Pol Pot: The early years
Better known by his nom de guerre Pol Pot, Saloth Sar was born in 1925 in a small village called Prek Sbauv, which is situated about 100 miles north of Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. His family owned 50 acres of rice paddy, or about 10 times the national average, and was relatively affluent. Pol Pot moved to Phnom Penh in 1934, where he spent one year at a Buddhist monastery prior to attending a French Catholic primary school. He continued his Cambodian education until he went to Paris on a scholarship in 1949. While in Paris he became active in communist circles and studied radio technology.
Upon his return to Cambodia in January of 1953, the whole nation was revolting against French colonial rule. Later that year, Cambodia officially gained its independence. Meanwhile, Pol Pot joined the proto-communist Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP), which, under the auspices of the North Vietnamese, had been set up in 1951. Pol Pot taught French literature, geography and history from 1956 to 1963 at a private school while plotting a revolution at the same time.
Pol Pot assisted in the reorganization of the KPRP in 1960 into a party that specifically espoused Marxism-Leninism. Following a clampdown on communist activity, three years later he and other party leaders moved deep into the countryside, encamping initially with a group of Viet Cong. Pol Pot, who had started to come out as Cambodian party chief, and the recently formed Khmer Rouge guerilla army began a national uprising in 1968. Their revolution picked up slowly, though they were successful in gaining a foothold in the sparsely populated northeast.
The Khmer Rouge seizes control
General Lon Nol launched a coup while Prince Norodom Sihanouk – Cambodia’s hereditary leader – was out of the country in March 1970. Then a civil war broke out in which the Prince allied himself with the Khmer Rouge and Lon Nol got the backing of the United States. Both Lon Nol and Khmer Rouge’s troops apparently committed mass atrocities. Simultaneously, roughly 70,000 South Vietnamese and United States soldiers stormed across the border to battle Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops who had taken sanctuary there. Richard Nixon, the US president, also ordered a secret bombing campaign included in the Vietnam War. Over the course of four years, 500,000 tons of bombs were dropped by US planes on Cambodia, over three times the amount dropped during World War II on Japan.
By the end of the US bombing campaign in August 1973, the amount of Khmer Rouge troops had increased significantly, and they now controlled about three-quarters of the territory of Cambodia. Not long after that, they started shelling Phnom Penh with artillery and rockets. In January 1975 a final assault of the refugee-filled capital began, with the Khmer Rouge blockading river crossings and bombarding the airport. A US airlift of supplies was not successful in preventing thousands of children from starving. On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge went into the city and finally ended the fighting. Roughly half a million Cambodians had died during the war, but the worst was yet to come.
Life under the Khmer Rouge
Almost immediately after seizing power, the Khmer Rouge evacuated Phnom Penh’s 2.5 million residents. Teachers, doctors, former civil servants and other professionals were stripped of their belongings and forced to labour in the fields as part of a reeducation process. Those who broke rules, concealed their rations or complained about work were generally tortured in a detention centre, such as the infamous S-21, and then killed. The bones of those who died from inadequate healthcare or malnutrition also filled up mass graves across Cambodia.
The state controlled all aspects of a person’s life, under Pol Pot. Private property, money, gambling, jewelry, religion and most reading material were outlawed; children were taken from their homes and forced into the military; agriculture was collectivized; and strict rules governing clothing, vocabulary and sexual relations were laid down. The Khmer Rouge renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea and even insisted on realigning rice fields so that they could create the symmetrical checkerboard illustrated on their coat of arms.
Initially, Pol Pot governed from behind the scenes. In 1976 he became Prime Minister after Sihanouk resigned. Border battles were happening frequently between the Vietnamese and the Cambodians by that time. In 1977 the fighting intensified, and the Vietnamese sent over 60,000 troops, along with artillery and air units, across the border in 1978. They captured Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979 and forced Pol Pot to flee into the jungle, where he continued guerilla operations.
Pol Pot’s last years
The Khmer Rouge received political support from the United States, which opposed the ten-year-long Vietnamese occupation, and arms from China throughout the 1980s. However, the Khmer Rouge’s influence started to decrease after a ceasefire agreement in 1991, and the movement totally collapsed by the end of the decade. A Khmer Rouge splinter group captured Pol Pot in 1997 and placed him under house arrest. On April 15, 1998, he died in his sleep due to heart failure. Until now, a United Nations-backed tribunal has only convicted a handful of Khmer Rouge leaders of crimes against humanity.