By Nate Thayer
(excerpts from the unpublished Sympathy for the Devil: A journalist’s memoir from inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. (c) Nate Thayer. No republication in whole or in part without express written permission of the author.)
March 16, 2014
Daddy’s little girl has grown up. Pol Pot’s only child got married today.
26 year-old Sar Patchada has spent her entire life cloaked in a clandestine existence to avoid her father’s legacy–the first half on the run from Pol Pot’s political enemies, and the second in hiding from his victims.
The child of one of history’s most notorious mass murderers emerged from a childhood spent in jungle guerrilla bases struggling for an agrarian utopia and was ushered into adulthood by a revolution equally as profound: the age of the digital revolution of borderless information.
Pol Pot’s little girl has a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and a smart phone, like most teenage girls around the world.
But Sar Patchata will never be like most teenage girls.
The harsh restrictions on individual expression by their parent’s group-think ideology have been dealt a death blow by social media and the internet, as the princeling children of the Khmer Rouge straddled a generational transformation from striving to own water buffaloes to preferring the latest model iPhone.
Until the age of 13, when Pol Pot committed suicide in isolated jungles on a besieged mountainside in 1998, Sar Patchata lived the furtive existence of a hunted animal, in hiding, on the run, and using aliases, under the rule of the most secretive, isolated guerrilla group in the world.
There was no electricity, running water, telephones, computers or use of any other technological advances which were deemed poisonous to their vision of a Utopian society. Now she is chatting in Thai, English, and Khmer over social media with pals around the world. “Where are you” wrote the daughter of former Khmer Rouge prime minister Khieu Samphan–now on trial for war crimes–in a recent facebook message “I am in Malaysia now!” replied Pol Pot’s daughter in phonetic Thai. “I miss you,” was the message in English that followed from Samphan’s youngest son in Phnom Penh.
14 years later, Sar Patchata and other offspring of the former Khmer Rouge top leadership are enthusiastic foot soldiers in the social media revolution.
Pol Pot’s daughter’s social media pages reveal a young girl whose interests and reach ignore national and ideological boundaries that would have her father turning in his grave if he wasn’t cremated on a pile of old rubber tires soaked in gasoline after he died on a remote mountainside in Cambodia in 1998, when Sar Patchata was 12 years old.
Her cultural interests could be those of millions of teenage girls anywhere. She is a fan of the handsome British football player David Beckham, likes the music of Beyoncé, swoons over Hollywood actor Vin Diesal, listens to the risque music of Chris Brown, and peruses websites that sell beauty products.
For her wedding today, Sar Patchata shopped for shoes and silk gowns made by upscale fashion designers and she consulted a professional wedding planner in Bangkok.
But it was only a few years ago that she was living in a simple spartan shack on stilts, deep in guerrilla controlled jungles, with no running water or electricity and under the watchful eyes of armed guards enforcing a sentence of life under house arrest for her father for “crimes against the revolution.”
Sar Patchata’s mother says that Pol Pot never expressed any regrets, and nor does she after marrying her husband and bearing his only child. “What I would like the world to know was that he was a good man, a patriot, a good father.”
When Pol Pot spoke of his 12-year-old daughter, he became animated and whimsical, exuding a gentle fatherly love that was clearly sincere and typical for the father of a young girl. He spoke at length about his little girl.
“She is a good girl. She is kind and plays well with others,” he told me, in a soft voice. “She studies hard and she helps her mother.”
“She is a good daughter, a good person,” Pol Pot said.
Pol Pot complained that “I can’t even play with my daughter or my wife anymore because I can’t get out of bed. I stay still while my wife occupies herself with gardening and sewing. My daughter gathers wood and works in the kitchen. But we are together for dinner. We dine together at a small table.”
Pol Pot lived with his daughter in his final days under the close watch of armed guards in a jungle hut with no running water or electricity since he had been sentenced 8 months earlier to life imprisonment for “crimes against the revolution.”
“I have been told and the people say that my daughter is not smart in her studies. She is slow. She is slow in mathematics, but in letters she is much better,” he said in the soft, affectionate tone familiar to any father of a young child.
Pol Pot paused, and, from the empty instant coffee glass container he brought with him, took a sip of water. His eyes blinked rapidly and he looked up at me and said: “She is like me. But that is normal. If she is weak on one thing, she might be better on the other.”
I first met Pol Pot’s daughter in 1998. She wasn’t known as Sar Patchada then. Her name was Mea Sitha and she was 12.
Her father had died a few hours earlier, and Mea Sith had her right hand tightly gripping her mother’s. Her left hand was covering her eyes, her head downcast, weeping quietly as she stood over her father’s bloating corpse.
