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Pol Pot

Saloth Sar (May 19, 1925 - April 15, 1998), better known as Pol Pot, was the leader of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (known in the West as the Khmer Rouge) and the Prime Minister of Cambodia (officially Democratic Kampuchea) from 1976 - 1979. During the Cambodian civil war and consolidation of CPK power, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were killed.

Pol Pot

Early life and Revolution

He was born in Prek Sbauv in what was then a part of French Indochina but is now in the province of Kompong Thom, Cambodia. In 1949, he won a scholarship to study radio engineering in Paris. During his study, he became a communist, and joined an emergent Khmer communist group. This group was called the French Communist Party. In 1953, he returned to Cambodia.

At that time, a communist-led revolt was taking place against the French occupation of Indochina. The centre of this uprising was in Vietnam, but it also took place in Cambodia and Laos. Saloth Sar joined the Viet Minh, but found that they regarded only Vietnam of importance, not Laos and Cambodia. In 1954, the French left Indochina, but the Viet Minh also withdrew to North Vietnam, and King Norodom Sihanouk called elections. Sihanouk abdicated, and formed a political party. Using his popularity and some intimidation, he swept away the communist opposition and gained all of the government seats.

Pol Pot fled Sihanouk's secret police and spent twelve years in hiding, training recruits. In the late 1960s, Sihanouk's head of internal security, Lon Nol took brutal action against the revolutionaries, known as the Communist Party of Kampuchea. Pol Pot started an armed uprising against the government, supported by the People's Republic of China (PRC).

Prior to 1970, the Communist Party of Kampuchea was an insignificant factor in Cambodian politics. However, in 1970 American-backed General Lon Nol deposed Sihanouk, because the latter was seen as supporting the Viet Cong.

In protest, Sihanouk threw his support to Pol Pot's side. That same year, Richard Nixon ordered a military incursion into Cambodia in order to destroy Viet Cong sanctuaries bordering on South Vietnam. Sihanouk's popularity, along with the United States invasion of Cambodia, and subsequent bombings by the US (which continued illegally even after Congress voted to suspend them) drove many to Pol Pot's side and soon Lon Nol's government controlled only the cities.

It has been argued that the Communist Party of Kampuchea may not have come to power without the destabilization of the Vietnam War, particularly of the American bombing campaigns to 'clear out the Vietamese sanctuaries' in Cambodia. William Shawcross argued this point in his 1979 book Sideshow.

When the United States left Vietnam in 1973 the Viet Cong left Cambodia, but the Communist Party of Kampuchea continued to fight. Unable to maintain any sort of control over the country, Lon Nol's government soon collapsed. On April 17, the Communist Party of Kampuchea took Phnom Penh and Lon Nol fled to the United States of America. Sihanouk was returned to power in 1975, but soon found himself side-lined by his more radical Communist colleagues, who had little interest in his plans of restoring the monarchy.

Democratic Kampuchea

By early 1976 the Communist Party of Kampuchea hardliners grew tired of tolerating Sihanouk's antics, and placed him under house arrest. The existing government was quickly dismantled and Prince Sihanouk was removed as the nation's head of state. Cambodia became a Communist republic, and Khieu Samphan became the first president.

On May 13, 1976 Pol Pot had been appointed Prime Minister of Cambodia, and began to implement sweeping socialist reforms to the nation. The US bombing had caused the countryside to be emptied, and the cities overcrowded (Phnom Penh's population increased by over 1 million immediately prior to 1976). Cambodia was on the verge of starvation by the time the Communist Party of Kampuchea gained power. To deal with this, the CPK evacuated citizens from the cities to the countryside where they were forced into communal farms. Property became communalized, and education was done at communal schools. Politicians and bureaucrats were killed, while Phnom Penh was turned into a ghost city, and many died of starvation, illnesses or execution. The casualty list from the civil war and the CPK consolidation of power is disputed. A figure of three million deaths between 1975 and 1979 was given by the Vietnamese-sponsored Phnom Penh regime, the PRK. Father Ponchaud suggested 2.3 million; the Yale Cambodian Genocide Project estimates 1.7 million; Amnesty International estimated 1.4 million ; and the United States Department of State, 1.2 million. Khieu Samphan and Pol Pot, who could be expected to give underestimations, cited figures of 1 million and 800,000, respectively.

Some believe that under Pol Pot's regime Cambodia was the country that came the closest to existing as a pure communalist state. Collective farms were implemented as the sole form of egalitarian, subsistence living, and the campaigns of killings were implemented as a way of eliminating the intellectual opposition of those who refused to participate in the system.

In late 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia. The Cambodian army was easily defeated, and Pol Pot fled to the Thai border. In January 1979, Vietnam installed a puppet government under Heng Samrin, composed of Khmer Rouge who had fled to Vietnam to avoid the purges. This was followed by widespread defections to the Vietnamese by Khmer Rouge officials in Eastern Cambodia, largely motivated by the fear that they would be accused of collaboration even if they did not defect. Pol Pot retained a sufficient following to keep fighting in a small area in the west of the country. At this point the PRC, which had earlier supported Pol Pot, attacked, creating a brief Sino-Vietnam War.

Pol Pot, an enemy of the Soviet Union, also gained support from Thailand and the US. In particular, the US and the PRC vetoed the allocation of Cambodia's United Nations General Assembly seat to a representative of Heng Samrin's government. Influenced by realpolitik the US directly and indirectly supported Pol Pot, who espoused radically revised variant of Maoism adapted to Khmer nationalism. Envisaging a perfectly egalitarian agrarianism, the Khmer Rouge favored a direct route to communism, thus bypassing the intermediate stage of socialism. Anti-modern and isolationist, Pol Pot was quite the opponent of Soviet orthodoxy. Because he was anti-Soviet, the United States, Thailand and People's Republic of China considered him preferable to the pro-Vietnamese government.


At times, the United States directly and indirectly supported Pol Pot and his hostility against the Soviet Union. The US attempted to foster an anti-Vietnamese alliance between Pol Pot, Sihanouk and the nationalist, Son San. In pursuit of this end, Pol Pot officially resigned in 1985, but continued as de facto CPK leader and dominant force within the alliance. Opponents of the CPK claimed that the CPK were sometimes acting in an inhumane manner in areas controlled by the alliance.

In 1989, Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia. Pol Pot refused to cooperate with the peace process, and kept fighting the new coalition government. The Khmer Rouge kept the government forces at bay until 1996, when the demoralised troops started deserting. Several important Khmer Rouge leaders also defected.

In 1997, Pol Pot executed his life-long right hand Son Sen for wanting to make a settlement with the government, but then he himself was arrested by Khmer Rouge military chief Ta Mok, and was sentenced to lifelong house arrest. In April of 1998, Ta Mok fled into the forest following a new government attack, and took Pol Pot with him. A few days later, on April 15, 1998, Pol Pot died, reportedly of a heart attack.

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