CAMBODIA RECALLS A NATIONAL NIGHTMARE CITIZENS TAKE THEIR FIRST LOOK AT POL POT IN 18 YEARS
Huddled shoulder to shoulder, some on tiptoes, market vendors, shoppers and taxi drivers crowded around the TV monitor to look at the man blamed for the deaths of as many as 2 million Cambodians.
Boys and girls stood open-mouthed, eyeing the feeble, white-haired man - a bogeyman from horror stories suddenly become real.
Those old enough to remember him cried out in amazement: ``That's him! That's him!''
The footage of toppled Khmer Rouge chief Pol Pot, obtained by a cameraman with American journalist Nate Thayer, was broadcast yesterday on TV monitors in Phnom Penh's central market and at the historic temple Wat Phnom.
ABC, which purchased the film, set up the monitors for its ``Nightline'' show to watch how ordinary Cambodians reacted to their first sight of the secretive guerrilla Pol Pot in 18 years.
The footage showed a humiliated, broken Pol Pot being tried by his former Khmer Rouge comrades Friday and sentenced to house arrest for life.
Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975-79, killing hundreds of thousands of people by starvation, overwork and systematic execution in a quest to transform the nation into a Marxist agrarian utopia. Invading Vietnamese forces eventually ousted Pol Pot, sending him and his followers into the jungles to continue their guerrilla war.
Most passers-by ignored the show yesterday, inured to the 69-year-old guerrilla leader by years of conflicting rumors about his whereabouts and even his death, and more worried about survival in a country still suffering from his reign of terror.
The emotions of those who did stop ranged from surprise to desire for a real trial rather than the spectacle the Khmer Rouge held to publicly distance themselves from their longtime chief.
``I hate him. I wish they would just kill him,'' declared a taxi driver, who identified himself only as Savoeun.
Hem Savi, 41, recalled awakening from a Khmer Rouge interrogation session two decades ago to find that her parents and six siblings had been killed and thrown into a pit.
``I feel no pity for Pol Pot watching this,'' she said.
Ke Chandara, 35, a motorcycle taxi driver, said he was surprised anyone could catch and try Pol Pot, a nightmare figure of magical stature to most Cambodians.
Ke Chandara, who said his father's fingernails were torn out by the Khmer Rouge, agreed with others that the trial and punishment were not legitimate and that Pol Pot should be tried by a U.N. tribunal.
``There's no nation on earth that killed its people in such a cruel way as Pol Pot,'' he said.
Vannareth Ky, a Cambodia native who lives in Seattle, said he was excited to see Pol Pot's face.
``He has not been seen for so long,'' Ky said. ``I am longing to ask him why he killed his own people. For what?''
Ky, who lost two older brothers and one child under the Khmer Rouge regime, said surviving family members and five other families escaped the killings and hid in a swamp around Tonle Sap Lake, about 90 miles from Phnom Penh.
At night, he said, ``We came out to the farm to steal potatoes, pumpkins, watermelons and rice and went back to the jungle.''
Before he fled to the jungle, Ky was under Khmer Rouge control. During that time, the cadre gave him and seven other people one can of rice and one can of maize to share for each meal. Ky said he and his wife shared the same house but rarely saw each other because they were assigned to work at different job sites and different shifts.
``I almost died of hunger,'' said Ky, 50. ``I could walk only about 5 meters at a time.''
In the U.S. broadcast of the Pol Pot footage on ``Nightline'' Monday evening, Thayer, the American journalist, told host Ted Koppel that the Khmer Rouge guerrillas who tried Pol Pot debated beforehand whether to execute him - the usual fate of Pol Pot's own opponents.
Thayer, who works for the Far Eastern Economic Review, a Hong Kong-based newsweekly, was allowed into the Khmer Rouge's northern Cambodian stronghold of Anglong Ven to witness the trial.
In Washington, D.C., State Department spokesman Jim Foley said the Khmer Rouge's sentence of life imprisonment was inadequate punishment for Pol Pot. ``In our view, this is not a bringing to justice,'' Foley said.
``Pol Pot and his henchmen must be turned over to the legitimate judicial authorities and tried according to the laws of Cambodia and/or international law,'' he added.
Most of Pol Pot's remaining troops reportedly turned against him in June after he ordered the killing of his defense minister. The Khmer Rouge infighting came during peace talks with Prince Norodom Ranariddh, then Cambodia's co-premier.
The Cambodian government's disputes over how to handle the Khmer Rouge holdouts ended with the other premier, Hun Sen, deposing Ranariddh in a bloody coup July 5.
A government committee said yesterday that the coup and subsequent looting by Hun Sen's victorious troops caused at least $76 million in damage to Phnom Penh businesses.
Also yesterday, Hun Sen's efforts to win international legitimacy by naming a new co-premier suffered a blow when Ranariddh's father, King Norodom Sihanouk, announced he will not recognize Hun Sen's choice to succeed his son.
The nominee, Foreign Minister Ung Huot, told the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, that Hun Sen wanted the group's help to return stability to the country.
ASEAN has postponed Cambodia's entry as a full member, scheduled for last week, to protest the coup.