FOCUS / PLACING KHMER ROUGE ON TRIAL
Making a case for trying the guerrilla leadership
There is ample evidence of atrocities under the Khmer Rouge to bring a case against its leaders if the present powers so wish it.
RICHARD S. EHRLICH
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia
Pol Pot probably never shot anyone and his handwriting has not
been confirmed, but thousands of mass graves, documents and
interviews are sufficient to put Khmer Rouge leaders on trial,
according to Cambodia's top Khmer Rouge archives expert.
"I doubt Pol Pot physically shot anybody, but as leader he
was responsible for why so many people died," said Youk
Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, the
world's largest repository of Khmer Rouge information.
"So far, we cannot confirm Pol Pot's handwriting," Youk
Chhang said during an interview inside his modern,
temperature-controlled archive, where official documents from
the former communist regime are examined and scanned into
"Only a few documents about prisoners seem to be from Pol
Pot, but by the time we tried to conclude [his signature], he
died. Some documents say, 'from Brother Pol'. Only a few
documents. The rest are written with a typewriter", and
During Pol Pot's obsessively cruel 1975-79 reign, he and his
regime's top officials never wrote the words "kill" and
"execute", according to the Khmer-language text displayed at
the documentation centre.
Instead, Pol Pot and his comrades ordered officials to
"smash, destroy, pull out or remove...external and internal
enemies", Youk Chhang said.
"But when you look at the whole document in context, those
words refer to 'kill' and 'execution'."
Targets included capitalists, landlords, Vietnam, Thailand,
the former Soviet Union and US imperialists.
"We have sufficient information from 800,000 pages of [Khmer
Rouge] documents, 19,446 mass graves, 167 prisons, 20,000
photographs, 300 documentary films and we interviewed 2,000
former Khmer Rouge and 20,000 victims.
"So we know who is who, and which documents exist. We can be
the guideline for the tribunal."
More than one million Cambodians -- some estimate more than two
million -- perished under Khmer Rouge rule.
The secretive, vengeful regime called itself Angkar, an
anonymous form of homeland security which meted out permission
and punishment, accompanied by robotic slogans such as: "You
must be loyal and love Angkar!" "Angkar selects only those
who are never tired!" And, chillingly: "One feels frightened
just hearing the word 'Angkar'."
Angkar's enigmatic leaders further disguised themselves with
In 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia, chased Pol Pot and other
Khmer Rouge into the jungle and ended their frenzied,
experimental policies which encouraged executions,
enslavement, starvation and disease.
The Khmer Rouge were later empowered as guerrillas when
Washington and other governments financed a coalition of
rebels to attack Vietnamese occupation forces during the
1980s, ultimately convincing Hanoi to withdraw.
Pol Pot died in 1998.
The US and other countries now say they
want an international tribunal to judge a remaining handful of
elderly Khmer Rouge leaders, including Nuon Chea, Ta Mok, Ieng
Sary and Khieu Samphan.
Some of the creepiest documents archived for a future tribunal
are known as "Khmer Rouge telegrams", sent from all over the
country, every day, by cadre to update the regime on their
"When they sent a telegram to the [Khmer Rouge] standing
committee, a copy would go to Ieng Sary, Pol Pot and the
others. These telegrams include files from Tuol Sleng," Youk
Tuol Sleng was a blood-splattered, makeshift prison built
inside a Phnom Penh school, where thousands of people were
photographed, interrogated, tortured and executed. Their
corpses were dumped in pits, known as "killing fields", on
the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
Today, the school, dubbed the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, and
nearby burial pits are popular tourist attractions pinpointed
on city maps, glossy brochures and guide books for
camera-snapping visitors to ponder Cambodia's past.
"We don't have all the telegrams from every day but we have
many of them, and they go from the bottom up to the
leadership. There are those [senders] who happen to be
middle-men who were, for example, directing the prison on a
daily basis and summarising the interrogations and sending it
to the standing committee.
"This would give a lot of information for the [tribunal's]
prosecution because it shows reports were sent from the field
to the standing committee, from the countryside, from group
leaders, unit chiefs, logistic chiefs" and others, informing
them about the results of Khmer Rouge policies, laws and
decrees, Youk Chhang said.
"The telegrams discuss everything: someone stole a chicken,
there was a shortage of rice, someone escaped to the jungle,
there was an attack from Vietnam, someone raped the wife of a
cadre, an ox cart was broken when transporting rice and so on.
"We have translated over 1,000 telegrams which had been [sent
and] copied to all the leadership. Some were two pages, some
were three pages long."
The archive collected Khmer Rouge documents from various
sources over the years.
"They were sent by individuals here [in Cambodia], or found
in old buildings, or sent to us from abroad by people who took
documents with them, including scholars, victims and Khmer
Rouge themselves," Youk Chhang said.
"We have information that Pol Pot was a co-member of the
standing committee and that there were a dozen people who
collectively created the Khmer Rouge policies in which more
than two million people died."
In 1976, King Norodom Sihanouk praised the Khmer Rouge's
overthrow of US-backed President Lon Nol and declared in a
speech that the Khmer Rouge would bring "perfect social
justice" and "a new era which, beyond all doubt, will be the
most radiant and glorious in the 2,000 years of our national
Khmer Rouge documents, however, describe King Sihanouk's
resignation from his figurehead position as head of state and
president of the Khmer Rouge's National Liberation Front of
For example, document D7562's official minutes of a March 1976
standing committee -- attended by Angkar's Pol Pot, Nuon Chea,
Khieu Samphan and other top leaders -- says in part:
"While inside the country, he [King Sihanouk] feels
completely lost without any future. He is very frustrated. He
lacks work, he is bored, and the environment that surrounds
him, in particular his wife [Queen Monineath] who cries
constantly, pushes him to the point that he cannot endure any
The official minutes add: "In the recent past we fought
together, shoulder to shoulder. We very much regret his
resignation...we won't allow him to leave the country."
Ominously it notes: "We consider him as a senior personality.
We shall not kill him...but if he continues to resist us, we
shall take measures to liquidate him."
After resigning, King Sihanouk was locked in his palace under
house arrest for nearly three years.
* Richard S. Ehrlich is a former UPI correspondent who has reported from Asia for the past 25 years.