But no one’s life was more affected by Pol Pot’s death than 13 year old Mea Sith.
The most secretive guerrilla movement in the world, singularly controlled for 38 years by the harsh iron hand of her loving father, was about to implode and self-destruct.
Since her father’s death, his daughter has been living under pseudonyms to avoid the harsh spotlight of public scrutiny that would be any teenage girl’s nightmare.
It was an ignominious end for Pol Pot. The one room thatch-roofed hut on stilts was surrounded by a freshly laid minefield. There was a freshly dug bunker outside the front door for shelter from the incoming artillery and mortar rounds that rained down on Mea Sith’s home that morning of April 16, 1998. Angry explosions were constant and everywhere.
Mea Sith looked terrified. Her life was in genuine danger and the world as she knew it was about to collapse.
Mea Sith had every reason to be terrified.
It was not at all clear that day whether young Mea Sith would not soon face the same fate as her dead father.
One-hundred meters away, exhausted Khmer Rouge leaders gathered in a jungle-shrouded ammunition depot filled with home-made mines and crude communications equipment. Explosions of heavy artillery and exchanges of automatic-weapons fire echoed in the mountains as the Khmer Rouge’s remaining guerrillas held off government troops.
Pol Pot’s military commander and nemesis, Ta Mok, whose nickname was “the butcher”, was not happy with Pol Pot. “It is good that Pol Pot is dead. I feel no sorrow,” he said.
“The world community should stop talking about this now that Pol Pot is dead. It was all Pol Pot. He annihilated many good cadres and destroyed our movement. I hope he suffers after death,” he said.
Ta Mok then asked if he could borrow $1500. I explained to him that the ethical rules of my profession forbid me to give gifts to those who were subjects of my reportage. Ta Mok fixed an angry gaze at me, staring silently for several seconds.
He then asked me to get hold of a satellite telephone for him, and sketched a drawing of a collapsible phone he had seen somewhere. “I want a good telephone-one that I can call anywhere in the world.”
But, by then, there was nobody on the planet that Ta Mok could call to rescue him from the demise of the military guerrilla force that he commanded.
Ta Mok was adamant that Pol Pot had died of natural causes. “Pol Pot died of heart failure. “I did not kill him.”
But he did not offer the same assurances for the fate of his little girl.
“As to what I will do with his family, I haven’t decided,” Ta Mok said, wagging his finger in anger. “If I let them go, will they say anything bad about me? Maybe they might be used by Hun Sen,” he said, referring to his nemesis, the Cambodian premier.
Days earlier, Mok had dragged three top Pol Pot loyalists, who had been sentenced to ‘life imprisonment’ alongside Pol Pot the previous July, from their underground bamboo cages and executed them with bullets to their heads. He was angry that Khmer Rouge troops who had mutinied in recent weeks included some of Pol Pot’s former loyalists.
“It was a decision made by the people,” Ta Mok shrugged when I asked him to confirm the executions.
“There may be more traitors, it is normal. But in the end they will all die,” Ta Mok told me.
Listening to Ta Mok rant angrily and near incoherent, a fed up senior Khmer Rouge cadre sitting next to me across the same wooden table from Mok, leaned closer and whispered in in my ear. “Don’t believe anything he says. This movement is finished. Can you get me to America?”
Those were the words of Tep Kunnal, a brilliant French trained engineer and Khmer Rouge diplomat, who was Pol Pot’s most trusted loyalist–so loyal that he promised the dictator on his death bed that he would take care of his wife and little girl. Kunnal lived up to his word. Immediately upon the death of the dictator, he married his widow and adopted the then 13 year old Mea Sith.
Now the current governor of Malai province, Tep Kunnal insisted Sar Patchata proudly carry the identity of her father. Mea Sith changed her name to Sar Patchata when she started high school on 2002. Pol Pot’s real name was Sar Saloth.
Tep Kunnal, and his now wife, Pol Pot’s widow, presided over the wedding of Sar Patchata today.
But the atmosphere was not very festive when I saw the three together last.
After enduring the rants of Ta Mok for an hour, Tep Kunnal led the way as we trod on a dusty jungle dirt trail that weaved through a freshly laid minefield to Pol Pot’s house to display the ultimate proof of his demise. An armed cadre warned against stepping off the path. “Be careful, there are mines everywhere.”
Outside Pol Pot’s front door was a small vegetable garden tended by Pol Pot’s wife and daughter; next to it, a freshly dug trench where Pol Pot and his family were forced to cower as artillery bombarded the jungle redoubt in recent weeks.
