Born May 19, 1928
Kompong Thom Province, Cambodia
Died April 1998
Preah Vihear, Cambodia
Cambodian political leader; head of the Cambodian Communist rebel group known as the Khmer Rouge
Pol Pot is widely considered to be one of the most evil political leaders in modern history. During the Vietnam War, he led a group of Communist rebels known as the Khmer Rouge who were fighting for control of the neighboring country of Cambodia. When the Khmer Rouge took over the Cambodian government in April 1975, Pol Pot and his followers went on a murderous rampage that led to the deaths of an estimated two million Cambodian citizens. Their reign of terror ended only after Vietnamese forces successfully invaded Cambodia in 1979.
Develops radical communist ideas
The man who became known as Pol Pot was born on May 19, 1928, in Kompong Thom province, Cambodia. His name at birth was Saloth Sar. He changed his name to Pol Pot, which means "the original Cambodian," years later when he became leader of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot's parents were landowners who traced their ancestors back to Cambodian royalty. He had a very strict and sheltered childhood in the capital city of Phnom Penh, where he attended an elite Catholic school.
At the age of twenty, Pol Pot received a scholarship to study radio electronics in France. During his time there, he became active in the Communist Party. He also met his future wife, Khieu Ponnary, who was the first Cambodian woman to earn a college degree. Some sources say that Pol Pot left France without earning a degree because he failed to pass his final examinations three times in a row. These sources claim that Pol Pot later formed a deep hatred for intellectuals because of his own academic failures. But in one of his rare interviews, Pol Pot claimed that he did not complete his education because he concentrated on political activities instead. "As I spent most of my time in radical activities, I did not attend many classes," he admitted. "The state cut short my scholarship, and I was forced to return home."
Pol Pot returned to Cambodia in the early 1950s. At that time, Cambodia—like its neighbor Vietnam—was a colony of France. In 1954 a group of Communist-led Vietnamese nationalists known as the Viet Minh defeated the French after nine years of war. The agreement that ended this war divided Vietnam into two sections, Communist-led North Vietnam and U.S.-supported South Vietnam. At the same time, France granted independence to its other colonies in Indochina, including Cambodia. Prince Norodom Sihanouk (see entry)—who had been named king of Cambodia by the French in 1941, but later had fought for Cambodian independence—gave up his throne in order to become president of Cambodia in 1955.
During this time, Pol Pot remained active in the Cambodian Communist movement. This movement had grown out of the resistance to French colonial rule and had links to the Vietnamese Communists. It was generally critical of Sihanouk's government. But Sihanouk did not permit opposition to his rule. He called the Communists the Khmer Rouge, or "Red Cambodians," and forced them into hiding in the countryside. Pol Pot rose through the Communist ranks over the next few years. In 1962 he became the party's leader after the former leader was assassinated.
By the time Pol Pot took over leadership of the Cambodian Communist movement, his political views had become very radical. He and a few key supporters believed that the Cambodian people were superior to the rest of Indochina. They wanted to cleanse Cambodian society of what they considered impure elements, such as ethnic minorities and signs of other cultures. To achieve their goals, they planned to lead the people in a revolution that would restore the ancient glory of the country. Pol Pot kept the true nature of his plans secret from all but his closest advisors. Instead, he based his call for revolution on the need to overthrow the ineffective government of Sihanouk.
Leads the Khmer Rouge
During the 1960s Cambodia was increasingly threatened by a new war that had broken out in Vietnam. This war pitted North Vietnam and its secret allies, the South Vietnamese Communists known as the Viet Cong, against South Vietnam. North Vietnam wanted to overthrow the South Vietnamese government and reunite the two countries under one Communist government. But U.S. government officials worried that a Communist government in Vietnam would encourage other countries in Indochina to adopt communism. They felt that this would increase the power of China and the Soviet Union and threaten the security of the United States.
At first, the U.S. government sent money, weapons, and military advisors to help South Vietnam defend itself against North Vietnam and the Viet Cong. In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson (see entry) sent American combat troops to join the fight on the side of South Vietnam. The intense fighting with American troops encouraged the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces to move their base of operations across the border into eastern Cambodia. Like many other Cambodians, Pol Pot did not like the idea of Vietnamese forces operating in the country. After all, Vietnam and Cambodia had been involved in many violent border disputes over the years. These clashes had created very tense relations between the two countries. But Pol Pot also knew that the situation might provide him with an ideal opportunity to topple Sihanouk's government.
Pol Pot began organizing the Khmer Rouge as a revolutionary group in 1966. During this time, he remained behind the scenes as much as possible for his own protection. The Khmer Rouge slowly gained support from the Cambodian people over the next few years, as Cambodia became increasingly involved in the Vietnam War. In 1969 Sihanouk approved American bombing runs over Cambodian territory. The bombing was intended to destroy the Vietnamese Communist bases along the border. But it mainly forced the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces to move deeper into Cambodia. It also disrupted the lives of the Cambodian people and caused them great hardship. As a result, many people threw their support behind the Khmer Rouge.
In 1970 a group of Cambodian officials led by Lon Nol (see entry) took control of the government while Sihanouk was out of the country. Angry about the overthrow of his rule, Sihanouk joined forces with his former enemies, the Khmer Rouge, against Lon Nol's government. A short time later, U.S. and South Vietnamese combat forces mounted an invasion of Cambodia. Once again, the military operation pushed the Vietnamese Communists further into Cambodian territory and caused suffering for the Cambodian people.
