PHNOM PENH – On April 2, 13 days before he died, Pol Pot, one of the great killers of the 20th century, gave what was likely the last interview of his 73 years.
The former Khmer Rouge leader was tracked down to a small hut near Anlong Veng, only a few hundred meters from the Thai border, by a Cambodian journalist who has asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from the Cambodian government. Portions of the interview have appeared in the Phnom Pehn Post, a respected daily newspaper, as has a photograph of Pot taken during the interview.
From this last jungle hideout, where Pot and the remaining Khmer Rouge leaders had taken refuge from a recent government military offensive, Pot offered few answers to the questions that have haunted Cambodia since his regime unleashed a four-year reign of terror against its own people.
Just as his death has forestalled any hope that Cambodians and the world at large will ever know why – and with whose help – Pot engineered the deaths of fully one-quarter of his people, his last interview provides only glimpses of what motivated him.
Pot, instead, kvetched about his failing health and the restrictions imposed on him since his “conviction” last summer in a mock trial staged by his former comrades. And he talked with vehemence about the Vietnamese, whom he referred to by the epithet “Yuon,” who invaded Cambodia in 1979 and drove Pot from power.
Pot made it clear that he is at peace with his conscience and with his role in Cambodia's history.
Pot was unrecalcitrant about the past, refusing to take responsibility for the estimated 1.7 million Cambodians who died from murder, starvation and forced work from 1975 to 1979.
“Regarding the past, I am not responsible for any of the practical actions,” Pot said. “I was responsible for training the cadre only. I did not have any practical work to do. There was a committee which included people responsible for military and economic issues. I was only in charge of politics.”
To the end, Pot defended his regime and its murderous ways by appealing to the same nationalistic, anti-Vietnamese rhetoric he expounded as leader of the Khmer Rouge, demonizing the Vietnamese.
“Whatever struggle I have contributed to, I didn't do it for my personal interests. I only [wanted] to prevent our small country from becoming another Kampuchea Krom [now South Vietnam].
“I know the Yuon very well,” Pot said, referring to his days as a student in Paris and as a young revolutionary in the jungle when he worked under the tutelage of Vietnamese communists. “Not just the ordinary Yuon people – the ordinary Yuon people are the Vietnamese people, most of whom are good – but the . . . Yuon leadership. They are all cruel. I should know, I worked very closely with them.”
In the early 1970s Pot began purging suspected Vietnamese from his cadre's ranks, and when his regime came to power in 1975, he executed hundreds of thousands of Cambodians for collaboration with the enemy.
“We just wanted to live in peace,” Pot said of the 1979 conflict with Vietnam that drove him from power in the country. “How could such a small Cambodia, with fewer people and weapons, fight them? . . .
“My head tells me not to talk about this,” Pot said. “If I talk, I will cry. Don't let Yuon take Cambodia. Khmers, real Khmers, I tell you that when I die I will not be sorry as long as the Yuon have not taken Cambodia.”
Ironically for a man whose ruthless version of nationalism so benighted his homeland, Pot held international intervention as the best hope for Cambodia's future. “The Khmer people don't like Hun Sen and the People's Party,” Pot said of the current Cambodian prime minister, a onetime ally of Vietnam who seized power last July. Sen led the Vietnamese-backed communist movement that overthrew Pol Pot in 1979, which eventually became the People's Party.
“They just say [people] love them. They say this because they are powerful. But if there was a democratic election, like in America, France and Australia, they wouldn't win more than 10 percent.”
“Organize a free, fair and democratic election,” Pot exhorted. “For this, we need ASEAN [the Asian treaty organization], we need the United Nations; we need friends. Only these two [groups] can help each other, both Khmers and foreigners must join together to solve the problem. This is just my idea. I am no fortuneteller.”
0ld and frail, visibly failing at the time of the interview, Pot seemed equally concerned with his health as with the fate of Cambodia. He described waking up in the night with chest pains and talked of “severe diseases” that had afflicted his heart since 1995, a result of overwork, although he said he continued to procure food from his garden. And he complained of losing access to a doctor as his health worsened.
“Actually, my heart only has one ventricle, since I was born. Naturally, it ought to have two. So this one valve cannot supply enough blood,” he said. “I worked day and night and I began to have headaches, sore eyes, and pains in my 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.”
