A dry scarlet rose was left standing in the eye socket; a bundle of incense sticks was burned in the nasal cavity. In all likelihood this is not the skull of the mother or father or 14-year-old brother a mourner came to remember. But solace was offered to some Cambodian soul believed wandering in a purgatory no worse than the death this tropical Auschwitz commemorates.
The skull was one of 8,985 dug up from half a dozen mass graves at this execution site outside Phnom Penh. The memorial to those victims is a large wooden shed built like a vegetable stand with separate shelves for the skulls, thigh bones and rib cages. On the central post a rough wooden placard provides the number of people murdered here; no names, for identification is inconceivable.
The implements of torture are nailed next to the sign--a faded red blindfold, whips of weed, swords of bamboo, twisted ropes of wire and leg irons--conveying the aura of a totem erected to placate whatever unfathomable evil allowed this nation to turn on itself and murder its young and old, its doctors, farmers, monks and mothers, in the name of liberation.
These grave sites scattered throughout Cambodia are the most obvious legacies infecting this country from Pol Pot's years in power. But like so much of what that man and his revolution did to Cambodia, the sinister nature of Stung Mean Chey was camouflaged for months by the carpets of weeds and thick grasses that grew over the covered pits and by palm trees that shaded the cement platform where prisoners were tortured to death. A wrenching smell brought newly arrived farmers from a nearby village to this gulley and they excavated the bodies.
Since 1979, when the Vietnamese Army drove Pol Pot from the country (he is now reported leading insurgent forces on the Thai border), Cambodians have become expert at detecting what a more innocent eye would dismiss as a depression in the earth but their experience tells them may be a mass grave filled with the bodies of their countrymen.
Cambodians are encouraged to remember the most hideous crimes of the Pol Pot regime: the mass murders, forced labor and near starvation conditions for the majority of the people. State dance troupes perform a new folk drama portraying Pol Pot's soldiers starving people, beating them to death, smashing a baby's head and raping women.
But there has been no country-wide equivalent of a de-Stalinization of the party, no examination of the political system Pol Pot used so adroitly to destroy the country. Nor has the regime brought to trial those tens of thousands of subordinates who carried out his orders--from forcing the evacuation of Phnom Penh to executing their party comrades.
The reason is simple: many of the men now running the government for the Vietnamese occupiers are the same bureaucrats and officers who ran the government for Pol Pot. Most importantly, they are ruling the country in the name of the same Communist Party that Pol Pot led for over 16 years.
Hence the people are regularly called upon to condemn the criminal "excesses" and "mistakes" of two men--Pol Pot and Ieng Sary--but not the Communist Party that went along with Pol Pot. The current Vietnamese-backed leadership stubbornly ignored the role of the party in the crimes. The smallest admission of complicity would open the door to the obvious incrimination of some one-third of the country's leaders, beginning with the head of state, Heng Samrin, and would discredit the entire communist movement along with its present and past patron, the Vietnamese.
The Vietnamese Communists nurtured Cambodia's communist movement at its inception at the end of World War II, provided invaluable wartime assistance to Pol Pot and covered up his crimes until 1978 after he broke off relations with Hanoi. Rather than dismantle Pol Pot's party, the Vietnamese want to rebuild it and cast it along political lines suitable to Hanoi.
"The Vietnamese came to liberate the Kampuchean people from Pol Pot," said Chhum Bun Rong, a top spokesman at the Foreign Ministry of the People's Republic of Kampuchea, as Cambodia is now formally called. "The Kampuchean people will never forget Pol Pot. They will never forget the suffering under Pol Pot. Any country that has helped Pol Pot directly or indirectly is guilty of the same crimes as Pol Pot."
Rong was condemning Thailand, China and the United States for currently giving such direct and indirect support to Pol Pot's troops on the Thai border where they are fighting against the Vietnamese and Heng Samrin troops. But neither he nor any other member of the current Phnom Penh regime applies this moral law to the men who ran Pol Pot's dictatorship or the Vietnamese.
