The New Pol Pot

The New Pol Pot

The New Pol Pot

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Nov. 2 1997 3:30 AM

The New Pol Pot

A former world leader reflects on his hopes, his regrets, and his place in history.

Illustration by Philip Burke

The traditional Cambodian shawl is still wrapped around Pol Pot's neck, but the hair is grayer and sparser and the round face is lined with wrinkles. He needs a cane to walk and oxygen to breathe. He is nearly blind in the left eye, and he can't stand the mosquitoes that swarm around his hut. He is older now, and he is wiser.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

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The man critics once maligned as a genocidal maniac is living quietly--dying quietly--in the jungles of his native Cambodia. With age has come introspection; with introspection has come regret. "Our movement made mistakes," he admits softly, sincerely, in his first interview in nearly two decades. After 72 long, hard years, Pol Pot has made peace with himself.

Once upon a time, way back in the early '70s, Pol Pot was the fieriest of revolutionaries--"Brother No. 1," "the Original Cambodian." He was enthusiastic--too enthusiastic, he realizes now--to bring glorious Marxism to his suffering people, to free Cambodia from the yoke of Vietnamese invaders, to abolish the twin evils of Western materialism and class privilege. Pol Pot dreamed of a society of equals, a grand new Cambodia. And so he made errors--the errors that young, eager men everywhere make.

The '70s, of course, were a difficult decade. We all did things we have come to regret, and Pol Pot is no exception. A million or two of his countrymen lost their lives because of his mistakes. Starvation was epidemic. Cannibalism was common. Pol Pot abolished religion, education, medicine, commerce, money. He drove city dwellers into the countryside, and he forced them to farm. Tens of thousands of his subjects were tortured and murdered at his behest. Some critics said he returned Cambodia to the Dark Ages. Others called him names: "bloodthirsty," "barbaric," "cruel" ...

Illustration by Philip Burke

To hear those words today pains Pol Pot. "I came to carry out the struggle, not to kill people," he says, a look of melancholy shadowing his face. "Even now, and you can look at me, am I a savage person?" The plaintive question echoes in the moist, warm air of the jungle.

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Several months ago, the Khmer Rouge sentenced Pol Pot to life under house arrest--hut arrest, really--for the murder of Son Sen, an old friend and colleague who plotted a coup against him this spring. Fourteen of Son Sen's family members, including infant grandchildren, also were killed. Pol Pot regrets the murders. They, too, were a "mistake," he says, his voice filled with pain. So Pol Pot can accept his arrest. What he can't accept is his betrayal at the hands of his friends. The men who tried and sentenced him are his oldest comrades, the soldiers he led through good times and bad.

Who is Pol Pot? He is a man who has always had difficulty telling others about himself. "I'm quite modest. I don't want to tell people I'm a leader," he says. Other revolutionaries have courted the press: Castro practically lives for sound bites, and the Zapatistas are better at planning press conferences than battles. But Pol Pot has never had the gift of the gab, especially around the camera, and he has never learned how to play to the press. Reporters saw him only as a cold-blooded killer; they missed his pensive side. The adulation that journalists showered on Castro and Marcos and Hafez al-Assad passed Pol Pot by. So, too, did the personal wealth that other dictators amassed. Pol Pot has never believed in greed. Not for him the diamonds of Mobutu, the snazzy clothes of Duvalier, the shoes of Marcos, the Swiss bank accounts of them all. When Pol Pot fell from power, he walked into the jungle with nothing but the clothes on his back.

But that's all in the past. The new Pol Pot is about the future. He wants to make the most of his golden years. His politics have mellowed. Today, the elder statesman advises Cambodia's leaders to seek rapprochement with the West. "When I die, my only wish is that Cambodia remain Cambodia and belong to the West," he says. "It is over for communism, and I want to stress that."

The old Pol Pot worked tirelessly on the revolution, neglecting his health, his friends, his family. The new Pol Pot is a family man. His wife and their charming 12-year-old daughter--the apple of his eye--share his captivity. Pol Pot rests quietly during the day while his daughter goes to school and his wife hoes the vegetable patch. In the evenings, they share a modest meal, and Pol Pot asks his daughter about what she learned that day. In captivity, he has fulfilled a lifelong dream. He has found the very thing he sought to give his fellow Cambodians during the '70s: a quiet life on a country farm. To see Pol Pot today is to be reminded of Voltaire: "We must cultivate our ..."

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OK, OK, I give up. It won't work, not even as parody. The re-emergence of Pol Pot is a landmark moment in celebrity culture: At last, someone who cannot be forgiven.

As Matthew Cooper wrote in the latest Newsweek, there is a standard forgiveness ritual for sinning celebrities. After they're caught, they disappear for awhile, then re-emerge, apologize for their venality (usually to Larry King), and retake their place in the pantheon. Dick Morris managed this in a matter of days. Michael Milken got sick and became a beloved philanthropist. ("Cancer. Superb," Larry King told Newsweek.) Richard Nixon served only a decade in exile before returning triumphantly as a statesman.

So the rejection of Pol Pot is heartening. One person--perhaps only one person--exists in the world whose evil is so great that it cannot be neutered. Pol Pot is in captivity; he is sick; and he is (mildly) apologetic. Yet not a single word has been murmured on his behalf. Any other infamous person--O.J., the Unabomber, Timothy McVeigh--could rescue a damaged reputation. But Pol Pot is irredeemable. Can you imagine a Larry King interview with Pol Pot?

There is one irony in the rejection of Pol Pot. In making him a pariah, the world is legitimizing men who are almost as awful. The man who imprisoned Pol Pot is a one-legged Khmer Rouge general named Ta Mok. His nickname is "the Butcher," and he carried out many of the brutal massacres ordered by Pol Pot. Yet Ta Mok is being feted for having captured his old mentor. He has received favorable press coverage for opening schools and permitting markets in his remote northern stronghold. Ta Mok has even been given credit for putting Pol Pot on trial and sentencing him to life under house arrest--as opposed to summarily shooting him in the head, which is the Khmer Rouge's usual idea of justice. Some writers hint that the only reason Ta Mok bothered with the trial and the life sentence is to burnish the Khmer Rouge's bloody image. If so, it seems to have worked.

As for the supreme villain, he is unlikely to appear again in public. The remarkable interview Pol Pot gave Nate Thayer of the Far Eastern Economic Review last month was his first in 18 years, and it will undoubtedly be his last. According to Thayer, Pol Pot is very near death. Survivors of his terror can take some satisfaction in this: Pol Pot is bound for the death that you would wish on a tyrant, the death that Hitler and Stalin managed to duck. He is going to die slowly, a captive who is impoverished, in great pain, betrayed by his friends, and unredeemed by a world that would redeem anyone else.