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Pol Pot

Leader of the Khmer Rouge

By Michael Richards, Contributing Writer

A picture of Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot.

An interview with former Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot in the rebels' Cambodian stronghold of Anlgong Veng. Asked about his role in the killing of as many as two million Cambodians, Pol Pot said he did not wish to discuss the matter. (Jan. 8, 1998)

(Photo By Getty Images)

Who Was Pol Pot?

As head of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot oversaw an unprecedented and extremely brutal attempt to remove Cambodia from the modern world and establish an agrarian utopia. While attempting to create this utopia, Pol Pot created the Cambodian Genocide, which lasted from 1975 to 1979 and caused the deaths of at least 1.5 million Cambodians out of a population of approximately 8 million.

Dates: May 19, 1928 (1925?) – April 15, 1998

Also known as: Saloth Sar (born as); “brother number one”

Childhood and Youth of Pol Pot

The man who would later be known as Pol Pot was born as Saloth Sar on May 19, 1928, in the fishing village of Prek Sbauk, Kampong Thom province, in what was then French Indochina (now Cambodia). His family, of Chinese-Khmer descent, was considered moderately well to do. They also had connections to the royal family: a sister was a concubine of the king, Sisovath Monivong, and a brother was a court official.

In 1934, Pol Pot went to live with the brother in Phnom Penh, where he spent a year in a royal Buddhist monastery and then attended a Catholic school. At age 14, he began high school in Kompong Cham. Pol Pot was, however, not a very successful student and switched to a technical school to study carpentry.

In 1949, Pol Pot obtained a scholarship to study radio electronics in Paris. He enjoyed himself in Paris, gaining a reputation as something of a bon vivant, fond of dancing and drinking red wine. However, by his second year in Paris, Pol Pot had become friends with other students who were impassioned by politics.

From these friends, Pol Pot encountered Marxism, joining the Cercle Marxiste (Marxist Circle of Khmer Students in Paris) and the French Communist Party. (Many of the other students whom he befriended during this period later became central figures in the Khmer Rouge.)

After Pol Pot failed his examinations for the third year in a row, however, he had to return in January 1953 to what would shortly become Cambodia.

Pol Pot Joins the Viet Minh

As the first of the Cercle Marxiste to return to Cambodia, Pol Pot helped assess the different groups rebelling against the Cambodian government and recommended that returning members of the Cercle join the Khmer Viet Minh (or Moutakeaha). Although Pol Pot and other members of the Cercle disliked that the Khmer Viet Minh had heavy ties with Vietnam, the group felt that this Communist revolutionary organization was the one most likely to take action.

In August 1953, Pol Pot left his home secretly and, without even telling his friends, headed to the Viet Minh’s Eastern Zone Headquarters, located near the village of Krabao. The camp was located in the forest and consisted of canvas tents that could be easily moved in case of an attack.

Pol Pot (and eventually more of his Cercle friends) were dismayed to find the camp completely segregated, with Vietnamese as the high ranking members and Cambodians (Khmers) given just menial tasks. Pol Pot himself was assigned tasks such as farming and working in the mess hall. Still, Pol Pot watched and learned how the Viet Minh used propaganda and force to take control of peasant villages in the region.

However, the Khmer Viet Minh were forced to disband after the 1954 Geneva Accords; Pol Pot and several of his friends headed back to Phnom Penh.

The 1955 Election

The 1954 Geneva Accords had temporarily quashed much of the revolutionary fervor within Cambodia and proclaimed a mandatory election in 1955. Pol Pot, who was now back in Phnom Penh, was determined to do what he could to influence the election. He thus infiltrated the Democratic Party in the hopes of being able to reshape its policies.

When it turned out that Prince Norodom Sihanouk (Sihanouk had abdicated his position as king so that he could join directly into politics) had rigged the election, Pol Pot and others became convinced that the only way for change in Cambodia was through revolution.

The Khmer Rouge

In the years following the 1955 elections, Pol Pot led a dual life. By day, Pol Pot worked as a teacher, who surprisingly was well liked by his students. By night, Pol Pot was heavily involved in a Communist revolutionary organization, the Kampuchean People's Revolutionary Party (KPRP). (“Kampuchean” is another term for “Cambodian.”)

During this time, Pol Pot also married. During a three-day ceremony that ended on July 14, 1956, Pol Pot married Khieu Ponnary, the sister of one of his Paris student friends. The couple never had children together.

