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Western Press Review: Pol Pot's Reported Trial Draws Varied Responses

  • Don Hill

Prague, 29 July 1997 (RFE/RL) -- An apparent journalist coup and a certain military one draws Western press attention to Cambodia. Nate Thayer, an American correspondent for the weekly Far Eastern Economic Review, reported Saturday that he had witnessed, and videotaped, a Khmer Rouge trial of its long-time leader Pol Pot. Despite Thayer's standing as a well-known journalist respected by his colleagues, other news organizations disseminated his report with measured skepticism.

TIMES OF LONDON: Pol Pot looked 'anguished' and close to tears

Tom Fawthrop writes from Phnom Penh in The Times of London today: "Pol Pot, the man held responsible for the deaths of more than a million Cambodians through mass execution, starvation and disease, 'looked anguished and close to tears as he was denounced by his comrades' at a show trial last week, an American witness said yesterday." Fawthrop says: "Last Friday at Anlong Veng, the heavily-defended guerrilla stronghold, Pol Pot 'wearing baggy black cotton trousers, a loose grey shirt and a blue Khmer scarf, listened in silence as he was denounced by seven party leaders who in turn accused him of betrayal'."

NEW YORK TIMES: Reactions to report have been confused

In today's edition, Elizabeth Becker writes: "Pictures from an extraordinary show trial in a jungle clearing in Western Cambodia appear to provide the first concrete evidence that Pol Pot, the 69-year-old Khmer Rouge leader who has not been seen in public for nearly two decades, is alive and in the custody of his former comrades." She says: "The Cambodian Communist leader most responsible for the death of more than one million Cambodians was easily recognizable. His shoulders now stoop, his hair has turned entirely gray and age spots dot his face."

Becker writes: "He wore the air of a defeated man, dressed plainly and wearing white plastic sandals -- not the tailored Mao suits he wore while in power. The show trial took place in a simple shed with a corrugated metal roof propped up with thick poles. Reports that there had been a trial first surfaced over the weekend, but were initially dismissed as a propaganda maneuver by the Khmer Rouge to distance themselves from Pol Pot."

She says: "In Cambodia, reactions to reports and pictures of the trial have been confused. Hun Sen dismissed the show trial as a ploy. Experts believe that even without Pol Pot as its head, the Khmer Rouge movement is so weak (newly ascendant strongman) Hun Sen can ignore it while he consolidates his power."

WASHINGTON POST: U.S. State Departmment skeptical about Thayer's account

Here's how William Branigan and Keith B. Richburg handle the Nate Thayer report today: "He made his way to his place before a Khmer Rouge tribunal with the aid of a cane cut from the bamboo that grows in the jungles of northern Cambodia. But after silently listening to a succession of his former followers condemn him as a genocidal criminal and call for him to be 'crushed,' a stooped and visibly anguished Pol Pot had to be helped off by men gripping both his arms.

"The once-mighty leader of the world's deadliest guerrilla force had just been sentenced to 'life imprisonment' in a show trial in Anlong Veng, stronghold of Khmer Rouge remnants that revolted against him last month, according to Nate Thayer, an American reporter who witnessed the scene. While the trial was clearly stage-managed, Thayer said, he had no doubt Pol Pot's downfall was genuine.

"The account of Thayer, the first journalist to see Pol Pot in 18 years, nevertheless drew skepticism Monday from the leader of a recent Cambodian coup and the (U.S.)State Department spokesman."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: Pol Pot has history of deception and manipulation

Writing from Thailand, Maggie Farley took a similar tone today in an analysis of the Thayer revelations. She added: "Pol Pot has a history of deception and manipulation in his 35-year leadership of the Khmer Rouge movement. One of his last interviews, in 1978, ended with the unexplained murder of a leftist Scottish scholar who accompanied two American journalists to meet him. "In 1979, after being driven out of Cambodia by Vietnamese forces, he met with a final round of foreign reporters, announced his retirement and dropped out of sight. Shrouded by the shadows of Cambodia's jungles, he has masterminded the Khmer Rouge's guerrilla warfare, peppered the country's roads and rice fields with land mines and been protected by myth and fear - until now.

"Cambodian strongman Hun Sen, who justified his military overthrow of Ranariddh earlier this month, by the prince's impending alliance with the much-hated Khmer Rouge, insisted the trial was a fake."

CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR: Cambodian situation resembles early days of Bosnian conflict

Cameron W. Barr analyzes the overall Cambodian situation today, and likens the international reaction to that of the early days of the Bosnian conflict. He writes: "The Southeast Asian nation of 9 million people, where one of the country's two co-premiers ousted the other by force this month, is presenting the international community with another test of its will to follow through on promises to forge peace and stability.

"How to react to Cambodian leader Hun Sen's violent seizure of sole power has been a pressing topic in many capitals, partly because Cambodia's troubles draw international sympathy - with good reason. In the past three decades, the country has been bombed by the US, administered by a murderous, Mao-inspired tyrant named Pol Pot, and invaded by Vietnam.

"In the early 1990s, the United Nations led a $2-billion effort to establish peace and democracy that was also a sort of moral compensation for Cambodia's painful past. The actions of Mr. Hun Sen, a Vietnamese-trained former Communist, have jeopardized the success of this project, and the US and other nations have spent three weeks figuring out what to do about him.

"At meetings in this suburb of the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, top officials from Southeast Asian nations, the US, and other countries have decided on a strategy that echoes the early days of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina: Let's let the neighbors handle the problem. The neighbors, in this instance, mean a 30-year-old organization called the Association of South East Asian Nations, which brings together every country in the region except Cambodia."


WASHINGTON POST: New PM promises to lead country out of chaos

Edward Cody reports from Tirana today that Prime Minister Fatos Nano has set out to keep his promise to restore order. Cody writes in an analysis: "Finally installed a month after his party's electoral landslide, Albania's new prime minister promised yesterday night to lead his country out of chaos and restore 'stability and normality' without the continued presence of foreign peacekeeping troops.

"The vow from Prime Minister Fatos Nano, in presenting his government program, on one level marked a gesture to Albanian national pride, which has been wounded by a breakdown of public institutions since last spring's explosion of rebellion and banditry turned much of the country into a no-man's land and forced foreign armies to police its streets and roads.

"At the same time, it formally carried forward Nano's campaign promise to restore order. According to analysts here, that pledge more than anything else got his Socialist Party overwhelmingly elected in the June 29 and July 6 vote that ousted conservative president Sali Berisha, who had run Albania with an increasingly authoritarian hand since it emerged in the early 1990s from more than four decades of communism and extreme isolation."