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