The Khmer Rouge continued to gather support from people who were upset over the country's involvement in the Vietnam War. With Sihanouk as its symbolic leader (although the former Cambodian president held no real power), the rebel group emerged as a legitimate political alternative to Lon Nol. The Khmer Rouge increased in size from 4,000 members to 80,000 members over the next few years. With help from the Vietnamese Communists, they defeated the Cambodian military in a series of battles. By 1973 the Khmer Rouge controlled 75 percent of the countryside of Cambodia and held the loyalty of nearly half of the population.
The Khmer Rouge takes control of Cambodia
After two more years of civil war, the Khmer Rouge captured the capital city of Phnom Penh and took control of the Cambodian government on April 17, 1975. Lon Nol escaped to the United States, but many members of his administration were murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Two weeks later, North Vietnamese forces captured the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon to win the Vietnam War.
Immediately after taking power, the Cambodian Communists began putting Pol Pot's radical ideas into place. They launched a brutal program designed to transform Cambodia into a simple farming society. As part of this destructive program, the Khmer Rouge renamed the nation Democratic Kampuchea and called the beginning of their rule Year Zero. They drove people out of cities and towns and forced them to work on communal farms in the countryside. They burned books, tore down buildings and temples, and destroyed cars, medical equipment, and other examples of "foreign technology." They also abolished money, prohibited religious practice, eliminated private property, ended all formal education, and forbade the publication of newspapers.
Worst of all, the Khmer Rouge murdered hundreds of thousands of Cambodian citizens in an effort to rid the country of ethnic minorities and "intellectuals" who opposed their rule. Some people were killed simply because they wore eyeglasses or spoke a foreign language. Many others were herded into forced labor camps, where they died of starvation, exhaustion, or disease. Most Cambodian doctors were killed, and those who survived were not allowed to use modern medicine. As a result, epidemics of treatable diseases spread quickly through Cambodian society. People who managed to escape the country as refugees told of mass graves in the once-peaceful rice fields. Overall, historians estimate that as many as two million Cambodians—or one-fourth of the population—died under the Khmer Rouge.
Vietnamese invaders end the violence
During the four-year reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia was still involved in disputes with Vietnam over national borders and leadership of Indochina. Pol Pot disliked the Vietnamese and believed that the Cambodians were a superior race. As a result, he refused to acknowledge Vietnam as the most powerful nation in Indochina. Pol Pot also launched a series of military raids to reclaim Vietnamese territory that had once been part of Cambodia.
In December 1978 the Vietnamese government responded by sending troops into Cambodia to overthrow the Khmer Rouge. By January 1979 Vietnam's invasion forces had captured Phnom Penh. They immediately put an end to the brutal policies of the Khmer Rouge. They also established a new, pro-Vietnamese government under Prime Minister Hun Sen. The Vietnamese occupation forces sentenced Pol Pot to death, but they were not able to find him. The Khmer Rouge leader and 10,000 of his troops retreated to the jungles of Thailand, along the western border of Cambodia. From these hidden bases, the Khmer Rouge continued fighting for control of Cambodia using tactics of guerrilla warfare.
Even though the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia had removed the violent Khmer Rouge from power, many countries around the world criticized Vietnam's actions. For example, the United States and other countries formed an economic embargo to punish Vietnam for its actions. The U.S. government also provided support to the Khmer Rouge and other Cambodian rebels fighting against the Hun Sen government.
Despite the international disapproval, Vietnam maintained its occupation of Cambodia for ten years before withdrawing its troops in 1989. Boosted by recognition from the United States and other countries, the Khmer Rouge remained a force in Cambodian politics during this time. In the 1990s, however, the Khmer Rouge gradually became a fringe movement and split into competing factions. In 1997 Pol Pot was taken prisoner by some of his rivals within the Khmer Rouge. He was held in a secret jungle hideout along the Thai border. He died under mysterious circumstances in April 1998. Khmer Rouge officials claimed that he died of a heart attack, but his body was cremated before the cause of death could be confirmed.
Chandler, David P. Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992.
Kamm, Henry. Cambodia: Report from a Stricken Land. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1998.
Kirk, Donald. Wider War: The Struggle for Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos. New York: Praeger, 1971.
Ponchaud, Francois. Cambodia: Year Zero. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1977.
Schanberg, Sydney H. The Death and Life of Dith Pran. New York: Viking Penguin, 1980.
The Killing Fields
The Khmer Rouge, which ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, was one of the most violent and destructive governments in modern history. The peaceful rice fields of the Cambodian countryside turned into "killing fields," or mass graves for the estimated two million people who died under the brutal Khmer Rouge rule. In fact, some historians have compared Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge to Germany under Adolf Hitler, when the Nazis murdered six million Jews during the Holocaust.
In 1984 British movie director Roland Joffe released The Killing Fields, a film about the horrors of life in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. It was based on an article by American reporter Sydney Schanberg that appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 1980. Both the article and the film follow the experiences of Schanberg and his Cambodian interpreter and guide, Dith Pran, during the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia.
In the movie, Schanberg first arrives in Cambodia in 1972, when the Communist rebels known as the Khmer Rouge are involved in a civil war against Cambodian government forces. Schanberg reports on events in Cambodia with the help of Dith Pran, who helps him uncover stories and communicate with the local people. Over time, the two men develop a close friendship.
