Cambodia's other madmen

Focusing on the death of one individual, however monstrous his attitudes and actions, can blind us to forces and actors that continue to shape Cambodia's fate.


Just as it seemed Pol Pot’s old international allies were conspiring to snatch him and put him on trial, the ailing mass murderer turns up dead in his jungle redoubt.

“Natural causes,” claim his former comrades in the Khmer Rouge, burning his remains on a pyre before an autopsy could be performed. They say their former leader had been under house arrest for ordering the assassination of his own defense minister and 12 members of his family, including his grandchildren.

But nothing will ever seem “natural” about the terror Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge rained on Cambodia. And while the near 20-year search for the elusive Saloth Sar (“Pol Pot” was his nom de guerre) could make for a great Hollywood journalist-in-action movie, it presents a false, celebrity-style view of history. The millions of Cambodians who died beginning in 1970 — and continue to die today — did not perish simply because a single madman seized power in their country.

If Pol Pot had been tried in an international war crime tribunal, as the United States wanted, would he have stood alone in the dock? His most recent captors, the high-level leaders who held out with him in the jungle after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge, men like Ieng Sary, Khieu Sampan and the guerrilla commander Ta Mok — known to Cambodians as “the butcher” — certainly should have been co-defendants.

And what about the high-level officials of the Hun Sen government? Most of them were powerful Khmer Rouge leaders themselves until they mutinied against Pol Pot’s purges in 1976-78. Yet they helped carry out the brutal march back in history that emptied Cambodia’s towns, wrecked its agricultural economy and medical system and turned the country into a mass labor camp so that hundreds of thousands died from malnutrition, disease and overwork.

Thousands more were killed in a labor-intensive bloodletting by Khmer Rouge cadres wielding clubs — bullets were scarce. Should those cadres, many of them in their teens at the time, be tried?

What about King Norodom Sihanouk, who threw his royal lot in with the Khmer Rouge after he was overthrown in 1970 by Gen. Lon Nol.

What about those who created the political vacuum that permitted a group of marginal jungle fighters to seize power? The Vietnamese communist leaders who undermined Sihanouk by using Cambodia as a staging area for their war to unify Vietnam? The Americans who encouraged Sihanouk’s overthrow and drove Cambodian peasants into the arms of the Khmer Rouge by one of the most intense bombing campaigns ever recorded — and then invaded the country in 1970? Should Richard Nixon’s ghost, Nobel Prize-winner Henry Kissinger and the late U.S. diplomat Thomas Enders, who chose targets for the bombing, join the ghost of Pol Pot before a war crimes tribunal?

And what of those who sustained the Khmer Rouge after the Vietnamese invasion in 1978 — the Thais who gave them sanctuary, the Chinese who armed them, the U.S. officials who encouraged the Thais and Chinese and the U.N. members who voted to keep the Khmer Rouge as Cambodia’s representatives in the United Nations?

Pol Pot may be dead, but his legacy lives on. Former Khmer Rouge comrades led by Hun Sen still rule Cambodia with an iron fist, routinely killing political opponents, newspaper reporters and labor activists. Hundreds of candidates were killed in the U.N.-supervised 1993 elections while observers and journalists — desperate to herald the arrival of democracy — looked the other way.

Four years later, the jerry-built coalition government was vanquished in a coup. Opposition parties and a budding labor movement are being repressed. This July’s elections promise to be violent.

A “great madman” theory of Cambodia’s history can hardly do justice to what has happened to these people and their country. “Killing Fields” are not built in a day. Neither is democracy. Both take many, many hands.

Judith Coburn has covered war and its aftermath in Indochina, Central America, and the Middle East for the Village Voice, Mother Jones, the Los Angeles Times, and Tomdispatch, among other media outlets.

Joshua Phillips, a freelance journalist, reported for the Pnomh Penh Post in 1997.

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