Visit Cambodia! Package Tours to a Despot’s Hideout

Posted by khmernews on November 8, 2006

By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 24, 2004; Page A17

ANLONG VENG, Cambodia — All that remains of Pol Pot’s last abode is a dozen bottles emptied of the medicine he was taking in his final days and the broken bits of a toilet seat.

But when Thong Khon, Cambodia’s state secretary of tourism, stood beside the small rubbish pile in a forest clearing earlier this month, he saw much more. He explained eagerly how he would rebuild the house, restoring it to its condition before the Khmer Rouge despot died six years ago and was cremated on a nearby pyre of old tires.

The original carpenter will be hired, Thong said. Local officials have located Pol Pot’s looted sofa, table and chairs. It would be the first step toward Thong’s vision of restoring the entire Khmer Rouge complex in Anlong Veng, the redoubt deep in the northern jungle that was overrun by Cambodian government troops in 1998.

Under a master plan completed three weeks ago, Cambodia would rebuild and refurbish the villas, headquarters and offices, courthouse, jail, guard posts and other facilities of the Khmer Rouge oligarchs. Tourists would pay up to $2 to see each of 30 attractions. New hotels and restaurants would follow.

“That’s the dream,” Thong said. “In five years, this whole area is going to grow up.” But while Thong plans to promote Anlong Veng to foreigners as part of a package tour including the famed temples of Angkor Wat 60 miles to the south, some Cambodians are asking whether a Khmer Rouge version of Colonial Williamsburg is an appropriate way to mark the darkest chapter in the
country’s history.

“Memory cannot be commercialized. It has to be preserved a different way,” said Youk Chhang whose Documentation Center of Cambodia collects documents and personal testimonies about the Khmer Rouge atrocities. “Buying a ticket to see the grave of Pol Pot undermines the value of the memories and the suffering we’ve been through.”

The mandate to develop the Anlong Veng Historical Tourist Area, Thong
said, came directly from Prime Minister Hun Sen, a Khmer Rouge defector who became their adversary.

For Thong, 53, it is also personal. Among the estimated 1 million Cambodians who died during the Khmer Rouge terror of 1975 to 1979 were 13 members of his family, including his father, three siblings, their spouses and six nieces and nephews. Thong, a poor peasant’s son who became a physician, said he survived the slaughter of intellectuals and professionals only by fleeing the capital, Phnom Penh, for the countryside and posing as a bicycle rickshaw driver. He didn’t dare utter a word in either the English or French he had learned as a student. “You speak a foreign language, you die,” he recalled.

“Almost every family had people killed by Pol Pot, but the young generation doesn’t know what happened,” he said. “My son doesn’t know. What about my granddaughter? What does she know?”

The main obstacle to developing Anlong Veng, however, is not public debate over its propriety but the absence of a decent road. The location, near the northern border with Thailand, was selected by the Khmer Rouge as their haven precisely because it was so hard to get to. Setting out from the northwestern city of Siem Reap early one morning this month to survey the site, Thong deemed the direct route impassable. He ordered the driver of his Toyota Land Cruiser to take the “good road,” a roundabout, 120-mile-long, bone-jarring track of red dirt that runs through fallow rice fields before entering the jungle. “The good road’s not so good,” Thong conceded. The crow’s feet deepened at the corners of his eyes as he laughed, one in a series of chortles and rasping chuckles. After five hours, the Land Cruiser reached the dusty town of Anlong Veng, with its large billboard welcoming the few intrepid tourists, and began the steep climb into the wooded hills that separate Cambodia and Thailand. Thong gestured toward the dense forest on the left.

“Over there is one of the sites,” he said in the tone of a tour guide, over the groaning engine. “That’s where Pol Pot produced land mines.” The site was on the restoration list.

The vehicle pressed upward toward the ridge. “Pol Pot installed himself up here,” Thong continued. “It’s high up here. They could escape easily to Thailand. It was hard for the government to fight them here.”

Red signs nailed to trees at 20-yard intervals along the roadside warned of land mines. “And over here is the cremation place of Pol Pot,” he said, pointing to a clearing beyond a long red tape demarcating the edge of a minefield. “It’s okay. You can go around the other way.”

Thong set out by foot along a sandy path that looped around to the spot, which was protected by a low corrugated metal roof. Pol Pot’s remains were set afire here after he was purged by the Khmer Rouge’s one-legged military chief, Ta Mok, and then died mysteriously while in the custody of his comrades.

The site was marked by a simple blue sign posted by the tourism ministry. Villagers had left clumps of incense sticks poked in the dirt, an offering to Pol Pot, whose spirit they hoped would intervene to deliver prosperity and perhaps even help them win the lottery, local residents said.

The villagers here have their own version of history. They were the few favored by the Khmer Rouge, benefiting from their patronage and provision of imported rice. One of those was Unkhemara Sophorn 25, an earnest, clean-cut man wearing a pressed white shirt and tan pants who is now the only English-speaking guide in Anlong Veng. He said that as an adolescent he
had lived with Ta Mok as his foster son.

“I tell people who come here that the Khmer Rouge were good. People are surprised because they think the Khmer Rouge were bad men,” Unkhemara said. “Ta Mok was a good man. He liked children and liked to feed small animals.”

Ta Mok is now in a Cambodian jail, but other surviving Khmer Rouge leaders remain free. The Cambodian government and the United Nations are preparing a special tribunal to try between five and 10 of them for crimes against humanity.

Thong, who is counting on local residents to serve as tour guides, acknowledged that this contested history poses a challenge. Guides would have to be closely supervised. “Most of the people here are Pol Pot people,” he said. “The question is whether they will follow our political line or say whatever they want.”

With the Cambodian government expected to approve the Anlong Veng tourism plan this summer, townspeople eagerly predicted it would open a spigot of dollars.

“When the tourists come, all the people of Anlong Veng will have a chance to make money,” Unkhemara said. “Every tourist who comes here will need a room to stay in, a restaurant to eat in. They’ll need a guide, a motorbike or truck or car, souvenir shops.”

So far, the only major improvement to Anlong Veng has been the opening in December of a new border crossing with Thailand, a crucial development for Thong’s dream.

Cambodia has started work on a 75-mile road to link the border with Siem Reap, the main tourist center for the Angkor Wat temples. Thailand is subsidizing the $40 million project, Thong said. But the task of carving the road through some of the world’s most heavily mined terrain is daunting. On the eve of his visit, army engineers clearing land for the project reported recovering 300 mines from little more than seven acres.

As the tour continued, Thong’s Land Cruiser paused close to the border crossing at the site of the courthouse where Pol Pot’s estranged cohorts sentenced him to life imprisonment shortly before his death. All that remains are 16 wooden poles jutting from the earth.

Farther along the ridge and deeper into the forest, beyond a pair of military checkpoints manned by lone soldiers, was an abandoned brick and concrete structure, Pol Pot’s home before he was purged. Graffiti covered the inside walls. A rickety ladder descended into the basement, where local villagers said he stashed the movement’s riches.

Down a dirt path, his followers had built a retaining wall, converting a stream into a small reservoir, where the despot known as Brother Number One and his daughter used to frolic.

“The swimming pool of Pol Pot,” Thong announced.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company

Searching for the Truth.

Youk CHHANG, Director
Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam)
P.O. Box 1110
70 E1 King Sihanouk Blvd
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Tel:  (855) 23-211-875
Fax: (855) 23-210-358
Mobile: (855) 12-905-595


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