|General Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea|
22 February 1963 – 6 December 1981
|Preceded by||Tou Samouth|
|Succeeded by||Position abolished (party dissolved)|
|27th Prime Minister of Kampuchea|
25 October 1976 – 7 January 1979
|Preceded by||Nuon Chea (acting)|
|Succeeded by||Pen Sovan|
14 April 1976 – 27 September 1976
|Preceded by||Khieu Samphan (acting)|
|Succeeded by||Nuon Chea (acting)|
25 May 1928 (officially)
May 1925 (possibly)
Prek Sbauv, Kampong Thom, Cambodia
|Died||15 April 1998 (aged 72)|
Anlong Veng, Oddar Meanchey, Cambodia
|Resting place||Anlong Veng, Oddar Meanchey, Cambodia|
|Political party||Communist Party of Kampuchea|
|French Communist Party|
(m. 1956; div. 1979)
(m. 1986; his death 1998)
|Education||EFREI (no degree)|
|Allegiance|| Khmer Rouge|
|Branch/service||Kampuchean Revolutionary Army|
|Years of service||1963–1997|
Pol Pot[a] (born Saloth Sâr;[b] 25 May 1925 or 1928 – 15 April 1998) was a Cambodian revolutionary and politician who governed Cambodia as the Prime Minister of Democratic Kampuchea between 1976 and 1979. Ideologically a Marxist–Leninist and Khmer nationalist, he was a leading member of Cambodia's communist movement, the Khmer Rouge, from 1963 until 1997 and served as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea from 1963 to 1981. Under his administration, Cambodia was converted into a one-party communist state governed according to Pol Pot's interpretation of Marxism-Leninism.
Born to a prosperous farmer in Prek Sbauv, French Cambodia, Pol Pot was educated at some of Cambodia's elite schools. While in Paris during the 1940s, he joined the French Communist Party. Returning to Cambodia in 1953, he involved himself in the Marxist–Leninist Khmer Việt Minh organisation and its guerrilla war against King Norodom Sihanouk's newly independent government. Following the Khmer Việt Minh's 1954 retreat into Marxist–Leninist controlled North Vietnam, Pol Pot returned to Phnom Penh, working as a teacher while remaining a central member of Cambodia's Marxist–Leninist movement. In 1959, he helped formalise the movement into the Kampuchean Labour Party, which was later renamed the Communist Party of Kampuchea. To avoid state repression, in 1962 he relocated to a Việt Cộng jungle encampment and in 1963 became leader of his party. In 1968, he re-launched the war against Sihanouk's government. After Lon Nol deposed Sihanouk in a 1970 coup, Pol Pot's forces sided with the deposed leader against Lon Nol's right-wing government, which was bolstered by the United States military. Aided by the Việt Cộng and North Vietnamese troops, Pol Pot's forces advanced and controlled all of Cambodia by 1975.
Pol Pot transformed Cambodia into a one-party state called Democratic Kampuchea. Seeking to create an agrarian socialist society that would ultimately evolve into a communist society, his government forcibly relocated the urban population to the countryside to work on collective farms. Pursuing complete egalitarianism, money was abolished and all citizens made to wear the same black clothing. Those the Khmer Rouge regarded as enemies were killed. These mass killings, coupled with malnutrition and poor medical care, killed between 1.5 and 2 million people, approximately a quarter of Cambodia's population, a period later termed the Cambodian genocide. Marxist–Leninists opposed to Pol Pot's government encouraged Vietnamese intervention. After Pol Pot attacked several Vietnamese villages, the newly unified Vietnam invaded Cambodia in December 1978, toppling his government in 1979. The Vietnamese installed a rival Marxist–Leninist faction opposed to Pol Pot which renamed the country the People's Republic of Kampuchea. Pol Pot and his supporters retreated to a jungle base near the border with Thailand. The Ta Mok faction placed Pol Pot under house arrest, where he died in 1998, possibly from suicide.
Taking power in Cambodia at the height of Marxism-Leninism's global impact, Pol Pot proved divisive among the international Marxist-Leninist movement, with many claiming that he deviated from orthodox Marxism-Leninism although China backing his government as a bulwark against Soviet influence in Southeast Asia. For his supporters, he was an advocate of communism who championed Cambodian sovereignty in the face of Vietnamese imperialism. Conversely, he has been internationally denounced for his role in the Cambodian genocide, regarded as a totalitarian dictator guilty of crimes against humanity.
- 1 Early life
- 2 Revolutionary and political activism
- 3 Cambodian Civil War
- 4 Leader of Kampuchea
- 5 After Democratic Kampuchea
- 6 Political ideology
- 7 Personal life and characteristics
- 8 Notes
- 9 References
- 10 Further reading
- 11 External links
Pol Pot was born in the village of Prek Sbauv, outside the city of Kampong Thom. He was named Saloth Sâr (Khmer: សាឡុត ស pronounced [saː.ˈlot sɑː]), the word sâr ("white, pale") referencing his comparatively light skin complexion. French colonial records placed his birth date on 25 May 1928, although biographer Philip Short argued he was instead born in March 1925.
His family was of mixed Chinese and ethnic Khmer heritage, although they did not speak Chinese and lived as though they were fully Khmer. His father Loth, who later took the name of Saloth Phem, was a prosperous farmer who owned nine hectares of rice land and several draft cattle. Loth's house was one of the largest in the village and at transplanting and harvest time he hired poorer neighbors to carry out much of the agricultural labour. Pol Pot's mother Sok Nem was locally respected as a pious Buddhist. Pol Pot was the eighth of nine children (two were female and seven male). Three died young. They were raised as Theravada Buddhists, and on festivals travelled to the Kampong Thom monastery.
