Cambodians Take Stock Of Pol Pot
Yoshimatsu Go reenacts what it was like in Pol Pot's Cambodia, how you had to walk single file with your hands trussed behind you, fixing your eyes on the back of the person in front of you and never flinching, not even when you heard someone scream.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Go, a Cambodian migr who holds Japanese nationality, has come a long way from his involuntary role in one of the most devastating social experiments in modern history. As if to underscore the distance, the wallpaper on the ceiling of his Tokyo restaurant is painted to look like a blue sky dotted with cotton-candy clouds.
Reports of the death of Pol Pot, the leader of the Cambodian communist movement that put Go and millions of others through nearly four years of suffering in the late 1970s, bring a strong reaction. "He should have been punished by an international court," says the restaurateur, who would have liked to have seen Pol Pot killed, "slowly."
Pol Pot's death, however, has cheated those who wanted revenge. And the US government, which was recently considering ways to arrest and try him for genocide, will not get that chance.
But his death will nonetheless be a step forward for Cambodia. "It should be good for reconciliation and the process of democratization," says a Cambodian government official, interviewed by phone on condition of anonymity. The remnants of the Khmer Rouge will not keep fighting for long, he says, now that they are a "snake without the head."
The official couldn't help reflecting on the timing of this week's events. Pol Pot is reported to have died on the evening of April 15 in a village on the Thai-Cambodian border. Today, April 17, is the 23rd anniversary of the day victorious Khmer Rouge fighters marched into Phnom Penh, the country's capital.
Pol Pot's origins
Born to a farming family in the 1920s as Saloth Sar, Pol Pot was educated first at a Buddhist monastery and then in Paris, where he studied engineering. The scholarship student spent so much time on Marx and Stalin he was sent home without a degree.
He returned to Cambodia in the early 1950s, taught at a private school, and eventually emerged as the leader of the communist faction that took control of the country in 1975 as the US and its proxies fled the region.
Along the way Pol Pot decided to quickly turn his country into an agrarian utopia where money, class, and most of the institutions of modern societies did not exist. He also became passionately anti-Vietnamese, reflecting the history of conflict between Cambodians and their neighbors to the east.
What happened to Go
Back then Yoshimatsu Go was a businessmen in Phnom Penh involved in hotels, restaurants, and trade. He says he had the national distribution rights for Firestone tires, among other ventures, but had to hide his identity. The Khmer Rouge were executing the educated and the wealthy.
As the communists forced the population of Phnom Penh into the countryside in the early summer of 1975, Go and his family went to Battambang, a city in western Cambodia. Like many survivors of the period, he recalls a time of nearly ceaseless manual labor, little food, and fear.
"In the Khmer Rouge time, ... everyone was afraid, everywhere in the country. You didn't know if you were going to die today or tomorrow," he says.
The Khmer Rouge took everything - his business, his property, even his watch. The communists mistrusted him, thinking he was a former military officer, and regularly offered his wife food if she would turn him in. She kept to their story - that he had only run errands and carted packages for businesses in the capital.
Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge were ruthless in the creation of their farmers' paradise and riven by factional paranoia and infighting. The killing was unprecedented - scholars estimate that between 1 million and 2 million people died from overwork, disease, and execution, shrinking the population by as much as one-fifth.
The Vietnamese invaded in late 1978, forcing Pol Pot and his supporters into the jungle. Pol Pot had always described his goal as nationalist, and he continued to fight Vietnam and the government it installed in Phnom Penh. The constant civil war abated with a United Nations-backed election in 1992, but the ever-shrinking number of Khmer Rouge fighters fought on.
Pol Pot's last year
It has only been in the past year or so that Pol Pot has emerged from obscurity. His own Khmer Rouge condemned him in a show trial last year, the most obvious sign of bitter divisions within a movement winnowed by defections and constant conflict with government troops.
And there have been reports that some of his former subordinates were preparing to hand Pol Pot to the US and other countries, which have wanted to bring him to justice, in exchange for peace.
Even though pictures of Pol Pot's body have appeared on television, there are skeptics who warn that it could be a hoax. Pol Pot has been reported dead before. Or perhaps, suggested Henry Kissinger in an interview with the BBC, the Khmer Rouge killed him to ensure his silence.