The reconstituted Communist Party here dates its foundation to 1951 and claims credit for the growth of the rebel movement during the era of Prince Sihanouk and its stunning victory over the Lon Nol regime and its American supporters in 1975. The problem with this history is the fact that Pol Pot was the secretary or leader of the party from 1962 onward and was the master strategist behind these accomplishments. To maneuver around this inconvenient history, the party has chosen to paint Pol Pot as a madman and aberration only after 1975, when, party members say, he usurped total power through a series of purges.
These looming historical obstacles, combined with the need to continue justifying Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia, have created a volume of propaganda that on the surface appears to be a series of meaningless lies. Its effect, however, has been to obliterate the role of the Communist Party and Vietnam in contributing to the massacres under Pol Pot. It resembles the ideological dilemma facing China's current leaders and their handling of Mao Tse-tung's legacy.
The lies tend to create two illusions: that Pol Pot was so diabolical that the people who worked for him did not know what they were doing, hence are absolved from their participation; and that things were so horrible then that the current sorry state of affairs is justified.
For example, in published interviews officials of the current regime say there were no factories operating while Pol Pot was in power. In Phnom Penh a few officials admitted some factories were in operation but said they were in disrepair and their output was negligible. As one of three western journalists who visited Cambodia while Pol Pot was in power, I toured half a dozen factories, all of which were in full operation in December 1978 just days before the Vietnamese invasion. One, a large textile factory on the Pochentong Airport road, did not reopen for months after the invasion. Three others--a pharmaceutical plant and two rubber processing plants--have yet to be reopened.
The same propaganda is used for hospitals.
At the close of a recent tour of the January Seventh Hospital in Phnom Penh, formerly the Chinese Hospital, assistant director Dr. Un Pan said Pol Pot had closed the hospital and used it to store fish sauce and salt. Pan said he worked with others to clear it out and clean it up in 1979 after the Vietnamese. He pointed to discoloration on a wall and said it was the water line from flooding caused by rainwater that seeped in after the building had been closed.
In December 1978, I had seen that hospital in operation, filled with Cambodian soldiers wounded in skirmishes on the Vietnamese border.
The current regime can get away with these obvious exaggerations because the Pol Pot regime was extremely isolated from the rest of the world and operated within Cambodia in utter secrecy. With few exceptions, only party cadre lived or visited in Phnom Penh; the majority of the people were forced to live and work in the equivalent of labor camps in the countryside. There are few surviving witnesses and they either fled the country to continue fighting with Pol Pot or are running the government in Phnom Penh for the Vietnamese.
The current regime further distances itself from Pol Pot by offering preposterous explanations for his behavior. The Vietnamese regularly describe their invasion and occupation not as a human rights venture to liberate Cambodia but as a national security invasion to protect their own borders. They say Pol Pot was working in collusion with the Chinese to accomplish two aims: to invade and annex southern Vietnam, particularly Saigon; and to kill off the population of Cambodia so it could be repopulated with Chinese and made into a Chinese colony. Compared to that scenario, the present Vietnamese occupation becomes tame.
The real causes for Pol Pot's behavior are better understood after visiting Tuol Sleng, the former interrogation and torture chamber where Pol Pot's security force liquidated Cambodians Pol Pot considered his enemies. It is an unforgettable tour: small cells where prisoners were bound for weeks, sometimes months, waiting for torture sessions; torture implements--rods, electric shock devices and water tubs; photographs taken before and after the people were murdered. One photograph shows one victim, a woman, holding her newborn infant. Every visitor to Cambodia tours this museum, and surely comes away convinced of the diabolic madness of Pol Pot.
But on the second floor of this school-turned-torture-center are the archives of Tuol Sleng. Here are keys to help understand what Pol Pot was trying to accomplish with his murders. The archives hold the handwritten and typed files of 1,600 of Tuol Sleng's victims. A victim's file generally contains the date of admission and execution, a series of "confessions" written under torture until the victim admitted to the trumped-up crimes charged, life histories, and lists of friends and family members whom the regime often hauled in later as accomplices.
