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The Curse Surviving Pol Pot

April 19, 1998|Peter Eng | Peter Eng, a former Associated Press correspondent, has covered Cambodia for more than a decade

BANGKOK — It was fitting symbolism of his legacy to Cambodia: Pol Pot apparently died in his sleep at a ripe old age, his hands clasped together peacefully, his wife at his side. Cambodia's political structures have changed in the past two decades. Pol Pot led a fanatical communist regime; today, the Cambodian Constitution says the country is a liberal democracy. But though on a much less bloody scale, civil conflict continues and today's thugs thrive on the same culture of impunity that allowed Pol Pot to spend his last days unworried.

More important than seeking justice or the truth, putting Pol Pot on trial for genocide would have been a good start in changing this political culture. The opportunity has not been all lost, however. Most of Pol Pot's longtime lieutenants are still alive, including Brother No. 2, Ieng Sary, and "the Butcher," Ta Mok; President Bill Clinton says he will continue efforts to bring them to trial.

U.N. human-rights officials just released evidence pointing to more than 50 politically motivated killings in Cambodia between August 1997 and last month. Most of the victims were supporters of Prince Norodom Ranariddh, whom Hun Sen ousted as his co-prime minister in a coup in July 1997. More than 40 other executions were reported during and after the coup, which also involved bloody street battles. Since the authorities have not punished anyone for these and numerous other killings and assaults since the U.N.-organized election of 1993, or even properly investigated them, thugs see an unblinking green light to abuse any opponents.

The general election scheduled for this July is considered crucial to restoring political legitimacy and stability to Cambodia. But if the worst abusers, the Khmer Rouge, can go unpunished, why should Hun Sen's party hesitate to assault opposition party members (it is already happening), rig the election or, as in the '93 election, refuse to honor the results?

Though they are its victims, the Cambodian people unwittingly have sanctioned impunity. Almost every Cambodian lost at least one family member to Pol Pot, but despite what outsiders would like to believe, not many Cambodians actually favor retribution.

Ranariddh's party won the '93 election partly because it promised peaceful accommodation with the Khmer Rouge insurgents while Hun Sen's party vowed all-out war. In villages across the country, former cadres seen butchering people in the 1970s long have been living quietly and undisturbed among people who survived the atrocities. Few Cambodians, furthermore, objected when the government lavished favors, money and land on the guerrilla commanders who defected.

When Soun Seila was 10, he watched Khmer Rouge cadres truss up his father and march him away for slaughter. Today, the man who gave the order still lives in that same village. Soun Seila knows who he is, but never thinks about revenge. "For national-reconciliation purposes, it is good to forget," Soun Seila says. "If we keep talking about the past, it will go on and on. If we follow an eye for an eye, we will never solve anything."

For 28 years, Cambodians have suffered constant war or violent revolution. For Soun Seila, 27, things started getting better only recently: He returned home from a refugee camp in 1992, got married and now has two infant boys and a good job. Like him, many Cambodians want to put the past aside so they can enjoy the newfound peace and get on with improving their poor living conditions. Other political cruelties preoccupy them now, mainly the behavior of Hun Sen.

Others are too fatigued by suffering to think about justice. Some fear possible retribution; today, it appears the Khmer Rouge is dead, but nothing is sure in this explosive country. Deeply rooted in Cambodian culture and history is a resignation to what the world inflicts and a feeling of powerlessness before figures of authority.

"People in the villages know exactly who did the killings during Pol Pot," says Willem van de Put, who directs a community mental-health program. "But they say: 'They had to do it.' It has to do with accepted and non-accepted role behavior. They say that they [the Khmer Rouge] were acting out roles they assumed at that period of time. A guard is supposed to kick a prisoner."

Also, numerous people, including children, participated in the atrocities of the 1970s. For them, a hunt for the wicked could get uncomfortably close to home.

To achieve a quick peace, many Cambodians have forgiven the killings the Khmer Rouge committed after they were ousted from power in 1979 and began fighting the Vietnamese-installed government. Most of the fighting only ended with mass defections in 1996.

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