The sickly-sweet stench of death filled the wooden hut. Fourteen hours had passed since Pol Pot’s death, and his body was decomposing in the tropical heat. His face and fingers were covered with purple blotches, bloated from the thick humidity of the tropical hot season. There was cotton stuffed up his nose to staunch the flow of the normal leakage of bodily fluids that occurs at death. His pants were soiled with urine and feces and there were flies feasting on the liquids that made his skin glisten and the room thick with the stench of death.
Alone in the room with Pol Pot’s corpse were only four people: A sullen looking Khmer Rouge soldier in pea green military uniform and armed with a Chinese AK-47 assault rifle, Pol Pot’s wife and daughter, and Tep Kunnal.
The morning after Pol Pot died, he had a pained expression on his face, as if he did not die peacefully. One eye was shut and the other half open. By his body lay his rattan fan, blue-and-red peasant scarf, bamboo cane and white plastic sandals. His books and other possessions had been long confiscated.
Two vases of purple bougainvillea stood at the head of the bed.
Otherwise, the room was empty, save for a small short-wave radio.
Pol Pot listened religiously to Voice of America on that radio, but the previous evening’s lead story on the 8:00 PM news update was apparently too much to bear. It was a pickup of my just filed report in the Far Eastern Economic Review that Khmer Rouge leaders–desperate for food, medicine and international support–had decided to turn him over to an international tribunal to face trial for crimes against humanity.
“He listened to VOA every night, and VOA on Wednesday reported your story at 8 p.m. that he would be turned over to an international court,” Gen. Khem Nuon, the Khmer Rouge army chief-of-staff told me that same morning of April 16. “The shock of him hearing this on VOA might have killed him.”
But I did not kill Pol Pot.
The truth is, it was Pol pot’s wife—the mother of Pol Pot’s only child—who killed her father, at the request of Pol Pot himself.
He summoned her to his bed shortly after 8:00 PM on April 15, and, according to her, said “‘My father died at 73. I am 73 now. My time has come.’”
“It was a way of telling me that he was preparing to die,” she told me as she stood crying over his corpse that day, their 13 year old daughter grasping her hand tightly.
Pol Pot’s wife, a 40-year-old former ammunition porter who was using the alias Muon was clutching the hand of her 12-year-old daughter, who was using the alias Mul.
A peasant woman, Muon said she had never laid eyes on a Westerner before.
But she corroborated Ta Mok’s account of Pol Pot’s death. “Last night, he said he felt dizzy. I asked him to lie down. I heard him make a noise. When I went to touch him, he had died.”
Pol Pot’s wife was lying.
I was well aware of the details of Pol Pot’s health problems since before I first met him the previous year, when he was visibly suffering from serious heart and respiratory problems and only capable of walking with assistance, still having to stop every few meters for breath.
Less than two months earlier I had smuggled in a cache of powerful prescription medications for heart disease and other ailments—specific medications the leadership had written down on paper and requested I acquire as they were impossible to access in the jungle or from the rudimentary pharmacies in the small Thai border towns that abutted their jungle enclaves. I delivered it to the Khmer Rouge leadership to give to Pol Pot.
But I, like the world, needed forensic evidence that the body I was looking at was indeed Pol Pot and I needed conclusive answers to the question I knew would dominate headlines without proof—was Pol Pot the victim of murder or did he die of his own accord.
I knew that the corpse lying next to me in the Spartan one-room hut was indeed that of Pol Pot, but I knew that my simple word as an eyewitness would not satisfy the cynicism that a lifetime of political treachery and deceit had rightfully caused most all Cambodians to distrust the words of anyone.
So, to provide clues to the cause of death, I focused on Pol Pot’s two false front teeth and decided I needed to take them with me. We knew that his two front teeth were false and there were no dentists in Cambodia that could perform such sophisticated dental work.
But there had to be dental records somewhere, most likely in Beijing, where Pol Pot was said to have had his teeth tended to. If I came out of the jungle with the two front teeth off the corpse, and if they matched, there would be no question that Pol Pot was dead. But Pol Pot’s wife balked at my request, and gave me a look that expressed a queer mixture of alarm, fear, and disgust for asking to take the teeth from the mouth of her dead husband’s corpse.
Pol Pot married her after his first wife went insane in the 1980s in the jungles after the Khmer Rouge were deposed from their reign of terror in power. That day, Muon seemed oblivious to her husband’s bloodstained past, caught only in the anguish of the present.
Reaching down to caress his face, she burst into tears.
“He was always a good husband. He tried his best to educate the children not to be traitors. Since I married him in 1985, I never saw him do a bad thing.”
