Khmer Rouge nears its end in the jungle death throes

As an ailing Pol Pot (left) flees through Cambodia pursued by his own general, it looks like his hated movement is near collapse. But unless its remaining leaders are brought to book there is little hope for a country mired in corruption and violence
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The Independent Online
The Khmer Rouge may well have died in the forests of Cambodia whence it sprang. Last week's reports of the death throes of this brutal Marxist movement are completely in character: gruesome and bizarre, with scenes as grim as anything in Macbeth.

Caution is required because the Khmer Rouge, one of the most murderous revolutionary groups in modern history, is also one of the most secretive, but it does appear that the elderly leaders of the Khmer Rouge are devouring each other. Pol Pot, the sick leader who used to be known as Brother Number One, the man most responsible for the revolutionary mayhem in which perhaps up to 2 million Cambodians died in the 1970s, is reported to have murdered one of his closest comrades for 40 years. He is now being carried through the jungles, pursued by another of those comrades.

Pol Pot is reported to have ordered the death of Son Sen, the Khmer Rouge's defence minister and security chief. Apparently Son Sen's wife was killed too, and perhaps nine other members of their family as well, in the middle of the night on 10 June. The murderers then drove vehicles over them, crushing their heads.

Like most stories about Pol Pot, this one cannot yet be confirmed (although last summer's report of his death clearly was exaggerated). But on Saturday Cambodian officials did produce photographs of the grisly scene.

After ordering these night-time murders, Pol Pot fled into the jungle with 200 soldiers still loyal to him. Some reports suggest he is too ill to walk and is being carried in a sling. None the less, he has apparently taken hostages with him, including the former Khmer Rouge president, Khieu Samphan. Another ruthless Khmer Rouge leader, a one-legged general called Ta Mok, is said to be chasing him.

Perhaps none of this is true. One Cambodian official declares it is a Khmer Rouge disinformation plot to make its three most hated leaders disappear; a diplomat in Phnom Penh said last week, "It's voodoo land." But this scene would be a suitably macabre finale, and academic experts seem to believe the stories. "This really does look like the end of the Khmer Rouge," says Steve Heder, an expert on the movement who lectures at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

DEATH in the jungle would be a fitting exit. From the early 1950s the Khmer Rouge leaders, many of whom were French-educated intellectuals, made for the jungles to plot the downfall of the state. Their original teaching came from Stalin, via the French Communist Party. During the 1960s they aligned themselves more closely with the Maoist upheavals of the Cultural Revolution, but their leaders and their true ideology were still a secret when they emerged from the jungles in April 1975 to defeat the American-backed government. That was when they emptied at gunpoint Phnom Penh and other towns, and began a terrifying three-year rule based on dogma.

Their attempt to transform Cambodia into a "pure" agricultural autarchy, divorced entirely from its neighbours, cost more than a million lives from execution, starvation and disease. Yet their leader remained obscure. Unlike other dictators, Pol Pot never developed a personality cult. It emerged only gradually, for example, that he had been a student in France in the 1950s. He was rarely seen, and gave only one interview to Western journalists.

The government's most visible official was the foreign minister, Ieng Sary, who was Pol Pot's brother-in-law. The president was Khieu Samphan, now a hostage, and the minister of defence was Son Sen, now dead. Son Sen was responsible for administering Tuol Sleng, the Phnom Penh school used as a torture prison to elicit ludicrous confessions from enemies, real and imagined. His wife Yun Yat, now dead also, was minister of culture in a regime dedicated to destroying it.

The Khmer Rouge were xenophobes, constantly mounting forays into southern Vietnam, territory they claimed was historically Cambodian. In response their former Vietnamese Communist allies invaded the country at the end of 1978 and overthrew the regime.

The Vietnamese singled out Pol Pot and Ieng Sary as the two men most responsible for the massacres of the previous three years, and in August 1979 staged a show trial. This was a farce, at which Pol Pot and Ieng Sary's "defence counsel", no less, insisted he would never ask pardon for these "criminally insane monsters". But he did say that in the dock beside them should be "the manipulators of world imperialism, profiteers of neo-colonialism, the fascist philosophers, the hegemonists, who are supporting Zionism, racism, apartheid and reactionary regimes in the world ... with the false socialist leaders of fascist China."

Since then, the Khmer Rouge regime has been subjected to no other juridical scrutiny. International attempts to pursue a case against them under the Genocide Convention in the 1980s failed. During the 1980s Pol Pot remained invisible on or near the Thai-Cambodian border while his wife went mad and was dispatched to an asylum in China. He married again and had a daughter. Along the Thai border, amidst thousands of genuine refugees sustained by international aid, Pol Pot's army was rebuilt with assistance from China and Thailand. Like a majority in the United Nations, these nations had decided to use the Khmer Rouge, diplomatically and militarily, to force Vietnam's withdrawal from Cambodia.

BY 1991, the Cold War over, the Cambodian problem became irksome to that strange and fickle creature, the international community. But when a Paris Peace Agreement called for free elections, the Khmer Rouge's Chinese sponsors forced them to sign up to it. There was criticism in the West that the Khmer Rouge had been given legitimacy, but the fact was that by signing the Paris Agreement they signed their own death warrant.

In 1993 they withdrew from the peace process and returned to their border areas, from where they were unable to disrupt the successful UN-sponsored elections. These resulted in the restoration of the monarchy under King Sihanouk and the creation of a coalition government between the royalists, headed by Prince Ranariddh and the former Communists, led by Hun Sen.

They both became prime minister, but they are scarcely on speaking terms. Their regime is mired in corruption and violence, and in the past year the two prime ministers have been wooing different factions of the Khmer Rouge in its bases along the Thai border, where the world's fiercest anti- capitalists have been making fortunes from deforestation.

Last summer the two prime ministers were in competition to allow Ieng Sary to "defect in place" to the government. This was a fine catch; Ieng Sary and his 3,000 or so Khmer Rouge troops controlled the gem mines and forests around the town of Pailin, close to the Thai border - the most lucrative fiefdom under Khmer Rouge control.

At a press conference, Ieng Sary insisted he had had nothing to do with the massacres committed by the Khmer Rouge. He claimed: "It is always said that I was the second man to Pol Pot. It's not true. Pol Pot made all the decisions; everyone else just carried them out."

In an uncommon act of unity, the two prime ministers rushed through an amnesty for Ieng Sary. King Sihanouk signed it reluctantly; he felt the Khmer Rouge foreign minister's responsibility for the appalling crimes of the 1970s should be properly investigated and publicly associated himself with protests from Amnesty International.

Since then Prime Ministers Ranariddh and Hun Sen have continued to woo other Khmer Rouge factions. Early in June, Ranariddh announced his party was in discussions with Khieu Samphan, president during the Khmer Rouge regime, to set up a legal party to fight next year's election, which may be the cause of him being taken hostage. It appears that Son Sen also had become involved in these talks, and written his own death warrant.

Amnesty International, which has constantly warned about growing lawlessness in Cambodia, has called this weekend for the government in Phnom Penh to bring the remaining Khmer Rouge leaders to justice. "If this opportunity is lost, Cambodians may never again have the chance to establish the truth about their recent past." But this story is much more likely to end in the jungle than the courtroom.