Spectre of Pol Pot lingers in Cambodia
News this week that Cambodians have been praying at the cremation site of genocidal former ruler Pol Pot hangs like a loose thread from history.
Ten years after he died of a suspected heart attack in a tiny jungle redoubt near the Thai border, the irony is chilling. Pol Pot and his clique of ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge counted Buddhist monks and other followers of 'superstition' as some of their first targets as they attempted to wind Cambodian society back to Year Zero after they seized Phnom Penh in April 1975.
They didn't stop at religion as they pushed a twisted ideology to the extent of its internal logic. Doctors, teachers, accountants - anyone with glasses - were shot or had their skulls smashed as the victorious Khmer Rouge emptied the capital and other cities to start a catastrophic agrarian revolution. Within four years, it collapsed into mass starvation, and ended in an invasion and occupation by Cambodia's hated Vietnamese neighbours. The Khmer Rouge was responsible for an estimated 1.7 million Cambodian deaths.
Images this week showing people praying, burning incense and making offerings at Pol Pot's cremation site in Anlong Veng indicate the resilience of traditional spiritualism, despite grotesque abuses. It also highlights the peculiar, lingering mystique even the most feared leaders can have.
Pol Pot's image was orchestrated to prey on the imagination through a combination of intense secrecy, fear and manipulation. After the takeover, he was known as 'Brother No1', his movement just 'the Organisation'. 'The Angkar [organisation] is a pineapple' was one particularly creepy slogan on signs above communal messes and work camps, preying on the peasants' suspicions of the many 'eyes' in an unpeeled pineapple.
According to an Associated Press report marking the anniversary of his death this week, villagers are drawn to the cremation mound to seek luck, happiness and protection from malaria. Others pray for his soul, hoping he won't be allowed to butcher any more people in the afterlife.
The irony deepens with the fact that even a Vietnamese villager regularly turns up at the site. Pol Pot and his leaders stoked long simmering anti-Vietnamese xenophobia to prop up their regime, leading to massacres in Vietnamese towns across the border - events that in part sparked the invasion by their former allies. Van Sothy, 33, told Associated Press that she had nightmares about a black-clad man sitting near her hut, so she simply wanted to make offerings to the 'spiritual master of the land'.
It is not the first time that ancient spiritual needs have emerged at Anlong Veng, despite the crimes against them.
Pol Pot was cremated on a steamy, grey Saturday morning on a flaming pyre of tyres, sticks and a grubby mattress. No one bowed as a young Khmer Rouge soldier set the heap ablaze with a plastic cigarette lighter. No one wept, either.
With other reporters, I was waiting at a jungle border crossing nearby. Khmer Rouge spokesman Nuon Nou emerged to tell us how Pol Pot's peasant wife 'gave him a simple ceremony. It was Buddhist, it was religious'. Was he saying Pol Pot, the austere intellectual responsible for the butchery of the devout, was religious all along, we asked. Had he really found faith in 'higher powers'?
An incoming artillery round from Cambodian forces exploded nearby. Nuon Nou scuttled back to the jungle, saying 'danger, danger'. The enigma remains.
The five remaining Khmer Rouge leaders in detention ahead of a long delayed genocide tribunal have also benefited from their carefully cultivated mystique and secrecy. In theory, they could be forced to do some good by revealing how their movement went so horribly wrong. Don't hold your breath.