Pol Pot is dead. That is the unshakeable conviction of the few foreigners who viewed his rapidly decaying corpse in Khmer Rouge-controlled jungle just inside the Cambodian border. But there the certainty ends. In death, the enigma and mystery that surrounded so much of his life is thriving. Wherever you look the hard facts are at best elusive - perhaps appropriate for a man whose leadership of most extreme Maoist revolution in history was concealed from the West until 1976 - a year after his forces took power. Was he murdered or did he really suffer a heart attack? Was he really going to be handed over last week for international war crimes hearings as some reports claim? Even the militant, austere atheism that ruled his earliest days as a left-leaning student in Paris is under question. The Post learnt on Saturday that his young peasant wife held a private Buddhist ceremony in front of his corpse an hour before it was torched in the most ignominious of cremations. The irony of religion blessing his passing is chilling. As Pol Pot's forces emptied the cities and drove people to mass labour camps in the countryside, monasteries were shut and monks and nuns forced to disrobe and even to marry - effectively forcing them to forego vows of celibacy crucial to traditional Cambodian beliefs. Any monk or nun who resisted was killed. Thousands died. At the centre of all the intrigue must lie the fact that no autopsy was performed on his body. The only word the world has that Pol Pot suffered an innocent heart attack comes from Noun Nou, the smooth-faced spokesman for the new leadership who suddenly emerged just three days ago, and Pol Pot's wife, Mia Som. Thai military officials, including a nurse, were allowed only a brief inspection of the body. Old scars, teeth and post-death bruising were photographed and, importantly, two locks of hair were taken following strong requests to the Thais from Washington. The hair could be vital to confirming Pol Pot's death should any need emerge for his identity to be checked by DNA testing. Enticingly, hair can also be used to trace certain toxins and poisons - evidence which would still be inconclusive in the absence of a formal autopsy. So far the Thais have no plans to use the samples. Diplomatic observers insist murder is not beyond the realms of possibility, especially for a man who was conducted murderous purges of his leadership up to last year. But they stress logic suggests Pol Pot, his medicine supply running out as he was shunted from safe house to safe house, simply succumbed to the ill health that had dogged him for years. 'It is just that the timing of it all is so remarkable . . . in a way it is all just too convenient as government troops close in on the last remnants,' one Western diplomat said. 'Maybe he feared he would soon be forced to atone internationally and that was enough to finish him off.' To most neutral observers, the odds of Pol Pot ever coming to trial seemed virtually nil - a network of shadowy connections would have protected him. Ironically, President Bill Clinton has said he wanted Pol Pot brought to justice yet the US, along with China and Thailand and a host of figures in Cambodian politics, have been implicated in the rise of Pol Pot's genocidal regime. Looming even larger and more darkly are the remaining Khmer Rouge leaders, with their long-revolutionary careers, such as political chief Khieu Samphan, military supremo Ta Mok and force commander Noun Chean. These men, particularly Ta Mok, are linked to some of Pol Pot's most brutal acts during four years in which his dream of a money-less agrarian 'utopia' degenerated into famine, mass-murder and torture. China was Pol Pot's key patron, using him as a bulwark against the Vietnamese, whose ideology and international ties were pro-Soviet. It was Beijing who rearmed the movement - through Thailand - when it was forced to the Thai border in the Vietnamese invasion of December 1978. The US secret bombing campaign during the Vietnam War is widely blamed for de-stabilising Cambodia to the extent of allowing the Khmer Rouge to march into Phnom Penh and declare 'Year Zero'. Washington's later anti-Vietnamese policies were instrumental in ensuring that the United Nations initially continued to recognise the movement as Cambodia's representatives. Thailand too is trapped by history. When the Khmer Rouge retreated to the jungles to fight the successful Vietnamese invaders, Pol Pot's troops formed a useful buffer against any further Vietnamese expansion. Provincial Thai businessmen and military figures earned fortunes in trading weapons, gems and logs with the Khmer Rouge. Just as China has now effectively washed its hands of the group in favour of Hun Sen, so has Thailand shut its borders to the log trade so vital to the Khmer Rouge. Senior officials in the new Thai Government, including Premier Chuan Leekpai, have insisted Thailand is ready to participate in any lawful extradition efforts to bring the likes of Ta Mok to justice. Top Thai military officials, however, have been quick to suggest the Khmer Rouge leaders remain safe where they are. Any attempt to arrest the Khmer Rouge leaders would almost certainly see the Thai military made responsible for apprehending the men whose survival and day-to-day provisioning they have done so much to protect. Certainly the long links and easy relationship between the groups have been easy to spot on the border this week. The military check-points begin where the jungle starts, about 10 kilometres before the border barricades. In between is a Thai-controlled no man's land where the border between the two countries is increasingly blurred. There, indisputably, technically, in Thai territory, lies Ban Sae Phrae, a long-established trading entrepot crucial to the re-supply of the guerillas' former stronghold in Anlong Veng. Yet Ta Mok is rumoured to have a safe-house among the village of sturdily-built two-storey houses and even Pol Pot may have spent time here recently, as fighting intensified. Certainly, over the weekend, it didn't seem like Thailand's 'Land of Smiles'. The people are darker, smaller and far less open than average northeastern Thais - and are keen to avoid questions. Amid all the unease it seems clear it is not really Thailand at all - unless you ask the men in Thai uniform up the road. Reality seems as elusive as the fate of Pol Pot.