Cambodians Feel Robbed of Justice with Pol Pot’s Passing

For almost as long as Tay Mon can remember, the name Pol Pot has brought unbidden images of hunger and horror.  Her brother and sister hauled away to be executed. Her parents’ death from overwork. Her own hunger and exhaustion as a teen-ager working the rice fields of the Khmer Rouge’s “agrarian utopia.”

“If it is true Pol Pot is dead, then I am glad to hear it,” she said Thursday.

But on further reflection, her eyes unfocused as her hands deftly rolled mounds of loose tobacco into the cigarettes she sells near the Independence Monument.

Tay Mon, 58, found the news strangely unsatisfying.

“It’s not enough,” she said finally. “He should be interrogated and tortured, as he did to our families. His is only one death, but millions of our people died.”

On the streets of Phnom Penh, where residents were celebrating the last day of Khmer New Year, news of Pol Pot’s death was met with a mixture of disbelief, relief and dismay.

Some could hardly believe that the man whose policies killed as many as 2 million Cambodians was finally gone—especially since he has been falsely reported dead be­fore.

Over and over, those who survived the Khmer Rouge’s brutal four-year rule said they felt somehow robbed of justice if it were true the hated former dictator had died in the jungle from which his movement was born.

“His death is not enough. We want him to be alive and to an­swer to the people,” said Ouk Chourn, 56, a motorbike-taxi driver waiting for a fare near Wat Lang­­ka.

“What we es­pecially want is his response, to explain to his coun­trymen what he has done,” he said.

It is still difficult for many to come to terms with the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime, nearly 20 years after its rule end­ed. Nearly a quar­ter of the pop­ulation died of execution, disease, forced labor or starvation. Intellectuals, even those who simply wore glasses, were executed as the Maoist-inspired group tried to build a perfect agrarian-communist society. Hundreds of thousands died of starvation when rice crops failed and the government refused to seek aid from outside.

Almost no one who lived here from 1975-79 escaped with­out losing at least one family member.

When the Vietna­mese army marched into Phnom Penh in January 1979, the top Khmer Rouge leaders slipped away, going back to the jungle to re­sume a guerrilla war. Most Khmer Rouge leaders remain mythical, shadowy figures of fear to ordinary citizens.

Because of this, perhaps, many seem reluctant to let Pol Pot die without him facing his country.

Kea Sovanna, 29, a traffic cop leaning against a wall to survey a near-empty Norodom Boulevard, said he was not sure whether to believe the news. He hopes it is not true, he added.

“I want to know why he did so many bad things in his regime,” he said. “If we had captured Pol Pot still alive, it would have been better. They could have questioned him about this.”

Kea Sovanna lost 10 members of his family during the Khmer Rouge rule: his father, two sisters, aunt, uncle and five cousins.

Tay Mon, the cigarette vendor, also expressed frustration at the notion that Pol Pot alone was responsible for the Khmer Rouge crimes.

“All the people who committed crimes against people during the Pol Pot time, they should be punished too. All of those people involved should be brought to trial,” she said.

“I do not like that so many people go unpunished. When the people of Cam­bodia had such a terrible time, those people like Ieng Sary never thought about helping the people,” she said. “Now they are am­nestied and prosperous. It’s not fair.”

Although Pol Pot died without facing local and international courts, most people conceded that he still must face divine justice.

“We cannot do anything to him. He will have to receive his karma,” Ouk Chourn said. “He has to go to hell and suffer. He will not be able to even be born on earth again for many, many lifetimes.”

But for a fellow taxi driver, who would not give his name, karmic retribution is a little too intangible.

“We want justice—not just in the Buddhist way, but in this world,” he said.

“If we cannot try him in court, it means people will never understand the reasons for his policies. Maybe that means something like the Khmer Rouge can still happen again.”

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