Independent on Sunday (London)

Sunday, July 11, 1999

Who Killed Pol Pot?

He took his secrets to the pyre and his 1.7 million victims were denied justice. But his death suited some.

Eric Pape reports from Phnom Penh

HE was cremated in a simple jungle ceremony, a bathetic end to a notorious life. Non Nou, Pol Pot's former jailer, told journalists that the corpse of one of the 20th century's most murderous individuals was placed in a wooden coffin, ignited by petrol, and burned on an open fire fed by a dozen vehicle tyres and wood. With him on the funeral pyre were a few belongings: a rattan chair, a cloth shoulder bag and his clothes. That, in the end, was Pol Pot.

His demise had been confirmed just a few days before, when a small group of journalists were escorted to a shabby hut 300 yards from the Thai border to see his body, stuffed with formaldehyde and covered with huge slabs of ice to keep it from decomposing in the powerful tropical heat. Miles away, machine-gun fire and artillery continued to rattle and hum as the rebels fought among themselves, some having joined forces with the Cambodian government.

Non Nou said Pol Pot had asked for his remains to be scattered at one of three places in Cambodia - the great central lake of Tonle Sap, an area in the north-east where he operated as a communist guerrilla, or Phnum Dong Rak, a hill near the Thai-Cambodian border where he was based in more recent times. But the mysteries surrounding him won't disappear with his earthly remains.

Officially, few things are certain about the death of the man blamed for the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979, when his regime's radical agrarian experiment failed miserably. Cambodian television has yet to run news of his death and government officials continue to question whether the corpse is the man who was born Saloth Sar. Most government-backed newspapers have yet to write about his death, while a few have noted unconfirmed reports of his demise. The body was cremated after Thai authorities took fingerprint and hair samples - but a full autopsy was not permitted.

The murky details of Pol Pot's death on 15 April near the Thai-Cambodian border, as his former supporters in the Khmer Rouge continued to splinter and the US reactivated attempts to bring him before an international tribunal for genocide, were the perfect end to his enigmatic life. Cambodia's great executioner is said to have died in peace, as a prisoner in territory that the Khmer Rouge is fighting to keep, the mountainous stronghold of Anlong Veng. As one observer said: "The most beautiful and tranquil way to die, in his sleep."

If that is the case, it would be the most unsatisfying of deaths for most Cambodians, many of whom wanted him to suffer as he made them suffer; others just wanted to hear him share his secrets. Pol Pot's final days appear to have been full of fear and insecurity. Some even speculate that he might have welcomed the end to avoid the humiliation of being caught by the authorities and brought before an international court.

He had been ill: that much, at least, seems true. Less than two weeks before his death - in what was apparently the last interview of his 73 years - Pol Pot reportedly complained about a plethora of potentially mortal ailments.

"No one wants to be sick..." he complained. "I am sick because of my age. I am not so old, but [Cambodians] say I am old," he said in the interview, on 2 April, with a Cambodian journalist who asked not to be identified out of fear for his safety.

He described waking up in the night with chest pains, but said he had lost access to a doctor before the recent fighting had swept Khmer Rouge hard-liners from their base. " [The medicine] is not enough to improve my health," he said.

He complained of "severe diseases" which began afflicting his heart in 1995 as a result of overwork, although he said he continued to get food from his garden. "I worked day and night and I have begun to have headaches, sore eyes and pain in the chest. I did not know what was happening until one night when I got up and could not see anything. I thought I had sleep in my eyes so I washed my face, but still I could not see."

His health had deteriorated rapidly after he was sentenced to a lifetime under house arrest by his former supporters during a show trial last June. But in his last interview, he also expressed fear for his own security. He feared being found, spoke of travelling incognito - even dyeing his hair black to avoid being recognised - and he noted that Thai authorities would block any attempt to escape through their territory.

He was out of touch. "I have been out of contact with other people... I did not go abroad as there are [extradition] laws to enforce in other countries. I cannot enter other countries without permission, so I just stayed here," he said. "I cannot walk far. When I walk, I don't let anyone see me because if they do, they will know where I am."

This sense of insecurity reinforces suggestions that the timing of his death, a day or two before he was expected to be seized for prosecution for war crimes - an action the US was pursuing vigorously in recent weeks, some 18 years after his fall from power - appeared to be "too much of a coincidence".

Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Cambodian think-tank Khmer Institute for Democracy, noted the peculiar political context of Pol Pot's death and he raised some of the questions running through the minds of many. "People saw the body, but how did he die [as] the US was working to set up a tribunal, [during] mass defections and what some claim to be the imminent end of the Khmer Rouge?"

Mong Hay, along with many others, pointed out that stopping medication or some sort of shock could have brought about a heart attack which would have appeared to have been brought on by natural causes. "Who can verify that? That is the question," said Mong Hay, who claimed to have heard of a plot to kill Pol Pot only a week before his death. He suggested that Pol Pot had become a burden to his captors as some of them contemplated switching over to the government side and needed to be washed clean of his legacy. He also said that Cambodia's relations with countries who had offered support to Pol Pot, either when he led the country or when he later joined a tripartite resistance to the Vietnamese-backed government that ousted him, offered incentives for the Cambodian government or other key international players to look forward to his death.

"To my knowledge, some people, including China, have not been keen to see the Khmer Rouge leader tried. When journalists mention Pol Pot, it is news around the world. People are interested in that demon. [His death] could take the wind out of the sails of an international tribunal," he said. Many Cambodians had expressed a vain hope that just this one time someone would be held accountable for the terror, intimidation and brutality that has marked the last 28 years of the nation's history; so much death and damage; so many lives.

Pol Pot denied responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of executions until the end. "Regarding the past, I am not responsible for any of the practical actions. I was responsible for training and cadres only. I did not have any practical work to do... I was only in charge of politics." Asked what he thought of Pol Pot's death, Non Nou said: "Good. Because the world will stop cursing us. The Khmer Rouge ended today at 9:52 am."

THE PRINCIPAL Khmer Rouge leaders still battling the Cambodian government are:

TA MOK: Toppled Pol Pot as leader of the last Khmer Rouge faction in 1997 during a bloody power play when Pol Pot tried to stop peace talks with the government. In his early seventies, the one-legged general is known as "The Butcher" for the way he purges perceived traitors. Most fighters have mutinied against Ta Mok in the past month and defected to the government.

KHIEU SAMPHAN: The best-known Khmer Rouge intellectual, whose polished manners led to him becoming its public face. He remains the official president of the group, though real power always rested with others. The doctorate thesis he submitted in 1959 is seen as a blueprint of what would become the basis of Khmer Rouge economic policy once they seized power in 1975 - collectivization of agriculture and economic self-reliance.

NUON CHEA: Deputy secretary general of the Communist Party of Democratic Kampuchea, as the Khmer Rouge called themselves, he was known as Brother Number Two (after Pol Pot). A sinister, shadowy figure, one of the few details known about his personal life is his fondness for fish paste.

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