Pol Pot already
and they rose up against him because the people cannot support Pol Pot's policy."
The defections in the west last August represented nearly half of the Khmer Rouge
forces, including Ieng Sary, the former foreign minister, brother-in-law of Pol Pot
and number four in the Standing Committee.
But the loss of the west only deepened the isolation of Pol Pot and the divisions
within his remaining core leadership.
"Pol Pot accused Ta Mok, Nuon Chea, Son Sen of being unable to settle the problem,"
explained Gen Nguon. "Pol Pot blames Ta Mok, Nuon Chea, and Son Sen for destroying
our areas in western Cambodia.
" So Pol Pot asked Mao - over there," he explained, pointing at a young
Khmer Rouge cadre listening in on the interview, "to shoot Ta Mok and burn him
- last October - to leave no evidence."
The grim-faced young cadre, who looked capable of such a deed, nodded in agreement
with his commander. "Since last October all three have been detained by Pol
Pot and his clique."
While it is unclear what "detained" means, there is little doubt that the
divisions within the core of the top command had become critical.
Pol Pot then recruited the loyalty of senior military field commanders Gen Sarouen
and Gen San and tried to consoldidate power against Ta Mok.
"On the 25th of February 1997, there was a big mass meeting on the new leadership
organization. Pol Pot did it alone without any consultation with the other key leaders,"
contended Gen Nguon. "What Pol Pot tried to do was to bring Saroeun's followers
to replace the existing ones." Sarouen was to be appointed as the chief of staff
of the military to replace Ta Mok and also head political affairs. San was to be
his deputy for military affairs, according to those in control of the area last month.
"So Pol Pot continued to lead our organization toward a black hole," said
Gen Nguon during the interview, surrounded by other top military and political cadre.
"Within Cambodia Pol Pot is rejected! Within the world community Pol Pot is
rejected! There is no way out for us.
"What is the main cause that steered our people to rise up against Pol Pot?
One, the leadership and the grip on power by Pol Pot was so long. All the power was
within his hands. All the decisions were taken alone by him without consultation.
Pol Pot took decisions without even consulting the top leadership!"
Meanwhile, according to both Cambodian government sources and diplomats, it was around
February that a series of secret negotiations accelerated between elements of the
Cambodian government and elements of the Khmer Rouge in Anlong Veng seeking to come
to a political solution, opposed by Pol Pot and often behind his back. Most of these
efforts were conducted by loyalists of Ta Mok and the top Royalist military commander
Gen Nhek Bun Chhay.
By May, a deal in principle to join forces had been agreed between Funcinpec forces
and much of the Khmer Rouge leadership at Anlong Veng, including key political leader
Khieu Samphan along with the forces loyal to Ta Mok. Pol Pot was becoming more isolated.
On the night of June 9 he began an attempt to eliminate his internal opposition to
scuttle the peace deal that would have ended his influence over the organization
he had solidly controlled since he fled to the jungle 35 years before.
"I have been bitterly separated from my relatives by this regime," senior
political minister Tep Kunnal told the People's Tribunal on 25 July, explaining the
events of June 9. "Before I never saw with my own eyes. I have never killed
anyone in my life, but on the 9th of June, 1997, I saw with my own eyes that the
Pol Pot regime is a real murderous regime! Even the small children were not allowed
to live!" Fourteen of Defense Minister Son Sen's relatives, including a five-year-old
child, were shot dead in the early morning hours of July 10 by division commander
Sarouen, according to both Khmer Rouge and foreign intelligence sources.
The killing of Son Sen and all of his family on Pol Pot's orders, sparked a five-day
turmoil where commanders fled in disarray into the jungle, but quickly consolidated
behind Ta Mok, leaving an isolated Pol Pot and his band of about 300 supporters trapped
and eventually captured.
With Pol Pot under detention by June 19 and his loyalists neutralized, the remaining
Khmer Rouge leadership moved rapidly to forge secretly a tactical political and military
alliance with the Royalist faction of Prince Norodom Ranariddh against their common
enemy, the former communist Cambodian People's Party led by Hun Sen.