When the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh is captured by the Khmer Rouge in 1975, Schanberg remains in the country to cover the story. He convinces Dith Pran to stay with him, at great risk to both of their safety. Schanberg manages to escape the city at the last minute, but he is unable to get a passport for Dith Pran. Although the reporter later wins a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the fall of Phnom Penh, he is consumed by guilt over leaving his friend behind.
For the next four years, Dith Pran struggles to survive the violence that dominates his homeland under the Khmer Rouge. He pretends to be a simple taxi driver so the Communists will not kill him for being an "intellectual." Still, he suffers torture and terrible hunger at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Finally, Dith Pran makes a dangerous journey to Thailand in 1979, where he is reunited with Schanberg.
In The Killing Fields, the role of Dith Pran was played by Haing S. Ngor, a Cambodian doctor who had also endured several years of terror under the Khmer Rouge. After escaping to the United States, Ngor became an outspoken opponent of the Khmer Rouge and organized humanitarian aid missions to help Cambodian refugees. Sadly, the actor was murdered outside his home in Los Angeles in 1996. Some reports claim that he was killed by Khmer Rouge agents.
The Killing Fields became one of the most respected films of the Vietnam War era. It was popular with audiences, and it won three Academy Awards—including a best supporting actor Oscar for Ngor. Critics praised it for bringing the world's attention to the Cambodian tragedy through powerful images of war. As David Ansen wrote in a Newsweek review, "The Killing Fields paints a canvas of ravaged Cambodia so compelling and convincing you can't tear your eyes from the screen."
Dith Pran (1942–)
One of the best-known survivors of the Khmer Rouge is Dith Pran, the Cambodian interpreter and guide whose life story became the basis for the award-winning movie The Killing Fields. Dith Pran was born on September 27, 1942, in the town of Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia. He learned French and English during his school years and then became an interpreter for American military forces operating in Cambodia in 1960. When the Cambodian government broke off relations with the United States in 1965, Dith Pran found work in a hotel.
Five years later, a civil war erupted between Cambodian government forces and the Cambodian Communist rebels known as the Khmer Rouge. Dozens of reporters from around the world came to Cambodia to report on the situation, including Sydney Schanberg of the New York Times. Dith Pran worked as an interpreter for the foreign journalists. As the reporters learned of his energy, courage, and political connections, Dith Pran's services were in great demand.
In 1973 Dith Pran helped Schanberg break a big story. An American plane accidentally dropped twenty tons of bombs on the heavily populated Cambodian town of Neak Luong. About 150 people were killed, and another 250 were wounded. When rumors of the tragic mistake surfaced, the U.S. Embassy played down the destruction and tried to prevent reporters from reaching the town. Dith Pran helped Schanberg become the first journalist on the scene by arranging passage on a Cambodian military patrol boat.
Over time, Dith Pran and Schanberg became close friends. Dith Pran eventually received a salary from the New York Times and worked only with Schanberg. In 1975 Khmer Rouge forces surrounded the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. The U.S. Embassy was evacuated, and many foreign journalists left the country. But Schanberg decided to remain in Cambodia as long as possible to cover the Communist takeover. Dith Pran agreed to stay with him, despite the fact that both of their lives would be in great danger.
After Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge, Schanberg was allowed to leave the country. He desperately tried to find a way to take Dith Pran with him to the United States, including forging a passport. But Dith Pran was forced to remain in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Dith Pran knew that the Communists would kill him for being an intellectual and helping the foreign journalists, so he destroyed all of his belongings and anything that would show his true identity. He spent the next four years working in labor camps and pretending to be a poor taxi driver.
Like many other Cambodians, Dith Pran suffered from disease and malnutrition during this time. At one point, he was nearly beaten to death by the Khmer Rouge for stealing a handful of rice to keep from starving. His father, three brothers, and one sister were all murdered by the Khmer Rouge. He recalled how the countryside of Cambodia turned into "killing fields," or mass graves containing thousands of bodies. "In the water wells, the bodies were like soup bones in broth," he said in Schanberg's book The Death and Life of Dith Pran. "And you could always tell the killing grounds because the grass grew taller and greener where the bodies were buried."
In the meantime, Schanberg won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge. He also made numerous attempts to locate or get a message to Dith Pran. Finally, after the Vietnamese Army invaded Cambodia in 1979, Dith Pran escaped over the mountains into Thailand. Two of his companions were killed by a land mine during the dangerous journey. But Dith Pran made it to a refugee camp, where a joyful Schanberg met him and arranged for his passage to the United States.
Later that year, Schanberg wrote a major article for the New York Times Magazine about his search for Dith Pran. In 1984, director Roland Joffe used the story as the basis for his critically acclaimed film about the Cambodian tragedy, The Killing Fields. Since then, Dith Pran has found a home in New York City with his wife and children. He works as a staff photographer for the New York Times.
Pol Pot (born 1928) was a key figure in the Cambodian Communist movement, becoming premier of the government of Democratic Kampuchéa (DK) from 1976 to 1979. He directed the mass killing of intellectuals, professional people, city dwellers—perhaps one-fifth of his own people.
Pol Pot was born Saloth Sar on May 19, 1928. He was the second son of a conservative, prosperous, and influential small landowner. Pol Pot's father had social and political connections at the royal court at the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, some 70 miles south from Prek Sbau, the small hamlet in Kompong Thom, the province where Pol Pot was born. Visits by court officials—and, on at least one occasion, even by King Monivong himself—to Pol Pot's father's home appear to have been common. Pol Pot consistently denied that he was Saloth Sar, probably because his family and educational background clashed with Communist proletarian perceptions and because his tactical and organizational skills seemed to have flourished best in an atmosphere of extreme secrecy. Even after he had become premier of the victorious Communist Democratic Kampuchéa (DK) regime in Phnom Penh on April 5, 1976, there was widespread uncertainty about who he was.
