DEATH OF A DICTATOR
April 16, 1998
As the leader of Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, Pol Pot was responsible for the deaths of a million people. Now that reports of his death have been confirmed, how will history judge Pol Pot? After a background report, Phil Ponce leads a discussion on the former Khmer Rouge leader.
HUGH JONES, Independent Television News: Even in death, Pol Pot is regarded as a shadowy figure. The Khmer Rouge says is this the body of their former leader, but such is his legacy many Cambodians find it hard to believe he's gone. Certainly when Pol Pot was last seen on camera, he appeared frail. But even as a sick old man he was unrepentant about the murder of so many of his fellow Cambodians.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
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A brutal record, a clear conscience.
POL POT: (speaking through interpreter) I did not join the resistance movement to kill people, to kill the nation. Look at me now. Am I a savage person? My conscience is clear.
HUGH JONES: In 1975, Pol Pot came to power with his Khmer Rouge, or Red Cambodians. Though he'd enjoyed his education in Paris, he abolished schools and money and attacked what he saw as western decadence. It came to be known as Cambodia's Year Zero. The cities and towns were emptied, the people sent to labor camps in the countryside. Propaganda showed Pol Pot among his people in the cotton fields, but, in reality, they were the killing fields, the subject of an Oscar-winning film. Many were executed for just being able to read. Countless people starved or were murdered by the Khmer Rouge.
MICHEAL WILLIAMS, former U.N. official: There is no doubt that Pol Pot must rank as the world's greatest murderer. This is a man at whose hands--nearly a million people--perhaps more--died in Cambodia, almost a fifth of the total population.
HUGH JONES: In a former prison camp pictures of some of Pol Pot's victims have been kept as a memorial. There had been calls for him to face the International Court of Justice in the Hague. That trial will not now take place. And until the end, Pol Pot insisted history alone would be his judge.
JIM LEHRER: Phil Ponce takes the story from there.
Two views on the legacy of Pol Pot.
PHIL PONCE: For more, we get two views: Sidney Schanberg was one of the few western reporters to witness the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975. His reports for The New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize. The movie, The Killing Fields was based on his book, "The Death and Life of Dith Pran." Tuck Outhuok was born in Cambodia and attended college in America. He had Pol Pot as a teacher. He returned to Cambodia and worked for its Forestry Department. When Pol Pot took over, he and his family were sentenced to die, but they escaped Vietnam. He's now a broadcaster with Voice of America. Gentlemen, welcome.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Schanberg, following up on that very last question in the report we just heard, how will history judge Pol Pot?
SYDNEY SCHANBERG, Journalist: Well, I think if they look--if people look at the evidence, historians look at the evidence, they will judge him as a genocidal mass murderer. It won't matter what vision he put forth, what notion he had or said he had of a rural utopia because whatever he believed or thought he believed as ideology, his methods were criminal, were evil. I mean, some things are bad; some things are sins; and they're all levels of inappropriate and wrong behavior. This wasn't bad behavior. This was evil. And that's rare. And you have to recognize it and deal with it as such.
Sydney Schanberg: "This wasn't bad behavior. This was evil."
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Schanberg, who was he? Where did he come from?
SYDNEY SCHANBERG: No one knows a great deal about what was going on inside his head, but he came from a relatively prosperous farming family in a province 60 miles North of Phnom Penh. He had relatives in the royal court. They brought him to Phnom Penh. He was educated as an elite child. He went to a Buddhist school. He went to a private school, and took up the violin. He got a government scholarship to go to Paris, which is where he formed his ideas about Maoism and Marxism, Leninism, and where he met other Cambodians of a like mind, and where they formed their notions about this resistance or revolution.
PHIL PONCE: So he, himself, was highly educated, came from the elite class within the country.
SYDNEY SCHANBERG: That's right.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Outhuok, you had him as a teacher when you were a teenager. What was he like when you had him in class?
TUCK OUTHUOK, Voice of America: Pol Pot, the original name is Saloth Sar--a nice simple teacher. He care for his students. He rarely punished any students. When he came back from France looking for jobs, he came to my school, which is province school, called Lisee Gabuba. And he taught summer school for a couple of months.
PHIL PONCE: And how often did you see him?
TUCK OUTHUOK: I had class with him probably two hours every day.
PHIL PONCE: And, again, your impression of him was as a "nice person" at the time.
