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




The Story
Cambodial girl; Bird on barbed wire; Man mining in river

Watch Video Will the Khmer Rouge get away with murder?

Nearly 2 million people died in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 in a Khmer Rouge reign of terror. Not a single person has ever been brought to trial for this genocide.

"I came on a journey to Cambodia to find out why there's been no public reckoning," says FRONTLINE/World reporter and Pew Fellow in International Journalism Amanda Pike. She discovers a country still haunted by the ghosts of those who died -- a country that does not know whether to confront or bury its violent past.

In a village a few miles outside the capital Phnom Penh, Pike meets a woman, Samrith Phum, whose husband was taken away one night in 1977 and executed as an alleged CIA spy. Today, the man Samrith holds responsible for her husband's murder lives just down the road, where he runs a noodle shop. This is a pattern across the country: the families of genocide victims live side by side with their former executioners and tormentors.

Cambodia's descent into hell began in the 1970s when the Vietnam War spilled across the border. The United States bombed Cambodia relentlessly. Out of the chaos, a small, hardcore band of Maoists, the Khmer Rouge, took control of the country. They emptied the cities, marching people off to rural work camps, and turned back the calendar to Year Zero. In an effort to create a primitive agrarian utopia, the Khmer Rouge purged the country of everything foreign or modern. They outlawed books, money and medicine. They began mass executions.

Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot and his army were driven from power in 1979 by the Vietnamese, but retreated to the countryside and fought a civil war until 1998. As part of a peace agreement, the Khmer Rouge were granted control over Pailin, a semiautonomous zone along the border with Thailand.

Pike sets out on a journey to Pailin to find and confront the highest-ranking surviving member of the Khmer Rouge, the secretive and elusive Nuon Chea, "Brother Number Two."

On her way Pike passes through Anlong Veng. This dusty village was the final headquarters of the late Pol Pot. His supporters still cling to his memory and his ideology. Pike meets Pol Pot's former cook and her husband, who was Pol Pot's ambassador to China, the main patron of the Khmer Rouge.

Some fervent believers still worship the notorious dictator. Pike discovers families praying at Pol Pot's grave for health, guidance and winning lottery numbers. As she looks more closely, Pike is stunned to see that these devotees are digging through Pol Pot's ashes, snatching up fragments of his bones to take away as talismans.

Next, Pike finds a school where the Khmer Rouge once taught children how to lay mines and make traps of sharpened bamboo sticks. Today, students study more traditional subjects, but they learn nothing of the genocide. In another school, Pike watches a former Khmer Rouge official teaching English to Pol Pot's only child, a teenaged daughter who has been in hiding since her father's funeral four years ago. Ironically, learning English was forbidden by her father -- speaking it was punishable by death.

After navigating a long pockmarked road, Pike reaches the checkpoint that marks the border of Pailin, the gem-laden refuge of the most notorious leaders of the Khmer Rouge elite. The old puritanical Khmer Rouge world is turned upside down. At night, the town lights up like a low-rent Las Vegas. There are brothels and casinos. The main lounge act is a midget singing karaoke. The big sports draw is the spectacle of a mentally ill man being forced to kickbox with a child.

Finally, Pike enters a simple wooden shack where she meets Nuon Chea, "Pol Pot's shadow." Journalist Nate Thayer (the last person to interview Pol Pot) describes Nuon Chea as "probably more guilty than Pol Pot himself for the actual killings that went on while the Khmer Rouge were in power." In his first interview for American television, Nuon Chea claims that some unnamed foreign power was responsible for the genocide, not the Khmer Rouge. Now elderly and in failing health, he tells Pike he would appear in court if summoned but he would deny his guilt.

"Evil, it seems, is an old man who calls genocide a mistake,'" concludes Pike.

The prime minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, has said, "We should dig a hole and bury the past." That attitude has frustrated the United Nations, which accuses the Cambodian government of blocking U.N. efforts to organize an international genocide tribunal in Cambodia.

But back in Phnom Penh, burying the past is difficult. Pike visits Tuol Sleng, the former Khmer Rouge prison camp. The Khmer Rouge, who kept meticulous records, took photographs of their prisoners before they were tortured and executed. These harrowing photographs are an indelible record of the mass killings.

Pike finds genocide survivors protesting at the prison camp. They are demanding a war crimes trial. One man shouts, "I beg you not to forget the atrocities and to remember vividly this history."


Amanda Pike

Director of Photography
Adam Keker

Andrew Gersh
Adam Keker

Additional Materials
Documentation Center of Cambodia
Tuol Sleng Museum
National Archives
Prom Sarin

Music by
The Cambodian Master Performers Program
Preah Vihear Video
Prach Ly

Special Thanks
Pew Fellowships in International Journalism
UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism