Pol Pot's Last Days: When Death Came to One of the Century's Great Villains, the World Mourned Only That He Won't Be Tried for His Crimes

By Adler, Jerry; Pran, Dith et al. | Newsweek, April 27, 1998 | Go to article overview

Pol Pot's Last Days: When Death Came to One of the Century's Great Villains, the World Mourned Only That He Won't Be Tried for His Crimes


Adler, Jerry, Pran, Dith, Kiernan, Ben, DePaul, Kim, Newsweek


When death can to one of the century's great villains, the world mourned only that he won't be tried for his crimes

He kept a clear conscience up until the end, but then, great villains and psychopaths generally do. No one given to second thoughts should ever contemplate genocide. Even if Pol Pot's attempt to remake Cambodian society by mass murder turned out badly, and he ended his days a prisoner of his former colleagues, themselves a tiny band hiding in a remote comer of the jungle, remorse would be out of the question. When death came last week for the man blamed for the deaths of more than 1 million of his countrymen, there was widespread regret that now he would never be tried for his great crimes. Whatever political purposes such a trial might have served, though, it would probably have fallen flat as moral drama. Show him the mounds of skulls rising to the sky, drench him in the blood of his victims and the rivers of orphans' tears, and he would almost certainly respond with the last words he uttered to the last Western reporter to see him alive, "Everything I did, I did for my country."

He died peacefully in his bed, in a two-room hut deep in the Dangrek Mountains, according to accounts by his captors from the Khmer Rouge, the party he once led. The official version is that his wife, Mea Son, discovered the body when she went to string mosquito netting around the bed. The journalist Nate Thayer of Far Eastern Economic Review, who interviewed Mea Son, says she told him Pol Pot complained of feeling dizzy, lay down on the bed and died in her presence. Assuming that the differences reflect an innocent misunderstanding, it is certainly plausible that he died of natural causes. He was 72 and had been in poor health since a 1995 stroke. A Cambodian government offensive had routed his Khmer Rouge captors from their longtime base last month, forcing them to flee into the rugged, mountainous jungles near Anlong Veng.

But it's also possible that he was murdered. The Khmer Rouge commander, the ferocious, one-legged guerrilla leader Ta Mok, had reportedly been making plans to turn Pol Pot over to Thai military officers. They, in turn, were supposed to pass him on to American officials, who planned to put him on trial for crimes against humanity. "We felt we were close to getting our hands on him," one senior American official said last week. The list of Cambodians who might have testified against Poi Pot includes practically every adult in the country; the list of co-conspirators who might have been implicated was also long, and included among many prominent Cambodians Hun Sen, the incumbent prime minister. Ta Mok himself would have been a key figure; Pol Pot's fortuitous death allowed him to embrace the concept of justice for tyrants without the embarrassment of an actual trial. As a result, many observers leaped to the conclusion that the death was a hoax, prompting Pol Pot's captors to stage a viewing of the corpse for a few Western journalists. His body, crudely embalmed in formaldehyde but already starting to smell in the jungle heat, was lying face-up on the mattress, a small spray of purple flowers near his head. His white hair had been dyed black in preparation, officials said, for yet another jungle trek to a more secure location. Artillery fire from encircling Cambodian troops thumped nearby.

Reporters said there was no question that the body was Pol Pot's. They saw no evidence of foul play, although Ta Mok had been known to poison his enemies on occasion belying his nickname, "the butcher"). American officials had called for an autopsy with international observers present, but by Saturday, three days after his death, his body had been cremated on a pyre of brush and car tires soaked in gasoline. There were no prayers; the only eulogy was offered in a television interview by Ta Mok, who had fought by Pol Pot's side for decades. He called the deceased prime minister "cow dung. …

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