The Education of a Radical
Pol Pot's intellectual development showed a sharp break from traditional toward radical values. He was educated in a Buddhist monastery and a private Catholic institution in Phnom Penh and then enrolled at a technical school in the provincial quiet and security of the town of Kompong Cham to learn carpentry. Despite his later claims, there is no evidence that as early as his mid-teens he joined Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh resistance for a while. He seemed at first destined for a trade in carpentry. However, the program of French colonial policymakers to accelerate development of a more diversified "polytechnic" elite in the overseas territories enabled Pol Pot in 1949 to obtain a government scholarship to study radio and electrical technology in Paris.
In France Pol Pot joined a small circle of leftist Cambodian students—some of whom later became prominent Marxist and/or Communist Party leaders (such as Ieng Sary, the future DK foreign minister, and Hou Yuon, an independent Marxist radical who repeatedly served in Prince Norodom Sihanouk's cabinets until his death in 1975 in the Pol Pot holocaust). Pol Pot soon became an anti-colonialist, Marxist radical. Among the European countries he visited during this period was Yugoslavia, whose determination to chart its own national Communist course of thoroughgoing reform reportedly particularly impressed him.
Upon his return to Cambodia in 1953, Pol Pot first drifted into the Viet Minh "United Khmer Issarak (Freedom) Front" of underground Cambodian Communists and radical nationalists. After 1954 the Issarak's principal above-ground organizational mainstay became the Krom Pracheachon ("Citizens Association"). The Front, along with other Cambodian political groups, opposed both the remnant of French colonial power in Cambodia and the government of Sihanouk. The latter was perceived by many Cambodians to be a French puppet. Pol Pot served for several months with Viet Minh and Issarak units, some of whom had joined in the loose leftist radical resistance groups supervised by the Krom Pracheachon. But Cambodia's 1954 achievement of independence from the French also found him increasingly involved in the organization of the Khmer People's Revolutionary Party (KPRP), the first Cambodian Communist party, founded in 1951.
In the post-independence era Pol Pot appears to have resented as much the continued heavy Communist Vietnamese influence in the KPRP and its armed units as the hothouse atmosphere of partisan political intrigues in the capital deftly manipulated by the wily Sihanouk. Pol Pot's contempt for intellectuals and politicians jockeying for favor and power was greatly increased and helped shape his own ruthless radical reforms once he assumed power. Pol Pot's mentor in these years was Tou Samouth, the onetime Unified Issarak Front's president and later the KPRP's secretary general. Like Pol Pot, Samouth was primarily interested in building the KPRP into a genuinely Cambodian, broad-based organization capable of rallying all opposition elements among peasants, urban workers, and intellectuals against the Sihanouk regime. This effort led to tensions with the Vietnamese, who continued to try to dominate the left and anti-Sihanouk Cambodian resistance.
Building a Revolutionary Party
On September 28, 1960, Pol Pot, Tou Samouth, Ieng Sary, and a handful of followers reportedly met in secret in a room of the Phnom Penh railroad station to found the "Workers Party of Kampuchea" (WPK). Samouth was named secretary general and Pol Pot became one of three Politburo members. But on February 20, 1963, at the WPK's second congress, Pol Pot succeeded Samouth as party secretary. The latter had disappeared on July 20, 1963, under mysterious circumstances and subsequently was reported to have been assassinated. Whether Pol Pot was involved in Samouth's murder remains uncertain.
For the next 13 years, as the WPK increasingly seemed to distance itself from Hanoi, Pol Pot and other top WPK cadres virtually disappeared from public notice. They set up their main party encampments in a remote forest area of Ratanakiri province. During this period Pol Pot appears not only to have been consolidating his own leadership position in the WPK, but he also gradually and successfully contested pro-Hanoi elements in the anti-Sihanouk resistance generally. However, Pol Pot at this time carefully avoided an open breach with the Vietnamese Communists, who were consolidating their hold on the Ho Chi Minh trail and adjacent pockets of Cambodian territory. Nevertheless, a 1965 visit by Pol Pot to Hanoi designed to win acceptance as top party leader was shrouded in mutual mistrust. More successful was Pol Pot's journey and extended stay in Beijing in the same year. He remained in China for some seven months, during which time he likely received ideological and organizational schooling. Pol Pot's pro-Chinese orientation became more pronounced upon his return to Cambodia in September 1966. The WPK soon changed its name to Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK).
CPK-instigated demonstrations against the Sihanouk regime now steadily mounted. The prince's blanket denunciation and execution of scores of what his government termed the Khmer Rouge ("Red Khmers") solidified the CPK-led opposition. At the same time it made that opposition appear more formidable than it actually was. In December 1969 and January 1970 Pol Pot and other CPK leaders again visited Hanoi and Beijing, evidently in preparation for a final drive against the Sihanouk regime. But the drive was preempted as on March 18, 1970, a right-wing coup in Phnom Penh overthrew Sihanouk, bringing Lon Nol to the Cambodian presidency.
Although some CPK members and other Communist Pracheachon resistance leaders—including Pol Pot's colleague the future DK President Khieu Sampan—rallied to Sihanouk's call for a united front against Lon Nol, Pol Pot himself remained aloof. After Sihanouk's fall, Hanoi had begun infiltrating some 1, 000 Vietnamese-trained Cambodian Communists into Cambodia. But on orders of Pol Pot most of these were identified and quickly killed. Despite this action and clashes with Pol Pot's followers in Kompong Chom province, Hanoi avoided rupture in the interest of winning first a decisive Communist victory throughout Indochina.
