issue 205 - March 1990
Brother to Pol Pot
Saloth Suong is one of the millions of Cambodians who suffered
at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. One day he saw, for the first time,
a picture of the dreaded leader posted on a wall - and
realized that the face was all too familiar to him.
Nick Malloni went to see him in Phnom Penh.
Saloth Suong is a gentle and charming 73-year-old - the sort of man you would like to have as a grandfather. An expert on traditional Khmer dress and dance techniques, he helps to arrange performances for visiting delegations to the current Heng Samrin Government.
Suong is the third and oldest surviving son of a farmer from the central Cambodian province of Kampong Thom. Five of the nine children are still alive. For over 30 years Suong worked in the court of Prince Sihanouk - first as a servant, later as a member of the protocol department. Today, he and his art-teacher wife, Chea Samy, live in a run-down, concrete tower block on the banks of the Mekong River in Phnom Penh.
When the Khmer Rouge took control of Phnom Penh in 1975 Saloth Suong, like thousands of others, was ejected from his home and forced to march 160 kilometres to the province where he was born. For three years he suffered like everybody else - witnessing the deaths of countless friends and family members at the hands of Pot Pot's henchmen. Luckier than some though, he worked in the kitchens, handing out the scraps of food on which people were expected to survive and work.
'People owned next to nothing,' he says. 'Only a shirt, a pair of trousers, a spoon and a bowl for rice.' He worked atrociously long hours and in spite of working in the kitchen had little opportunity to take any more than his meagre portion of rice.
Then, one day, a Government notice was put up in the village dining halt. It was a propaganda sheet and carried a photograph of Mao Zedong and Kim II Sung together with 'Brother Number One' - as he was called - the dreaded Pot Pot.
'For 15 years I thought my brother was dead. Then I suddenly found out that he was none other than Pol Pot. I was shocked and saddened,' he adds, with no little understatement.
When the news broke in the village, Suong did not receive any extra privileges for being related to Pol Pot. He certainly wasn't whisked away to Phnom Penh for an emotional reunion.
Saloth Suong had not seen his brother Saloth Sar since the 1950s and had no idea that he had adopted the name Pol Pot. They had grown apart during World War II. 'Our interests were different,' explains Suong, who is a dedicated Buddhist. 'I was never really interested in politics.'
Then in 1945 Saloth Sar (Pol Pot) went to Paris, where, his brother believes, he came into contact with Maoist ideology and became a communist. On his return to Cambodia in the early 1960s he got a job as a history and geography teacher in a Phnom Penh school. In 1962 he became leader of the country's Communist Party and in 1963 he disappeared into the jungles of the north-east to embark with the Khmer Rouge on 12 years of armed struggle. By now he was calling himself Pol Pot and had lost contact with his family, who presumed him dead. At first the Khmer Rouge fought against the forces of Prince Sihanouk - then against those of the man who deposed him, Lon Nol.
As with so many people who have known Pol Pot, Suong talks of his brother's charm and generosity. He still has fond memories of the kind-hearted boy who would always bring him back a mango when he went to market to do the family shopping. Suong thinks it unlikely that his brother ever killed anyone personally. In the coming years - as happened in post-Nazi Germany - there is bound to be speculation as to exactly how much Pol Pot knew of what was going on. But, although Suong finds it difficult to comprehend, he ultimately knows that his brother is responsible for the murder of over one million of his own compatriots.
In fact, a new study by Swiss political scientist Dr Marecz Livinsky indicates that the Khmer Rouge was responsible for closer to three million deaths - that is 30-40 per cent of the Cambodian population rather than 20 per cent as previously thought. 'He is not a patriot, as he likes to make out,' says Samy, who lost nine close family members at the hands of Khmer Rouge. 'We never want to see him again.'
Like many Cambodians Suong and Samy have always felt a gut loyalty towards the royal family. But they are deeply disturbed by Prince Sihanouk's behaviour and apparent duplicity in aligning himself with the Khmer Rouge. They have lost faith in him and feel betrayed.
Nor do they share the revulsion of many Westerners at Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia in 1979 which ousted the Khmer Rouge from power. 'They rescued us and treated us fairly,' says Samy. 'Now things are good, we live freely under Hun Sen and have enough food to eat.' They reject suggestions that a massacre of Vietnamese residents in Cambodia is imminent with the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops. 'The Vietnamese have always been rivals, but hatred is too strong a word. We are grateful to them; the massacre that took place in 1970 was incited by Lon Nol's radio broadcasts.'
But what is perhaps most surprising about Suong's story is the complete tack of recrimination he has suffered due to his family link with Pol Pot. 'People were not hostile to me in 1978,' says Suong. 'When I first learned that Pol Pot was my brother, I was in shock for several days, but my friends comforted me. Nobody has ever victimized me because of this family connection'.
This would seem to support the widely held view that in general the Khmers are a gentle and forgiving people. Pointing to his head, Suong quotes a Khmer proverb which suggests that the hair on his head is different to that on his brother's - as different as the hair on anybody's head. 'Everybody knows that. It is only the perpetrators of the evil themselves who cannot be forgiven.'
Yet even the Khmer willingness to forgive stops well short of pardoning mass murder.
Nick Malloni is a freelance journalist based in Vietnam.