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November 30, 2000

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OCTOBER 22, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 42

Killing Fields Revisited
New editions on Cambodia's terror help put the Khmer Rouge tribunal in perspective

In April 1975, the Khmer Rouge unleashed upon Cambodia's defenseless population one of the most brutal political experiments in recorded history. After a devastating war that included heavy American bombing, the "peace" delivered by Pol Pot and the Democratic Kampuchea regime was worse than anything experienced or imaginable. Everything associated with the old Cambodian order was smashed. Civil servants, soldiers, teachers, doctors and lawyers were executed. Monks who weren't murdered were disrobed, some forced to marry. Families were torn apart and sent to labor collectives. Money and enterprise were abolished. Even the language was purged. Nothing was sacred outside the autarkic vision of Angka, the regime's mysterious politburo which claimed to have "more eyes than a pineapple."

The damage done by Angka remains incalculable. By the time Vietnamese forces pushed Pol Pot and his loyalists to the Thai border in early 1979, at least 1.7 million Cambodians had been executed as "traitors" or killed less directly through malnutrition, overwork and medical neglect. This eruption of sheer evil continues to defy most understanding. The outside world, which was far from blameless in Pol Pot's rise, was oblivious to Cambodia's holocaust until too late - about a quarter of the population had perished. Only now is there serious talk of a tribunal for Pol Pot's surviving lieutenants. With so much bloodshed and so many damaged survivors, it is a little late to talk of justice. No earthly punishment exists to fit such crimes. But a tribunal could offer some catharsis to the living, and shed more light on what actually happened - there must be some lessons. And excluding the truly culpable from any further role in Cambodian public life would be a step in the right direction.

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With his death last year, Pol Pot escaped the dock but not judgment. No revisionism will spare him in the swelling body of writing being produced by Cambodians and foreigners alike. Fanatically secretive, Pol Pot would be dismayed by such reports. As the formulation of a tribunal is debated, writing on the period deserves a wider readership, and some important books are finding new editions.

Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors (edited by Kim DePaul, Yale University Press, New Haven, 224 pages, $14.95) is a series of personal accounts compiled by Dith Pran, who worked for the New York Times in the early 1970s. Pran's own story was the basis for the Oscar-winning film, The Killing Fields, which stimulated the first real international awareness of Cambodia's tragedy. Pran collected nearly 30 brief personal and anecdotally rich accounts from people who managed to find refuge abroad, mostly in the U.S. Contributors include a beautician, a postman, a dancer, a nurse, a lobbyist, a PhD candidate - people leading ordinary lives. Given the nightmare of their formative years, this very normalcy, though seeded in a foreign environment, is poignant.

Pran's collection contains gruesome testimonials to the Khmer Rouge's depravity. "Sometimes they would throw the body parts of a boy they had cut apart into the rice paddies as we worked," recalls Youkimny Chan. "'Fertilizer,' they would say." Sarom Prak writes: "The principles of Angka implanted this idea into the minds of the soldiers: 'We were born by virtue of the sexual passion of the parents so we don't respect them. If the parents do something wrong, we must kill them.'" Ronnie Yimsut describes his own miraculous escape in the "Tonle Sap Lake Massacre," and concludes that although life must go on "time does not heal such emotional trauma."

However graphic these first-hand accounts, they do not delve into why the terror happened. After all, the survivors were children at the time. Academics, mostly foreign, have been grappling with the fount of the Khmer Rouge's exceptional cruelty. Among the best is David Chandler, an American political scientist. His groundbreaking Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot (Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, 260 pages, $16) has been reissued with some corrections and an additional chapter that covers the Khmer Rouge leader's mysterious death last year. Chandler is frank about the unfathomable nature of his subject, the gentle teacher who would later order a killing as easily as he would brush off a fly. "The material that has emerged about his life since 1992 has not made his personality any more accessible or his career any easier to admire," advises the author in his new preface.

Chandler is a rare academic who can present meticulous scholarship without alienating general readers. In the new chapter, he describes Pol Pot reflecting on past mistakes. "From top to bottom, we were somewhat excessive," the old man concedes. Chandler, with admirable restraint, comments: "Examples of excess were not forthcoming; the audience, glancing momentarily at their feet or fingernails perhaps, knew perfectly well what he meant."

For all its virtues, some aspects of the new edition are disappointing. Its chronology of events is patchy and some dates need explanation: for example, 1988 for the Vietnamese withdrawal. Chandler argues "with hindsight" that the Khmer Rouge began to come apart when Cambodia's National Assembly outlawed the movement in 1994. Yet this pivotal moment isn't mentioned in the chronology.

Khmer Rouge defections certainly picked up in late 1994, but it could be argued that critical fissures began to develop a few years earlier when the party opted out of the United Nations-supervised disarmament and elections. Had there been elected Khmer Rouge members in the National Assembly after 1993 - astonishing as that notion might sound to many - would a law banning the KR have been tabled? Probably not. The Khmer Rouge leadership was certainly divided about playing the democracy card. Son Sen, who was murdered in 1997, favored the U.N. route. Pol Pot did not: He knew that under no circumstances could he ever be accepted back into mainstream Cambodian life.

Chandler's chronology simply records Pol Pot's death on April 16, 1998, of "heart failure and assorted ailments." But what caused his heart to stop beating? There are many reasons to suspect Pol Pot was murdered and Chandler fails to address them. Suspicions have been bolstered by recent comments about a murder conspiracy attributed to Ta Mok, the Khmer Rouge executioner who became his captor. Ta Mok now awaits trial in Phnom Penh. But he told a different tale just after Pol Pot's corpse was presented to the world. "No one killed him, no one poisoned him," he volunteered to Radio Free Asia. "Cow dung is more important than him. We can use it for fertilizer."

Ta Mok was quite wrong. Pol Pot is still important. He remains very much alive to many Cambodians as a dark presence that can never be erased from their psyches. Books such as Pran's and Chandler's, in their different ways, help us understand why that should be the case.

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