Tom Vater

Tom Vater

Irreverent, informed and downright eclectic crime fiction and reportage from Southeast Asia and beyond

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From the Archives: Pol Pot’s Sheet Metal Roof

The following text is an account of a journey to the grave of Pol Pot near Anlong Veng, Cambodia in 2002. It is part of my non fiction book Beyond the Pancake Trench – Road Tales from the Wild East, published by Orchid Books in 2005, which made Book of the Week in the South China Morning Post.

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The road from Siem Reap to Anlong Veng is 140 km of red dust, pot holes, dry paddy fields, villages that are still in the process of springing up in the middle of nowhere, lots of landmine warning signs and army posts whose staff look more abandoned than the country side around them…

It’s a classic Cambodian disco road but there’s no disco at the end.

Nhun is a good driver. At the crack of dawn, with Willie Nelson on the speakers we cruise through the Angkor monuments. The fishermen are already casting their nets in the shallow ponds that will soon dry up. Buffaloes graze by the giant moat around Angkor Wat, guarded by skinny wild kids dressed in second-hand rags from China.

Once we leave the temples behind, the disco road takes over. Nhun is forever amused as he breaks hard to slowly dip the 4 wheel pick up into another crater hole. But today the mood is subdued. The sky is gun metal grey and we are bouncing as fast as we can to the north west, towards the Thai border, to the end of the road and the end of all things.

There are no towns on the way, no villages with brick buildings. The Khmers build on stilts but many huts in the newly organised villages (soldiers recently demobilised are given plots of land here) are barely functioning. All life revolves around the dusty road which has covered the land for about 100 metres on either side with a red film of dust, the trees, the bushes, the huts, the people.

Here and there we see demining teams crawling through the brush, laboriously scanning the ground for several generations and designs of deadly landmines.

There is no time to stop. Until  we get to Anlong Veng.

Nhun is subdued, nervous  perhaps though he’s been there before.

600 .000 Khmers died in the early Seventies as Cambodia was sucked into the American efforts in Vietnam and slowly sacrificied by all sides to a greater geopolitical cause. The Khmer Rouge put a stop to all that in April 1975. They toppled the American backed Lon Nol government and threw out all foreigners.

People in Anlong Veng like the Khmer Rouge.

The Khmer Rouge killed between 1 and 3 million Khmers between 1975 until 1979, until the Vietnamese invaded the country.  Out of a population of 10 million. Some were tortured, beaten to death, most died from a vicious work regime and malnutrition. The hard line communist Khmer Rouge banned money, the post office, schools and temples, hospitals and television. Within a few days of their victory and arrival in Phnom Penh, they had emptied out all the cities and put the people to work in the paddy fields. Intellectuals, artists, teachers, lawyers, even people wearing glasses, were murdered. The monasteries were turned into prisons, the schools into torture camps. All over the country thousands of Killing Fields were filled with nameless corpses of men, women and children.

Nhun adds, ‘3 years, 8 months and twenty days, this is our nightmare.’

Then he shouts at something on the road, sings along to the music and adds, ‘The past is the past, you know, in Cambodia.’
Once the Vietnamese had taken control, things got better, kind of. The Khmer Rouge retreated to the far west of Cambodia and a protracted civil war lasted until 1998.  Ieng Sary, the former Deputy Prime Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Khmer Rouge regime had gone over to the government troops of Hun Sen. UNTAC was organising  a second round of elections. The civil war was over.

Pol Pot, Brother Number One, had officially given up command in the mid 80s and was being tried by the Khmer Rouge in a show court case in a small village on the Thai border. Pol Pot, mass murderer and designer of one of the most radical social revolutions any nation ever had to endure, had lived here, in Anlong Veng, for some time,  along with his old comrade, the so-called ‘butcher’ and former general of the Khmer Rouge, Ta Mok.

But times have changed, Ta Mok is in jail in Phnom Penh, the top KR to have been imprisoned, while Pol Pot died in 1998. *Ed. Ta Mok has since also died.*

Though I keep meeting Khmers who are not convinced.

Nhun’s father was beaten to death by the Khmer Rouge in 1976.

Anlong Veng looks quite wealthy by  Cambodian standards. The District Director has a nice house. There’s a hospital. Built by  Pol Pot, apparently.  A doctor from MSF works there till July. Beyond that there are no funds at the moment. But there’s a hospital, so rare in Cambodia. There’s also a nice view of the lake from its upper floors and a lot of TB and Malaria patients amble through the corridors.

Nhun drives on through the village to the house of Ta Mok, by the lake side.

A group of men sit in the shade of the veranda, smoking. A couple of women sit behind them clutching their babies.  Once the engine switches off, there’s total silence but for a high pitched whine of the crickets. They watch us, we watch them.