In mid-September 1971 a new CPK congress reelected Pol Pot as secretary general and as commander of its "Revolutionary Army." Tensions between Hanoi and Pol Pot increased further when the CPK refused a Vietnamese request to negotiate with the Lon Nol regime and the United States as Vietnamese-U.S. discussions took place in Paris. In keeping with the Paris Accords, the Vietnamese in the early months of 1973 left some of their Cambodian encampments. But CPK "Revolutionary Army" units quickly took their place as Pol Pot further strengthened his power base. Clashes between Lon Nol's forces and Pol Pot's guerrillas, as well as new "Revolutionary Army" raids on pro-Hanoi Cambodian resistance units and on followers of Sihanouk's coalition exile government continued, however. Yet throughout 1974, in letters to Hanoi and Vietnamese party leaders and in public messages, Pol Pot affirmed his friendship and gratitude.
A Holocaust on His Own People
On April 17, 1975, Phnom Penh fell to several Communist Cambodian and Sihanoukist factions. The CPK and Pol Pot slowly managed to establish hegemony over the capital. Fighting continued between Pol Pot's "Revolutionary Army" and Vietnamese troops in disputed border territories and on islands in the Gulf of Thailand. At a meeting with Vietnamese representatives along the border in early June 1975, Pol Pot reportedly apologized for his troops' "faulty map reading." Tensions between Pol Pot and his associates and the Vietnamese did not abate, however, despite another Pol Pot visit to Hanoi in order to suggest a friendship treaty.
For nearly a year Pol Pot and other Cambodian Communists, as well as the embattled Norodom Sihanouk, struggled for power in the newly proclaimed state of "Democratic Kampuchea." Another CPK party congress in January 1976 reaffirmed Pol Pot's position as secretary general but also revealed emergent leadership rifts between Pol Pot and some outlying zone organizations of the party. Relations with Hanoi continued to worsen. On April 14, 1976, after CPK-controlled elections for a new "People's Representative Assembly" and the resignation as head of state of Sihanouk, a new DK government was proclaimed. Pol Pot, who officially had been elected to the assembly as a delegate of a "rubber workers organization, " now became premier.
However, his authority still was being contested both by Hanoi-influenced party cadres and rival party zone leaders. Beginning in November 1976 Pol Pot accelerated extensive purges of rivals, including cabinet ministers and other top party leaders. This provoked repeated explosions of unrest in Kompong Thom and Oddar Meanchey.
Meanwhile, the fury of Pol Pot's social and economic reform policies carried out by the mystery-shrouded Angka, or "inner" party organization, eventually was to make Pol Pot's name synonymous with one of the modern world's worst holocausts. Forced evacuation, through extended death marches, of the inhabitants of major cities and resettlement and harshly exploitive labor of tens of thousands in agricultural work projects; deliberate withholding of adequate food and medical care; systematic mass killings of all "old dandruff"—i.e., suspected subversives, especially those who had white collar or intellectual occupations or political experience—all these reflected Pol Pot's brand of ideology in which Rousseauist purism and Stalinist terrorism were uniquely blended. Great emphasis was placed in Pol Pot's policies on the training of the young and on the creation of a "New Man" in Cambodia. Even after Pol Pot was driven from power, young teenagers remained among his dedicated followers in the DK's "Revolutionary Army." But the killings and deliberate neglect by the Pol Pot regime cost some 1.6 million Cambodians their lives—nearly 20 percent of the country's total population.
Regime policies prompted mounting opposition among divisional commanders and party cadres. Pol Pot's visit to China and North Korea in September and October 1977 solidified his standing among other Asian Communist leaders, even as fighting with Vietnamese border forces intensified. On December 31, 1977, all diplomatic relations with Hanoi were severed, Pol Pot charging that the Vietnamese were seeking to impose their hegemony on both Laos and Cambodia through an "Indochinese Federation."
The Fall of a Dictator
On May 26, 1978, Eastern Zone party leaders and their followers rose up in revolt against Pol Pot. But the rising failed, and thousands of cadres either were killed or, like Heng Samrin (who would succeed Pol Pot as premier), made good their escape to Vietnam. Some Eastern Zone leaders charged Pol Pot with selling Cambodia to the Chinese. Vietnamese attacks on and military penetration of DK territory became more severe and extensive during the second half of 1978. Pol Pot's premiership also became more precarious and his overtures toward the Chinese to deter Vietnamese intervention found little response. In the wake of a final Vietnamese military drive, Pol Pot and other DK leaders were forces to flee Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979. They eventually regrouped their forces and established an underground government in Western Cambodia and in the Cardamom mountain range.
On July 20, 1979, Pol Pot was condemned to death in absentia, on grounds of having committed genocide. The verdict was issued by a "People's Tribunal" of the new government of the "People's Republic of Kampuchea, " installed with the aid of Vietnamese forces. As growing world attention focussed on the plight of wartorn Cambodia and on the bloody violence of the Pol Pot era, Pol Pot himself increasingly became a liability to his Chinese backers and the underground DK leaders. At a CPK congress on December 17, 1979, Pol Pot stepped down as DK prime minister, and the post was taken over by DK President Khieu Sampan. However, he remained as party secretary general and as head of the CPK's military commission, making him in effect the overall commander of the DK's 30, 000-man guerrilla force battling the Vietnamese in Cambodia. (But throughout most of the 1980s the Vietnamese army controlled Cambodia (Kampuchea) under the presidency of Heng Samrin.)
