June 18, 1997
Fugitive leader Pol Pot's surrender to Khmer Rouge rebels was announced. Those reports have been denied. Either way, Pol Pot, blamed for the slaughter of 2 million Cambodians, has left an devastating mark on Cambodia, a country which remains in a state of political unrest. Following a background report, Elizabeth Farnsworth leads a discussion with journalists Sydney Schanberg and Nate Thayer.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The rivalry between Hun Sen and Prince Ranarridh erupted into violence yesterday. Two of the prince's bodyguards were killed in a gun battle in Phnom Penh. Now for more on all this we turn to two journalists with long experience in that country.
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available.
Online NewsHour links:
June 18, 1997:
A backgrounder on the history of the struggle in Cambodia.
May 16, 1996:
President Clinton announces his plan to limit the use of landmines.
January 4, 1996:
Elizabeth Farnsworth reports on the use of land mines in Cambodia and elsewhere.
Browse the Online NewsHour's coverage of Asia.
The Cambodian Embassy to the U.S. Home Page
Cambodia in Modern History: a site produced by those who opposed the Khmer Rouge
Sydney Schanberg was one of the few western correspondents to witness the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975. His reporting on it 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."
Nate Thayer has covered the Khmer Rouge extensively as a correspondent in Cambodia for the Far Eastern Economic Review. He is currently a visiting fellow at the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies where he is writing a book on modern Cambodia politics.
Thank you both for being with us. Sydney Schanberg, what's the significance of this news that Pol Pot may or may not have been captured or have given himself up? Why do we still care? It's been 18 years since he was driven from power. Why do we care so much?
SYDNEY SCHANBERG, Journalist: Well, I think we should care. I think we should care as much as we cared about the death of Hitler or if Hitler had been captured. This man, I think, committed a genocide, a very serious one, and it would be, I think, a very, very valuable lesson if he were brought before an international tribunal. And I know it would give a lot of relief to every Cambodia whom I know, and I would--I myself would feel a catharsis from it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Who was he, Sydney Schanberg?
SYDNEY SCHANBERG: Well, he was a man whose original name was Soloth Sar. He went to Paris in the 50's as a student, he and a group of others like him. They studied Maoism and Leninism, and they failed to get their Ph.D.'s. They were not brilliant students. They returned to Cambodia and started a guerrilla movement.
A number of students left Phnom Penh and joined them in a search for social justice. When the great powers pushed the war into Cambodia the Khmer Rouge found what they'd never found before, and that is a recruiting tool, a full-scale war, and a full-scale enemy.
And eventually they took control of the country, and Pol Pot had a design which I think was clearly a sign of madness, that he was going to push everybody into the countryside and return to the city, the country--to an agrarian lifestyle, and reject all education, all formal education, and eliminate anyone who was impure, and that is who belonged to what he regarded as the bourgeois part of society.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Nate, where did they get these ideas?
NATE THAYER, Far Eastern Economic Review: Well, it's an argument among scholars, but quite clearly, at the end of the day, they were uniquely Khmer.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Khmer being Cambodian.
NATE THAYER: Being Cambodian. He took influences clearly from Stalin, from the Vietnamese, from Mao, but, in fact, Pol Pot--not unlike Kim Il Sung in Korea--had his own vision that the great empire of Encore could move and create really a society unknown before in human history. And this was the type of rhetoric they used.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Sydney Schanberg, you were there in 1975, when they emptied out Phnom Penh trying to drive everybody into the countryside. What was it like?
SYDNEY SCHANBERG: It was like something obviously none of us had ever seen--two million people being forced to leave their homes and marched into the countryside, hospitals emptied, patients severely wounded being pushed up the avenues on their beds with serum bottles dripping into their arms. It was a truly mad sight.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Nate, you've spent a lot of time with the Khmer Rouge more recently. As a reporter, you traveled with them. You've been out with them in the field. What are they like now?