Finalized plans to give up fighting and formally join a political movement moved
These events preceded the coup d'etat which was fundamentally linked to the developments
within the Khmer Rouge - a struggle between those who wanted a political negotiation
with elements of the ruling government and those who didn't. With final secret negotiations
completed on July 4 at jungle encampments on the northern Thai-Cambodian border guerrilla
stronghold between Funcinpec military head Gen Nhek Bun Chhay, Hun Sen - through
agents he had developed in the area - launched his violent and bloody coup in the
early hours of the next morning.
But regardless of the turmoil that has once again erupted with the July 5 coup, the
events of June here in Anlong Veng effectively mean that the Khmer Rouge as the world
knows them no longer exist.
The leadership in control of the Khmer Rouge when their reign in power ended after
the Vietnamese invaded in late 1978, has now been splintered.
Party supremo Pol Pot has been denounced and is under detention, former Foreign Minister
Ieng Sary is living in rural northwestern Cambodia in a semi-autonomus zone, Defense
Minister Son Sen was killed, and former Prime Minister Khieu Samphan controls no
"Ta Mok is old and in charge in the northern small zone of Anlong Veng, but
in charge of what?" argues professor Stephen Heder of the School of Advanced
International Studies at the University of London. "It no longer makes any sense
whatsoever to call whatever remains a Khmer Rouge movement. Because of the realignment
of forces over the last several years, the concept of a Khmer Rouge movement as we
know it no longer has any meaning."
What is clear is that "every political movement in Cambodia today has in it
so-called Khmer Rouge, whether it be CPP or Funcinpec. What is left of the Khmer
Rouge is not its former mainstream," says Heder.
At the highest levels of both the Royalist Funcinpec party and particularly Hun Sen's
Cambodian Peoples Party, especially in the armed forces, are many former Khmer Rouge
cadre. Both dominant parties "are perfectly prepared to work with people who
committed crimes against humanity - the only criteria is that they work with them
and don't contest their power," says Heder.
"What Hun Sen cannot abide to is not people who committed crimes against humanity,
but of people who won't agree to be under his command," argues Heder, who cites
a number of senior former Khmer Rouge cadre who are allied with Hun Sen today. "He
is only playing the Khmer Rouge card for foreign consumption."
As the People's Tribunal of Anlong Veng trial of Pol Pot continued into its second
hour, the new leaders somberly paced on the outskirts of the crowd, clearly concerned
by the deteriorating health of a now weak and traumatized Pol Pot.
Gen Nguon, whom Pol Pot ordered murdered only eight weeks ago, whispered that "Ta"
was "worsening quickly" as the public humiliation and denouncement started
to come towards a close.
"What the army and the people keep asking from me is that they be allowed to
kill Pol Pot, and Sarouen and San because they had harrassed and killed some of the
army's families and relatives. So, the army feels so bitter and painful with all
of them. You know today nobody was allowed to carry a weapon to this meeting, otherwise
they would have been killed by the mob already. The people are so furious,"
Guerrilla officials acknowledged that Pol Pot has suffered from serious heart disease,
and had high blood pressure long before the recent events. While the crowds, though
robotic, appeared to be both entertained and awestruck by the event, those that had
overthrown Pol Pot were themselves in anguish, many remaining almost deferential,
and clearly concerned over the implications of what the tribunal had done to their
"We have put an end to the leadership that has betrayed our organization and
the people," said Mak Ben, a bespectacled French-educated economist, dressed
in a green Chinese-style military uniform. "They are completely gone and, as
of right now, the Pol Pot regime has ended. On this occasion, we - all the people,
the armed forces, and the cadre - will continue to strengthen under one force following
the new strategy, which is based on the slogan: "Khmer don't kill Khmer!"
Confusion and sadness were etched on the face of Pol Pot's newest enemies, who had
spent almost all of their adult lives struggling under his leadership in these malaria-infested
"Having acknowledged the betrayal of our group in recent months by Pol Pot and
his clique," the loudspeaker roared into the nearby forest, Pol Pot's crimes
were read out. They included the murder of Son Sen, the attempted murder and "detention"
of Ta Mok and Nuon Chea, and "destroying the policy of national reconciliation...
