Pol Pot Death Hasn't Purged Cambodia

By Barber, Ben | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 17, 1998 | Go to article overview

Pol Pot Death Hasn't Purged Cambodia


Barber, Ben, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Pol Pot was a small man who cast a giant bloody shadow over the latter half of the 20th century, and his death in Cambodia left even the memory of his rule a thing of fearsome terror.

Pol Pot, 73, died Wednesday a frail prisoner betrayed by the 200 or so of his followers who remain loyal to his Khmer Rouge brand of absolute Maoist-style rule.

A State Department spokesman said Washington backed a call by Phnom Penh for an autopsy to establish the identity and cause of death.

Reporters and Thai officers saw the body of the old man, dressed in a blue shirt and navy trousers, lying on a bed in a shack in a jungle clearing just a few hundred yards from the Thai border.

Photographs of the corpse, provided by the Thai army, show his face with eyes partially open and blackened hair with tufts of gray at the roots in what observers said could be an attempt to touch up his appearance ahead of funerary rites.

He narrowly escaped the judgment of a court that the United States, even in his final hours, sought to organize.

But history has already judged him as the mastermind of the genocide of minorities, the slaughter of the middle class and the turning of small children into killers of their own parents.

Pol Pot turned his Southeast Asian country of 8 million people into the "Killing Fields" from 1975 to 1979. All who wore glasses, spoke foreign languages or even whispered opposition to his Khmer Rouge rule were brutally silenced forever.

To the end, Pol Pot showed no regret, or even recognition of the misery he had caused.

"I want you to know that everything I did, I did for my country," Pol Pot told Western reporter Nate Thayer last fall. "My conscience is clear."

Pol Pot's guerrilla army took power 23 years ago today as U.S. forces abandoned Cambodia. Laos and Vietnam would soon fall to communists as well.

Over the next four years, virtually all of the Buddhist nation's monks, doctors, nurses, engineers, government officials, journalists and professors perished. Its ethnic Muslims, Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese fled or were slaughtered.

Some 1.7 million people died by the time Vietnamese troops invaded and drove Pol Pot from power in January 1979, according to professor Ben Kiernan, director of the Cambodia Genocide Program at Yale University.

"Pol Pot was one of the worst manifestations of extreme ideology this century has thrust up," said Richard Holbrooke, assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs under President Carter.

At the height of the killings in 1977, Mr. Holbrooke told a House committee that Pol Pot had unleashed "genocide - another Holocaust."

"The Khmer Rouge combined extreme communism learned from Chinese Maoists in the Cultural Revolution with an extreme version of French left-wing intellectualism" picked up when Pol Pot and his aide Khieu Samphan were students in Paris in the 1950s, said Mr. Holbrooke, who also negotiated the 1995 Dayton accord ending the civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"They had an intellectual rationale they thought justified exterminating entire classes of people. This is why they could go out and indoctrinate teen-age boys on why it was proper to kill babies and their own parents."

Pol Pot also evoked the nationalist memory of the 13th-century Khmer kingdom, which built the temples of Ankor Wat with slave labor, said Frederick Z. Brown, associate director of Southeast Asia studies at Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies in Washington.

"That history of extraordinary autocratic rule perhaps suited the temperament of the Khmers and was never forgotten," said Mr. Brown, a former State Department official.

Cambodia in later centuries felt trapped between Vietnam and Thailand, "the Tiger and the Crocodile," and then "the Indochina War itself stimulated this rather extreme sense of no-compromise politics," Mr. …

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