After leaving his premiership little was known of Pol Pot's whereabouts or activities. Reportedly he repeatedly sought medical attention for a cardio-vascular condition in Beijing in the course of 1981-1983. On September 1, 1985, the DK's clandestine radio announced that Pol Pot had retired as commander of the DK's "National Army" and had been appointed to be "Director of the Higher Institute for National Defense."
Pol Pot was married to Khieu Ponnary, a former fellow student activist of his Paris days and later the CPK women's movement leader in Phnom Penh.
Captured at Last
After several years of living underground, Pol Pot was finally captured on June 18, 1997 by a rival faction of his own comrades. The Khmer Rouge had suffered from internal factionalism in recent years, and finally splintered into opposing forces, the largest of which, in the northern zone, joined with the government of Cambodia under Sihanouk and hunted down their former leader. Upon capturing him, the guerrillas sentenced Pol Pot, leader of the modern day reign of terror, to life in prison.
Pol Pot kept out of the limelight even during his premiership, and no comprehensive full length biography of him as yet exists. Various stages of his life and career are dealt with in Ben Kiernan and Stephen Heder, "Why Pol Pot? Roots of the Cambodian Tragedy, " Indochina Issues (Center for International Policy, Washington, D.C.), 52 (December 1984); Serge Thion, "Chronology of Khmer Communism, 1940-1982, " in David P. Chandler and Ben Kiernan, editors, Revolution and Its Aftermath in Kampuchea (Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, Monograph Series, no. 25, 1983); Ben Kiernan and Chanthou Boua, editors, Peasants and Politics in Kampuchea, 1942-1981 (1982); Michael Vickery, Cambodia, 1975-1982 (1984); and David P. Chandler, A History of Cambodia (1983). For the PRK view of Pol Pot see Say Phouthong, "Fidelity to the Chosen Path, " World Marxist Review (February 1985). The horror of the Pol Pot holocaust was reported by Elizabeth Becker in When the War Was Over: The voices of Cambodia's revolution and its people (1986). □
Born: May 19, 1928
Kompong Thom, Cambodia
Died: April 15, 1998
Near Anlong Veng, Cambodia
Pol Pot was a leader in the Cambodian Communist movement and became premier of the government of Democratic Kampuchéa (DK) from 1976 to 1979. He directed the mass killing of intellectuals, professional people, and city dwellers—over a million of his own people.
Pol Pot was born Saloth Sar on May 19, 1928, near Anlong Veng, Cambodia, the second son of a successful landowner. Pol Pot's father had political connections at the royal court at the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, some seventy miles from Prek Sbau, the small hamlet in Kompong Thom province where Pol Pot was born. Visits by court officials and even by Cambodian king Sisowath Monivong himself to Pol Pot's father's home appear to have been common. Pol Pot often denied that he was Saloth Sar, probably to protect his family. He adopted his new name by 1963, and even after he had become premier, people were unsure of his actual identity.
Pol Pot was a poor student. He was educated by Buddhists and at a private Catholic institution in Phnom Penh, and then enrolled at a technical school (a place where mechanical or scientific subjects are taught) in the town of Kompong Cham to learn carpentry. He later obtained a government scholarship to study radio and electrical technology in Paris. However, in France Pol Pot began to spend less time studying and more time becoming involved with the Communist Party. (Communists believe in revolution to create a society in which the means of production—land, factories, and mines—are owned by the people as a whole rather than by individuals.)
After returning to Cambodia in 1953, Pol Pot drifted into the Vietnamese-influenced "United Khmer Issarak (Freedom) Front" of Cambodian Communists. The Front was one of many Cambodian groups that opposed French control of Cambodia as well as the government of Prince Norodom Sihanouk. After Cambodia won its independence from the French in 1954 Pol Pot became involved with the Khmer People's Revolutionary Party (KPRP), the first Cambodian Communist party. His hatred for intellectuals (people who think, study, and understand) and politicians grew during this time. He was influenced by Tou Samouth, a former Front president who was interested in making the KPRP a genuinely Cambodian organization that could rally members of different groups against Sihanouk. The KPRP had conflicts with the Vietnamese, who wanted to control the anti-Sihanouk Cambodian resistance.
In September 1960 Pol Pot and a handful of followers met secretly at the Phnom Penh railroad station to found the "Workers Party of Kampuchéa" (WPK). Samouth was named secretary general. By 1963 Pol Pot had replaced Samouth as party secretary, and Samouth later disappeared under mysterious circumstances. For the next thirteen years Pol Pot and other WPK members disappeared from public view and set up their party organization in a remote forest area. During this period Pol Pot worked to strengthen his leadership position in the WPK and to hold down Vietnamese elements in the anti-Sihanouk movement. However, he carefully avoided a feud with the Vietnamese Communists, who were increasing their hold on parts of Cambodian territory. He also traveled to Beijing, China, to receive organizational training. Upon his return to Cambodia in 1966, the WPK changed its name to the Communist Party of Kampuchéa (CPK).