Pot's health deteriorated rapidly after he was sentenced to a lifetime under house arrest by his former supporters last June. He finally became “too ill to eat meat.”
“Whenever I wake, I feel very cold and have to cough. The result is that it makes my heart act up again. My poor health is now chronic. Since half my body went numb and my problems with my right eye, I find it hard to walk without a crutch or help from someone. I fall down when I walk, and sometimes when I walk home I must lean on the wall of the house.
“No one wants to be sick . . . I am sick because of my age. I am not so old, but to [Cambodians] I am old,” he said, noting that the medicine he continued to take offered only mild relief.
The once invincible master of his nation said that since his trial, he had fallen out of touch with political events and Khmer Rouge leaders. “I have been out of contact with other people.”
Yet, Pot explained, he remained in Cambodia even as multinational efforts were under way to bring him before a genocide tribunal.
“How can I run away from my country? I will die with my people, my rank . . . I cannot turn away! I cannot leave.”
Pot denied reports he was spirited away to Thailand after fighting broke out in the Khmer Rouge stronghold on March 24, and acknowledged that factors other than nationalism prevented him from going into exile.
“I did not go abroad as there are laws in other countries. I cannot enter other countries without permission, so I just stayed here,” he said, adding that his weak heart and familiar face handicapped his attempts to slip undetected from the house in which he was supposedly held under arrest.
“I cannot walk far. [And] when I walk, I don't let anyone see me because if they do they will know where I am,” he said.
Speaking to reporters after Pot's death, his wife said her husband, the most-wanted man in Cambodia over the last 19 years, died in peace, quietly, of a heart attack – as one observer put it: “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 the millions who survived his leadership, many of whom wanted him to suffer as he made them suffer, and others who just wanted to hear him open up on who was responsible for the disastrous Khmer Rouge regime he led – secrets he ultimately took to the grave.
Some suggested the timing of Pol Pot's death was “too much of a coincidence,” coming as it did a day or two before some expected him to be seized for prosecution for war crimes – an action the U.S. began pursuing vigorously in recent weeks, some 18 years after his fall from power.
Indeed, Pol Pot's death remains downright unbelievable to most Cambodians, in part, because you cannot kill a demon. He is the face of death, the leader of Angka, “the organization” that doomed about a quarter of the population during the 1975-1979 killing-fields regime. As one person explained: “You can't kill death.”
The demise of Pol Pot augurs yet another radical shift in Cambodia's political landscape. “The end of the Khmer Rouge could shake Cambodia from its path,” acknowledged one source inside the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP).
Many observers are giving credit for Pot's death to Hun Sen and his ruling party, which all but snuffed out the Khmer Rouge with its persistent military pursuit, but it could be a pyrrhic victory. The People's Party prospered largely on the strength of fervent anti-Khmer Rouge sentiment – a power base similar in many respects to the anti-Vietnamese propaganda the Khmer Rouge has directed at the People's Party.
“This country is run by the CPP for the moment, like it or not. [But] the Khmer Rouge is a dying justification,” the party source said. “One day, sooner or later, the party in a country must prepare for the future if they want to survive. Everybody should look into their own identity and not just use an external threat to justify their own existence.”
Another source agreed that the loss of the party's sworn enemy would test the Cambodian People's Party. “Depending on how dead the Khmer Rouge is and how soon it happens, there will be inevitable splits in the CPP,” said one longtime Western political observer, who preferred anonymity.
“For the first time since 1979 they may have to find an identity that is more than just being against something. That has been a unifying factor that separated them from all those 'bad' people allied with the Khmer Rouge. It has allowed them to not think about what responsibilities they have in running the country. Basically all they had to do was keep the Khmer Rouge from coming back to power.”
One CPP contact spoke of the psychological influence that Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge had on his own life – he was one of many in the CPP who say it is “impossible to believe Pol Pot is dead” without seeing the body – and much of his life was shaped by the specter of the killing fields.
“When I came of age, it was already war . . . I couldn't enjoy a normal youth. I had no youth. I was committed to struggling against the ideology of the Khmer Rouge. My whole life was influenced by this decision in 1975. It is the same for the whole country. Yes, it is just one man, but he killed millions, and the man is gone.”