Pol Pot's bust at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
General Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea
1963 – 1979
|None (party dissolved)
Prime Minister of Democratic Kampuchea (Cambodia)
May 13, 1975 – January 7, 1979
|May 19 1925
Kampong Thum Province, Cambodia
|April 15 1998 (aged 72)
|Khieu Ponnary (deceased)
Pol Pot (May 19, 1925 – April 15, 1998), earlier known as Saloth Sar, was leader of the Communist movement known as the "Khmer Rouge" and became the dictator of Cambodia after the fall of the Lon Nol regime in 1975. He is considered largely responsible for drastic policies of collectivization and terror, which resulted in a huge segment of the population of Cambodia perishing in the mid-to-late 1970s.
After joining the Communist movement while a student in France and leading the Khmer Rouge rebels in the early 1970s, Pol Pot became the prime minister of "Democratic Kampuchea" from 1976-79, having been the de facto leader since mid-1975. During his time in power he imposed a version of agrarian collectivization whereby city dwellers were relocated to the countryside to work in collective farms and other forced labor projects with the goal of restarting civilization in "Year Zero." Students, landlords, government workers, teachers, shop-owners, and ethnic minorities were treated as enemies of the revolution and were slaughtered on a mass scale in the Khmer Rouge's infamous "Killing Fields." The combined effect of slave labor, intentional starvation, poor medical care, and mass executions resulted an estimated death toll of 750,000 to 3 million people.
In 1979, Pol Pot fled into the jungles of southwest Cambodia after an invasion by neighboring Vietnam, which led to the collapse of the Khmer Rouge government. There he continued to resist the new Cambodian government until 1997, when he was overthrown and imprisoned by other Khmer Rouge leaders. He died in 1998 while under house arrest. He is considered one of the worst mass murderers in history.
Early life (1925-1961)
Saloth Sar was born in Prek Sbauv in Kampong Thom Province in 1925 to a moderately wealthy family of Chinese-Khmer descent. In 1935, his family sent him to live with an older brother and a Catholic school in Phnom Penh. His sister was a concubine of the king, and he often visited the royal palace. In 1947, he gained admission to the exclusive Lycée Sisowath, but was unsuccessful in his studies.
After switching to a technical school, he qualified for a scholarship that allowed him to study in France. He studied radio electronics in Paris from 1949-53. During this time he participated in an international labor brigade building roads in Yugoslavia in 1950.
After the Soviet Union recognized the Viet Minh as the government of Vietnam in 1950, French Communists (PCF) attracted many young Cambodians, including Saloth. In 1951, he joined a Communist cell in a secret organization known as the Cercle Marxiste, which had taken control of the Khmer Student's Association and also joined the PCF itself.
As a result of failing his exams in three successive years, Saloth was forced to return to Cambodia in January 1954, where he worked as a teacher. As the first member of the Cercle to return to Cambodia he was given the task of evaluating the various groups rebelling against the government. He selected the Khmer Viet Minh as the most promising, and in August 1954, he traveled to the Viet Minh Eastern Zone headquarters in the Kampong Cham/Prey Veng border area of Cambodia.
After the Geneva peace accord of 1954 granted Cambodian independence, Saloth returned to Phnom Penh, where various right and left wing parties struggled against each other for power in the new government. King Norodom Sihanouk played the parties against one other while using the police and army to suppress extreme political groups. Saloth became the liaison between the above-ground parties of the left and the underground Communist movement.
The path to rebellion (1962-1968)
In January 1962, Saloth became the de facto deputy leader of the Cambodian Communist Party and was formally elected secretary of the central committee of the party the following year. In March, he went into hiding after his name was published on a police list of leftist revolutionaries. He fled to the Vietnamese border region and made contact with North Vietnamese units fighting against South Vietnam.
In early 1964, Saloth convinced the Vietnamese to help the Cambodian Communists set up their own base camp in the area. The central committee of the party met later that year and issued a declaration calling for armed struggle. In the border camps, the ideology of the Khmer Rouge was gradually developed. Breaking with classical Marxism, the party followed the Maoist line and declared rural peasant farmers to be the true lifeblood of the revolution.
