Photo of the Day

A child soldier with a human skull resting on the tip of his rifle.Dei Kraham, Cambodia. 1973. Bettmann/Getty Images

Pol Pot

The Brutal Cambodian Dictator

After a solid 30 years of solemnly pledging “never again,” the world stood by and watched in horror as another 20th-century genocide unfolded — this time in Cambodia. 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.

Pol Pot conducted a rule of terror that led to the deaths of nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s seven million people, by the most widely accepted estimates, through execution, torture, starvation and disease.

His smiling face and quiet manner belied his brutality. He and his inner circle of revolutionaries adopted a Communism based on Maoism and Stalinism, then carried it to extremes: They and their Khmer Rouge movement tore apart Cambodia in an attempt to ”purify” the country’s agrarian society and turn people into revolutionary worker-peasants.

Beginning on the day in 1975 when his guerrilla army marched silently into the capital, Phnom Penh, Pol Pot emptied the cities, pulled families apart, abolished religion and closed schools. Everyone was ordered to work, even children. The Khmer Rouge outlawed money and closed all markets. Doctors were killed, as were most people with skills and education that threatened the regime.

The Khmer Rouge especially persecuted members of minority ethnic groups — the Chinese, Muslim Chams, Vietnamese and Thais who had lived for generations in the country, and any other foreigners — in an attempt to make one ”pure” Cambodia. Non-Cambodians were forbidden to speak their native languages or to exhibit any ”foreign” traits. The pogrom against the Cham minority was the most devastating, killing more than half of that community.

Pol Pot liked to have his picture taken in humble surroundings. This was part of a nationwide propaganda effort to win over peasants.

In 1953, Cambodia gained its independence from France, after nearly 100 years of colonialist rule. As the Vietnam War progressed, Cambodia’s elected Prime Minister Norodom Sihanouk adopted an official policy of neutrality. Sihanouk was ousted in 1970 by a military coup led by his own Cambodian General Lon Nol, a testament to the turbulent political climate of Southeast Asia during this time. In the years preceding the genocide, the population of Cambodia was just over 7 million, almost all of whom were Buddhists. The country borders Thailand to its west and north-west, Laos to its northeast, and Vietnam to its east and south-east. The south and south-west borders of Cambodia are coastal shorelines on the Gulf of Thailand.

The actions of the Khmer Rouge government which actually constitute “genocide” began shortly after their seizure of power from the government of Lon Nol in 1975, and lasted until the Khmer Rouge was overthrown by the Vietnamese in 1978. The genocide itself emanated from a harsh climate of political and social turmoil. This atmosphere of communal unrest in Cambodia arose during the French decolonization of Southeast Asia in the early 1950s and continued to devastate the region until the late 1980s.

Pol Pot (1925-1998) and his communist Khmer Rouge movement led Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. During that time, millions of Cambodians died of starvation, execution, disease, or overwork. Detention centre, S-21, was so notorious that only seven of the roughly 20,000 people imprisoned there are known to have survived. The Khmer Rouge, in their attempt to socially engineer a classless peasant society, took particular aim at intellectuals, city residents, ethnic Vietnamese, civil servants and religious leaders. An invading Vietnamese army deposed the Khmer Rouge in 1979, and, despite years of guerilla warfare, they never took power again.

On the evening of April 15, 1998, news source Voice of America announced that General Secretary of the Khmer Rouge and wanted war criminal Pol Pot was scheduled for extradition. He would then face an international tribunal for genocide and crimes against humanity.

Shortly after the broadcast, at around 10:15 pm, the former leader’s wife found him sitting upright in his chair next to the radio, dead from a possible overdose of prescription drugs.

Despite the Cambodian government’s request for an autopsy, his body was cremated and the ashes interred in a wild part of northern Cambodia, where he had led his defeated troops against the outside world for almost 20 years following the collapse of his regime.

(An undated file picture probably taken in 1989 in western Cambodia shows the leader of the Maoist Khmer Rouge movement Pol Pot. Between 1975 and 1979, Pol Pot and his party held power in Cambodia, committing atrocities that decimated the country’s population. Credit: STF / Getty Images)

Saloth Sar, better known by his nom de guerre Pol Pot, was born in 1925 in the small village of Prek Sbauv, located about 100 miles north of the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. His family was relatively affluent and owned 50 acres of a rice paddy or roughly 10 times the national average. In 1934 Pol Pot moved to Phnom Penh, where he spent a year at a Buddhist monastery before attending a French Catholic primary school. His Cambodian education continued until 1949 when he went to Paris on a scholarship. While there, he studied radio technology and became active in communist circles.