Simply reading the list of victims can puncture a few myths currently circulating in Phnom Penh. While officials now say there were no factories operating during Pol Pot's rule, there is an entire category of victims who were workers in factories under Pol Pot--beverage factory, textile factories, battery factory, paper factory, water treatment plant and rubber processing plants, to name a few. The minister in charge of industry, Vorn Veth, was one of the last victims of Tuol Sleng, arrested and killed during the final months of Pol Pot's rule.
These files are completely closed to Cambodians and few foreigners are allowed to see them. I was told I was one of only a half dozen people given access to the archives and permission to copy the documents.
The story these documents tell is one of murderous factionalism within the party, of purges based less on ideological differences than on Pol Pot's obsession with loyalty, power and searches for scapegoats to blame for the radical revolution that was clearly destroying the country. On the face of it, the information contained in the Tuol Sleng archives not only clarifies what Pol Pot was doing but makes him appear more ruthless, murderous and demonic, if possible.
But instead of supporting the current regime's claim that Pol Pot was acting on his own with the Chinese, the archives show the opposite. Certain factions won or lost in various power plays but the entire party was involved and implicated in "Pol Potism." Until the current regime sorts out how it will justify the party's role in that revolution, the archives will remain closed.
Ouk Boun Chheoun, justice minister in the current regime and a former mid-level official in Pol Pot's regime, exemplifies the dilemma.
"We assume that the principles of Sihanouk, Lon Nol and Pol Pot all contributed to pushing our country toward the holocaust," he said. "Sihanouk worked for Pol Pot after his coup in 1970 . The people of Kampuchea consider Sihanouk someone who makes tricks. They know Sihanouk misleads them. I myself suffered during the Sihanouk regime; it was one of the most barbarous."
Chheoun worked for Pol Pot until May 25, 1978. That was seven months before the Vietnamese invasion, but, more importantly, it was the time when Pol Pot was purging Chheoun's patrons within the party. Chheoun literally ran for his life to escape the purges. One could argue he worked for Pol Pot longer than Sihanouk, who was kept under house arrest while Pol Pot was in power. Yet Chheoun and other former Khmer Rouge now running the government for the Vietnamese argue they were working for the party, not Pol Pot. They claim they are the true heirs of Cambodia's communist movement and they are content to work for a new patron--the Vietnamese.
"After liberation in 1975, then the whole powers of state fell into Pol Pot's hands," said Hun Sen, the current foreign minister, who under Pol Pot was a mid-level military official close to Chheoun. "What were the measures to destroy the people? At the same time they the Khmer Rouge, of whom he was one forced the evacuations from the cities, they started to arrest and execute the most important cadre and party leaders, because if they did not do that they were afraid there would be resistance and fighting. That is why thousands of our party members were executed. This is a big loss for our party."
That is the basis for the party's argument that it is not guilty: the party suffered as much as the people. It is also the answer to the obvious question: why, if Pol Pot was such an aberration, did the party members follow orders until Pol Pot's own purges forced certain party factions to break away? Heng Samrin himself fled from Pol Pot in 1978 only after his own life was threatened.
While the party claims Pol Pot's purges prevented the party from mounting an insurrection, the record suggests the opposite. Heng Samrin, Ouk Boun Chheoun, Hun Sen and most other Khmer Rouge defected only when they feared for their lives. They went along with Pol Pot until it was clear their names were on someone's purge list. One could argue it was those purges, in fact, that finally forced some party members to turn against the Pol Pot regime.
But such a debate will not be heard in Phnom Penh today. The party speaks with the same vocabulary of Hun Sen. "They" are Pol Pot's people who carried out the evacuation of cities, oversaw the labor camps and executions and drove the country to misery. "They" does not include the party members who are now willing to work for the Vietnamese.
The legacy of Pol Pot will remain twisted and obliterated, hidden like the mass graves around the country, until the Cambodians themselves are allowed to dig up the sordid history of that regime.