After another wave of repression by Sihanouk in 1965, the Khmer Rouge movement began to grow more rapidly. In April 1965, Saloth went to North Vietnam to gain approval for an uprising in Cambodia against the government. However, with Sihanouk promising to allow the Vietnamese Communists use of Cambodian territory and ports in their war against South Vietnam, the North Vietnamese refused to support any revolt.
After returning to Cambodia in 1966, Saloth organized a party meeting in which the organization was officially named the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), and command zones were established to prepare each region for an uprising against the government. In the same year a dispute over the government price paid for rice resulted in violent confrontations between peasants and government forces. Saloth's Khmer Rouge were caught by surprise by the uprisings, but the government's hard-line tactics in the episode created rural unrest that played into the hands of the Communist movement.
In 1967, Saloth decided to launch a national uprising, even without North Vietnamese support. The revolt began on January 18, 1968 with a raid on an army base south of Battambang, which had already seen two years of peasant unrest. The attack was repulsed, but the Khmer Rouge captured a number of weapons, which were then used to drive police forces out of various Cambodian villages and thus seize control of surrounding areas.
By the summer of 1968, Saloth began the transition from a collective leadership toward being the sole decision-maker of the Khmer Rouge movement. Where before he had shared communal quarters with other leaders, he now had his own compound with a personal staff and a troop of guards. People outside his inner circle were no longer allowed to approach him, and had to be summoned into his presence by his staff.
The path to power (1969-1975)
The Khmer Rouge at this time consisted of about 1,500 regulars, but was supported by a considerably larger number of villagers. While weapons were in short supply, the insurgency was able to operate in 12 of 19 districts of Cambodia. Up to 1969, opposition to Sihanouk was at the center of Khmer Rouge propaganda. However, it now ceased to be anti-Sihanouk in public statements and shifted its criticism to the right-wing parties of Cambodia and the "imperialist" United States.
In 1970, the Cambodian National Assembly voted to remove Sihanouk from office and ceased all cooperation with North Vietnam. The country's new president was the pro-U.S. General Lon Nol. The North Vietnamese now offered Saloth whatever resources he wanted for his insurgency against the Cambodian government. Sihanouk soon appealed by radio to the people of Cambodia to rise up against the government and support the Khmer Rouge. In May 1970, Saloth returned to Cambodia and the pace of the insurgency greatly increased. Meanwhile, a force of 40,000 North Vietnamese quickly overran large parts of eastern Cambodia, reaching to within 15 miles (24 km) of Phnom Penh before being pushed back.
Through 1971, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong did most of the fighting against the Cambodian government while Saloth and the Khmer Rouge functioned virtually as auxiliaries to their forces. Saloth took advantage of the situation to gather in new recruits and to train them to a higher standard than previously was possible. He also put the resources of Khmer Rouge organization into political education and indoctrination. Requirements for membership in the party were made more strict, with students and so-called "middle peasants" refused admission.
By 1972, a Khmer Rouge army of 35,000 men had taken shape, supported by around 100,000 irregulars. China was supplying $5 million a year in weapons, and Saloth had organized an independent revenue source for the party in the form of rubber plantations in eastern Cambodia, using forced labor.
In May 1972, Saloth began to enforce new levels of discipline and conformity in areas under Khmer Rouge control. The Chams and other minorities were forced to conform to Cambodian styles of dress and appearance, and all land holdings were required to be of uniform size. Saloth issued a new set of decrees in May 1973, which started the process of reorganizing peasant villages into cooperatives where property was jointly owned and individual possessions banned.
Although an attack on Phnom Penh failed, by the middle of 1973, the Khmer Rouge controlled almost two-thirds of the country and half the population. In late 1973, Saloth moved to cut the capital off from contact from outside supply and effectively put the city under siege. Around this time, Saloth also ordered a series of general purges within the Communist Party of Kampuchea, targeting former government workers and officials, teachers, and virtually anyone with an education. A set of new prisons was also constructed in Khmer Rouge-run areas. A Cham uprising was quickly crushed, and Saloth ordered harsh physical torture against most of those involved in the revolt.