By 1959, Prince Sihanouk had begun to seriously repress leftist political movements, especially targeting the older generation of experienced dissidents. With many of the older leaders in exile or on the run, Pol Pot and other young members of the KPRP emerged as leaders in party affairs. After a power struggle within the KPRP in the early 1960s, Pol Pot took control of the party.

This party, which was officially renamed the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) in 1966, became more commonly known as the Khmer Rouge (meaning “Red Khmer” in French). The term “Khmer Rouge” was used by Prince Sihanouk to describe the CPK, since many in the CPK were both Communists (often called “Reds”) and of Khmer descent.

The Battle to Topple Prince Sihanouk Begins

In March 1962, when his name appeared on a list of people wanted for questioning, Pol Pot went into hiding. He took to the jungle and began preparing a guerrilla-based revolutionary movement that intended to topple Prince Sihanouk’s government.

In 1964, with help from North Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge established a base camp in the border region and issued a declaration calling for armed struggle against the Cambodian monarchy, which they viewed as corrupt and repressive.

A Khmer Rouge ideology gradually developed in this period. It featured a Maoist orientation with an emphasis on the peasant farmer as the foundation for a revolution. This contrasted with the orthodox Marxist idea that the proletariat (working class) was the basis for revolution.

Pol Pot Courts Vietnam and China

In 1965, Pol Pot was hoping to get support from either Vietnam or China for his revolution. Since the Communist North Vietnamese regime was the most likely source of support for the Khmer Rouge at the time, Pol Pot first went to Hanoi via the Ho Chi Minh Trail to ask for aid.

In response to his request, the North Vietnamese criticized Pol Pot for having a nationalist agenda. Since, at this time, Prince Sihanouk was letting the North Vietnamese use Cambodian territory in their struggle against South Vietnam and the United States, the Vietnamese believed the time was not ripe for an armed struggle in Cambodia. It did not matter to the Vietnamese that the time might feel right for the Cambodian people.

Next, Pol Pot visited the Communist People’s Republic of China (PRC) and fell under the influence of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution re-emphasized revolutionary enthusiasm and sacrifice. It accomplished this in part by encouraging people to destroy any vestiges of traditional Chinese civilization. China would not openly support the Khmer Rouge, but it had given Pol Pot some ideas for his own revolution.

In 1967, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, although isolated and lacking widespread support, made the decision to start a revolt against the Cambodian government anyway. The initial action began on January 18, 1968. By that summer, Pol Pot had moved away from collective leadership to become the sole decision maker. He even set up a separate compound and lived apart from the other leaders.

Cambodia and the Vietnam War

The Khmer Rouge’s revolution was progressing very slowly until two major events occurred within Cambodia in 1970. The first was a successful coup led by General Lon Nol , which deposed the increasingly unpopular Prince Sihanouk and aligned Cambodia with the United States. The second involved a massive bombardment campaign and invasion of Cambodia by the United States.

During the Vietnam War, Cambodia had officially remained neutral; however, the Viet Cong (Vietnamese communist guerrilla fighters) used that position to their advantage by creating bases within Cambodian territory in order to regroup and to store supplies. American strategists believed that a massive bombing campaign within Cambodia would deprive the Viet Cong of this sanctuary and thus bring the Vietnam War to a quicker end. The result for Cambodia was political destabilization.

These political changes set the stage for the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. With an incursion by Americans within Cambodia, Pol Pot was now able to claim that the Khmer Rouge was fighting for Cambodian independence and against imperialism, both of which were strong standpoints in which to gain widespread support from the Cambodian people.

Also, Pol Pot might have been refused aid from North Vietnam and China before, but Cambodian involvement in the Vietnam War led to their support of the Khmer Rouge. With this new-found support, Pol Pot was able to concentrate on recruiting and training while the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong did most of the initial fighting.

Disturbing trends emerged early. Students and so-called “middle” or better off peasants were no longer allowed to join the Khmer Rouge. Former government workers and officials, teachers, and people with an education were purged from the party. Chams, an important ethnic group in Cambodia, and other minorities were forced to adopt Cambodian styles of dress and appearance. Decrees were issued establishing cooperative agricultural enterprises. The practice of emptying urban areas began. By 1973, the Khmer Rouge controlled two-thirds of the county and half the population.

