​A small, muddled, erratic, frightened man | Phnom Penh Post

A small, muddled, erratic, frightened man


Publication date
27 June 1997 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : David Chandler

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Ancient inscriptions on the art of rice cultivation.

C AMBODIA'S two Prime Ministers seldom agree on much, to put mildly, so when they

stood side by side on June 21 to announce that Pol Pot had been captured, the event

had an added level of significance. Their semi-retractions and crossed wires over

the next three days ran truer to form, but amid all the backing and filling it was

clear to most observers that Pol Pot, "Brother Number One", is no longer

leading the Khmer Rouge.

Nonetheless, mystery still surrounds Pol Pot's whereabouts, the identity of his captors

and the state of his health, to say nothing of the circumstances of his capture.

It was also unclear, as this was written, how, when, where or even if Pol Pot would

be brought to justice, as the co-Prime Ministers have proposed to the United Nations,

and how many other Khmer Rouge leaders, if any, would face charges too. The wording

of the Prime Ministers' letter to the United Nations, namely that "those persons

responsible" for genocidal policies be brought to trial, was encouraging, and

may close off the possibility of Khieu Samphan, that adroit and sinister survivor,

playing an independent role in Cambodian politics, as Prince Ranariddh had recently

seemed to hope.

The mysteries surrounding Pol Pot of course, are nothing new. Mystery has been a

crucial part of his persona for over forty years. Before he joined the French Communist

Party in Paris in 1952, the impression that he left on his contemporaries was one

of affable mediocrity. Saloth Sar, to use his earlier name, was easy to lose sight

in a crowd. Becoming a Communist seems to have given him focus and direction but

his unassuming, friendly personality remained on view.

When he returned home and began a career as a Communist militant, he kept a low profile.

This allowed him to escape the notice of Western intelligence services and Sihanouk's

police. By 1962 he had become secretary of the minuscule and concealed Communist

Party's central committee. Soon afterwards, he went into hiding with a few associates

in a Vietnamese Communist military base. For reasons that remain obscure, he was

able, on his rise to power, to attract and retain the loyalty of several men and

women who were better educated, better trained as Marxists and more forceful than

he was: people like "Brother Number Two", Nuon Chea, educated as a lawyer

in Thailand in the 1940s; Son Sen, once the director of Phnom Penh's prestigious

Pedagogical Faculty and Pol Pot's brother-in-law; and Ieng Sary, a well-versed intellectual.

In some cases (but which ones?) he won these people over. In others he neutralized

potential enemies or maneuvered them out of his way.

As a schoolteacher in the 1950s he had an almost mesmerizing effect on his students,

who admitted his austere life style, his warmth and what he conveyed as a longing

for social justice. Outside of Party gatherings, he kept his political loyalties

concealed. Then and later, he was most effective talking to small groups.

His years in the maquis after 1963 were crucial to his intellectual development,

his evolving leadership style and his success, with a handful of colleagues, in forming

a national revolutionary movement. Unfortunately, the period is poorly documented,

and we can catch only fleeting glimpses of Pot Pot.

In 1965-1966 he was summoned to Hanoi - in those days an arduous trip, taking three

months on the Ho Chi Minh Trail - and went on to China briefly before returning to

his new base in Ratanakiri. For the next nine years Pol Pot criss-crossed the forests

of northern and northeastern Cambodia, often carried in a hammock. After 1975, when

the civil war broke out, he took charge of Khmer Rouge strategy. His major strategic

decision - a risky one - was to refuse to join the Vietnamese-American cease-fire

of 1972. The decision freed him of Vietnamese patronage and provoked the rage of

the United States, which took the form for several months of carpet bombing a country

with which the United States was not at war and where no American lives were being


While in reality the Khmer Rogue victory in April 1975 was contingent not only on

their soldiers' revolutionary zeal and their demonstrated bravery but also on Vietnamese

military aid, American war weariness and the ineptitude of the forces sent against

them, the Khmer Rouge leaders believed that their victory responded to historical

laws. A person who could "grasp the wheel of history", to use a Khmer Rouge

expression, controlled the flow of history like Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. Perhaps because

he had won his victory from the shadows; however, he remained hidden from view, returning

to Phnom Penh in secret a week after the city had been cleared of its population.

This was probably his finest moment. Seizing power three weeks before the Vietnamese

victory next door fulfilled his wildest dreams. From then on, everything went downhill.

Except for his gigantic sense of self-importance, and the number of deaths that can

be attributed to his short-lived, inept regime, everything we know about Pol Pot

when he held power suggests a small, muddled, erratic and often frightened man. Pol

Pot was operating beyond his depth. He piled one disastrous decision on top of another,

presiding over purges that disemboweled his party, starting an unwinnable war with

Vietnam, imitating the worst disaster in Twentieth Century Chinese history even to

the point of using its name, the Great Leap Forward. Faced with some of this data,

a psychiatrist friend of mine once told me, "If he was my patient, I wouldn't

ask for a second opinion".

His legacy, I think, consists primarily of perhaps 1.7 million people, over 1.3 million

of them ethnic Khmers, who died between April 1975 and January 1979 of starvation,

overwork, mistreated diseases and execution.

Everyone at the top - "hard core" and "liberals" alike - knew

about the deaths. Faced with questions about them, Pol Pot has offered at least two

explanations. One was that he had "trusted too many people". The other,

given in the 1990s, was that his government was inexperienced. "We were like

babies," he told some supporters: "Leaning to walk". Ieng Sary, for

his part, blamed the deaths on "Vietnamese agents" while Khieu Samphan

explained the regime's failure by the fact that "we didn't move swiftly enough

against our enemies". Nuon Chea, "Brother Number Two", who operated

in even deeper shade than Pol Pot, was characteristically silent.

The collapse of Democratic Kampuchea in January 1979 marked the end of the road for

the self-effacing visionary who had dreamed for years of seizing power, and for the

brighter, more forceful people who accompanied him in the Party Center and had survived

the purges. With customary hauteur, these defunct revolutionaries refused to acknowledge

what had happened. So did the powers who supported the Khmer Rouge at the UN. The

next eighteen years were a prolonged and poorly scripted last act after most of the

audience and the other actors had gone home. In the last few days, the play has ended

abruptly (or has it?) with a rash of murders, and a power failure that has left the

remaining actors and onlookers momentarily in the dark.

- David Chandler is the author of Brother No.1, A Political Biography of Pol


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