1925 - 1998
Leader of Cambodia Khmer Rougeby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
Pol Pot, leader of the radical Khmer Rouge in Cambodia stands as one of the most savage mass murderers in the history of the world. In an attempt to create a utopian agrarian society, Pol Pot eliminated all opponents to his totalitarian regime. Up to 2,000,000 Cambodians lost their lives to this cleansing, the equivalent of more than twenty-five percent of the entire population. The world looks on in horror at the aftermath of this destruction.
Pol Pot, or Saloth Sar, was born on May 19, 1925, in a province north of Phnom Penh. Interestingly, he was born to a well-to-do farming family who had ties with the Cambodian royal family. Ironically, he would later kill people from similar backgrounds as his own. He moved to Phnom Penh at age six because his sister became a midwife of the king and his brother served as an official for the royal palace. While in Phnom Penh, he spent a year at a Buddhist pagoda, which profoundly affected him later in life. (Nearly Ninety-five percent of Cambodians follow Theravada Buddhism.) After his experience with Buddhism, he continued to study at a number of French schools and later a Catholic college, although he never even finished high school.
In 1949, Pol Pot received a scholarship to study radio electronics in Paris. While in Paris he became intrigued with Marxist ideology. He joined the French Communist Party, along with several other Cambodian students including Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan, Khieu Ponnary and Song Sen. They formed the so called, “Paris Group”. These young students committed themselves to the spread of communism in Cambodia. Pol Pot neglected his studies, lost his scholarship, and returned to Cambodia. However, the “Paris Group” rejoined back in Cambodia. These members became the backbone for nationalist and leftists ideas, eventually becoming the core leaders of the Khmer Rouge.
Upon his return, Pol Pot joined the underground Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP). First, he worked in the northeaster province of Kampong Cham and then moved to Phnom Penh, frequently receiving inspiration from the Vietnamese communists. Once again in a sad irony, Pol Pot supported himself during this time by teaching at a private school, doing the very thing for which people would later receive the death penalty for and teaching students he would later massacre.
In 1962, Pol Pot became the most powerful person in the Cambodian Communist Party. At this time, Prince Sihanouk, the leader of the Cambodian government, forced him to flee into the jungle. In the jungle, Pol Pot created an armed resistance group to fight Sihanouk’s government. They infamously became know as the Khmer Rouge (Red Cambodians), fighting Sihanouk in a guerilla war.
In 1965, Pol Pot visited the new Ho Chi Minh Trail in Vietnam. The Vietnamese, however disapproved of his nationalist agenda and advised him to delay a civil war in Cambodia until the United States was uprooted from Vietnam.
Pol Pot decided to alienate himself from Vietnam and turn to China for support where Mao Zedong’s, “Cultural Revolution” was taking place. Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” (which turned out to be a great leap backward) included compulsory evacuations of cities and genocidal cleansing of certain people groups. Pol Pot would later use similar strategies in Cambodia.
In 1970, Prince Sihanouk’s government fell, not to the Khmer Rouge, but as the result of a U.S. supported right wing military coup. Lon Nol became the new leader of this government. The infuriated Sihanouk then joined Pol Pot and fought against Lon Nol. This same year, the United States began their invasion of Cambodia in an attempt to route out Vietnamese communists from Cambodia. The Americans only pushed the Vietnamese further into Cambodia, where they joined the Khmer Rouge in their struggle. The bombings of Cambodia, which lasted from 1969 to 1973 did little to damage the Khmer Rouge militarily, but killed up to 600,000 peasants. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to Phnom Penh as a result. The bombs dropped by the US destabilized Cambodia’s economy, which skyrocketed Pot Pot’s popular support. At lightning speed, the Khmer Rouge transformed itself from a small insurgency of about 5000, to a massive army of 100,000. They quickly took the northeaster third of the country and by 1973, controlled 60% of the land and 25% of the population.
