Frontline World

Cambodia - Pol Pot's Shadow, October, 2002

Synopsis of "Pol Pot's Shadow"

In Search of Justice

Historical Analysis: The U.S. and Cambodia

The Rapper, the Dancer, and the Storyteller

Learn more about Cambodia

Genocide, War Crimes, Politics




Diary Entry 6
ANLONG VENG - Pol Pot’s Grave

A truck load of people drive towards Pol Pot's grave
Jungle Headquarters
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.

These 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 excitedly.

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.

Woman lights incense
When 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.

"All 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 or modern.

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 toilet.

People dig through Pol Pot's bones
We 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.

People show their findings
One 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.

Group of people lights incense as they worship Pol Pot's grave
Down 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?

NEXT: MALAI: Pol Pot's Heir
PREVIOUS: ANLONG VENG: Jungle Headquarters

back to top