Pol Pot’s Broken Heart Influenced His Actions, Biographer Says

A tourist looks at a map of skulls of Khmer Rouge victims at Cambodia's genocide museum in the capital Phnom Penh. Photo: AFP/Philippe Lopez

PHNOM PENH—Late Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, whose regime presided over an estimated 1.7 million deaths in Cambodia, was significantly influenced in his actions by an unhappy love affair, his biographer says.

Prominent Cambodian scholar Keng Vansak told RFA’s Khmer service in a recent interview that Pol Pot, known by the name Salot Sar before his rise to power, had married a woman five years older than he after another woman left him for a political rival.

“He married Professor Khieu Ponnary, an older sister of Khieu Thirith who is [Khmer Rouge cadre] Ieng Sary’s wife. His friends and acquaintances seemed surprised that such a thing had happened because this couple was not a usual one. Ms. Ponnary was at least five years older than Salot Sar, and their relationship was like [that] between relatives,” Keng Vansak said.

“I saw that he wanted nothing to do with the broken heart he suffered after Suon Somaly left him,” said Keng, a former political mentor of Pol Pot who attempted to show him the merits of democratic politics.

Young politician 'stuck'

“In 1960, he came back and told me that he could not do anything. He was stuck with everything. With arrests, killings, and tortures on the rise, nothing could be done.”

Keng Vansak, interviewed following publication of his Khmer-language biography of the Khmer Rouge's "Brother Number One," said he had tried to cheer the young man up with a reference to Cambodian literature, in which young princes disappeared into the jungle to learn how to fight.

The reason I have brought in the love story in Pol Pot’s life is because it is a factor in the politics of the then Democratic Kampuchea becoming violent with lots of killing and bloodshed and it was also hard to understand the source of this violence.

“At that time, I joked with him because I was then occupied myself with teaching literature. I said that in most Khmer literature, young princes went out to study with hermits in the jungle. After they had acquired all the power they needed, they got a powerful bow, left their masters, fought with the yaksa [ogre], and then came in to take power in their own land. I just joked like that,” Keng said.

The hermits were powerful only in living out in the jungle, he added, and this idea had appealed to the young Pol Pot.

“The reason I have brought in the love story in Pol Pot’s life is because it is a factor in the politics of the then Democratic Kampuchea becoming violent, with lots of killing and bloodshed, and it was also hard to understand the source of this violence,” Keng told RFA’s Khmer service in a recent series of interviews.

“I brought this heart-breaking love and the eternal love of a woman until death, who went to another man, a rival of his. This is just one of the factors, and there are other issues related to his pure politics,” he added.

Violent initiation

Balancing Pol Pot’s personal pain was the deterioration of democratic politics into political violence and bloodshed in the late 1950s, and the culturally powerful metaphor of the prince in the jungle may have crystallized the strategy of the young man, he said.

“The revolutionaries in those days knew that those 'hermits' were actually the poor peasants living in suffering in remote areas who taught them to arm themselves to chase the city people out,” he said.

Cambodia’s supreme judicial body has announced the names of 30 judges who will serve in a long-awaited genocide tribunal for surviving Khmer Rouge leaders.

The Supreme Council of Magistracy endorsed 13 United Nations and 17 Cambodian nominees during a meeting chaired by King Norodom Sihamoni, a crucial step toward jointly funded trials expected to start in 2007.

Cambodia and the United Nations agreed in 2003 to jointly convene trials of former Khmer Rouge leaders. From 1975-79, the Khmer Rouge emptied cities, singled out educated people for execution, and killed an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians through starvation and overwork.

The wholesale slaughter of intellectuals has led to problems finding suitably experienced Cambodian judges to preside over the trials.

Millions dead in Killing Fields

When the black-clad Khmer Rouge overran Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, many exhausted residents welcomed them, hoping it meant the end of Cambodia's civil war.

But within hours, Pol Pot had launched his “Year Zero” campaign, emptying towns and cities and forcing city-dwellers to become slave laborers in the countryside.

By some accounts, Phnom Penh’s population dropped from 2 million to 25,000 in just three days.

Most former Khmer Rouge leaders are in their 60s and 70s, living quietly in Cambodia.

The only two senior figures currently detained and awaiting trial are the one-legged general Ta Mok, the former army chief, and Kaing Khek Iev, the chief interrogator.

Cambodia’s judicial system follows the French model, with an investigating judge who hears large amounts of evidence before the case reaches a courtroom.

Formal hearings are expected some time in 2007.

Original reporting in Khmer by Sam Borin. RFA Khmer service director: Kem Sos. Translation copy-edited by Stefanie Carr. Written and produced for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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