Pol Pot's Grave
A truck overloaded with people slowly chugs its way up a winding
dirt road into the Dangrek Mountains. We are following a group
of Khmer Rouge adherents on their way to Pol Pot's grave. A
couple of young soldiers guide our car through the minefields.
last diehards still revere a man reviled as one of the most
notorious leaders of the 20th century. Their procession has
a party atmosphere, with whole families dressed in their best
clothes, carrying flowers, cakes and incense. The children chatter
I had figured it might be a delicate process to find people
here who would admit to being part of the Khmer Rouge. It turns
out that the way to find a Khmer Rouge member is simply to stop
by the side of the road and ask, "Khmer Krahom no ana?" ("Where
are the Khmer Rouge?") This immediately prompts unself-conscious
hand waving and pointing to oneself or one's neighbor, with
no recrimination or shame.
the procession finally arrives at the simple corrugated tin roof
that marks Pol Pot's grave, everyone stops and stares quietly
for a moment. Pol Pot was cremated in this clearing on a bunch
of old tires in 1998. His ashes remain in a pile on the ground.
Suddenly, as one, everyone kneels down and begins to pray.
your children are here, Grandpa," they chant. "Don't say that
we've forgotten you."
They ask for good health and for their children to be educated
like Pol Pot was. They ask for winning lottery numbers -- "just
one or two" -- to alleviate their crushing poverty. Some of
the offerings seem like strange choices -- like cans of Coca-ColaĆ
-- for the virulent Maoist who brutally outlawed anything foreign
To the side of the clearing, Pol Pot's last few possessions
have been dumped in a pile -- medicine bottles, insecticide,
soft drinks (local brands) and, most strikingly, a porcelain
talk to several of the followers about why they come to Pol Pot's
grave. Some say they knew him personally. Others have come just
to pay their respects to a former leader. Most seem to perceive
that some part of the world thinks of Pol Pot in a more negative
light, but they insist that he was a supporter of the common farmer
and a defender of the country. When pressed about the killings
several say that it's up to the international community to make
a final judgment about who is really responsible. Until then,
they plan to keep bringing offerings.
One former soldier -- and amputee -- is especially philosophical
about Pol Pot's place in history. "In Cambodian history and
from one generation to another, there are always wars," he says,
waving his hand. "It's hard to blame any leader because our
society is always like that. For me, I'm like a piece of trash
that is blown away by the wind."
A group of children start to dig furiously through Pol Pot's
ashes. They scrape determinedly through the pile of remains
and debris, yelping every so often when they accidentally touch
one of the lit incense sticks.
mother looks on and passes out snacks. Soon, the children's hands
are filled with colorfully wrapped candy and what look like vertebrae.
They are collecting pieces of Pol Pot's bones as talismans. The
kids compare to see who has the best specimen. "Rom got the biggest
one," a little girl whines. "I saw it first, but I thought it
was a cow bone."
After everyone has left, we stop one of the soldiers who had
been watching to make sure no one stepped outside the demined
area. We ask him if taking pieces of bones is a common tradition
in Cambodia. He rolls his eyes and stamps his foot in exasperation.
"They always try to do that!" he says.
We hear about villagers who say they have dreamed of Pol Pot,
then gone on to win the lottery or be cured of malaria. It seems
that Pol Pot has become something of a cross between a patron
saint and an urban legend here. His memory seems to hang almost
palpably in the air.
the road from the grave, we visit an old woman who says that Pol
Pot visited her in a dream. Chou Kitt says that Pol Pot appeared
to her at night, looking frail and sad. He told her he was hot
during the day and cold at night. He complained that he was hungry.
When she woke up, she found that she had sleepwalked most of the
way to his grave.
So Chou scraped together most of her worldly funds and built
the corrugated shelter that today covers Pol Pot's ashes. She
also held a feast in his honor, slaughtering a pig at his gravesite.
Later, Chou dreamed that Pol Pot came to thank her -- he was
finally comfortable and content.
What's strange about Chou's story is that she's not a member
of the Khmer Rouge -- she's a genocide survivor who lost most
of her family during the Pol Pot regime. The Khmer Rouge labor
camps left her partly crippled and nearly deaf. We have to shout
our questions several times before she understands.
She can't explain why she spent such desperately needed resources
on the man responsible for so much of her misery. She just shrugs
and gives a very Cambodian response -- she shakes her head and
laughs softly, as if to say: Who can explain any of this?
MALAI: Pol Pot's Heir
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