The CPK led many demonstrations against the Sihanouk administration, which caused Sihanouk to order the execution of dozens of CPK members, whom he referred to as the Khmer Rouge ("Red Khmers"). In December 1969 and January 1970 Pol Pot and other CPK leaders prepared to take down Sihanouk. But the military in Phnom Penh beat them to it, overthrowing Sihanouk in March 1970 and bringing Lon Nol to the Cambodian presidency. In 1971 Pol Pot was reelected as CPK secretary general and as commander of its "Revolutionary Army." The Vietnamese became angry when the CPK refused their request to begin talks with Lon Nol and the United States as Vietnamese-U.S. discussions took place in Paris. By terms of the Paris Accords, the Vietnamese pulled some of their troops out of Cambodia in early 1973. CPK "Revolutionary Army" units quickly took their place, and clashes between Lon Nol's and Pol Pot's forces continued.
Killing his own people
In April 1975 Phnom Penh fell to several Communist Cambodian and pro-Sihanouk groups. For nearly a year Pol Pot and other Cambodian Communists, as well as Sihanouk, struggled for power in the new state of "Democratic Kampuchéa." Another CPK party congress in January 1976 led to Pol Pot's reelection as secretary general, but also revealed differences of opinion between Pol Pot and other members of the party. Relations with Vietnam also continued to worsen. In April 1976, after the decision by Shanouk to step down as head of state, a new Democratic Kampuchéa (DK) government was proclaimed, and Pol Pot became premier. However, his authority was challenged by Vietnam-influenced party leaders. Beginning in November 1976 Pol Pot began to remove many of his rivals, including cabinet ministers and other top party leaders.
Meanwhile, Pol Pot's reform policies drove many people from major cities and forced tens of thousands into labor. The Cambodians were denied food and medical care, and mass killings of all suspected opponents—especially intellectuals or those with political experience—took place. Pol Pot was responsible for the deaths of over one million Cambodians—nearly 20 percent of the country's total population. Although opposition to Pol Pot was growing among party members, his visits to China and North Korea in September and October 1977 increased his standing among other Asian Communist leaders, even as fighting with Vietnamese border forces grew worse.
The fall of a dictator
Continued Vietnamese attacks on DK territory left Pol Pot with a shaky hold on power, and finally he and other DK leaders were forced to flee Phnom Penh in January 1979. They regrouped and established an underground government in western Cambodia and in the Cardamom mountain range. In July 1979 Pol Pot was sentenced to death in absentia (without him being present) for the murder of his own people. The sentence was issued by the new government of the "People's Republic of Kampuchéa," installed with the help of Vietnamese forces. With world attention focused on Cambodia, Pol Pot stepped down as DK prime minister in December 1979. However, he remained as party secretary general and as head of the CPK's military commission, making him the overall commander of the DK's thirty-thousand-man force battling the Vietnamese in Cambodia.
Little was known of Pol Pot's activities after that. In September 1985 the DK announced that Pol Pot had retired as commander of the DK's "National Army" and had been appointed to be "Director of the Higher Institute for National Defense." After several years of living underground, Pol Pot was finally captured in June 1997. The Khmer Rouge had suffered from internal conflicts in recent years and finally split into opposing forces, the largest of which joined with the government of Cambodia under Sihanouk and hunted down their former leader. Pol Pot was sentenced to life in prison. While under house arrest, he died of heart failure on April 15, 1998.
For More Information
Chandler, David P. Brother Number One: A Political Biography. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992.
Stefoff, Rebecca. Pol Pot. New York: Chelsea House, 1991.
Pol Pot 1925?-1998
Pol Pot was the ruler of Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 and presided over one of the worst genocides of the twentieth century. In approximately 1925 (the exact date of this birth remains unclear), he was born Saloth Sar to a fairly well-to-do family in Kompong Thom Province, Cambodia. Although Pol Pot’s political zest developed while he was in his home country, his path to political leadership began to be forged after his arrival in Paris in 1949 to study radio electronics. There he became a member of the French Communist Party and met other Cambodian intellectual elites who would become powerful figures in the years 1975 to 1979.
Having failed his exams three years in a row, Pol Pot (a nom de guerre, short for the French politique potentielle ) returned to Cambodia in January 1953. He had, however, become well-versed in socialism and communism—his intellectual models were Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Tse-tung—and his opposition to the government of Prince Norodom Sihanouk led him to join the Communist resistance. Pol Pot became a member of the Indochina Communist Party, which was dominated by Viet Minh, within a month after his return. He then joined the Cambodian Communist Party Group, whom Sihanouk named the Khmer Rouge or Red Cambodians, and became secretary general in 1962. This group then started agitating against the Phnom Penh government. Ultimately, through armed rebellion, the Khmer Rouge gained full control of the country. The party took power on April 17, 1975, less than two weeks before the fall of Saigon ended the Vietnam War, and renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea. One of the Khmer Rouge’s first acts was to implement a complete evacuation of Phnom Penh to the countryside.
Under his four-year plan, Pol Pot’s stated aim was to turn Cambodia into a Maoist agrarian utopia; he planned to nationalize all industry and finance the economy through increased agricultural exports. His regime seized all legislative and judicial powers. Every Cambodian was forced to become an unpaid agrarian laborer and was allowed limited food and rest. Under the four-year plan, at least one million Cambodians died as a result of starvation, disease, or murder. Anyone suspected of betraying the government was killed.
Throughout the late 1970s relations with Vietnam worsened. Pol Pol’s government was toppled on January 7, 1979, by the invading Vietnamese army. Pol Pot himself never surrendered; he fled into the jungle near Thailand and led a Khmer Rouge guerrilla war from there. As Cambodia worked to return to normalcy, it remained under threat from the Khmer Rouge, which never recognized the Phnom Penh government and claimed some western provinces on the border with Thailand. Pol Pot maintained his opposition to the new coalition government until the national elections of 1993. Never brought to justice for having decimated his country, he died on April 15, 1998, in the Thai-Cambodian border area.
