The elusive Pol Pot, who presided over Cambodia’s killing fields of the late 1970s, has conceded, in his first interview in 18 years, that his notorious Khmer Rouge movement “made mistakes” during its brutal reign, but he declared, “My conscience is clear,” according to excerpts of the interview in the Far Eastern Economic Review.
Review correspondent Nate Thayer, who conducted the interview last week at the guerrilla group’s jungle stronghold at Anlong Veng in northern Cambodia, reported that Pol Pot was unrepentant when questioned repeatedly about accusations that he was responsible for the deaths of more than a million Cambodians.
“I came to carry out the struggle, not to kill people,” Pol Pot said, according to the Review’s advance excerpts. “Even now, and you can look at me: Am I a savage person?”
For nearly two decades, Pol Pot, whose real name is Saloth Sar, has remained an enigma, moving only in the shadows of Cambodia’s tortured politics.
Thayer is the American journalist who first photographed Pol Pot July 25, when the Khmer Rouge leader was denounced by his own colleagues in a jungle show trial reminiscent of a Chinese-style Cultural Revolution “struggle session.” Since then, Pol Pot reportedly has been detained under house arrest, stripped of the leadership of the movement he founded, although until now there had been no sightings to confirm that he was being held captive.
In the interview, according to the press release the Review faxed to news organizations Wednesday, Pol Pot conceded that “our movement made mistakes” in the execution of perceived political opponents and others. But he added: “We had no other choice. Naturally we had to defend ourselves. The Vietnamese … wanted to assassinate me because they knew without me they could easily swallow up Cambodia.”
Pol Pot came to power in 1975 after a civil war and embarked on a radical Maoist agrarian experiment in which as many as 1 million Cambodians died of starvation, forced labor, malaria or execution before Vietnam invaded and ended Khmer Rouge rule early in 1979. In the excerpts, Pol Pot defends his purge of opponents to his rule but blames many of the deaths on Vietnamese agents inside Cambodia. He denies the accepted estimate of 1 million Cambodian deaths while he was in power.
“To say that millions died is too much,” he is quoted as saying.
The magazine’s press release also says that Pol Pot made the “patently false claim” in the interview that the notorious Tuol Sleng prison on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, never existed. Tuol Sleng, a former school building, is now a museum of Khmer Rouge atrocities, filled with grisly photographs of victims as well as classrooms that were converted into torture chambers. But in the interview, according to the Review, Pol Pot calls Tuol Sleng a propaganda invention of the Vietnamese.
Thayer reported that Pol Pot regrets killing his former defense chief but denies he ordered the deaths of the children. “The babies, the young ones, I did not order them to be killed,” he said.
“For Son Sen and his family, yes, I feel sorry for that. That was a mistake of when we put our plan into practice.”
Thayer said he found Pol Pot, believed to be about 70, ill and perhaps near death, afflicted with a variety of ailments. He suffered an apparent stroke in 1995. “In Khmer, we have a saying,” Pol Pot told Thayer, “that when one is both quite sick and old, there remains only one thing, that you die.”
Pol Pot is said to be confined to a hut with his wife and a 12-year-old daughter. Ta Mok, now leading the rebels, recently offered to turn Pol Pot over to an international tribunal if Hun Sen, the Cambodian strongman now in charge in Phnom Penh, is put on trial for his alleged “crimes.” Hun Sen has declined the offer.