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Pol Pot Hid Cruelty Behind Charisma

April 16, 1998

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) _ Cambodian revolutionary Pol Pot had all the hallmarks of a tyrant: paranoia, cunning, and ruthlessness.

King Norodom Sihanouk, at various times Pol Pot’s ally or adversary, compared him to Stalin _ but also said he had a certain charisma that made him ``very charming.″

His Khmer Rouge regime, however, was one of the most brutal the 20th century has witnessed. As many as 2 million Cambodians died, some in grisly city torture centers, others in the countryside with a blow to the back of the head with a hoe. Many died of starvation, overwork and illness during Khmer Rouge attempts to force a Maoist-style collectivization of agriculture.

The man known to his comrades as Brother Number One died Wednesday, two days short of the 23rd anniversary of the day his army captured Phnom Penh and began a reign of terror.

The last time Pol Pot was seen alive by outsiders _ in several interviews last year _ he was an enfeebled old man who almost looked kindly.

``Our movement made mistakes,″ he told American journalist Nate Thayer, the first to interview him in 18 years. ``I came to carry out the struggle, not to kill people. Even now, and you can look at me: Am I a savage person? My conscience is clear.″

The best estimates are that one in five Cambodians of a population of 7.9 million died when the Khmer Rouge were in power from 1975-79.

Although a fervent communist, Pol Pot also had an acute mindfulness of Cambodian history, witnessed in his many references to the Angkor period that died out six centuries ago.

Part of this was a visceral antipathy toward Vietnam, the neighboring country that encroached on Cambodia’s territory as the Angkor empire went into decline.

Pol Pot was born Saloth Sar to a farming family in central Cambodia. He received basic schooling at a Buddhist monastery.

Saloth Sar went to Paris in 1949 to study electronics on a government scholarship. Absorbed with leftist politics, he set up a communist cell with fellow Cambodian students _ many of whom would later form the inner core of the Khmer Rouge, French for ``Red Cambodians.″ He failed his exams, lost his scholarship and returned home.

``He was clearly attracted to Stalinist concepts,″ said Milton Osborne, a former Australia diplomat in Cambodia. ``Pol Pot did feel that the society in which he was living in Cambodia in the 1950s and ’60s was deeply politically and morally offensive and just had to be changed, even with quite radical means.″

Pol Pot set up a secret communist party in the 1950s while maintaining a legal front as a teacher at a private school. Students described him as quiet and unfailingly polite.

In 1963, he became party secretary-general and fled into the jungle after the government, led by then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk, savagely repressed leftist opposition.

When Sihanouk was deposed and the United States and its South Vietnamese allies attacked Cambodia in 1970 to close North Vietnamese supply trails, North Vietnam armed the Khmer Rouge to fight the U.S.-backed government.

Sihanouk, bitter at his ouster, joined hands with his former leftist antagonists, lending them his considerable prestige. But he was one of the few to have no illusions about them.

Once victory was won, Sihanouk said late in the civil war, ``they will spit me out like a cherry pit.″

On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh and a veil of darkness fell over Cambodia. The country, renamed Democratic Kampuchea, shunned almost all contacts with the outside world.

``No one could have rebuilt Cambodia then without exerting very strong, even violent authority,″ Michael Vickery, a Cambodian specialist at the University of Malaysia, said in an interview last year after Pol Pot’s comrades turned against him and placed him under arrest.

War damage and dislocation had made famine a pressing threat at that time, Vickery said.

But no postwar neediness could fully explain the genocide the Khmer Rouge almost immediately unleashed.

The first to be killed were soldiers and officials of the old regime. In a few months came the elimination of several members of Pol Pot’s inner circle.

Indeed, party members suspected of treason would face appalling fates, tortured and forced to write false confessions at a high school-turned-prison before being put to death at a killing field on the city outskirts.

To boost food production _ and control the population _ all residents of every city were moved into vast rural communes. These came to mean terror for ordinary Cambodians.

``Kids 12 years old with AK-47s were given power of life and death over peasants and city dwellers,″ Osborne said.

The communes, managed with more revolutionary zeal than skill, were failures. Instead of reviewing the wisdom of his drastic economic policies, Pol Pot blamed the failure on treason and conspiracy. He lashed out, and made the error of picking a fight with Vietnam, which then had one of the toughest armies in the world.

With the help of Khmer Rouge defectors _ including Cambodia’s current leader, Hun Sen _ Hanoi quickly swept the Khmer Rouge out of power in January 1979.

The Khmer Rouge struggle continued. With the backing of Thailand, the United States and China _ all of whom had an ax to grind with Vietnam _ Pol Pot led a guerrilla struggle into the 1990s from strongholds on the Thai border.

The beginning of the end came in 1996, when war-weary veterans began defecting.

``Pol Pot has become a name covering all that terror (of the 1970s) and he is rightly seen ... as a terrible symbol of that time,″ Osborne said. ``I think his death will lift a load from the Cambodian consciousness.″