TUCK OUTHUOK: Well, Saloth Sar was a nice person at the time but when the country went bad, he joined--and became Pol Pot--and then the mass murderer.
PHIL PONCE: What do you think changed him?
TUCK OUTHUOK: I think the--first of all, the American policies played part in it--another thing is the inequality in the society. At the time there was a--they govern--was after the rightists and the leftists--and institutions are up--the extremists, and it was shown in the public movies before the--before the shows, and those kind of things probably made him more aggressive and made him more savage.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Schanberg, do you agree that this was the kind of situation that he tapped in to as far as attempting to generate support?
SYDNEY SCHANBERG: I didn't fully hear your question.
PHIL PONCE: No. What I was asking--Mr. Outhuok was asking about the instability in the country at the time, and I was asking you, is it--if you thought this was what Pol Pot tapped in to.
SYDNEY SCHANBERG: I think probably he more likely tapped in to the rage of the people in the deeply rural areas--rage over being exploited by people from the cities and towns. And that, of course, was part of the instability, and it helps to explain why Pol Pot emptied cities and towns when he took power and why he executed people for having western ideas, or being educated.
How was Pol Pot able to take control of Cambodia?
PHIL PONCE: But how was he able to take power? How was he able to overtake the country?
SYDNEY SCHANBERG: I believe that it never would have happened had the war not been brought to Cambodia, the Vietnam War. Cambodia was under Sihanouk was trying to maintain a balance, appeasing both sides, allowing the Vietnamese to have sanctuaries inside Cambodian soil and allowing the Americans to bomb those sanctuaries. But in 1970, as we may remember, President Nixon sent American troops in. That was after Sihanouk was deposed, and there was no longer a neutralist in power; there was a pro-Western Junta. And so Nixon sent troops in. The war spread throughout Cambodia, and a very small and ineffectual band of people called the Khmer Rouge maybe numbering no more than 3,000 men, suddenly began to grow and recruit on the basis of that war. They would point at the American intervention as the hated animals, at the bombs falling from B-52's as something they had to oppose if they were going to have freedom. And it became a recruiting tool until they grew to a fierce, indefatigable guerrilla army of seventy to a hundred thousand men.
PHIL PONCE: And how did the killing sort of fit into their scheme of things, and how was it they were able to get away with that killing?
SYDNEY SCHANBERG: Well, I mean, you can kill a lot of people if you have weapons. You can control a village of 500 with two soldiers. And if the outside world doesn't really care much about what happens to your country--and I think that has always been true about Cambodia and that's why everybody trampled through there and used it as a surrogate battlefield, the Chinese, the Russians, the Americans, when nobody cares enough, you get used. And Cambodia was a pawn.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Outhuok, how haunted are the Cambodian people by what happened when Pol Pot was in power?
TUCK OUTHUOK: The Cambodian people were intimidated through the killings of their neighbors, through the killing of the members of the family. The legacy of Pol Pot led behind the kids--right now--even two, three years ago--kids Pol Pot--mean a negative call for the people who--mass murderer. There's no respect for this guy. This name, Pol Pot, is going to stay in the Cambodian mind for the rest of their lives.
PHIL PONCE: And would you say there's a sense of relief that he's dead?
A lost opportunity to see Pol Pot brought to trial.
TUCK OUTHUOK: Well, part of it is a sense of relief, but most Cambodians feel that it's not good enough that Pol Pot's dead; they wanted to see Pol Pot brought to trial and let the international community know this is the mass murderer. Pol Pot left behind another machine of killing--some officers responsible for the killing are still intact. It was demonstrated by... last July. The other groups who just joined the government now--they're also responsible for the "killing fields."
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Schanberg, in the short time that we have left, what do you think the lasting impact of Pol Pot will be on his people?
SYDNEY SCHANBERG: Pol Pot destroyed not only one quarter of the population, which is about two million people, but he destroyed almost the entire leadership class. And that has debilitated the country, and that is why it's still a victim country. And that will take probably more than a generation to repair. So it's going to be a very slow process. Right now, I think that Tuck is right, this is a--this is a poisoned atmosphere, and everything is ruled by warlords and guns. And you're talking about a country that was poisoned by 30 continuous years of war, genocide, starvation, slave labor, chaos, and instability. You can't recover very quickly from horrors like that.
PHIL PONCE: Gentlemen, thank you both very much.