Sar was lucky enough to be a first cousin of one of the King’s concubines. Through her, Sar got a chance to study at a prestigious Cambodian school for the elites. Sar fell in with French communists and, after flunking out of his French school, he volunteered to return to Cambodia to evaluate the local communist parties.

When Pol Pot returned to Cambodia in January 1953, the whole region was revolting against French colonial rule. Cambodia officially gained its independence later that year. Pol Pot, meanwhile, joined the proto-communist Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP), which had been set up in 1951 under the auspices of the North Vietnamese. From 1956 to 1963, Pol Pot taught history, geography and French literature at a private school while simultaneously plotting a revolution.

During his off time, he organised his most promising students into revolutionary cadres and met with leaders from Cambodia’s three major communist groups. Picking one of them as the “official” Cambodian communist party, Sar oversaw the merger and absorption of other leftist groups into a united front backed by the Viet Minh.

Largely unarmed, Sar’s group confined itself to virulently anti-monarchist propaganda. When King Sihanouk got tired of this and exiled the left parties, Sar moved from Phnom Penh to a guerrilla camp on the Vietnamese border. There, he spent his time making key contacts with the North Vietnamese government and honing what would become the ruling philosophy of the Khmer Rouge.

In 1960 Pol Pot helped to reorganise the KPRP into a party that specifically espoused Marxism-Leninism. Three years later, following a clampdown on communist activity, he and other party leaders moved deep into the countryside, encamping at first with a group of Viet Cong. Pol Pot, who had begun to emerge as Cambodian party chief, and the newly formed Khmer Rouge guerilla army launched a national uprising in 1968. Their revolution started off slowly, though they were able to gain a foothold in the sparsely populated northeast.

Sar changed during this time. Once friendly and approachable, he started cutting himself off from his subordinates and consenting to see them only if they made an appointment with his staff, despite living in an open-walled hut in the same village.

An undated photo of genocidal leader Pol Pot (left) with former Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary (centre). The man on the right is unidentified.

In March 1970, General Lon Nol initiated a coup while Cambodia’s hereditary leader, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, was out of the country. A civil war then broke out in which Sihanouk allied himself with the Khmer Rouge and Lon Nol received the backing of the United States. Both the Khmer Rouge and Lon Nol’s troops purportedly committed mass atrocities. At the same time, about 70,000 U.S. and South Vietnamese soldiers stormed across the border to fight North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops who had taken sanctuary there. U.S. President Richard Nixon also ordered a secret bombing campaign as part of the Vietnam War. Over the span of four years, U.S. planes dropped 500,000 tonnes of bombs on Cambodia, more than three times the amount dropped on Japan during World War II.

By the time the U.S. bombing campaign ended in August 1973, the number of Khmer Rouge troops had increased exponentially, and they now controlled approximately three-quarters of Cambodia’s territory. Soon after, they began shelling Phnom Penh with rockets and artillery. A final assault on the refugee-filled capital started in January 1975, with the Khmer Rouge bombarding the airport and blockading river crossings. A U.S. airlift of supplies failed to prevent thousands of children from starving. Finally, on April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge entered the city and ended the fighting. About half a million Cambodians had died during the civil war, yet the worst was still to come.

From 1970, the Khmer Rouge was strong enough to control the border regions and stage large-scale military raids against government targets all over the country. In 1973, diminishing American involvement in the region took the pressure off of the Khmer Rouge and allowed the guerrillas to operate in the open. The government was too weak to stop them, though it was still able to hold the cities against the rebels.

The King’s endorsement legitimised Sar’s claim to power in Cambodia. His forces pulled in thousands of recruits who were banking on a Khmer Rouge victory.

At the same time, Sar was purging his party of potential threats. In 1974, he called together the Central Committee and denounced the southwestern front commander, a relative moderate named Prasith. Giving the man no chance to defend himself, the Party accused him of treason and sexual promiscuity and had him shot in the woods.

In the next few months, ethnic Thais like Prasith were purged. By 1975, the game was over. South Vietnam was being overrun by the North, the Americans had left for good, and Pol Pot, as he had started calling himself, was ready to make the final push into Phnom Penh and take over the country.

Khmer Rouge soldiers drive through the capital. Phnom Penh. 1975. SJOBERG/AFP/Getty Images

Pol Pot’s army captured the capital on April 17, 1975, after a devastating five-year civil war. During it, the United States dropped more bombs on Cambodia in its campaign against Pol Pot than it had unleashed on Japan during World War II. After it, with breathtaking speed, Pol Pot and his black-clad followers immediately ordered weary Cambodians to leave their homes for the countryside and begin life at ”Year Zero.” After three years of terror, he was driven from power in 1979 by an invasion from neighbouring Vietnam.

