Ex-Khmer Rouge Leader Pol Pot Dies
Apr. 16, 1998
ANLONG VENG, Cambodia (AP) _ Cheating pursuers who believed they were days away from capturing him for trial, toppled Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot died in the jungle _ evading prosecution in the deaths of as many as 2 million countrymen. He was 73.
Cambodians wept in disappointment after hearing that Pol Pot had died of heart failure Wednesday in a hut barely 275 yards from the Thai border, even as the last diehard members of his vanquished movement were moving toward surrendering him to an international tribunal.
``He deserved to die. I am only sorry that he died so easily without being tried,'' sobbed Kim Saren, whose entire family _ mother, father and eight brothers and sisters _ died under Pol Pot's regime.
The Khmer Rouge and the Thai military showed an Associated Press photographer the body today, seeking to ease doubts about the often-rumored death.
Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, killing everyone who stood in the way of remaking the country into a Marxist agrarian regime. One person in five died of starvation, illness or execution.
King Norodom Sihanouk, whom the Khmer Rouge deposed, recently described Pol Pot as ``one of the most powerful monsters ever created by humanity.''
The last few hundred Khmer Rouge were on the run from government soldiers and the movement was nearing its demise at the time of his death. He was no longer the leader, but a prisoner of his own men who were offering to turn him over for trial in exchange for a peace deal.
Pol Pot's wife discovered his body when she went to arrange the mosquito netting around him for the night, said Non Nou, his Khmer Rouge jailer.
``At 12 midnight his wife came to us'' sobbing, Non Nou said. ``She learned that her husband was dead when she was tying the net for him. He died in a hut built for him after he lost his power.''
Non Nou said Pol Pot's body would be kept for one or two days before a traditional Cambodian funeral. ``Wait and see,'' he said when asked if journalists or outsiders would be allowed to attend.
A small group of journalists, including Associated Press photographer David Longstreath, was shown the body. Teen-age guerrillas carrying AK-47s stood impassively around the body lying on a wooden bed inside a simple hut reeking from formaldehyde.
A bouquet of pink and white flowers rested at the head of Pol Pot, who was dressed in gray slacks, an off-white short-sleeved cotton shirt and partially covered with a lime-green shroud.
Skepticism about the news of the reclusive leader's death was especially strong given the timing. The United States sought China's aid on April 9 in bringing him to trial for crimes against humanity, and his comrades-turned-captors were mulling over what nation, if any, they should surrender him.
``I think we could almost have arrested him tomorrow. It was very close,'' said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, a Yale University-affiliated project gathering evidence against top Khmer Rouge leaders in case they are ever brought to trial.
Youk Chhang said countries like Thailand and China must be ``relieved'' about the death because Pol Pot would not be able to reveal just how much these countries had aided his movement.
To the end, Pol Pot showed no regret, or even recognition of the misery he had caused.
``My conscience is clear,'' he told western journalist Nate Thayer in October. While he acknowledged ``mistakes,'' he suggested he had been the target of a plot to discredit him, perhaps by Cambodia's traditional enemy, Vietnam.
It was a frail gray-haired man who spoke to Thayer in the first interview he had given in 18 years. By then he had become a victim of the movement he once headed, condemned to spend the last months of his life under house arrest.
A ``people's tribunal'' held at the guerrillas' last stronghold in northern Cambodia condemned him in July for crimes that included the killing of the group's longtime guerrilla defense minister, Son Sen, and his family.
The murders were committed by Pol Pot's henchmen as the group itself was in its death throes, sent into irrevocable decline by mass defections in 1996.
``I want you to know that everything I did, I did for my country,'' Pol Pot said in his final interview last fall.
Pol Pot was born into a farming family in Kompong Thom province, 80 miles north of Phnom Penh. Personal details of his life were always difficult to verify, and only in his 1997 interview did he make public the true year of his birth, 1925.
Pol Pot went to Paris in 1949 on a government scholarship to study electronics. Absorbed with leftist politics, he established a communist cell with fellow Cambodian students. He failed his exams, lost his scholarship and returned home.
In the early 1960s, Pol Pot fled into the jungle after the government, led by then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk, savagely repressed leftist opposition. There, he built up an armed resistance movement, dubbed the Khmer Rouge _ Red Cambodians _ by Sihanouk.
In 1970, when Sihanouk was overthrown in a coup, the Khmer Rouge numbered a few thousand. But the aggrieved prince then joined forces with them, bringing his prestige and popular support.
Aided by China and Vietnam, the guerrillas gained control of the countryside and forced the army of U.S.-backed Premier Lon Nol into the towns. U.S. bombing alienated the peasantry.
On April 17, 1975, the guerrillas seized Phnom Penh, immediately expelled all foreigners and sealed off the country.
``This is Year Zero,'' Pol Pot said.
Society was to be ``purified,'' Khmer Rouge officials said. The country began a forced march to pure agrarian communism _ cities were emptied, money was abolished, nationwide communal kitchens introduced, schools and temples shut.
Phnom Penh was evacuated at gunpoint and its 2 million people sent to work in the countryside.
Marked for death were educated people, religious or ethnic minorities, Buddhist monks, and anyone suspected of ties with the former government or who questioned the regime.
Vietnam invaded on Christmas Day 1978 and installed a new communist government led by Khmer Rouge defectors. Pol Pot retreated to western Cambodia and began directing his forces against the Vietnamese.
The Khmer Rouge boycotted a U.N.-supervised election in 1991. A decline in strength and support was capped by the 1996 defections.
In 1997, his interviewer asked Pol Pot if a daughter born to him after a 1987 marriage would be proud of him when she grew up.
``I don't know about that,'' Pol Pot responded. ``It's up to history to judge.''