Pol Pot's evil legacy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 April, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 April, 1998, 12:00am

No one except his most fanatical followers will mourn the passing of Pol Pot, one of the worst criminals of the 20th century. The only sadness is that his death came just as the world was moving towards putting the Khmer Rouge leader on trial before an international court to pay for the genocide in which he played such a large part. When someone this evil dies, there are always doubts about whether he has really gone. But by showing his corpse to foreign journalists who can send images of it round the world, the remnants of the Khmer Rouge should be able to assuage any real concern about whether their former leader has passed away. That is crucial, because as happened in the case of Adolf Hitler, the slightest uncertainty can serve as an excuse for extremist groups to resurrect his image for their own purposes.

Had Pol Pot lived, he might have stood trial. Two decades after the era of the 'killing fields', the United States and the international community were finally beginning to make preliminary moves in this direction. But such efforts seem to have been more a public relations gesture than any serious effort to bring the former guerilla leader to justice.

As the Far Eastern Economic Review revealed on the eve of Pol Pot's death, US diplomats had not even bothered to contact the remnants of the Khmer Rouge who were holding the old man. Their leaders professed to be desperate to surrender their captive to international custody and were reduced to begging the magazine's reporter to suggest potential intermediaries. Beijing's opposition also remained an obstacle - the Foreign Ministry yesterday reiterated its belief this was an issue for the Cambodian people alone to resolve. China's support did much to prolong the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror, and any international trial would have focused embarrassing attention on the scale of the assistance provided.

Just as the Jewish people's quest for justice did not end with Hitler's death, nor need Pol Pot's passing away mark an end to the Cambodian search for retribution for what was done to the country and its inhabitants. But to try Pol Pot after his death - as some suggested yesterday - would serve little purpose, except to allow surviving Khmer Rouge leaders to pin all the blame on their departed colleague. Rather, the search for justice should focus on those who are almost as culpable but who, in many cases, have taken advantage of the Cambodian conflict in order to seek political rehabilitation. Ieng Sary, who was Pol Pot's right-hand man and personally responsible for luring tens of thousands of overseas Cambodians home to their deaths, has already been pardoned for his crimes in return for leading a split in the Khmer Rouge two years ago.

Another notorious mass-murderer Ke Pauk, who is believed to be culpable for up to 100,000 deaths, was welcomed with open arms when he recently defected to the Government in Phnom Penh. Even Ta Mok, the one-legged guerilla leader who imprisoned Pol Pot until his death, presided over a reign of brutality in northern Cambodia. Those men are the criminals who can still be held to account for their part in the genocide. Now that the Khmer Rouge has been reduced to a rag-tag band of barely 3,000 fighters, which is likely to disintegrate even faster following Pol Pot's death, there is no need for further amnesties to weaken its ranks.

Those that have been already granted pardons should be subject to a review. For too long there has been a tendency to heap all the blame for the Cambodian holocaust on to the shoulders of one man. The reality is that Pol Pot's guilt, though immense, was only greater in degrees than that of the other members of the collective leadership which presided over such savagery.

His death offers a chance for a more historical reckoning of the period which the Maoist guerillas called Year Zero, and for a more widespread distribution of responsibility.

Unfortunately, the present situation in Phnom Penh makes that unlikely. Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, who ousted First Premier Prince Norodom Ranariddh in last summer's coup, is a former Khmer Rouge fighter whose recent actions bear more than a little resemblance to those of his former colleagues. Political opponents have been assassinated in an attempt to create a climate of fear in the run-up to the July 26 elections, which Hun Sen has no intention of allowing anyone else to win.

The lack of regard for the sanctity of human life, which the Khmer Rouge brought to Cambodia, is evident from the way in which many of the victims of recent political killings were tortured and mutilated before being dumped in the river. Even though Pol Pot is dead, the evil which he fostered lives on in his homeland.