"Pol Pot, I Presume."
Nate Thayer, Wall Street Journal
August 1, 1997
Nate Thayer, a reporter for the Far Eastern Economic Review, garnered
world-wide attention after becoming the first Western correspondent in almost
20 years to see former Cambodian dictator Pol Pot. What follows is his own
account, condensed from the Aug. 7 issue of the magazine, which, like The Wall
Street Journal, is owned by Dow Jones & Co.
After a series of furtive rendezvous, using coded messages over mobile phones,
I had slipped into one of the most impenetrable, malaria-ridden and land
mine-strewn jungles of the world: Khmer Rouge-controlled northern Cambodia. I
was hoping to interview Pol Pot, one of the century's most notorious and
elusive mass murderers.
As I entered the Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng on July 25, hundreds of
voices chanted in unison: "Long live! Long live! Long live the new strategy!" The clenched fists of the crowd pumped toward the sky, as a smiling, middle-aged Khmer Rouge cadre led me toward an open-air meeting hall. Crackling loudspeakers, powered by a car battery lying on the earthen floor, began to spew denunciations of the longtime Khmer Rouge leader. "Crush! Crush! Crush! Pol Pot and his clique!" shouted the crowd on cue as we approached, their fists striking down toward the ground.
A shocking number of the participants stood on crude wooden stumps, sat in home-made wheelchairs, or were missing eyes--sacrifices to the revolutionary cause of Pol Pot. Others, their arms blown off by landmines, were unable join the frequent clapping as speaker after speaker denounced the man once venerated as "Brother Number One."
The carefully orchestrated performance evoked grainy film clips of China's Cultural Revolution. But the message was starkly different. "Long live the emergence of the democracy movement!" shouted individuals in the crowd. A chorus would repeat the slogan, followed by prolonged applause from the roughly 500 participants. Each speaker, seemingly chosen to represent a sector of society--a farmer, an intellectual, a soldier, a woman--got up to denounce and humiliate Pol Pot "and his clique."
Pol Pot sat alone, near three manacled loyalists, and often seemed close to tears as the vitriol was unleashed. In contrast, the three younger army commanders on trial alongside him had menacing expressions, staring coldly into the eyes of the speakers.
Pol Pot, who ruled Cambodia for more than three years and ruled the Khmer Rouge for more than three decades, was denounced and imprisoned by his own movement. Not for the 1975-78 Cambodian genocide, but for turning on his own comrades in an attempted purge in June.
The Khmer Rouge of Anlong Veng have good reason to distance themselves from Pol Pot: They want to attract international support for their struggle to unseat Cambodian Premier Hun Sen. That's why they allowed a foreign reporter to witness the show trial, the first time a journalist has entered Anlong Veng and left alive. Still the cadres clearly saw Pol Pot's ouster as a tragedy, and continued to treat the 72-year-old former leader with gentle respect.
The fall of Pol Pot underlines the view that the original Khmer Rouge movement which ruled Cambodia in the 1970s essentially no longer exists. But that doesn't mean that the Khmer Rouge have become irrelevant in Cambodia. The aggressive courting of remaining Khmer Rouge factions by Cambodia's rival premiers, Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh, was central to the July 5-6 coup in Phnom Penh. In fact, the Khmer Rouge had finalized their alliance with Ranariddh's Funcinpec Party on July 4. Worried that the balance of power would be tipped in his rival's favor, Hun Sen ousted Ranariddh the next day.
Virtually the entire Khmer Rouge leadership favored a deal with Funcinpec, but Pol Pot was opposed, said Gen. Im Nguon, who is now the Khmer Rouge's army chief of staff. "Domestically and internationally, Pol Pot has his own personal problems to take care of," he said, referring to Pol Pot's blood-soaked reputation. "He has no way out. That's why he keeps dragging this movement toward the darkness."
The Khmer Rouge had splintered dramatically since July 1996, when forces in western Cambodia, representing half the movement, broke with Pol Pot's northern forces headquartered in Anlong Veng. The western split was headed by Ieng Sary, Pol Pot's brother-in-law and longtime comrade-in-arms. Im Nguon said the split was aimed against Pol Pot himself, but the 72-year-old leader blamed his top leaders--Ta Mok, Nuon Chea and Son Sen--for failing to heal the rift.
"So Pol Pot asked Mao--over there," Im Nguon explained, pointing at a young Khmer Rouge cadre, "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. But he didn't carry out Pol Pot's order. Ta Mok, who is known to the outside world as "the butcher," is immensely popular with the troops and civilians under his control. So much so, Im Nguon said, that Pol Pot saw him as a threat. "They really like him a lot because he is so helpful to them in terms of standard of living. He built roads, bridges, dams within this area," Im Nguon said.
Pol Pot turned to two senior military field commanders, Gen. Sarouen and Gen. San, attempting to consolidate power against Ta Mok. On Feb. 25 he had them declared the new military and political leaders, replacing Ta Mok, Im Nguon said. About the same time, according to both Cambodian government sources and diplomats, secret negotiations accelerated between envoys of Prince Ranariddh and elements of the Khmer Rouge in Anlong Veng. Most of these efforts were conducted by Ta Mok loyalists--often behind Pol Pot's back--and the top royalist military commander, Gen. Nyek Bun Chhay. By May, the faction agreed in principle to join in alliance.
Increasingly isolated, on June 9 Pol Pot launched a desperate attempt to scuttle the peace deal by purging Ta Mok and other top leaders. That night, longtime defense minister Son Sen and 14 of his relatives, including a five-year-old child, were shot dead by Gen. Sarouen's men, according to both Khmer Rouge and intelligence sources. The killings sparked several days of turmoil, with commanders fleeing into the jungle in disarray. But they rallied
behind Ta Mok and trapped Pol Pot and his band of about 300 remaining supporters on June 15, Im Nguon said. Four days later, they had surrendered.
With Pol Pot neutralized, the remaining Khmer Rouge leadership moved rapidly to finalize a secret political and military alliance with Funcinpec on July 4. Hun Sen, learning about Funcinpec's new alliance through his agents, launched his deadly coup the next morning.
Hun Sen has claimed the tribunal I witnessed was stage-managed by Pol Pot himself. Im Nguon paints a very different picture, but he did say that Pol Pot had "consented" to having a foreign reporter witness the mass meeting, as a way of acknowledging his guilt for moving against his comrades. "Pol Pot did himself confess to me clearly, after his arrest," Im Nguon said. "When I met him the first time, he embraced me and burst into tears. . . . He told me: 'I am wrong, comrade; all the mistakes were made by me, alone,' and then he cried."
"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," Im Nguon continued. "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."
As the "People's Tribunal of Anlong Veng" continued into its second hour, a loudspeaker roared into the nearby forest: "These are the criminal acts--the betrayal by 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."
Pol Pot, unable to walk unassisted, was helped up by a guard in Chinese-style military fatigues. Some people respectfully bowed, as if to royalty, as Pol Pot walked 25 yards to a waiting vehicle. The cadres suggested that I ask Pol Pot questions while he was led away, but balked at translating when told the questions I wanted to pose. Pol Pot, perhaps never to be seen alive again, was helped into a Toyota Landcruiser with tinted windows--captured booty from United Nations peacekeeping soldiers prior to the 1993 elections. Seconds after the trial ended, a torrential rain began.