By early 1975, the Khmer Rouge had obtained almost all of the Cambodian countryside. American military support vanished from Lon Nol’s military government because of its corruption and incompetence. Seizing the opportunity, Pol Pot’s forces surrounded Phnom Penh and steadily moved towards it. On April 17, 1975, Phnom Penh fell. As soon as Pol Pot seized the entire country, he began his “Super Great Leap Forward.” Within days, the Khmer Rouge evacuated Phnom Penh’s 2,000,000 residents and marched them to the countryside. 20,000 died along the way. Pol Pot then declared, “Year Zero” and began his notorious reign of terror. He announced that he would rid society of all impurities including capitalism, western culture, urbanization, religion, and all foreign influence. Pol Pot expelled or executed foreigners, destroyed embassies, banned foreign language, and destroyed foreign currency. Newspaper, television, radio, mail, and bicycles were abolished. The Khmer Rouge shut down businesses and stopped the use of money. Education, health care, religion, and parental authority were done away with. Khmer Rouge soldiers did not tolerate resistance. Pol Pot forcibly evacuated every Cambodian city and forced its residents to work in the fields. Hundreds of thousands of workers died of over-work, malnutrition, starvation and disease on a mere 180 grams (1/2 a pound) of rice every other day.
In addition, Pol Pot killed many other Cambodians in his deadly cleansing of the “old society”. Educated and middle class people, Buddhist monks, police, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and former government officials were promptly executed, oftentimes along with their families. Ex-soldiers and anyone accused of unfaithfulness to Pol Pot perished. Soldiers often shot people on the spot without questioning. Khmer Rouge soldiers also executed ethnic minorities, including Vietnamese, Chinese, and Cham muslims. Half of the 425,000 Chinese living in Cambodia in 1975 died. One Khmer Rouge slogan declared, “What is rotten must be removed.”
The Khmer Rouge’s favorite method of execution was to have prisoners dig their own graves. Then, the prisoners were bound and blindfolded. The soldiers would line the prisoners around the rim of the pit and bludgeon the back of their heads. The prisoners would then fall into the pits and dirt was covered over the top.
By 1979, Pol Pot had become a menace to Vietnam with his border attacks. Vietnam invaded Cambodia on December 25, 1978. Phnom Pen fell within two weeks of the initial Vietnamese attack. The new government the Vietnamese set up, “people’s revolutionary tribunal” tried Pol Pot and sentenced him to death for the murder of up to two million Cambodians. Pol Pot, however, fled Phnom Penh and remained as the head of the Khmer Rouge. From the jungles in Western Cambodia, he began a series of guerilla wars against the new Cambodian governments which lasted seventeen years.
Pol Pot’s regime is surprisingly similar to the French Revolution, 200 years before. Both revolutions began in the French capitol of Paris. Both revolutions conducted deadly purges, resulting in the death of many. Also, when they took over, both Pol Pot and the French declared, “This is the year zero.” They both made their own 10 day calendar and rejected the thought of any God. Both revolutions were curtailed within a decade.
To the very end, Pol Pot remained unrepentant for his terrible crimes. After killing the Minister of Defense for the Khmer Rouge and his friend of forty years, Pol Pot was put on trial and sentenced to life in prison. In an interview during his trial, Pol Pot says, “First I want to let you know that I came to join the revolution, not to kill the Cambodian people.” He also says, “Look at me now. Do you think I am a violent person? No. So, as far as my conscience and my mission were concerned, there was no problem.” This came from the lips of one of the twentieth centuries’ worst killers! It is certain that people are the most dangerous when they think they are doing the right thing. Millions were disappointed when the 73 year old Pol Pot died in April 1998, before he could be brought to trial. Yet, rest assured in Hebrews 9:27, "And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment".
1. In Paris, Pol Pot became interested in:
a) The French Revolution
b) The French Socialist Party
c) The French Communist Party
d) The French
2. Pol Pot was heavily influenced by:
a) Mao Zedong
b) Ho Chi Minh
3. In his cleansing of the "Old Society," Pol Pot killed all
of the following people EXCEPT:
a) Educated middle class
b) Buddhist monks
c) Doctors, lawyers and teachers
d) Khmer Rouge soldiers
4. Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979 because
a) Vietnam needed more territory
b) Cambodia was becoming a menace to vietnam with its border attacks
c) Vietnam wanted to stop Pol Pot from killing even more Cambodians
d) Vietnam wanted to overthrow Pol Pot and set up their own government