The Khmer Rouge was a brutal, murderous revolutionary group intent on revolutionising Cambodian society. The Khmer Rouge army marched into Phnom Penh, the modern capital. Khmer Rouge soldiers, young peasants from the provinces, mostly uneducated teenage boys who had never been in a city before, swept through town.  They set to their job right away, evacuating Phnom Penh and forcing all of its residents to leave behind all their belongings and march towards the countryside. “Hospital patients still in their white gowns stumbled along carrying their IV bottles. Screaming children ran in desperate search for their parents.”

Although the Khmer Rouge movement was small at first, new people were constantly being recruited. Many Cambodians had become disenchanted with western democracy due to the huge loss of Cambodian lives that resulted from the US strategy to involve Cambodia in the Vietnam War. The heavy U.S. bombardment and Lon Nol’s collaboration with the US drove new recruits to Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge guerrilla movement.  Pol Pot’s communism brought with it images of new hope and national tranquillity for Cambodia. By 1975, Pol Pot’s force had grown to over 700,000 men. Within days of the Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Phen, Pol began implementing his extremist policies of collectivization. The government confiscated and took control of all property including schools, hospitals, various other societal institutions, and communal labour.

Pol Pot was now the undisputed master of both the Party and the country.

Almost immediately after taking power, the Khmer Rouge evacuated Phnom Penh’s 2.5 million residents. Former civil servants, doctors, teachers and other professionals were stripped of their possessions and forced to toil in the fields as part of a re-education process. Those that complained about the work, concealed their rations or broke rules were usually tortured in a detention centre, such as the infamous S-21, and then killed. The bones of people who died from malnutrition or inadequate health care also filled up mass graves across the country.

Under Pol Pot, the state controlled all aspects of a person’s life. Money, private property, jewellery, gambling, most reading material and religion were outlawed; agriculture was collectivised; children were taken from their homes and forced into the military; and strict rules governing sexual relations, vocabulary and clothing were laid down. The Khmer Rouge, which renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea, even insisted on realigning rice fields in order to create the symmetrical checkerboard pictured on their coat of arms.

Driven from the city: families flee Phnom Penh after Khmer Rouge forces seize the Cambodian capital in April 1975 AFP/Getty

In order to achieve the “ideal” communist model, the Khmer Rouge believed that all Cambodians must be made to labour for a federation of collective farms; anyone in opposition to this system must be eliminated. Under threat of death, Cambodians nationwide were forced from their hometowns and villages. The ill, disabled, old, and young who were incapable of making the journey to the collectivised farms and labour camps were killed on the spot. People who refused to leave were killed, along with any who appeared to be in opposition to the new regime. Residents of entire cities were forcibly evacuated to the countryside. All political and civil rights of the citizen were abolished. Children and parents were separated and sent to different labour camps.

Cambodians who survived the purges and marches became unpaid labourers, working on minimum rations for endless hours. They were forced to live in public communes, similar to military barracks, with constant food shortages and rampant disease. Due to conditions of virtual slave labour, starvation, physical injury, and illness, many Cambodians became incapable of performing physical work and were killed by the Khmer Rouge as expenses to the system.

 “To spare you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss.”

-Kang Kek Iew (mid-level leader of the Khmer Rouge regime)

This list of “potential opposition” included, but was not limited to, journalists, lawyers, doctors, professionals, intellectuals, such as students and professors, and members of the upper class. Factories, schools, universities, hospitals, and all other private institutions were shut down; all their former owners and employees were murdered along with their extended families. It was very common for people to be shot for speaking a foreign language or wearing glasses as these were traits that were associated with the West. Many were also shot for smiling or crying as it was forbidden to show any kind of emotion. Much of the killing was inspired by the extremist propaganda of a militant communist transformation with the belief that individuals such as journalists, intellectuals, and others were threats to the state.

The Khmer Rouge also targeted various religious and ethnic groups during its time in power. Religious enthusiasts, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, ethnic Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, and Cambodians with Chinese, Vietnamese or Thai ancestry, were all persecuted. Leading Buddhist monks and Christian missionaries were killed, and temples and churches were burned. Minority groups were forcibly relocated and the use of minority language was also banned.

The Khmer Rouge also vigorously interrogated its own membership and frequently executed members on suspicions of treachery or sabotage. Survival was determined by one’s ability to work. Therefore, Cambodia’s elderly, handicapped, ill, and children suffered enormous casualties for their inability to perform unceasing physical labour on a daily basis.

