Frontline World


Cambodia, Pol Pot's Shadow, October 2002



Read through archived FRONTLINE/World conversations around this story below, including responses from the reporter.

Michael Bilos - Estes Park, Colorado
I left the U.S. in January of 1999 for a 4 month backpacking trip to Southeast Asia. At the time, the UN was on the brink of bringing former Khmer Rouge leaders to trial, a move that I was fully in support of. That is, until I visited Cambodia.

In my three weeks there, it became clear to me that all of the former Khmer Rouge leaders were now in positions of power, e.g., mayors, police chiefs, business owners, etc..., and that if prosecuted, they would simply take up arms once again.

To support my position, it was not uncommon to come across stockpiles of unguarded weopons ready for anyone to use. I personally sat in a Russian-made rocket launcher with ammunition available (that was sitting in a field near the road), and also came across an ammunitions depot loaded with a battery of weapons (I have photos if you want to see them).

So, in conclusion, my impression is that the Cambodian people want to bury the past and move on, otherwise, the situation could all too easily get out of hand.

Thank you for your outstanding programs!

Thom Troyan - Indianapolis, Indiana
The communist origins of the Khmer Rouge are mentioned somewhere toward the end of the piece. The regime is gingerly labeled as an "agrarian utopia." The murderous program of social engineering is reduced to specific people's (i.e. Brother No. 2) homicidal instincts. Something similar to reducing Nazism to Hitlers' individual psychology. Not a peep about the true origin of the massacre: a leftist ideology bent on "classicide," as The Black Book of Communist aptly labels it, refined in Paris, developed in Beijing, prototyped in Hanoi and applied in Phnom Phen. Instead, the origins of the conflict are, as is expected on PBS, in the American intervention in Indochina, prominently illustrated with footage of American bombing runs. Some contributors to this page parrot the party line that the "devil (read, US) made them do it." How about the early Vietnamese support for the Khmer Rouge?

Mark Tyler - Denver, Colorado
Well, now you know what `Khmer Rouge' means. One only has to see the movie The Killing Fields to learn this. The Khmer educated children and adults to `forget what you know. Be like the ox, unconcerned with anything but working hard. It is now 'the year zero.' Children were placed in positions of informing on unpatriotic members of the population.

Cambodia, right up until the early 1960s was one of the wealthiest countries in southeast Asia. Forget about digging in the mud for gemstone grains. Cambodia grew so much rice that it had plenty to export to the rest of the region. One can only wonder how a former imperial Cambodia would have responded to the emerging modern world of the 1960s and 1970s, villas, thoroughfares, and all.

Adam Hedinger - Calgary, Alberta, Canada
I was a little surprised that the Producer actually expected the remaining Khmer Rouge leaders to show some kind of remorse for the TV cameras. Why should they? How many of the guilty Nazi war criminals would actually admit guilt or remorse on television? Or former Soviet commanders and/or guards from the Gulag camps? I don't think any of these people would actually readily admit these things.

Reporter Amanda Pike responds:
Thank you for your question and interest in the story. On the contrary, I didn't expect any of the Khmer Rouge leaders to show remorse or express guilt. As I said in the piece, without a trial "the man who helped direct a genocide is unlikely to ever speak honestly." What did surprise me somewhat were not people's denials of personal responsibility but their denials of the whole group's responsibility, the claim that the Khmer Rouge didn't commit the killings. It's like interviewing German concentration camp guards and having them say, yes, true, six million Jews died there, but it wasn't me -- it was the Americans and the French who came into our country and killed them.

Craig Roberts - Zanesville, Ohio
This is a story that should not go away. To deprive the children of Cambodia of their history is terrible. To not tell them of the atrocities, still so recent, is unforgivable. I think the U.N. has dropped the ball once again, yet another blemish on a less than stellar record.

Chris Robinson - Seattle, Washington
One reason Pol Pot and other high ranking cadres of the Khmer Rouge were never brought to justice may be due to the United States involvement in Cambodia prior to 1976. Although the bombing campaigns which occurred in "neutral" Cambodia are well known, I believe the full extent of these actions would of been explored during war crimes tribunals to the detriment of US officials.

Mony Vann - Bridgeport, Connecticut
Thank you for reminding the world that the killing happened, and that the world is not just.

New Jersey
Part of Cambodia's history is America's involvement in the support of Pol Pot. We felt that he was against "Communism" and we provided him with the weapons and intelligence to conduct the atrocities that were committed. Pol Pot took the entire population of Phnom Penh and march them out to the jungle - hence, the killing fields. I caught this "well done" presentation after it started but America shares part of the blame for what happened and this should have been brought out (if it wasn't) during this documentary. Yes, we should revisit it's history and all parties involved should share the blame.

Albuquerque, New Mexico
Chey Sopheara has asked "for funds to renovate this building and to maintain the documents so that the young generation will be educated and this will not happen again."

But I can find no information on how to safely provide financial help to the museum. Let me know how I can help. Thank you!

Reporter Amanda Pike responds:
Tuol Sleng Museum and The Documentation Center of Cambodia have started a joint renovation project to restore the areas of the museum that are beginning to fall apart and to preserve the physical evidence there, at an estimated cost of $274,000. To lend your support, you can contact Youk Chhang, Director of DC-Cam at Youk Chhang and his staff have been the premiere organization in Cambodia working to compile a definitive record of the atrocities. So far, they have documented 167 former prisons, 19,440 mass graves; interviewed countless survivors and perpetrators and collected over 600,000 pages of Khmer Rouge documents and artifacts. You can find out more about their work on their website at

Longwood, Florida
That is a different world. It is existence at the survival level. The people who killed before would not hesitate to kill again. Unfortunately, the survivors don't have the education, or means, to remove themselves from the area.

Richard Arant - Lanesville, Indiana
A wonderful, touching, and spine tingling segment on the remnants of the Khmer Rouge. Super video and thoughtful use of interviews with ordinary Cambodians without the translations drowning out the Khmer, a rarity indeed. Nate Thayer hit the mark on Nuon Chea, and Amanda Pike's meeting with "Brother Number 2" confirmed all that Nate had to say. The Documentation Center of Cambodia ( is doing remarkable field research on crimes of the Khmer Rouge regime every day, and has begun publishing its findings in English. I wish there had been time for Frontline to mention the four Americans killed At Tuol Sleng during 1978, the American journalists captured by the Khmer Rouge during the early 1970s, the three Marines left behind on Tang Island in May, 1978. Perhaps next time?

Reporter Amanda Pike responds:
Thank you very much for your comments. You're absolutely right- the United States has certainly had a long and complicated role in Cambodia's history, especially regarding the Khmer Rouge. To your list we could also add the US support of the Khmer Rouge coalition government until 1990 as well as the US policy of blocking a genocide trial in order to impose sanctions on the Vietnamese-backed government in Phnom Penh. Unfortunately, those elements are outside the scope of what we could cover in this 25-minute segment. However, this piece was excerpted from a feature length work-in-progress. The longer version will have the space to deal more thoroughly with America's varied role in Cambodian history.

Douglas Morgan - Norwood, Massachusetts
I don't think that a country can move forward without looking back. As Cambodian Americans who write on your Web site attest, this is still a sore memory in the minds of many. Why won't the U.N. help Cambodia by pushing a war crimes tribunal? The international system needs to take responsibility for the havoc its actors sometimes wreak. If Cambodia has a weak judiciary system, its only the result of decades of mired politics.

San Diego, California
Reading about this story on the Web site, I don't understand how someone could live next door to the person they believed killed their husband. How is this possible? What kind of existence is this?