WORLD

The end of Pol Pot?

Conflicting claims surround the man behind the ‘killing’ fields’ terror

RAE CORELLI July 1 1997
WORLD

The end of Pol Pot?

Conflicting claims surround the man behind the ‘killing’ fields’ terror

RAE CORELLI July 1 1997

The end of Pol Pot?

WORLD

CAMBODIA

Conflicting claims surround the man behind the ‘killing’ fields’ terror

In the chronicles of 20th-century villainy, few leaders surpass Cambodia’s murderous revolutionary, Pol Pot. Two million people, nearly one-third of the impoverished Southeast Asian nation’s population, are believed to have died at the hands of his Khmer Rouge movement when it held power from 1975 to 1979. For 17 years, Pol Pot has not been seen by outsiders. But last week, after days of conflicting claims, Cambodian First Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh said that Pol Pot had been captured and that the United Nations would be asked to set up an international tribunal to try him. Ranariddh’s estranged coalition partner, Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, told reporters: “This is the end of the Khmer Rouge.”

That much was almost certainly true. The splintered guerrilla force was already on the run. But Pol Pot’s status remained shrouded

in mystery at week’s end.

No evidence had been produced that the 69-year-old ultraleftist had actually been caught, or even that he is still alive. The contradictory reports surfaced at a time of worsening conflict within Cambodia’s governing coalition. Ranariddh and Hun Sen, each hoping for an edge in next year’s national elections, have been competing for the allegiance of some 5,000 Khmer Rouge guerrillas whose defection broke up the once-dreaded force last year. That leadership rivalry escalated sharply last week when Ranariddh’s bodyguards and pro-Hun Sen police battled one another in the capital with

automatic weapons and rockets, killing two.

While the royalist Ranariddh and the exCommunist Hun Sen both want to recruit the Khmer Rouge defectors, they are bitterly divided over what to do with the remnants of the movement, holed up in the northern base of Anlong Veng. Ranariddh, who won the 1993 UN-supervised election and then was forced to share his job with second-place Hun Sen, has enraged his rival by proposing to pardon the Khmer Rouge’s titular head, Khieu Samphan. “They are killers,” Ranariddh said recently, “but they are very patriotic too.” Hun Sen, who gradually emerged as Cambodia’s key leader after Vietnamese troops overthrew Pol Pot in 1979, says he I would not endorse an g amnesty for those loyal to * his old enemy “because Pol Pot in 1979: a long shadow there would be no reason

to do this.”

Pol Pot’s claimed reappearance cast a long shadow over Cambodia’s chaotic and often violent politics. A clandestine Khmer Rouge radio station, which had not mentioned the former dictator for 17 years, sud-

denly announced at midweek that he had “confessed”—to what, it did not say. Soon afterwards, Cambodian army deputy chief of staff Nhiek Bun Chhay maintained that Pol Pot and 15 others had surrendered at

Anlong Veng. But the next day, Bun Chhay switched his story and said Khmer Rouge defectors “tried but failed to capture” the man whose regime was portrayed in the 1984 movie, The Killing Fields.

In fact, if he is alive, Pol Pot may not even have been in Anlong Veng last week. The week before, reports in Phnom Penh had claimed he had fled the camp after ordering the bloody execution of longtime ally Son Sen, suspected of communicating secretly with the hated Hun Sen. Son Sen’s family was also killed and some of the bodies were mutilated by a truck wheel.

On Friday, the reports escalated. Khmer Rouge radio claimed that “Pol Pot has been captured.” The broadcast said a splinter faction’s “national army” had run the fugitive to earth but did not say where or under what circumstances. The government remained skeptical. “There’s no news from our people yet and at the moment I don’t believe Khmer Rouge radio,” said Kong Vibol, a senior official in Ranariddh’s office. Hun Sen’s people, too, openly doubted the claims.

However, at a meeting Saturday with Thailand’s prime minister, Ranariddh asserted that a breakaway faction had closed in and captured Pol Pot, though he did not say where. Khieu Samphan had also been caught, he stated. Although Hun Sen merely said he had been informed of the reports, Ranariddh said the two prime ministers would

ask the United Nations to set up a tribunal.

Trying Pol Pot publicly would likely provide the only opportunity for the world to learn the full extent of his crimes against his own people. Little is known about the man himself. Born Saloth Sar to a modest landowning family, he went to Paris as a student in 1949 and in the next three years became intrigued by Communist ideology. After Cambodia declared independence from France in 1953, he organized the Communist party and 10 years later, fled into the jungle to escape from then-ruling Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who is now king. Sihanouk was toppled in a U.S.-backed coup in 1970 by Gen. Lon Nol, and returned to Phnom Penh with the Khmer Rouge in 1975.

Ever since he disappeared from public view in December, 1979, Pol Pot has been the subject of rumors. Once, he was said to have retired. In June, 1996, he was reported to have died of malaria. Analysts note that it has suited all the warring factions to keep the spectre of Pol Pot alive—whether he is or not. Last week, there was still speculation that the Khmer Rouge broadcasts were setting the stage for a story that Pol Pot is dead—perhaps executed or a suicide. But whether he is captured or dead, his demon is still tearing Cambodia apart.

RAE CORELLI with

DOMINIC FAULDER