In 1976, a confidential State Department white paper assessed the results of the Secret War on Cambodia and examined its prospects going forward. The paper predicted a famine in the country, where millions of farmers, their land lying fallow, had been herded into either the cities or remote armed camps. The secret assessment described failed agriculture, broken transportation systems, and lingering fighting on the fringes of the country.

The analysis, which was later presented to President Ford, warned of up to two million deaths from the aftermath of the bombing and the civil war, with the crisis only expected to come under control around 1980. Pol Pot had won control of a ruined country.

From then on, Pol Pot used the geopolitics of the cold war to his advantage, convincing most of Asia and the non-Communist world that his Khmer Rouge Government was unlawfully thrown out by Vietnam. His exiled government retained the political recognition of the United States and much of the world throughout the 1980’s while Vietnamese-occupied Cambodia was placed under severe international sanctions.

Until the approach of internationally supervised elections in 1992, the Khmer Rouge occupied Cambodia’s seat at the United Nations and took the leading role in agencies like Unesco.

Pol Pot was one of the most secretive of national leaders. His bland face and unthreatening manner, his self-effacement, his rare and turgid public statements and his life in hiding — even during his years of absolute power — were some of his chief tactics in keeping his rivals off balance and his hold over his followers.

A group of women huddle together.1975. Romano Cagnoni/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In service to the ideology that Pol Pot had crafted in the jungle, all of the elements of modern society were purged from the new Democratic Republic of Kampuchea and Year Zero was declared – the start of a new era in human history.

Apartment blocks were emptied, cars were melted down into buckets, and millions of people were forced out and onto collective farms where they were worked to death. Workdays of 12 or 14 hours typically began and ended with mandatory indoctrination sessions, in which the peasantry was instructed in the ruling philosophy of Angka, the Party’s name for itself. In this ideology, all foreign influence was bad, all modern affectations weakened the nation, and Kampuchea’s only way forward was through isolation and heavy labour.

Angka seems to have known that this wasn’t going to be a popular line to take. Every policy of the Party had to be enforced at gunpoint by black-clad soldiers, some as young as 12, toting AK-47s around the perimeters of the work camps.

The party punished even the smallest deviations of opinion with torture and death, with victims typically suffocated inside blue plastic bags or chopped to death with shovels. Ammunition was in short supply, so drownings and stabbings became common methods of execution.

Whole sections of Cambodia’s population had been marked down on the Khmer Rouge’s kill list, which was published by Sianhouk prior to the seizure of power, and the regime did what it could to fill up the killing fields with as many class enemies as possible.

During this purge, Pol Pot worked to shore up his base by promoting anti-Vietnamese sentiment. The two governments had had a falling out in 1975, with Kampuchea aligning with China and Vietnam leaning more toward the Soviet Union.

Now, every hardship in Cambodia was the fault of Vietnamese treachery. Food shortages were blamed on Hanoi’s sabotage, and the sporadic resistance was said to be under direct control of the Vietnamese counterrevolutionaries.

Relations between the countries soured until 1980 when Pol Pot evidently went out of his mind and began claiming border areas for his starving empire. That’s when Vietnam, which had just beaten back the American occupation and built up a substantial military force of its own, stepped in and pulled the plug.

Invading Vietnamese forces drove the Khmer Rouge out of power and back into its jungle camps. Pol Pot himself had to run and hide, while hundreds of thousands of starving people fled their communes and walked to refugee camps in Thailand. The Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror was over.

Unbelievably, though Angka was no more, the Khmer forces weren’t completely broken. Retreating to bases in the west, where travel is difficult and even a large force can hide indefinitely, Pol Pot kept his grip on the defeated remnants of his party for another 15 years.

In the mid-90s, the new government began aggressively recruiting Khmer Rouge defectors and subverting the organisation. Gradually the Khmer Rouge began to change complexion, and many of Pol Pot’s old cronies either died or came in from the bush to take advantage of various amnesties.

Child soldiers working for the Khmer Rouge show off their machine guns. Galaw, Cambodia. Circa 1979.
Bettmann/Getty Images

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.

In 1995, Pol Pot, still living in isolation on the Thai border, suffered a stroke that left the left side of his body paralysed. 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.

Rumours persist that he either committed suicide or was murdered. Pol Pot’s body was cremated without an autopsy to establish the cause of death.