What she did not say that day was that Pol Pot had requested her to acquire enough lethal drugs to put him out the misery he had not hesitated to inflict on millions of his fellow countrymen.
She slipped out into the night, and in the cadence of free markets everywhere, managed to return with the best she could find—a full bottle of the sedative Valium and a bottle of the powerful anti-malarial drug, Chloroquine. Pol Pot swallowed both bottles.
Two hours and fifteen minutes later—at 10:15 on the evening of April 15, 1998, the mass murderer was dead.
A few hours later, as we stood above Pol Pot’s body, his wife reached down to caress his face, and she burst into tears. “He was always a good husband. He tried his best to educate the children not to be traitors. Since I married him in 1985, I never saw him do a bad thing.”
Asked about his reputation as a mass-murderer, she became visibly frightened, her lips quivered, and she cast a terrified glance at her future husband Tep Kunnal, who stood solemnly at her side. “I don’t know about that. I know nothing about politics,” she told me, adding “It is up to history to judge. That is all I want to say.”
I spoke with Pol Pot’s daughter that day and took pictures of her as she clutched her mother, weeping over the dead corpse of her father.
I asked her what kind of father he was. She wept louder and her mom shot me a nasty look.
“My daughter cannot say anything right now. He was a good husband and a good father. I never saw him do a bad thing. He only wanted to protect the people from traitors.”
Asked how she wanted her father remembered, Pol Pot’s only child stood with her head bowed and her eyes downcast, filled with tears. “Now my daughter is not able to say anything,” interjected her mom, Muon. “I think she will let history judge her father.”
History would have to, because death had deprived Cambodians and the world of the chance to confront the man responsible for the deaths of 1.8 million people.
In 2004, Mea Sith was interviewed by reporters in rural western Cambodia where she attended high school. She said then and other times that she is often reminded of her father and proud of her family legacy. Her memories of her father are fond ones. “I remember when I was a baby; I used to sit on his lap. I would just play with him and hug and kiss him.”
She named her father, her mother, and her stepfather as the most important influences on her young life. “I used to dream my father would visit me in Malai,” she said.
She said she prays to one day meet her daddy again. “I want to meet my father and spend time with him in the next life, if the next life exists,” she said, adding “I go to the pagoda every Pchum Ben to bring the monks offerings and pray to the dead.” Pchum Ben is an annual religious holiday festival in Cambodia where the country flocks to Buddhist pagodas to offer prayers to dead relatives.
Sar Patchata recalled the day her father died, saying she was sleeping nearby. Her mother and her stepfather have tried hard to instill good memories of Pol Pot in his daughter. “My father told my mother to make sure when I grow up, I study hard to be a good person,” she said.
The days before Pol Pot died were deeply frightening for his wife and little girl.
Pol Pot’s final days were spent in fleeing advancing enemy soldiers and in fear of capture.
When I saw his dead body, his hair was jet black, a stark contrast to the shock of white when I had interviewed him a couple of months prior. Both his wife and other Khmer Rouge leaders said he had dyed his hair black on April 10—five days before he died– in a desperate attempt to avoid capture by mutinying Khmer Rouge troops as he fled to the Dongrek mountains north of Anlong Veng.
“Pol Pot feared that he could be caught. By dying his hair he was trying to disguise himself. For such a person to do that, it showed real fear in his mind,” says Khmer Rouge army chief of staff Gen. Khem Nuon.
The guerrillas had been unable to provide their ousted leader and his wife and daughter with sufficient food since being forced from their headquarters in late March. “For the last few weeks he had diarrhea and we haven’t had much food because of the fighting with the traitors,” recounts Ta Mok.
As Pol Pot and his wife and daughter fled further and further up the mountain in an air-conditioned stolen United Nations blue Toyota Land Cruiser in the three weeks prior to his death, the remnants of the movement he created 38 years before crumbled before their eyes.
A few days before his death, he was being driven with his wife and daughter to a new hideout by Gen. Non Nou, his personal guard. Behind the tinted windows of the vehicle, Pol Pot saw around 30,000 Khmer Rouge civilians who had been forced from their fields and villages by government troops and Khmer Rouge defectors.
“When he saw the peasants and our cadres lying by the side of the road with no food or shelter, he broke down into tears,” Gen. Non Nou, Pol Pot’s armed jailer, bodyguard and chauffeur told me.
His wife told me a similar story, quoting Pol Pot as saying: “My only wish is that Cambodians stay united so that Vietnam will not swallow our country.”