The oldest man is around 50, his face deeply lined, his eyes far away.  Army shirt, cotton pants. His name is Som Chien. He asks us what we want, in a voice, not unfriendly, that suggests he knows already and doesn’t care. About anything. The other men say nothing, just sit and smoke and look.

Nhun asks whether we can look at the house.

Som Chien slowly gets up, one of his legs is false. He walks us upstairs onto a wide balcony. The walls are covered in garish paintings of Angkor temples. There is no furniture. The floor tiles are from Thailand. Som Chien hopes that Ta Mok will be back soon. People were better off when he lived here. There was order in Anlong Veng. Logging was regulated. Now everyone is chopping down the jungle.  Nhun translates, sweats a bit, humours Som Chien.

Ta Mok had a good heart and was a kind man.

Som Chien points out the view. A wide shallow lake spreads beyond the house, the lake of dead trees. It’s full of dead trees and the water is black. And some 300 m ahead, on a small island, stands a low concrete shed. Som Chien tells us that this is all that’s left of Pol Pot’s house.

When he walks the artificial joint in his foot makes a regular clicking noise. Som Chien says that he fought for Lon Nol against the Khmer Rouge from 1972, later for the Khmer Rouge. He laid mines and when his foot was blown off (by a mine) he built mines. Later still, he worked as a deminer and sold some of the mines he found in the ground again. The  Documentation Centre of  Cambodia is currently investigating this man.

He also claims to have built the house for Ta Mok. Who somehow remains a remote numb  presence, even when we are shown his toilet.  The old soldier makes a point of  it. The lid is attached to the bowl with thick wire. Som Chien says that killing in war  was ok,  he didn’t mind killing soldiers. His eyes move away from us, across the black water, he lights a cigarette. He knows that people think Ta Mok killed a lot of people. That’s why he’s in jail.  He doesn’t know if it’s true.

We hop back in the pick up and head for the hills. The disco road turns into an orchestra beyond the village. There’s a monument to Pol Pot and the KR but all the heads are missing. One of the statues has had its leg blown off. Then the road climbs through the jungle to a higher place.

The grave of Pol Pot.

Nhun has stopped passing my questions on to Som Chien; the old man next to me in the back of the pick up looks distinctly uncomfortable. The air inside the vehicle is charged with a subtle tension between Nhun and the man sitting behind him. There’s no music playing. Som Chien used to know many Khmer Rouge songs. I ask him to sing one. He smiles, he has forgotten. His lined hands grip the head-rest of the driver’s seat.

We stop at an army post, a shack in the middle of nowhere and an old worn-out shell of a soldier leads us on a tiny trail through the forest. The area is mined, he says. He’s friendly in a tired kind of way. I try and follow his footsteps. He’s still got his limbs, all tattooed with protective spells and prayers. Finally the trail opens onto a sunken funeral pyre, covered by a sheet metal roof. A rough wooden sign in Khmer tells us that these are the remains of Pol Pot. The ashes are covered in bits of car tyres. Shreds of cloth stick out of the grey remains.

Just beyond the pyre, the soldier leads us to the last traces of one of the worst  statesmen of the 20th Century. Pol Pot, butcher of millions, has left his toilet bowl, a few bottles of medicine, packets of Vitamin C, an old shirt, a broken shoe. The ground is covered with mine fragments.

Nhun wants his picture taken in front of the grave. Som Chien doesn’t care. We can film him or not. He doesn’t care about anything. He tells us that Pol Pot doesn’t matter now. He’s dead. Dead people don’t matter.

Nhun translates. Laughs. Poses for the picture.

For himself , sitting in front of the grave, Nhun has nothing to say. There is nothing to say in this place. Beyond the pyre, the path stops. The end of the road.

The soldier who has led us here stands in the sun, chain smoking. He looks like a man constantly exhaling. Tension relief.  He doesn’t care either. No eye contact until I offer him a cigarette.

Hun Sen, Cambodia’s current ruler and self-styled strongman of Asia, wants Anlong Veng demined this year. The grave of Pol Pot will be a tourist attraction soon. By prime ministerial decree. Som Chien doesn’t care much for Hun Sen. He remembers that Hun Sen and Ta Mok used to live together.

The border to Thailand will open. There are temples near-by . There‘ll be Coke sold here and maybe one day, tacky postcards. The backpackers will love it for the sheer garishness and the (semi) imagined gung-ho risk, the moneyed tourists will shake their heads in mock horror and throw some small change to the kids. Who will probably dig through the ashes and flog off the bones one by one.

‘3 years, 8 months and 20 days,’ Som Chien suddenly says in Khmer.

Nhun translates.

I follow the soldier back through the grass to the road.

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