A soldier stands by a mass grave. Oudong, Cambodia. 1981.
Roland Neveu/LightRocket via Getty Images

Skulls lie in the killing fields of Choeung Ek. 1981. Roland Neveu/LightRocket via Getty Images

Though Pol Pot was responsible for an untold number of deaths, he never faced charges until July 1997, when some of his former Khmer Rouge followers turned on him, denounced him for crimes against humanity in a carefully scripted show trial and put him under house arrest for life.

Pol Pot had incurred the wrath of his former allies by ordering the assassination of a political associate. In a pattern he established when he was in power, Pol Pot blamed Son Sen for his fading grip on the movement. He not only ordered Son Sen killed but also told followers to execute more than a dozen of his relatives, including grandchildren.

In a magazine interview in October 1997, the sickly ex-dictator expressed regrets about the deaths of his rival’s family: ”You know, for the other people, the babies, the young ones, I did not order them to be killed.”

The interview, with Nate Thayer for the Far Eastern Economic Review, portrayed a man succumbing to age, bored and preoccupied with his aches and pains, but free of remorse. ”I came to carry out the struggle, not to kill people,” he told his questioner. ”Even now, and you can look at me: am I a savage person?”

Many experts on Southeast Asia as well as the Cambodians who endured his rule would answer him with a resounding ”Yes.”

But Pol Pot, while acknowledging that ”our movement made mistakes,” insisted that he had ordered killings in self-defense, to save Cambodia from its Vietnamese enemies and that the numbers of dead were wildly exaggerated.

Yet even today his legacy fractures the country with continuing violence, political feuds, corruption and social fragility.

In the interview, Pol Pot was asked if he thought his young daughter would be proud later to call herself his daughter. ”I don’t know about that,” he said. ”It’s up to history to judge.”

A distraught woman cries over the body of her husband, killed by Khmer Rouge soldiers. Phnom Penh. 1975.
Roland Neveu/LightRocket via Getty Images

It is estimated that one and a half to three million Cambodians lost their lives at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. On July 25, 1983, the Research Committee on Pol Pot’s Genocidal Regime issued its final report, including detailed province-by-province data. The data showed that the number of deaths was 3,314,768. An estimated 25 percent of the total population died due to the Khmer Rouge policies of forced relocation of the population from urban centres, torture, mass executions, used of forced labour, and malnutrition.

Even after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the people of Cambodia suffered greatly. Thousands of people fled to Thailand; many forced to eat leaves, roots, and bugs along the way. Many died of starvation en route, or stepped on land mines, for Khmer Rouge soldiers had laid mines almost everywhere along the western border, to prevent their victims from fleeing. Those who made it to Thailand brought malaria, typhoid, cholera, and a host of other illnesses into the camps. Human rights groups estimated that about 650,000 more people died in the year following the fall of the Khmer Rouge.

Most of the nation’s Khmer Rouge survivors suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, but through the 1990s, no one in Cambodia recognised this or was offered any treatment.  No one paid any attention at all, allowing the illness to fester and, in some cases, worsen. For someone suffering from PTSD, almost anything out of the ordinary could set off a heart-wrenching panic. For older people with heart trouble, these panics could trigger a heart attack.

In the early 1990s, mass graves were uncovered throughout Cambodia. “Each held dozens, or hundreds, of skeletal remains from Khmer Rouge execution grounds.  Most often villagers piled the remains in barns or outbuildings the Khmer Rouge had once used.  Even now, decades later, villagers say the skulls speak to them.”

Cambodia’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime – BBC News –

Pol Pot – Government Official, Dictator –

DEATH OF POL POT; Pol Pot, Brutal Dictator Who Forced …

Pol Pot – Facts & Summary –

Khmer Rouge And Pol Pot: The Cambodian Reign Of Terror

Pol Pot – Wikipedia

Biography of Pol Pot – Leader of the Khmer Rouge – ThoughtCo

Pol Pot | Cambodian political leader |

Cambodian Genocide « World Without Genocide –

The History Place – Genocide in the 20th Century: Pol Pot in …

BBC – History – Historic Figures: Pol Pot (1925-1998)

Cambodian Genocide: The Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot’s Regime

Deposed Pol Pot gives interview in the jungle: from the archive, 11 …

Why the world should not forget Khmer Rouge and the killing fields of …

FRONTLINE/WORLD . Cambodia – Pol Pot’s Shadow . The Story | PBS

Do you want:

  • Ad-free access?
  • Access to our very popular daily crossword?
  • Access to daily sudoku?
  • Access to Incite Politics magazine articles?
  • Access to podcasts?
  • Access to political polls?

Our subscribers’ financial support is the reason why we have been able to offer our latest service; Audio blogs. 

Click Here  to support us and watch the number of services grow.