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Pol Pot - The Forgotten Dictator

Public Domain. Author unknown.

Public Domain. Author unknown.

On 19 May 1925, Saloth Sar was born into a relatively well-off farming family in the central Cambodian province of Kampong Thong. Although he was educated in the colonialists' language in French Indochina, he was never particularly comfortable speaking French nor was he an especially gifted student. Nevertheless, his access to higher education elevated him into an elite group in Cambodia, and in 1949 he won a scholarship to study radio electronics in Paris.

Pol Pot Emerges

He was acutely aware of the contrast between Cambodia’s glorious past and the small, vulnerable, French-dominated country of the present. The Paris that Sar moved to was seething with revolution, he was soon drawn into communist circles, seeing in communism the answer to Cambodia’s difficulties. Sar returned from Paris in 1953 and joined Vietnamese guerrillas who were on the verge of victory over the French occupiers. In November, Cambodia won its independence but the French-installed Prince Sihanouk remained as monarch, he was hailed as the father of the nation but nothing changed for ordinary people. Sar was adept at hiding his true feelings and intentions, presenting to the world the affable face of a man of reason and it was this Sar who secured a position in 1956 as a history teacher in Phnom Pen but all the time he and a small group were recruiting cells of communists. In 1962 he became Brother Number One, the recognized leader of the Cambodian communist movement. He was very much a “ Politique Potentielle”, in short, Pol Pot.

A New Order

Pressure from the government was mounting and it was decided that the communist leadership should get out of the city, accordingly Sar led his group to the remote jungle near the Vietnamese border. Hill tribes in the region lived a simple, communal life, leading Sar to the belief that they practiced communism at its purest and that their lifestyle could serve as a model for wider society. The tribesmen became enthusiastic recruits to Sar’s cause.

Although Cambodia was officially a neutral country, Sihanouk allowed the North Vietnamese to set up bases in the Cambodian border areas, out of reach of Vietnamese government forces. The North Vietnamese established friendly relations with Sar, his base stood on the Ho Chi Minh trail.

Sar visited Mao’s China during the cultural revolution, he liked what he saw but was convinced that he could do better. Cambodia’s ancient greatness would be restored and all traces of a modern world that had done his country no good at all would be eradicated. His final goal was to make Cambodia entirely self-sufficient. A poor country such as Cambodia had only one way to achieve this - through agriculture. We can see here that Sar was influenced by Stalin’s “Socialism in One Country” policy But Stalin had had little choice - Sar had no excuses.

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Jad Limcaco on Unsplash

Jad Limcaco on Unsplash

Taking Power

Sihanouk was losing support amongst the elite and was sending mixed messages to the Americans about bombing raids against Vietnamese bases in Cambodian territory. On the one hand, he gave tacit approval as long as Cambodians were not harmed, on the other, he publicly condemned the bombing outright. He was visiting Beijing in March 1970 when he was ousted by a coup led by the Prime Minister, Lon Nol, and Prince Sirik Matak, whether or not the coup was backed by the Americans remains a matter of debate. The new leaders swore that they would rid Cambodia of communists but the war-hardened North Vietnamese proved too strong for them.

Meanwhile, the Khmer Rouge was getting stronger and stronger, backed by North Vietnam but determined to remain independent of them. When, in the mid-seventies, the Americans were negotiating peace terms with North Vietnam they assumed that the Khmer Rouge would disappear as a force as a result of the peace. In fact, Sar broke all ties with his allies, lured Sihanouk to his camp for talks, during which Sar kept in the background, and forged an alliance with the former leader. This allowed the Khmer Rouge to present itself as a nationalist force. As more and more territory fell to Sar the central government was losing influence and effectiveness, American bombing of Khmer areas had no effect, a million refugees moved to the ill-equipped capital. Cambodia was in chaos and, in April 1975, The United States embassy was evacuated. The Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh in the middle of the month, at first they were welcomed, but by the end of the very first day of occupation, the atmosphere changed. All two million residents of the city were ordered to leave for the country. An astonishing social experiment was underway. This was an attempt to return Cambodia, now Kampuchea, to the glorious past. Everything western was rejected, the educated classes were eradicated. But this was no victory for the peasants, starvation and disease killed many. Perhaps a total of two million died because of a lack of any sort of planning. This was half the total population of the country, sacrificed for little more than a whim.

Nix Gacasan on Unsplash

Nix Gacasan on Unsplash

Vietnam to the Rescue

Finally, Vietnam, goaded by border raids, invaded in 1978. On January 7, 1979 Sar left office, he once more took to the jungle with loyal followers to wage a guerilla war, but his real influence had evaporated. Sar died in 1998, untried for his crimes.

Nowadays, although Cambodia isn’t rich, it has one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia. A generation has joined the workforce that has no experience of the horrors of Pol Pot’s regime. The open wound is healing, the scar it will leave will remain.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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