The Khmer Rouge policy of emptying urban areas to the countryside was also instituted around this time. In 1973, after attempts to impose socialism in the town of Kratie had met with failure, Saloth decided that the only solution was to send the entire population of the town to the fields. Shortly after this, he ordered the evacuation of the 15,000 people of Kampong Cham. The even larger city of Oudong was forcibly evacuated in 1974. In September 1974, Saloth instituted another major purge of party ranks. A top party official named Prasith was taken out into a forest and shot to death without trial. His death was followed by a purge of cadres who, like Prasith, were ethnically Thai.
The Khmer Rouge were positioned for a final offensive against the government in January 1975. However, North Vietnam was determined to take Saigon before the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh. Shipments of weapons from China were delayed, but with the U.S. withdrawing its support, the government could see the writing on the wall. In September, a Supreme National Council was formed with new leadership to negotiate peace and a coalition government with the Khmer Rouge. It was headed by Sak Sutsakhan, who had studied in France with Saloth and was cousin to the Khmer Rouge Deputy Secretary Nuon Chea. Saloth's reaction was to add the names of everyone involved in the new government to his post-victory death list.
Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979)
The Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. Saloth Sar called himself the "brother number one" and declared his nom de guerre Pol Pot, from the French Politique potentielle, as his official name. A new government was formed with Khieu Samphan as prime minister under the control of the Communist Party of Kampuchea. Khieu was obliged to relinquish the post to Pol Pot on May 13, making Pol Pot the de facto dictator of Cambodia. Khieu became titular head of state after the formal abdication of Sihanouk in January 1976. The name of the country was officially changed to "Democratic Kampuchea."
The Khmer Rouge targeted members of the former government, Buddhist monks, Muslims, Western-educated intellectuals, university students and teachers, people who had contact with Western countries or with Vietnam, the crippled and lame, and ethnic Chinese, Laotians, and Vietnamese. Some of these "enemies of the people" were killed, while others were put in the infamous S-21 camp for interrogation, often involving torture in cases where a confession was useful to the government. Many others were summarily executed.
The "Killing Fields"
Immediately after the fall of Phnom Penh, Pol Pot began to implement reforms following the concept of "Year Zero" ideology. He ordered the complete evacuation of Phnom Penh and all other recently captured major towns and cities.
Evacuees were marked for destruction. Their rations were reduced to two bowls of rice soup per day, leading to widespread starvation. Hundreds of thousands of the evacuees and other "non-revolutionary" people were taken out in shackles to dig their own mass graves. The Khmer Rouge soldiers then beat them to death with iron bars and hoes or buried them alive. A Khmer Rouge extermination prison directive ordered: "Bullets are not to be wasted."
The Khmer Rouge also classified people by religion and ethnic group. Despite Cambodia's ancient Buddhist culture, the new government officially abolished all religion and dispersed minority groups, forbidding them to speak their languages or to practice their customs. All property became collective. The family as the primary institution of society was abolished, and children were raised on a communal basis. Political dissent and opposition were strictly prohibited. People were often treated as enemies of the revolution based on their appearance, such as wearing eyeglasses, or their background. Torture was widespread. Thousands of politicians and bureaucrats accused of association with previous governments were executed. Phnom Penh was turned into a ghost city, while people in the countryside were dying of starvation, illnesses, or execution.
The death toll from Pol Pot's policies is a matter of much debate. Estimates vary from a low of 750,000 to as many as 3 million. Amnesty International estimated 1.4 million; and the United States Department of State, 1.2 million. Whichever figures are correct, the death toll was staggering. Cambodia had a total estimated population at the time of around 5 million.
Internationally, Pol Pot aligned the country with the People's Republic of China and adopted an anti-Soviet line. In December 1976, Pol Pot issued directives to the senior leadership to the effect that Vietnam was now an enemy. Defenses along the border were strengthened and unreliable deportees were moved deeper into Cambodia.
Conflict with Vietnam
In January 1977, relations with Vietnam deteriorated, beginning with small clashes and border disputes. In late 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia with the intent of overthrowing the Khmer Rouge. The Cambodian army was defeated, and Pol Pot fled to the Thai border area. In January 1979, Vietnam installed a new government under Heng Samrin, composed mostly of Khmer Rouge who had previously fled to Vietnam to avoid the Pol Pot's purges.
