|On November 3, 2017, The Elephant Story published a blog entitled A Fresh Look at a Seventies Nightmare which outlined the incomprehensible chapter of Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia. Even today, many of the former Khmer Rouge cadres live freely without any recrimination for their crimes against humanity and wanton genocide that resulted in the deaths of up to two million of their people. However, the two most senior surviving members of the regime, Nuon Chea, 92, and Khieu Samphan, 87 were recently convicted of genocide. The verdict repeated certain words like murder, extermination, enslavement, imprisonment, torture, persecution on political grounds and other inhumane acts.
The former leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, died in 1998 of natural causes. Nate Thayer, an acquaintance of the author, interviewed Pol Pot in 1997 in the village of Anlong Veng which was carved out of a Khmer Rouge jungle stronghold near the Thai border. Pol Pot denied the claims of genocide though he acknowledged a number of Cham and Vietnamese deaths were required in the Khmer Rouge creation of a utopian agrarian society. Nate was probably the only foreigner to ever meet Pol Pot in his position as leader of the Khmer Rouge and maybe the only foreigner to ever meet any Khmer Rouge in their own setting and walk away alive.
The author once had a misadventure by wandering into Cambodia in 1975 with some friends under the guidance of a Thai Border Patrol officer and a local villager. In deep canopy jungle, one cannot see the sun which destroys bearings particularly when crawling through dense foliage. It became evident that we were lost when the Thai Border Patrol officer began intermittently firing his M-16 in the air seeking return fire from our base to help determine the direction we should proceed. There was no return fire response. Later in the afternoon, we did receive return fire. Nonetheless, we could not follow the direction of the gunfire. Shortly before total darkness, we came across a felled tree which led us back to base. We then realized we were fortunate we could not follow the direction of the gunfire as it was most likely from the Khmer Rouge as our friends back in the camp on the Thai side said they never fired any weapons.
Pol Pot died shortly after Nate’s interview and he was called back to Anlong Veng to confirm the identity of his body. Pol Pot’s remains currently reside in a primitive burial site. Note that the soil on his grave is not naturally black but is due to Cambodians burning fake money for good luck before they go to the nearby casino.
In 2007, Khieu Samphan, head of state during the Khmer Rouge control period, and Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s chief political strategist were arrested after living freely since the Khmer Rouge formerly surrendered some ten years prior to that time. By chance, the author was in Siem Reap when the surrender occurred. It was a scary day with truck-loads of armed Khmer Rouge with their red and white scarves flapping in the breeze while they carried AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Following the arrest of Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, the UN Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia pursued a case against the two remaining leaders which culminated in the Crimes Against Humanity conviction. It resulted in a life sentence for each of them.
It is hard to imagine the wanton and most brutal deaths inflicted by these people particularly when the screen image of a toothless Nuon Chea is seen in the reporters press room.
However, a quick tour of the regime’s Tuol Sleng prison, now a museum which the author has visited, presents a sobering view of torture and death. The blank expressions on the prisoners faces reflect their knowledge of their impending demise though they had no idea why they were there. Often their names were written on scraps of paper affixed to their skin with large safety pins.
Hun Sen, the Prime Minister of Cambodia and former Khmer Rouge cadre himself, has been very critical of any prosecution of Khmer Rouge former leaders. He stated as early as 1998 that Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan should be "greeted with bouquets of flowers, not with prison and handcuffs." Hun Sen's political flexibility is evidenced by his command of a Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia to drive the Khmer Rouge into the jungles of Cambodia. Perhaps the UN tribunal strikes a bit close to Hun Sen's history. Hun Sen is shown below with his son who recently became head of the Cambodian military prior to the most recent election.
The fundamental question is whether the investigation and trial of two old men was worth $300 million of UN funding. It may seem like an inordinate cost to incarcerate two men with few remaining years for the rest of their lives. On the other hand, such a desperate, dark chapter of life deserves documentation and some measure of justice albeit long after the fact. When we ponder the depths that humanity can dive, the Khmer Rouge were a leading example though others come to mind in even more recent times. Those people inflicting similar actions deserve the same scrutiny and pursuit as that given the Khmer Rouge whenever they can be brought to justice.
Click below for a video of Nate Thayer and his comments regarding Pol Pot.
|Pol Pot: trial and interview