These are the criminal acts and the betrayal of Pol Pot and his clique against the
people, armed forces, and our cadre. In conclusion, we all decide to condemn and
sentence this clique to life imprisonment."
"There is no confusion [over the arrest and sentencing]," said Gen Khem
Nguon later. "There is only people who have asked to kill him. But we did not
agree. We said it is not necessary to kill him. Because he is old, wait a short time
and he will die anyway, die by reaching the end of his life...In fact all the people
asked to sentence him (to death) at the court today, but I said it is not necessary,
not necessary to kill them, let's not have our hands covered in blood. A little longer,
and he is old already, he will die anyways."
Pol Pot was asked permission to be humiliated in front of the tribunal, according
to Nguon. "Pol Pot did himself confess to me clearly, after his arrest. When
I met him the first ime, he embraced me and burst into tears and said 'It is the
right thing, comrade, that this has happened,' and then he cried. It was on June
21, 1997 and he told me ' I am wrong, comrade. All the mistakes were made by me,
alone,' and then he cried. If he did not accept his faults, would Pol Pot have shown
up for photographs like this?
"Pol Pot told me that this is the end of his life, he has nothing left, but
he begged me to allow him to live. I also want to make clear that if Pol Pot was
vested with any credibility or respect, he would not have shown up and let you see
him like you just did today.
"I told him this morning that you were going to be here (to witness his condemnation).
I told him that we want to prove to the world that we no longer want to associate
ourselves with him. Then he consented. They needed to show themselves to the world
too so the world has no more doubt.
"We did tell him this morning that he has to show up in public to disengage
himself from this movement so that people will no longer be confused about him and
his leadership role. No one wants him. And also we want to show to the world that
he is obviously wrong so that we, the rest, can continue our struggle."
"No we are not a 'new Khmer Rouge'. We shouldn't be called Khmer Rouge anymore
because we have destroyed the Khmer Rouge, destroyed Pol Pot and Pol Pot is the head
of the Khmer Rouge. I am not a head of the Khmer Rouge, I - we - are a pure movement
of struggle. I cannot be called Khmer Rouge anymore... And if they still call us
Khmer Rouge, they don't see the results of what we have done in annihilating Pol
Pot. Pol Pot held power for decades and the U.S. couldn't annihilate him, no one
could annihilate him. The Vietnamese could not annihilate him, and I managed to annihilate
him. How can I be called the Khmer Rouge?"
"A reason why I annihilated Pol Pot, the reason why our movement of struggle
annihilated Pol Pot was in order for the international community to see and in order
for the international community to help the movement of the struggle of the Cambodian
people, in combination with other movements, in fighting and opposing Hun Sen and
"Pol Pot himself spoke to me and said ' I am finished. It is over for me. There
is nothing further for me. Just allow me to live'."
The new leadership of the rebel group spoke in almost gentle, respectful terms about
their deposed leader. After the sentence of life imprisonment was passed at the trial,
Pol Pot was helped up, unable to walk unassisted, by a guard in Chinese style military
fatigues. "Get someone under his other arm, get him more help," Gen Nguon
ordered his troops, with a genuinely concerned sad look for a man who had been ordered
killed by Pol Pot weeks before. "Ta is feeling very sick," said Gen Nguon,
patting his heart. "I am worried that he may die from the stress."
Some people respectfully bowed, as if to royalty, to Pol Pot, looking profoundly
anguished, as two soldiers propped him up as he walked 25 meters towards a waiting
"I said what I said with a very heavy heart," said a clearly shaken Tep
Kunnal, as he walked slowly, head bowed, away from the meeting, as if deeply moved
by the event. "It is very, very difficult for me, but it had to be done. Before,
there were two dangers for Cambodia, Pol Pot and the Vietnamese puppet Hun Sen. Now
there is only one."
This reporter asked Kunnal if he could translate some questions for Pol Pot as he
was being led to the car. Upon hearing the questions to be posed, Kunnal balked with
a look of terror on his face: "I cannot ask such questions to the elders. You
must ask them in Khmer yourself. It is better."
Pol Pot, who may never be seen alive again by a foreign journalist, was respectfully
helped into a Toyota Landcruiser with tinted windows, captured booty from the UNTAC
era, and driven off into the jungle.