In fact, and his wife and child were kept under armed guard at a secret location near the Thai border for while Khmer Rouge officials tried to use him as leverage to salvage their collapsing armed political movement.
“I told him that he might have to leave the country for a while,” said Khmer Rouge army chief of staff and top military field commander General Khem Nuon. “He cried when I told him that. He said ’Comrade, I will go anywhere. But I will not go to Phnom Penh to work with the Vietnamese and their puppet lackey, Hun Sen.’”
General Nuon said that Pol Pot’s wife and daughter were petrified that they were being taken away to be executed. “I reassured them that they would be safe,” he said.
Pol Pot’s first wife went insane shortly after he was deposed from power in 1979, after presiding over a three year 8 month and 20 day reign of terror that left nearly two million people dead.
Pol Pot remained single for several years.
Then, in the mid 1980’s, the Khmer Rouge core leadership–the Standing Committee of the Communist Party of Kampuchea–noted that Pol Pot was tired and overworked. The Party decided he needed a wife.
They handpicked a small group of young women, chosen for their revolutionary commitment and the purity of their class background.
The leadership of the Communist Party informed Pol Pot that they had decreed he needed a wife and he could choose among the party approved selection.
He chose Mea Som, a peasant woman, then in her early 30’s, who worked as an ammunition porter ferrying rocket, mortar and artillery shells from rear supply bases through the jungles to Khmer Rouge front line positions.
The couple was in love and Mea Som took care of Pol Pot.
Soon they had a daughter, Pol Pot’s only child, Mea Sith aka Sar Patchata.
The family lived a clandestine life on the run as Dad was both one of the most feared and hunted men on earth, wanted for crimes including genocide, mass murder, torture, and crimes against humanity.
His public persona stood in stark contrast to the impressions of those he met: a kindly, soft spoken, gentle, grandfatherly figure that possessed oratorical skills that could whip his audience into a frenzy of tears and loyalty.
The first time I met Pol Pot was in an isolated jungle halfway up a mountain near the Thai border.
He was waiting in a stolen United Nations Land Cruiser for me to arrive to make his first public comments in the 18 years since he fled from three years in power that had left 1.8 million of his countrymen dead.
I stopped my vehicle at a predetermined spot on the rutted dirt logging road and got out to approach the idling Land Cruiser in which Pol Pot sat, waiting. His driver trotted out of the vehicle and came around to open the rear passenger door.
An elderly man wearing a checkered blue scarf, black pajamas and holding a walking cane in one hand and a rattan fan in the other, slowly emerged.
He reached his hand out to mine in a gesture seeking assistance and I helped him, unsteadily, exit the vehicle.
He looked me in the eyes, holding my gaze, and placed his hand gently on my shoulder and said, in Khmer, in a raspy, soft whisper: “Kium squall chimore you howee.”
“I have known your name for a very long time.”
I shuddered visibly. I had been trying to meet this man for more than a decade. I wanted to say “yes, and I, and a lot of fucking other people have known your name for a long time too, and we all have a lot questions for you that deserve answers.” But I didn’t.
I said in Khmer “Thank you, respected grandfather for agreeing to meet me.”
Pol Pot’s family moved constantly for more than a decade from one jungle guerrilla base to another that dotted the 800 kilometer jungle and mountain demarcated frontier between Cambodia and Thailand, stretching from the Gulf of Thailand to the Laotian border.
For 18 years Pol Pot was never seen or photographed.
His shy young daughter, Mea Sith, who Pol Pot loved very much, grew up in malaria infested jungles in simple wooden huts with no electricity or running water and under constant threat of war erupting wherever she called home.
His little girl is all grown up now.
Sar Patchata said she was sleeping nearby when her father died. She said that “my father told my mother to make sure when I grow up, I study hard to be a good person.”
Her stepdad, Tep Kunnal, said last week “My daughter graduated with a master’s degree in English literature in Malaysia.”
A few years ago Pol Pot’s daughter was asked by reporters how she felt about her dad. “I remember when I was a baby, I used to sit on his lap. I would just play with him and hug and kiss him.”
She said “I used to dream my father would visit me in Malai” and prays for him during Cambodian religious holidays. “I go to the pagoda every Pchum Ben to bring the monks offerings and pray to the dead. I want to meet my father and spend time with him in the next life, if the next life exists.”
Shortly before he died, I asked Pol Pot whether his daughter would be proud of him.
“When your daughter grows up and people know she is the daughter of Pol Pot, will she be proud of you?” I asked Pol Pot.
He gave me an abrupt, distinctively uncomfortable look, paused, and said softly, “I don’t know about that. History will have to judge.”