Genocide in Democratic Kampuchea

After five years of civil war, the Khmer Rouge was finally able to capture Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, on April 17, 1975. This ended Lon Nol’s rule and began the five-year reign of the Khmer Rouge. It was at this time that Saloth Sar began calling himself “brother number one” and took Pol Pot as his nom de guerre. (According to one source, “Pol Pot” comes from the French words “politique potentielle.”)

After taking control of Cambodia, Pol Pot declared the Year Zero. This meant much more than restarting the calendar; it was a means of emphasizing that all that was familiar in the lives of Cambodians was to be destroyed. This was a far more comprehensive cultural revolution than the one Pol Pot had observed in Communist China. Religion was abolished, ethnic groups forbidden to speak their language or follow their customs, the family unit ended, and political dissent ruthlessly eliminated.

As dictator of Cambodia, which the Khmer Rouge renamed Democratic Kampuchea, Pol Pot began a ruthless, bloody campaign against a variety of groups: members of the former government, Buddhist monks, Muslims, western-educated intellectuals, university students and teachers, people in contact with Westerners or Vietnamese, people who were crippled or lame, and ethnic Chinese, Laotians, and Vietnamese.

These massive changes within Cambodia and the specific targeting of large sections of the population led to the Cambodian Genocide. By its end in 1979, at least 1.5 million people were murdered (estimates range from 750,000 to 3 million) in the “Killing Fields.” Many were beaten to death with iron bars or hoes after digging their own graves. Some were buried alive. One directive read: “Bullets not to be wasted.” Most died from starvation and disease, but probably 200,000 were executed, often after interrogation and brutal torture.

The most infamous interrogation center was Tuol Sleng, S-21 (Security Prison 21), a former high school. Here prisoners were photographed, interrogated, and tortured. It was “the place where people go in but never come out.”*

Vietnam Defeats the Khmer Rouge

As the years passed, Pol Pot became increasingly paranoid about the possibility of an invasion by Vietnam. To preempt an attack, Pol Pot’s regime began carrying out raids and massacres in Vietnamese territory. Rather than dissuade the Vietnamese from attacking, these raids ultimately provided Vietnam with an excuse to invade Cambodia in 1978. By the following year, the Vietnamese had routed the Khmer Rouge, ending both the Khmer Rouge’s rule in Cambodia and the genocidal policies of Pol Pot.

Ousted from power, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge retreated to a remote area of Cambodia along the border with Thailand. For several years, the North Vietnamese tolerated the existence of the Khmer Rouge in this border area.

However, in 1984, the North Vietnamese made a concerted effort to deal with them. After that, the Khmer Rouge survived only with the support of Communist China and the toleration of the Thai government.

In 1985, Pol Pot resigned as head of the Khmer Rouge and handed over day-to-day administrative tasks to his longtime associate, Son Sen. Pol Pot nonetheless continued as the de facto leader of the party. In 1986, Pol Pot’s new wife, Mea Son, gave birth to a daughter. (His first wife had begun to suffer from mental illness in the years before he took power as Pol Pot. She died in 2003.) He also spent some time in China undergoing treatment for facial cancer.

The Aftermath

In 1995, Pol Pot, still living in isolation on the Thai border, suffered a stroke that left the left side of his body paralyzed. Two years later, Pol Pot had Son Sen and members of Son Sen’s family executed because he believed that Sen had attempted to negotiate with the Cambodian government.

The deaths of Son Sen and his family shocked many of the remaining Khmer leadership. Feeling that Pol Pot’s paranoia was out of control and worried about their own lives, Khmer Rouge leaders arrested Pol Pot and put him on trial for the murder of Son Sen and other Khmer Rouge members. Pol Pot was sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life. He was not punished more severely because he had been so prominent in Khmer Rouge affairs. Some of the remaining members of the party questioned this lenient treatment.

Only a year later, on April 15, 1998, Pol Pot heard a broadcast on Voice of America (of which he was a faithful listener) announce that the Khmer Rouge had agreed to turn him over to an international tribunal. He died that same night. Rumors persist that he either committed suicide or was murdered. Pol Pot’s body was cremated without an autopsy to establish the cause of death.

Even more than a decade after his death, Cambodia and Cambodians remain deeply marked by Pol Pot’s brutal and senseless utopian policies.

* As quoted in S21: The Killing Machine of the Khmer Rouge (2003), a documentary film

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