Magazine article The World Today

Political Psychosis Outlasts Pol Pot

Magazine article The World Today

Political Psychosis Outlasts Pol Pot

Article excerpt

Despite the removal from power of the Khmer Rouge by Vietnamese troops in 1979, former members of the organisation still have a profound influence on political life in Cambodia. Elections planned for July are likely to prolong divisions rather than heal the trauma begun by Pol Pot in `Year Zero'.

POL POT, THE CAMBODIAN DICTATOR and architect of the infamous `Killing Fields' of Cambodia, was cremated shortly after the Khmer New Year, on April 17, after a heart attack suffered near Anlong Veng, north-western Cambodia . It may be more than coincidence - some say it reflects Buddhist fatalism - that it was on this date in 1975 that the 'Angkar', or 'organisation', took Phnom Penh, sealed the country's borders, and began their horrific social experiment in agrarian revolution and the removal of 'westemism'.

Pol Pot and his pseudo-Maoist political elite were keen on political expediency; they developed the simple Khmer maxim: `preserve them, no profit; kill them, no loss.' Pol Pot's funeral reflects this creed; the cremation of `Brother Number One' was an ignominious affair. He was set afire atop a pyre of tyres adorned by his favourite furniture, a fan, and some bourgainvillia. No-one other than his widow and young daughter, and one of his brothers, mourned.

Pol Pot's jailer claimed that his passing represented a new phase in Khmer politics. No longer would the organisation, under its current nom de guerre of the National Solidarity Front (NSF), be contaminated by affiliation with the poisonous Pol Pot they so readily abandoned last June and July. The guard told journalists that `All the [Khmer Rouge] soldiers are happy he is dead. There was no respect... We are actually happy because we will be spared further international criticism because of Pol Pot'.

But even the 'certified' death of Pol Pot could not escape the rumour mill that characterises Khmer politics. Some were suspicious, perhaps with just cause, regarding possible fraudulence on the part of the Khmer Rouge. Only days before Pol Pot's death, it was alleged that he had been offered for 'sale', in exchange for an international trial outside Cambodia.

In the weeks before his demise, the US government suggested it may not be averse, with Thai co-operation, to sending a `snatch-squad' to capture and extradite Pol Pot for such purpose. The idea had been mooted before when Washington offered Canada a military `extraction team' to surgically remove him from Cambodia.'

It was thought such a high profile trial ran the risk of compromising and embarrassing not just other powerful Cambodians, perhaps duplicitous in the genocide of the late 1970s, but also China and the US if Pol Pot had revealed all. Not a few took the view that Pol Pot's death might have been politically expeditious.2

On balance, however, this is unlikely. An unhealthy 73 year old man who had lived for years in the jungle, he had symptoms which, according to a western health worker, `were consistent with heart attacks'. No real evidence has been presented to the contrary.

Indeed, nor will it. Pol Pot was cremated without a post-mortem, much to the chagrin of the international community and the Government in Phnom Penh. But, despite his infamy, and again, in marked contrast to the role played by Saloth Sar (Pol Pot's pseudonym) over the last four decades, his death now means little politically.

The disintegration of his Khmer Rouge organisation has far greater significance for day-to-day political issues, and the national elections, planned for 26 July, than its leader's death. While in time the end of the Khmer Rouge may mirror the decline of its founder, the parallels stop there.


The Khmer Rouge has been in trouble for a long time. Each stage of its implosion has an affect nationally. Since the UN's departure from Cambodia in 1993 and the legitimisation of the political elite in Phnom Penh, a steady haemorrhage of Khmer Rouge has been incorporated in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. …

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