Pol Pot's Final Escape

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Cambodians who survived the unspeakable brutality of Pol Pot's killing fields may take some solace in the fact that the Khmer Rouge leader ended his days in fear -- a fugitive from justice for his crimes against humanity, with the noose closing ever tighter around him. Still, there is something profoundly unsatisfying about accepting that an individual so evil has simply expired before history could deliver the requisite justice and retribution -- as if the movie ends without warning, five minutes before the bad guy gets his comeuppance.

Pol Pot's life spoke not only of the genocidal dangers of armed ideology, but also of the cynical marriages of political convenience that characterize a region deeply scarred by the Cold War. The peasant boy's government-funded education in Paris turned him into a Maoist whose first act in power was to launch a bloody purge of all educated Cambodians.

Pol Pot built his rural guerrilla army during the '60s, after Prince Norodom Sihanouk had driven the movement out of the cities. The peasant teenagers under Pol Pot's command seized control of the country in 1975 and declared "Year Zero." At least one million people are estimated to have died in the purges of the next three years as Pol Pot forced millions of Cambodians into the countryside.

Ousted by a Vietnamese invasion in 1978, Pol Pot returned to the jungle to fight on, this time with backers ranging from China to U.S. allies such as Thailand. Meanwhile, in Phnom Penh, a new power struggle developed between the Vietnamese-backed leader Hun Sen and Sihanouk's son, Prince Norodom Ranarridh. As the Khmer Rouge began to splinter during the '90s, both Hun Sen and Ranarridh courted the support of its warring factions.

Last year, a Khmer Rouge faction arrested Pol Pot and put him on a show trial for his abuses. He told a Western interviewer at the time that his conscience was clear, even though some Cambodians might have died as a result of "mistakes" in implementing his policies.

Frustrating as Pol Pot's end may have been to the people of Cambodia, it was also, perhaps, convenient to most of the parties involved. Had Pol Pot been put in the dock, his testimony could have been extremely uncomfortable to most of the region's power players -- the Khmer Rouge itself and its original ideological patrons in Beijing; his enemies in Hanoi who had once helped him take power; the government in Phnom Penh, whose leader Hun Sen was once a Khmer Rouge officer; Princes Sihanouk and Ranarridh, who had made cynical alliances with the Khmer Rouge; the Thai authorities who had until recently sheltered Pol Pot; and even perhaps to Bangkok's allies in Washington. The most striking feature of Pol Pot's legacy of evil, perhaps, was the extent to which it managed to taint friend and foe alike.