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Ailing Pol Pot Looks Back on Reign Without Remorse

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader who presided over Cambodia’s “killing fields” in the late 1970s, is dying--without acknowledging remorse or responsibility for his reign of terror.

His own former followers, holding him under guard in a jungle camp in Anlong Veng, Cambodia, forced him to talk to American reporter Nate Thayer last Thursday.

The interview was a chance for the ailing former despot--shaky, weak and white-haired in his final days--to atone for the deaths of at least a million people during his more than four years of rule. But after 18 years of silence, Pol Pot declared in this first interview that his “conscience is clear.”

“I came to carry out the struggle, not to kill people,” Pol Pot told Thayer, a correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review magazine, which released excerpts from the interview Wednesday.

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Pol Pot said that he did what was necessary to save Cambodia from being taken over by Vietnam. “Even now, and you can look at me: Am I a savage person?” he asked rhetorically.

He acknowledged that he ordered the arrest and execution of political enemies from 1974 to 1979. “Our movement made mistakes” he said, in killing some people it saw as political opponents as well as others. But he added: “We had no other choice. Naturally, we had to defend ourselves. The Vietnamese . . . wanted to assassinate me because they knew without me they could easily swallow up Cambodia.”

But he claimed that the notorious Tuol Sleng concentration camp on the outskirts of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, never existed, despite meticulous records and photographs that remain of nearly 16,000 political prisoners who were held and tortured there until they were slain at the “killing fields.” He called the prison a “Vietnamese exhibition” set up for propaganda purposes.

Pol Pot also denied responsibility for at least a million people who were executed, who starved or who were worked to death under his rule. “To say a million died is too much,” he told Thayer.

The Khmer Rouge fled when Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979. For the next two decades, Pol Pot ran the guerrilla group in Cambodia’s jungles, safe in a stronghold lined with land mines and shrouded by the legends and fears that followed him into hiding.

In the end, his own paranoia was his downfall. In June, he believed that his once-loyal comrades were conspiring against him, and he ordered the assassination of a longtime ally, Son Sen, and his entire family, including young grandchildren.

“He saw enemies surrounding [him],” an elderly villager in Anlong Veng told Thayer. “Enemies in front, enemies behind, enemies to the north, enemies to the south . . . leaving us no place to breathe.”

In July, Pol Pot’s former followers arrested him and denounced him at a show trial, which the new leaders invited Thayer to witness and record. One of the Khmer Rouge’s new chiefs, Ta Mok, recently offered to turn Pol Pot over to an international tribunal if Hun Sen--the Cambodian strongman who seized power in Phnom Penh in July and is a longtime enemy of the Khmer Rouge--is also tried for alleged crimes.

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For now, Pol Pot remains under house arrest, living with his wife and 12-year-old daughter in a bug-ridden bungalow and complaining about his health. He said he is virtually bedridden since an apparent stroke in 1995 that left him partially paralyzed on his left side and mostly blind in his left eye. His books have been confiscated, he said, so he spends his time listening to the radio--including the Voice of America--and waiting, unrepentant, for his end.

“In Khmer, we have a saying,” he told Thayer, “that when one is both quite sick and old, there remains only one thing: that you die.”


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