APRIL 17 was a quiet day at Tuol Sleng. Staff members were lolling in the foyer doing
little until they were handed a photocopy of a Bangkok newspaper's front-page photo.
"Ah, Pol Pot slaap [dead]," they murmured excitedly as they gathered around
the image of the feared dictator's body lying in a small wooden shack.
Suddenly one woman snatched the paper and pounded her fist into the picture. Rage
burned in her eyes as she turned and stormed off.
"She hates him very much," a ticket seller explained.
Like every Cambodian who suffered under Pol Pot, 50-year-old So Khan has reason to
hate him. She lost four brothers and sisters under his Democratic Kampuchea regime,
which had begun exactly 23 years ago to the day.
"I hate this guy so much, if he were still alive I would beat him until he died,"
So Khan said. "I did not believe he was dead before, because I could not see
a picture. But now I believe it."
The mild-looking administrative officer blinked back tears of relief or rage as she
explained why she has worked the last 16 years at the torture center-turned-museum.
"I want to maintain all the evidence, especially the skeletons, to show to the
younger generation so they can know what Pol Pot committed in the past."
Nou Na, 64, is a testament to the suffering of Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge
regime and the years of civil war that sandwiched it.
After being liberated from a Khmer Rouge work camp in 1979 by the advancing Vietnamese
army, Nou Na was relocated by the new People's Republic of Kampuchea regime to farmland
in a former battlezone of Kampong Cham.
In 1996 both her legs were blown off by a landmine. Now, from the confines of her
crude wheelchair, she begs passersby at Wat Phnom for a few hundred riel.
"If we had not been liberated maybe Pol Pot would have killed all of the Cambodians,"
she said. "Maybe now that he is dead we can have peace and prosperity in Cambodia."
Many Cambodians found it difficult to imagine that the man who caused so much horror
could finally be dead himself. "He is the big man, the powerful man, he cannot
die easily," several people said.
One woman at a teashop in front of the Royal Palace said she had heard rumours of
the death, but was not convinced.
"I do not believe he is dead, because I have not heard it on the news,"
said Vanay Demand Tero, a 49-year-old village head. "But I came here for a drink
because I heard his body was in the palace. I'm just keeping my eyes and ears open."
Even after looking at the newspaper photos and being told that the body had been
seen near Anlong Veng, she was still skeptical.
The photos convinced Tuol Sleng tour guide Lim Prum, however.
"All Cambodian people are happy about the death of Pol Pot," the 28-year-old
said. "It means the end of Democratic Kampuchea, and also maybe the death of
the Khmer Rouge."
Yet one young monk at Wat Botum held a different opinion.
"I felt sorry when I heard the news, because I think we have lost one of Cambodia's
intellectuals," 30-year-old Chin Novet said of the man who banned religion.
"I think he committed bad things in the past on orders from someone else."
He added that the most important thing was to realize that Pol Pot's death did not
affect the situation in Cambodia. "If he has died, we still have no peace. The
point is to find peace by ourselves."
Another monk at Wat Langka, when asked if he was happy at the news, answered that
it is not proper for a Buddhist to celebrate the death of another. "We should
not desecrate the memory of the dead," he said severely. The monk then paused
a moment for thought and cracked a wide grin. "But just this one time I can
say that I am happy."
Despite his blasphemous pleasure, the monk agreed that Pol Pot's death was not the
end of Cambodia's problems. "For the future, we must finish this war,"
Soan, a 73-year-old who has entered the monkhood at Wat Langka, said he did not have
any strong reaction or feelings upon hearing the news, despite having had three members
of his family die during Pol Pot's cruel reign.
"Pol Pot is dead, but it is just like when another person dies," he said.
"He has been away [from power] for a long time. I don't think anything will
Still, most Cambodians said the milstone was an important one.
Cambodia's constitutional father, King Norodom Sihanouk - speaking in Siem Reap just
days after his return from three months in Beijing - put Pol Pot's passing in three
blunt words: "Let him be dead."