Can Cambodia Be Saved?

By Shawcross, William | Newsweek, June 30, 1997 | Go to article overview

Can Cambodia Be Saved?


Shawcross, William, Newsweek


Pol Pot's reign of terror was a terrible period in the country's history. But his end doesn't begin to solve its problems.

The extraordinary drama being played out last week in the jungles of northwest Cambodia is a fitting finale to the tragedy called the Khmer Rouge. For well over 20 years, the Khmer Rouge haunted Cambodia--and the rest of the world. From 1975 to 1979, the movement conducted one of the worst and most irrational reigns of terror in modern history.

Now, the group that was born in the jungle, and spent most of its 40-odd years of life in the jungle, is dying in the jungle. Of course, it's wise to be cautious when assessing the stories of Pol Pot's demise. Nothing in Cambodia is ever certain. Politics, especially revolutionary politics, is always shrouded in lies, feints and subterfuge. Last summer Pol Pot was reliably reported to be dead from malaria. He did not die then, and he may not be handed over for trial now.

But it's clear that the brutal communist movement has been losing strength and splitting apart for years. In 1996 a large faction under the control of Pol Pot's comrade and former foreign minister Ieng Sary defected en masse to the government in Phnom Penh. "This time it really does look like the end," says Steve Heder, one of the world's leading experts on the Khmer Rouge.

It is easy to demonize Pol Pot and to say that all the evil of the Khmer Rouge is embodied in him. In fact, like all communist movements, the Khmer Rouge was a collective organization, and there are at least hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who share responsibility for appalling crimes. Nonetheless, Pol Pot was known as Brother No. 1, and without him, the Khmer Rouge would not have existed or behaved as they did.

Almost nothing was known of their leaders, their ideology or their ambitions when in April 1975 they defeated the American-backed government and marched into Phnom Penh. Their first astonishing act--emptying Phnom Penh and all other towns at once and at gunpoint--confirmed them as perhaps the most radical and brutal revolutionaries of the century. Over the next three years they attempted to transform Cambodia into a "pure" agricultural communist society, utterly cut off from the rest of the world.

Refugees told of a land of blood and tears, of unremitting toil in vast work camps, of no food, no medical care. They said that anyone with glasses risked death as "an intellectual"; so did anyone suspected of even modest wealth, let alone ties with the old regime. Family life was subsumed into collectives; children were ordered to inform on their parents. Between 1 million and 2 million people died. …

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