SEE ALSO Communism; Dictatorship; Genocide; Khmer Rouge; Killing Fields; Socialism; Vietnam War
[MAY 19, 1925–APRIL 15, 1998]
Cambodian leader of that country's underground communist party, Khmer Rouge, from 1962; became head of the genocidal regime of Democratic Kampuchea (DK) in 1975 and ruled until his overthrow in early 1979
Pol Pot was born Saloth Sar, in Kompong Thom province, on May 19, 1925 (or 1928). His father, Phen Saloth, owned twelve hectares of land, and had connections at Cambodia's court. Sar's sister was a consort of King Monivong. From age six, Sar lived in Phnom Penh with his brother Suong, a palace protocol officer. He spent a year in the royal Buddhist monastery, and six years in an elite Catholic school. Phnom Penh's inhabitants were mostly Chinese traders and Vietnamese workers. Sar's upbringing was strict, and he had little or no contact with Khmer vernacular culture.
In 1948 Sar received a scholarship to study radioelectricity in Paris (at École Française de radioélectricité). There he joined the Cambodian section of the French Communist Party. He also met Khieu Ponnary, the first Cambodian woman to earn a baccalauréat degree.
Sar's fellow students in Paris, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary, and Son Sen, remained in his circle until 1996. He chose a racial alias, or, nom de plume: the "Original Cambodian" (khmaer daem). Having repeatedly failed his course, he went home in January 1953. King Norodom Sihanouk had declared martial law to suppress Cambodia's independence movement, which was radicalized by the French colonial force and Vietnamese communist influence. Sar's brother Saloth Chhay joined the communists and took him along. After independence in 1954, Sar became a teacher, and two years later he married Khieu Ponnary, on July 14, 1956 (Bastille Day). Sar rose secretly within the Khmer communist movement, and in 1962 became Party leader after his predecessor, a former Buddhist monk, was mysteriously killed. Sar soon thereafter went underground, criticizing Sihanouk's neutrality and Hanoi's support of it.
The "Original Khmer" treasured the Cambodian "race," not individuals or "hereditary enemies," especially Vietnamese. He saw a need for war and secrecy as "the basis of the revolution." He trusted few of the more pragmatic, veteran Khmer communists who had been trained by the Vietnamese. Sar adopted the codename "Pol," later "Pol Pot," but never publicly admitted his real name.
After visiting Mao's China between 1964 and 1965, Sar returned home to launch a rural insurgency in 1967. Three years later, the U.S.–backed general, Lon Nol, overthrew Sihanouk. At about this time, the Vietnam War came crashing over the border as well. Khmer Rouge forces defeated Lon Nol in 1975, and Pol Pot became Prime Minister of the new Democratic Kampuchea regime. The DK evacuated Cambodia's cities, launching a series of political and ethnic massacres, and in 1977, raids on Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos.
Running a secretive party, Pol Pot even came to be called "the Organization" (angkar)—a shadowy institution which documents or reported making speeches, or was sometimes "busy working." His wife, Ponnary, went mad. One day in late 1978, a poster bearing Pol Pot's image was put up in a communal mess hall in Kompong Thom. Only upon seeing the poster did his brother, Suong, learn who was running the country. Terrified of being identified as someone who knew too much about his brother, Suong kept quiet about his relationship to the ruler. Two months later, the regime fell to a Vietnamese invasion.
In Thailand in 1988, Pol Pot blamed most of his regime's killings on "Vietnamese agents." However, he acknowledged having massacred the defeated Lon Nol government's leaders and troops, defending his actions by insisting that "[t]his strata of the imperialists had to be totally destroyed." Pol Pot's army continued to wage war from the Thai border until broken by defections and mutinies that occurred from 1996 to 1999. He died in the jungle on April 15, 1998.
Pol Pot never faced trial for his crimes. From 1979 to 1993, the United Nations, at the insistence of China and the United States, legitimized Pol Pot's anti-Vietnamese cause and supported his exiled Khmer Rouge as Cambodia's representatives. In 1999 the UN proposed establishing an international tribunal to judge his surviving accomplices for genocide and crimes against humanity.
Chandler, D. P. (1992). Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot. Boulder, Colo.: Westview.
Kiernan, Ben (1996). The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975–1979, 2nd edition. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002.
Pol Pot, 1925–98, Cambodian political leader, originally named Saloth Sar. Paris-educated, and a Khmer Communist leader from 1960, he led Khmer Rouge guerrillas against the government of Lon Nol after 1970. In 1975 he proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea and served as its premier (1976–79). The systematic murder of members of various groups; the complete destruction of individual rights; forced labor, disease, and starvation in Cambodia's
; the transformation of a developing country into a xenophobic agrarian society; and other horrors that can be ascribed to the cruelty or ineptitude of Pol Pot made him one of the most infamous leaders in modern history. Some 1.5 million out of a total population of about 7 million died during his rule, which ended with an invasion by the Vietnamese in late 1979. Although he retired officially in 1985, Pol Pot continued to control his guerrillas, the strongest antigovernment force, in western jungle areas of Cambodia until factional collapse shortly before his death.
See biographies by D. Chandler (1992, rev. ed. 1999) and P. Short (2005); study by B. Kiernan (2d ed. 2002).