There is no greater testament to the growing attraction of this part of the world than the fact that it is now worth someone’s time to hang out and charge visitors $2 to visit the site of Pol Pot’s cremation. It’s a strange spot, remarkable mainly for how thoroughly unremarkable the site actually is. Though this does beg the question, exactly how do you mark the final resting place of a monster?
In the case of the grave of the man responsible for the death of almost 2 million of his own people, it consists of little more than a raggedy corrugated iron structure over a man-sized rectangle, fenced in by ratty blue netting. Someone has made a rather bizarre attempt to prettify the spot by planting a few blowsy yellow canna flowers.
Even more bizarrely, to some, is the clear evidence that people still come to this site to pay their respects, with incense and a donation box. Apparently people come to pray for luck with money. And there are also those who still hanker for the days when the Khmer Rouge was in charge, and took care of basic necessities for the people, such as health care. There are still many who believe that the man they called Brother Number 1 did no wrong, and that the Vietnamese were to blame for everything (often the standard response to any suggestion that there might be something wrong in Cambodia).
But some background on how Pol Pot came to die in this strange corner of the world. Following their defeat in 1979, the Khmer Rouge retreated to the borders with Thailand, pushed back by the Vietnamese who were to remain in the country until 1989. In the 1990s, the newly elected Cambodian government continued to fight and to reach out to the Khmer Rouge all at the same time.
In 1993, UN-backed elections led to the creation of a government led by two political parties wedded by an uncomfortable power-sharing arrangement fostered by a United Nations that had given in to the demands of Hun Sen, head of the Cambodian People’s Party, for a place at the governing table, despite having lost the election to the royalist FUNCINPEC party.
The Khmer Rouge had refused to take part in the elections, retreating to the kingdom’s western borders from where they continued to haemorrhage support as soldiers and officers kept up a steady stream of defections to one of either FUNCINPEC or the CPP. Then, even as the political coalition was in the throes of coming apart, the Khmer Rouge was dealt a further blow when in 1996 Ieng Sary, “Brother Number 3”, defected to the government from his stronghold in Pailin, delivering up access to that area’s rich minerals and 3,000 Khmer Rouge soldiers.
Pol Pot and some of his more zealous cadres, including Khieu Samphan and Ta Mok aka “The Butcher”, had made their base in Anlong Veng. But by 1997, the once-feared leader had become an albatross to his former followers, forever associated with mass murder and allegations of genocide. Khieu Samphan, the official leader of the Khmer Rouge since 1985, publicly denounced him.
In Phnom Penh the struggle between the two political parties meant that Pol Pot still had a certain value as a bargaining chip. Both Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh were keen to score brownie points internationally and domestically by bringing the killer before an international tribunal, and also to shore up their own powerbases with defected Khmer Rouge members. FUNCINPEC appeared to be edging close to a secret agreement that would have won them a lion’s share of that support.
Then in June, in a fit of paranoia and one last futile attempt to wrest back control, Pol Pot ordered the execution of his former defence minister, Son Sen, along with 13 members of his family including children. After they had been shot, trucks were run over their bodies.
Ta Mok, the man who effectively controlled Anlong Veng and had also been slated for execution in the same action, arrested Pol Pot on 19 June. Five weeks later, a “trial” found him guilty and sentenced him to life imprisonment. Footage shot by American journalist Nate Thayer is surreal: a crowd of several hundred rather disinterested observers fan themselves in an open-sided shed and respond on cue as they are conditioned to with cries of “crush, crush, crush” as Pol Pot’s denouncers yell out a list of his crimes including the dwindling support for the Khmer Rouge cause. Pol Pot looks on, bewildered by it all.
The Khmer Rouge was hoping that the trial, held on 4 July, would help them to enlist support in their ongoing struggle against Hun Sen in Phnom Penh. Instead, spurred on by news that FUNCINPEC and the Khmer Rouge had reached a deal, Hun Sen moved against Ranariddh. Over the weekend of 5 and 6 July, with tanks and guns Hun Sen secured his position as the prime minister of a nominally democratic country — and has since held on to it with threats of more of the same.
Back in Anlong Veng, Pol Pot sweated out his days imprisoned in a wooden hut. That October, Nate Thayer was the first journalist to interview him since he had been deposed in 1979. The man whose rule was underpinned by phrases such as “to destroy you is no loss, to keep you no gain” was unrepentant.
While he conceded that the movement might have made mistakes, paranoia about Vietnam and its intentions for Cambodia underpinned his every justification for what had happened in the late 1970s. As far as he was concerned, without the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia would have been subsumed by its larger neighbour, as Kampuchea Krom (in the Mekong Delta) had been in the 17th century.
Six months later, while on the run from government forces who had overrun Anlong Veng, Pol Pot finally died. The official cause of death was heart failure, though some have suggested that he poisoned himself, or was poisoned. No autopsy was carried out. He died on 17 April 1998, 23 years to the day after his forces took over and emptied Phnom Penh, starting a reign of terror that this country is still recovering from today.
A few days later, Pol Pot’s cremation was attended by a dozen people, including the photographers brought in to record the event. His widow and 14-year-old daughter were not there.
Ta Mok said of his former leader, “Pol Pot has died, like a ripe papaya … Now he’s finished, he has no power, he has no rights, he is no more than cow shit. Cow shit is more important than him. We can use it for fertiliser.” Three months later, Ta Mok was himself captured by government forces, officially marking the end of the Khmer Rouge revolution. He died in prison seven years later while awaiting trial.
How to get there
To find the cremation site, there is an unassuming little sign marking the way down a rocky, sandy track just opposite the Sangam Casino. It’s about 20 metres down there on the left hand side.
By Nicky Sullivan
Last updated on 9th September, 2015.