Pol Pot, meanwhile, regrouped with his core supporters in locations on both sides of the Thai border, with Chinese material support and the military government of Thailand using his Khmer Rouge as a buffer force to keep the Vietnamese away from the border. Vietnam did not move decisively to root out the Khmer Rouge and used the continued existence of Pol Pot's forces to justify continued military occupation of Cambodia.
In the early 1980s, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge remained the best-trained and most capable of the three insurgent groups who, despite sharply divergent ideologies, formed the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK) alliance three years earlier. Finally, in December 1984, the Vietnamese launched a major offensive and overran most of the Khmer Rouge and other insurgent positions. Pol Pot fled to Thailand where he lived for six years under Thai protection.
Pol Pot officially resigned as head of the party in 1985 and handed day-to-day power to his long-time associate Son Sen, but continued as de facto Khmer Rouge leader and the dominant force within the anti-Vietnam alliance. In 1986, his new wife, Mea Son, gave birth to a daughter, Salong Sitha. Shortly after this, Pol Pot moved to China for medical treatment for cancer of the face. He remained there until 1988.
In 1989, Vietnam withdrew its occupation force from Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge then established a new stronghold area in the west near the Thai border, and Pol Pot relocated back into Cambodia from Thailand. The Khmer Rouge kept the government forces at bay until 1996, when troops started deserting and several important Khmer Rouge leaders defected. In 1995, meanwhile, Pol Pot experienced a stroke that paralyzed the left side of his body.
After Son Sen attempted to make a settlement with the government, Pol Pot had him executed on June 10, 1997. Eleven members of his family were also killed. Pol Pot then fled his northern stronghold, but was later arrested by Khmer Rouge military chief Ta Mok, who subjected him to a show trial for the death of Son Sen. He was sentenced to lifelong house arrest.
Death and legacy
On the night of April 15, 1998, the Voice of America, of which Pol Pot was a devoted listener, announced that the Khmer Rouge had agreed to turn him over to an international tribunal. According to his wife, he died in his bed later in the night while waiting to be moved to another location. His body was cremated without an autopsy a few days later at Anlong Veng in the Khmer Rouge zone, raising suspicions that he committed suicide or was poisoned.
Pol Pot's legacy in Cambodia is one of mass murder and genocide on a scale unprecedented in relation to the size of his country. His application of Leninist-Maoist principles, justifying "any means" to achieve revolutionary ends, resulted in the most hideous Communist regime in history, famous for its "Killing Fields," in which hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children were slaughtered by Khmer Rouge cadres who had been indoctrinated into Pol Pot's vision of "Year Zero." He ranks with Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong as one of the greatest mass murderers in modern history.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Affonço, Denise. 2007. To The End Of Hell: One Woman's Struggle to Survive Cambodia's Khmer Rouge. (With Introductions by Jon Swain and David P. Chandler.) London: Reportage Press. ISBN 9780955572951.
- Chandler, David P, Kiernan, Ben and Boua, Chanthou. 1988. Pol Pot Plans the Future: Confidential Leadership Documents from Democratic Kampuchea, 1976-1977. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 0938692356.
- Chandler, David P. 1992. Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. ISBN 0813335108.
- Dith, Pran, and Kim DePaul. 1997. Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields Memoirs by Survivors. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300078732.
- Heder, Stephen. 1991. Pol Pot and Khieu Samphan. Clayton, Victoria: Centre of Southeast Asian Studies. ISBN 0732602726.
- Kiernan, Ben. 1997. The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia Under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300061130.
- Kiernan, Ben. 2004. How Pol Pot Came to Power: A History of Cambodian Communism, 1930-1975. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300102623.
- Ponchaud, François. 1978. Cambodia: Year Zero. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. ISBN 9780030403064.
- Short, Philip. 2005. Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare. New York: Henry Holt and Company. ISBN 0805066624.
- Vickery, Michael. 1984. Cambodia: 1975-1982. Boston: South End Press. ISBN 9780896081895.
All links retrieved November 24, 2022.
- A meeting with Pol Pot BBC News, April 20, 1998
- Cambodian Genocide Program, 1994-2008.Yale University.
- The Killing Fields (1984); film directed by Roland Joffé.
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