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Cambodia: Cashing in on the Khmer Rouge

According to a government tourism plan, 14 Khmer Rouge sites are set for a makeover.

ANLONG VENG, Cambodia — The memorial is eerily mundane: a simple mound of earth covered by a low roof of rusting corrugated iron and a hand-stenciled sign.

Mixed into the sandy soil, amid the stalks of scrawny pink flowers, are the ashes of one of the worst mass murderers of the 20th century, Pol Pot — the mastermind of the bloody Khmer Rouge revolution that left as many as 2 million people dead in the late 1970s.

Its dark history notwithstanding, this makeshift grave in northern Cambodia attracts a steady trickle of visitors, many of whom actually revere Pol Pot. They light incense and pray to the ghost of a departed tyrant.

“Without Pol Pot, I wouldn’t have survived till today,” said Khim Suon, a 56-year-old who has a job selling tickets to the cremation site. “Pol Pot was a leader who protected the nation, so foreigners and locals come to respect him. ... They come to pray and take souvenir photos.”

It’s a common sentiment in Anlong Veng, the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, which lies near the Thai border and around 60 miles north of the famous temples of Angkor.

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Between 1975 and 1979, under Pol Pot’s leadership, the Khmer Rouge turned Cambodia into a vast rural labor camp in their bid to create a communist utopia, leaving one in four Cambodians dead from execution, starvation or overwork.

More than three decades on, countless survivors struggle to put the past behind them, even as surviving leaders of the regime stand trial at a UN-backed war crimes court in the capital Phnom Penh.

But in this remote district of red earth and cassava fields, nostalgia for the Khmer Rouge lingers. Until it fell to government forces in 1998, Anlong Veng was a nest of die-hard communist fighters who took refuge there after a Vietnamese invasion overthrew their regime in 1979. Many residents still have fond memories of the Khmer Rouge years, and pay regular visits to their old leaders’ homes and gravesites.

Many of the sites have fallen into disrepair, and the Cambodian government, which has largely failed to hold members of the genocidal regime accountable, is now poised to give these landmarks a makeover. Under a 2010 plan that is now reaching the implementation stage, 14 former Khmer Rouge sites, including Pol Pot’s cremation memorial, will soon be restored and furnished with improved signage and visitor information. A museum is also in the works.

The government's stated aim is to preserve Anlong Veng’s historical sites in a bid to allow “national and international guests to visit to understand the last political leadership of the genocidal regime.”

Khmer Rouge nostalgia

Of the old Khmer Rouge leaders, the most revered figure is probably Ta (Grandfather) Mok, the one-legged Khmer Rouge military commander who once ruled the area. In the 1980s and 1990s, “The Butcher” — as he was nicknamed for his violent purges — turned Anlong Veng into a private fief, building a small fortune from the sale of the area’s hardwood forests to the Thai military and using the proceeds to buy the loyalty of his supporters.

“Everything in Anlong Veng was built by Ta Mok,” said Sam Roeun, 59, a Khmer Rouge veteran with a prosthetic leg who shows visitors around his boss’ former home, which overlooks an eerie manmade lake filled with dead trees. “Even the lake here was not natural,” he added. “Ta Mok made it.”

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Except for a few basic, hand-painted signs, however, there is little to suggest the historical significance of the site. An old Chinese radio truck sits derelict in a grove of mango trees near the house, slowly falling to pieces.

Many visitors are ignorant of the area’s history. Some recent arrivals in the area, like 33-year-old Oeung Long, say they come to Ta Mok’s house to marvel at the massive hardwood trunks that hold up the structure. “I don’t know much about the history,” he admits.

Others come simply to hang out. In Ta Mok’s yard, a group of local youths gather at sunset around a white Toyota Corolla, drinking beer and listening to Khmer pop songs, the music’s synthesized calypso beat echoing through The Butcher’s empty halls.

Other former Khmer Rouge