This is an unpublished opinion piece I wrote on the occasion of the death of Pol Pot. More about this on my page about my return to Cambodia in 1998.

PHNOM PENH, April 17, 1998

No tears are being shed for Pol Pot, who is reported to have died of a heart attack Wednesday in the jungles of northern Cambodia. But for many, the relief is tainted with frustration that the mastermind of the Khmer Rouge killing fields died before he could be brought to trial.

A cynic might point out that those who proclaim their frustration loudest have reasons to be thankful for the timing of Pol Pot's death. Even in Cambodia, where the simplest events have bewilderingly complicated causes, there are coincidences, and while it would be no surprise for a 73-year-old man living in captivity in the jungle to have a simple heart attack and die, it's worth keeping an eye on the rest of the scene. That's a difficult task, given the legendary murkiness of Cambodian politics.

Pol Pot had been held as a prisoner at the farthest edge of Cambodia since last July. His captors were his former minions, Ta Mok and the remnants of the hard-line Khmer Rouge leadership. In a show trial held in the jungle, witnessed by American journalist Nate Thayer and shown on television worldwide, he was found guilty of a variety of crimes and sentenced to life imprisonment--a surprisingly merciful sentence from an organization that is thought to have executed hundreds of thousands of people, while working to death a million or more others, during its 1975-79 rule.

As the personification of the Cambodian holocaust, Pol Pot may have been the only Khmer Rouge criminal who could never be eligible for any kind of pardon. The world might be reluctant to show mercy to the likes of Ta Mok, who is famous for his brutality, but even he might reasonably expect a reward if he were to turn over the biggest fish of them all to the Hague. Indeed, that has been the pattern. Ieng Sary, who was foreign minister for the Khmer Rouge and is widely thought to have been instrumental in organizing many crimes during its regime, was welcomed with open arms and a royal pardon after he turned against Pol Pot and led a massive defection in 1996.

But Pol Pot was the big fish. There was no one he could have turned in, or turned against. His evil had become nearly mythical, so much so that the videotapes of him hobbling away from the trial with tears in his eyes were viewed with incredulity by many Cambodians. In their and the world's imagination, it is the mythic Pol Pot that looms over a barren landscape littered with bones and pocked by mass graves.

To have a figure like that brought in chains to an international court would be an act of expiation by a world that still regrets its inaction in the face of that holocaust and others. Surely no right-thinking person could want anything else, at least not in public. But take a closer look. Who--among the players, not the audience--really wanted to see Pol Pot on trial?

Once on the stand, Pol Pot would have no reason not to implicate as best he could all those who have worked with him openly and in secret over the years. The singular mark of the death machine he and his Khmer Rouge regime created was the unstoppable fury of its vengeance against real and imagined traitors to the cause--and the list of Cambodian political figures who have at one time or another been members or allies of the Khmer Rouge is long. So is the list of other countries that have supported the Khmer Rouge in one way or another over the years.

China was the only public ally of the Khmer Rouge as it turned Cambodia into a torture chamber, and stuck by its Cold War proxy until recent years. The same Cold War exigencies led the United States to support the Khmer Rouge's retention of Cambodia's United Nations seat and to funnel support to the Khmer Rouge first through China and later through a chimerical alliance between the Khmer Rouge and then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk's royalist forces and other anti-Vietnamese groups. As early as 1979, just after the Vietnamese ousted the Khmer Rouge regime, Thailand fed and clothed Khmer Rouge forces and allowed Chinese supplies to transit Thailand to them. Later, elements in the corrupt Thai military made lucrative timber and gem deals with the rebels, who controlled much of the north and west of the country. These countries, among others, have good reason to prefer that the past remain in the past.

Hun Sen, the second prime minister of Cambodia and the country's de facto leader, has his own history with the Khmer Rouge--one that Pol Pot would presumable have had no hesitation in detailing. He was a regimental commander in the Khmer Rouge until he fled in 1977 from Pol Pot's Cambodia into Vietnam, where he was groomed for the Vietnamese-orchestrated takeover of Cambodia in 1979.

More dangerous still to Hun Sen might be revelations about efforts to buy off the remaining rebels and pull them into Hun Sen's political camp. His political party, the Cambodian People's Party--in various guises--controlled the apparatus of the government throughout the 1980s. Even after losing the 1993 elections to the royalist Funcinpec party, the CPP kept its grip on power despite the farcical coalition government cobbled together after the elections. Like Funcinpec, it sought to strengthen its hand by making deals with various segments of the Khmer Rouge in a largely successful effort to splinter the remaining rebel forces.

Last July, the CPP swept Funcinpec from any semblance of power in two days of bloody fighting in the capital, effectively ending the coalition. Part of the CPP's justification was that Funcinpec had been illegally negotiating with Khmer Rouge elements. Is it possible that Pol Pot could have testified to the CPP's own involvement in similar negotiations? Any further details of such deal-making would have discredited Hun Sen and damaged further the CPP's stated rationale for its move against Funcinpec.

With Funcinpec sidelined, no longer could the last Khmer Rouge play the royalists off against the CPP in their search for a way out of their losing war. Less than a month after the CPP's victory, Pol Pot was presented to the world as a prisoner of Ta Mok and his henchmen. With Pol Pot--and his potential testimony--as a hostage, Ta Mok had a new bargaining chip: the big fish.

In the days before Pol Pot's death, several events pushed up the value of that bargaining chip. Just over a week before the death was announced, the New York Times reported that President Clinton had ordered that plans be devised for Pol Pot's arrest and trial.

[One wonders if the State Department analysts who backed that decision--some of them presumably the same individuals who were involved in earlier US policies of support for the Khmer Rouge--considered whether that plan might amount to a death sentence for Pol Pot.]

A few days later, the Far Eastern Economic Review reported that Pol Pot's jailer, Khmer Rouge general Non Nou, had said on April 11 that Pol Pot had stated his willingness to stand trial at an international court. We don't know, and we never will know, whether Pol Pot really said that, or whether it was merely a Khmer Rouge effort to ratchet up the value of their hostage.

Both of these developments would have turned up the pressure on whoever might want to make sure that such a trial could never happen. And there would have been only one way for them do that: sweeten the pot that they must be offering Ta Mok in exchange for Pol Pot's corpse--which the Phnom Penh government has demanded to see [ED: as of Thurs]. So much the better if the pot also includes a defection deal that will end the Khmer Rouge insurgency at last, and boost the CPP's chances in the elections scheduled for July. To be more realistic, it would reduce the CPP's need to rely on fraud and intimidation to get the election win they want so badly.

And a CPP win that is as clean as possible is the last best hope of the international community, which is gradually coming to realize that Hun Sen's party is going to win one way or the other. The United States, Japan, Australia and the European Union, faced with the unpleasant certainty of a Hun Sen government, can only prefer a more legitimate one to a less legitimate one. Even China, the historical ally of the Khmer Rouge against Vietnam, has been making friendly noises to Hun Sen since he consolidated his grip on power. None of these outside forces wants another Myanmar, especially after their enormous investments in Cambodian democracy and development over the last few years.

But although Pol Pot's death might bring a sigh of relief to some, it will probably never be shown that the timing was anything but a coincidence. What is certain is that those who looked forward to a trial of Pol Pot in the hopes of unraveling the story of one of the most sordid episodes in human history are deprived once again of easy answers. Like Adolf Hitler before him, Pol Pot will not take the fall--and that means he won't drag anyone else down with him.

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