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Pol Pot: Mistakes Were Made

October 23, 1997 GMT

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) _ Pol Pot, in his first interview in 18 years, refused to apologize for causing the deaths of as many as 2 million countrymen and suggested Vietnam had planted the bones in Cambodia’s notorious ``killing fields.″

The toppled Khmer Rouge leader’s musings near the end of his blood-stained life were published today in the Far Eastern Economic Review magazine. He spoke with American journalist Nate Thayer.

Pol Pot, 72, said his ``conscience is clear″ about leading the Khmer Rouge regime that came to power in 1975 and turned Cambodia into a vast, Maoist-inspired labor camp. Starvation, overwork, illness, torture and execution killed one Cambodian in five.

Pol Pot acknowledged ``mistakes″ but suggested he had been the target of a plot to discredit him. For example, he said, the mountains of skulls that have come to symbolize the brutality of his regime may actually have been planted by Vietnam _ Cambodia’s historic enemy, which invaded and toppled the Khmer Rouge in 1979.

``There are documents talking about someone who did research on the skeletons of the people,″ Pol Pot told Thayer. ``They said when you look closely at the skulls, they are smaller than the skull of the Khmer people.″

Pol Pot showed no remorse and shed little light on the Khmer Rouge government. Instead, he seemed more concerned with talking about his personal suffering, and detailing his medical problems.

``You don’t know what I have suffered,″ Pol Pot told Thayer, speaking at a Khmer Rouge base in northern Cambodia where ex-comrades have him under house arrest.

Pol Pot needed help to walk the 25 yards to the outdoor pavilion where he was interviewed. He complained that he is confined to a mosquito-ridden hut with his second wife and 12-year-old daughter, where he is largely bedridden and sometimes on oxygen.

He described an apparent stroke in 1995 that left his left side partly paralyzed and left eye blind.

Pol Pot, whose real name is Saloth Sar, told Thayer he was born in January 1925, ending years of debate over his birthday and age. He said he lied in documents that became the basis of dispute to keep a scholarship to study in France from 1949 to 1952.

His favorite books then included accounts of the French Revolution and the peaceful politics of Mohandas Gandhi, whom he described as an influence.

Pol Pot became involved with the French Communist Party but said he made a trip to communist Yugoslavia _ where historians have speculated his revolutionary zeal was forged _ simply because it was a cheap vacation.

The secrecy that made the Khmer Rouge so effective was second nature to Pol Pot, who was not even known to lead the regime until after it had been in power a couple of years.

``Since my boyhood, I have never talked about myself,″ Pol Pot said. ``I’m quite modest. I don’t want to tell people that I’m a leader. I didn’t tell anybody, not my brother, not my sister, because I didn’t want to worry them.″

Pol Pot’s relatives, who have not seen him in decades, remember him as a quiet, polite boy. But they suffered under the Khmer Rouge like every other Cambodian.

After Vietnam ousted Pol Pot’s regime, he led his men into the jungle. They fought against the Vietnamese-backed regime of the 1980s, and then against the coalition installed in 1993 by U.N.-organized elections.

Pol Pot told Thayer: ``I want you to know that everything I did, I did for my country.″

Asked whether his daughter will be proud when she grows up to know that her father is Pol Pot, he replied: ``I don’t know about that. It’s up to history to judge.″

Current Cambodian strongman Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge official who is hated by his former comrades for leading a Vietnam-supported government in the 1980s, was asked by reporters today for his reaction to the interview.

``Why do we have to wonder about Pol Pot’s denial that he killed people?″ Hun Sen said. ``All of us are what remains of Pol Pot’s genocide, so there is no need for us to ask or wonder.″

The Khmer Rouge fractured in 1996 when Ieng Sary, Pol Pot’s former brother-in-law, led about 10,000 fighters in defecting. Pol Pot was reduced to shrinking territory at the northern jungle base of Anlong Veng with a dwindling force.

The Khmer Rouge hard-liners were on the verge of making peace with the government last spring when Pol Pot objected and ordered the execution of longtime comrade Son Sen and his family. Ta Mok, who commands the Khmer Rouge military wing, was on the death list but in the end captured Pol Pot.

Cambodia’s government, meanwhile, shattered in July when Hun Sen led a coup against his co-premier, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, destroying negotiations the prince had held with the guerrillas about possibly turning Pol Pot over to an international tribunal.

Pol Pot ultimately may have what he allegedly denied so many Cambodians _ a peaceful death.

``In Khmer, we have a saying″ Pol Pot said. ``When one is both quite sick and old, there remains only one thing _ that you die.″