Wednesday, November 30, 2016


This simple field marks the historical end of a dictator.
I'm back in the remote border town of Choam, and I’m looking at a simple field. With green grass and a few trees, there’s a well worn path right down the middle. It’s a quiet, lonely field; I’m alone except for a few loose chickens. I head down the path, towards a small structure at the far end. 

I approach what looks like a small, strange little shelter. It is only a rusting corrugated iron roof, supported by wooden poles. Short in height, it's not much for a shelter, but one man could lie down under it comfortably. Beneath it is a pile of dirt and ashes.

A blue sign nearby states its importance, “Pol Pot Was Cremated Here”.

The man who destroyed Cambodia, the man most responsible for the genocide that killed over a million people, was burned to ashes right here in this empty field. The old communist's body was cremated in a hurry; his funeral pyre was more like that befitting a pauper. His corpse was covered by a pile of old worn out tires, discarded wood, a mattress, and set alight. There were few mourners.

A man with humble beginnings, Pol Pot, the leader of the murderous Khmer Rouge, had risen so high, only to crash and burn like Icarus.

A dedicated communist, after he took over the Khmer Rouge he traveled to Beijing where he met Mao Tse Tung. While there he witnessed the oppressive excesses of Mao's Cultural Revolution. Mao's radical policies inspired Pol Pot to be even more extreme once he seized power in 1975. Favoring the Chinese brand of communism, he later led purges to execute cadres who favored Soviet style communism promoted by the Vietnamese, whom he despised.

This small shelter marks where Pol Pot's body was unceremoniously cremated.
His power over all of Cambodia was absolute. But when he ordered the Khmer Rouge to raid Vietnamese border villages hoping to seize lost territory in 1978, he sealed his own fate. The Vietnamese Army countered by invading Cambodia, with their army rolling into Phnom Penh in a matter of days. Pol Pot fled to the jungle, where he continued to lead the Khmer Rouge for years.

I look at what remains of his cremation site. A knee high wooden fence surrounding the shelter is falling apart. Clear empty bottles have been buried upside down in the ground, making a strange glass rectangular border around the base. Bits of paper and litter are scattered about. The only thing cheerful about his memorial, (if you can call it that) are some purple and white flowers growing around it. Pol Pot finally died in 1998, shortly before the long years of war in Cambodia finally ended.

Mystery and rumors surround this despot's death. He may have died from malaria, or some other jungle disease. Since Pol Pot had been reported dead in the media many times before, Cambodians didn’t believe that he was really dead when his end finally came. It was only when a journalist’s photo showing his pale corpse was published worldwide that the truth finally hit home. One of the worst genocidal maniacs in world history was finally dead. The Khmer Rouge would never return to power, and all of Cambodia breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Pol Pot ordered the horrific genocide. 
Even the location of Pol Pot's cremation site here is suspicious. It’s within sight of the Thai border, only a quarter mile away. I remember my friend Mali that had lost a leg to a landmine, she had been his cook. Pol Pot had lived in Thailand in secret for years, while he continued to lead the Khmer Rouge trying to regain power. Did he die in Cambodia, or did he really die in Thailand? Details are murky, and witnesses are still silent today.

By the time Pol Pot's final days came, he was no longer the leader of the Khmer Rouge. His second in command, Ta Mok, 'The Butcher', had mutinied against his long time friend. Ta Mok had him tried, convicted and imprisoned in a jungle hideout. Local whispers say that Ta Mok ordered him killed afterward, maybe poisoned. The timing of his death is also curious. Pol Pot died just as the Khmer Rouge were finally losing Anlong Veng, their last major stronghold against the Cambodian Army.

At the foot of the shelter site, I find a small wooden altar, with stubs of incense sticks. There’s also a small spirit house, with more used incense left by Buddhists. How ironic! Pol Pot was not only as evil as they come, but he was also a brutal atheist. Back when he was in power, he would have ordered the execution of those that he saw practicing Buddhist rituals. That doesn't stop some Buddhists today from praying to his spirit.

A small sign nailed to the corrugated metal roof, says in Khmer: “Please Respect”. That sign was placed here due to looting. Among Cambodian Buddhists, there are those who believe Pol Pot still wields power in death, and some have dug through the dirt and ashes here, and pulled out most of his bones! Some Buddhists who took them, keep the bones for 'good luck', praying to Pol Pot to help them win the lottery! How ridiculous. A few foreign tourists have also grabbed bones from the despised communist, not for good luck, bus as macabre souvenirs.

I think back to Hanoi, where I saw Ho Chi Minh's body, displayed with honor in his mausoleum. Mao and Lenin's body are still displayed in the same morbid manner, cold corpses of old communists, whose ideology died with them. But there is no display of honor for Pol Pot. His flesh is now in ashes. He escaped justice through death, but his final indignity, is that his own bones have been scattered as gruesome souvenirs and good luck charms.

Many would say, that's the exact memorial that he deserves.