NATE THAYER: Well, it's a good question. There is quite a chasm between the international reputation of the Khmer Rouge and their ability to continue to garner significant enough popular support to be a formidable political force in Cambodia, even 20 years after their reign of terror in the late 1970's.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You mean, they are getting support even though they have this terrible reputation abroad?
NATE THAYER: Absolutely. And the events of the last few days prove that 20 years after The Killing Fields the Khmer Rouge continue to play a dominant role in Cambodian politics. And I think it's important to note that the rumors or the reports of the demise of Pol Pot that, in fact, Pol Pot has been on the run for 35 years, except for the three years and eight months in power, since he fled to the jungles in 1963.
The backdrop of his "surrender" in the last few days to his top loyalists is that, in fact, the Khmer Rouge continue to be such a force that they are brokering a deal with one half of the government to go in alliance against the other half. So in many ways we're seeing--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Before we get into that--
NATE THAYER: --a new beginning of the power of the Khmer Rouge in the 1990's.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How do you explain this, though? You've said that in spite of the knowledge in Cambodia and elsewhere of what they did, they still have some popular support and some control in small areas, though, of Cambodia. Why?
NATE THAYER: Not just in small areas; also among intellectuals. The Khmer Rouge are seen as ultra nationalists who are defending the Encore culture against their historical enemy.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Encore as an encore what, the great--
NATE THAYER: The Great Encore Empire that really peaked in the 14th century against their historical enemy, the Vietnamese. And this has great resonance throughout Cambodian society. They also are a peasant army and a peasant political party of which represents 85 percent of the population of the country who indeed are peasants.
They are generally not corrupt. They're generally quite disciplined, but it really comes in the backdrop of--their strength really comes from the weakness of their political foes and the weakness of Cambodian society to allow an organization like this to continue to be so powerful even after what they did while in power.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. So Sydney Schanberg, draw this together for us. How does what may have happened--it's unconfirmed--Pol Pot in the Northwest, in the jungles--relate to this power struggle between the two prime ministers in Phnom Penh?
SYDNEY SCHANBERG: Well, since I'm not sitting there, I mean, I think it's rather presumptuous for me to say how it relates. My own reaction from a distance is that the--that Pol Pot's demise as the leader of the Khmer Rouge was inevitable, and that his own paranoia probably did him in as much as anything else because he carried out through the years enormous purges against his own followers because of this paranoia.
And in one sense, at least, ironically, his surrendering or his capture or whatever has happened to him to cost him the leadership for the Khmer Rouge opens the way, sort of clears the field for these two factions in Phnom Penh to fight it out in ways that resemble old-style, dysfunctional Cambodian political culture--people forming private armies and wooing this discredited Khmer Rouge group, so that they could get more support for themselves.
There's been bloodshed already in Phnom Penh this week. My own guess is that it will escalate because I don't see any move toward some international pressure to stabilize the situation.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So Nate, what's the most important thing Americans should understand right now? It's not that Pol Pot may be captured or surrendered but that the Khmer Rouge are still a major factor?
NATE THAYER: I think it's very important to put this into context, while Pol Pot, himself, is obviously a mythical figure, and it's very dramatic that a man of his stature is actually perhaps on the brink of being brought to justice, but Pol Pot did not do what he did by himself. The fact is that there have been no arrests; that these--his army is not surrendering.
Their radio reports in the last couple of days of the new rebel faction has openly basically declared war on half the government and allied with the other half. We're seeing, I think, a real failure of the purpose of the $3 billion U.N. peacekeeping effort. That effort was supposed to end the war and bring political stability to the country.
Quite clearly, we very well may be on the brink of a new civil war, and certainly there is no political stability which is a very sad case indeed, but unfortunately, unlike the last 20 years when Sydney was in Phnom Penh, Cambodia no longer has any strategic or economic value to anyone, and at the end of the day we are now seeing, unfortunately, what some would argue to be really a near collapse political culture fighting it out for interests which are really internal, which is the first time in decades that the war in Cambodia is being fought for issues having to do with internal issues, as opposed to Cold War issues or larger regional or superpower questions.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Nate Thayer and Sydney Schanberg, thanks for being with us.