Cambodia was a monarchy, but the king had little political control which was instead exercised by the French colonial regime. Pol Pot's family had connections to the Cambodian royal household as his cousin Meak was a consort of King Sisowath Monivong and later worked as a ballet teacher. When Pol Pot was six years old, he and an older brother were sent to live with Meak in the capital city of Phnom Penh as informal adoptions by wealthier relatives were then common in Cambodia. In Phnom Penh, he spent eighteen months as a novice monk in the city's Vat Botum Vaddei monastery, there learning both Buddhist teachings and how to read and write in the Khmer language.
In the summer of 1935, Sâr went to live with his brother Suong and the latter's wife and child. That year he began an education at a Roman Catholic primary school, the École Miche, with Meak paying the tuition fees. Most of his classmates were the children of French bureaucrats and Catholic Vietnamese. He became literate in French and familiar with Christianity. Sâr was not academically gifted and he was held back two years, only receiving his Certificat d'Etudes Primaires Complémentaires in 1941 at the age of sixteen. Sâr had continued to visit Meak at the king's palace and it was there that he had some of his earliest sexual experiences among some of the king's concubines.
Later education: 1942–1948
While Sâr was at the school, the King of Cambodia died and in 1941 the French authorities appointed Norodom Sihanouk as his replacement. A new junior middle school, the Collége Pream Sihanouk, was established in Kampong Cham and Sâr was selected to become a boarder at the institution in 1942. This level of education afforded him a privileged position in Cambodian society. There, he learned to play the violin and took part in school plays. Much of his spare time was spent playing football and basketball. Several fellow pupils, among them Hu Nim and Khieu Samphan, later served in his government. During the new year vacation in 1945, Sâr and several friends from the college theatre troupe went on a provincial tour in a bus to raise money for a trip to Angkor Wat. In 1947, he left the school.
That year he passed exams that admitted him into the Lycée Sisowath, meanwhile living with Suong and his new wife. In the summer of 1948, he sat the brevet entry exams for the upper classes of the Lycée, but he failed. Unlike several of his friends, he could not continue on at the school for a baccalauréat. Instead, he enrolled in 1948 to study carpentry at the Ecole Technique in Russey Keo, located in the northern suburbs of Phnom Penh. This drop from an academic education to a vocational one likely came as a shock. Here, his fellow students were generally of a lower class than those he encountered at the Lycée Sisowath, although they were not peasants. It was there he met Ieng Sary, who became a close friend and later became a fellow member of his government. In the summer of 1949, Sâr passed his brevet and secured one of five scholarships allowing him to travel to France to study at one of its engineering schools.
During the Second World War, France was invaded by Nazi Germany and in 1945 the Japanese ousted French control over Cambodia, with Sihanouk proclaiming independence for his country. After the war ended in the defeat of Germany and Japan, France re-asserted its control over Cambodia in 1946, although allowed for the creation of a new constitution and the establishment of various political parties. The most successful of these was the Democratic Party, which won the 1946 general election. According to Chandler, Sâr and Sary worked for the party during its successful election campaign; conversely, Short maintained that Sâr had no contact with the party. Sihanouk opposed the party's left-leaning reforms and in 1948 dissolved the National Assembly, instead ruling by decree. A nascent Marxist–Leninist movement had also been established in Cambodia by operatives of Ho Chi Minh's better established Vietnamese Marxist–Leninist group, the Việt Minh, although it had been beset by ethnic tensions between the Khmer and Vietnamese. News of the group was censored from the press and it is unlikely Sâr was aware of them.
Access to further education abroad marked Sâr out as part of a tiny elite in Cambodia. Sâr and the 21 other selected students sailed from Saigon aboard the SS Jamaïque, stopping at Singapore, Colombo, and Djibouti en route to Marseille. In January 1950, Sâr enrolled at the École française de radioélectricité to study radio electronics. He took a room in the Cité Universitaire's Indochinese Pavilion, then lodgings on the rue Amyot, and eventually a bedsit on the corner of the rue de Commerce and the rue Letelier. Sâr earned good marks during his first year. Although he failed his first end of year exams he was permitted to retest for a second time and narrowly passed, allowing him to continue his studies.
Pol Pot spent three years in Paris, although he left on several holidays. In the summer of 1950, he was one of 18 Cambodian students who joined French counterparts in traveling to Yugoslavia, a Marxist–Leninist state, to volunteer in a labour battalion building a motorway in Zagreb. He returned to Yugoslavia the following year for a camping holiday. In Paris, Sâr made little or no attempt to assimilate into French culture, never becoming completely at ease with the French language. He nevertheless became familiar with much French literature, one of his favorite authors being Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His most significant friendships in the country were with Ieng Sary, who had joined him there, Thiounn Mumm and Keng Vannsak. He was a member of Vannsak's discussion circle, whose ideologically diverse membership discussed means to achieve Cambodian independence from French rule.
In Paris, Ieng Sary and two others established the Cercle Marxiste ("Marxist Circle"), a Marxist–Leninist organisation arranged in a clandestine cell system. The cells met to read Marxist texts and hold self-criticism sessions. Sâr joined a cell that met on the rue Lacepède; his cell comrades included Hou Yuon, Sien Ary, and Sok Knaol. He helped to duplicate the Cercle's newspaper, Reaksmei ("The Spark"), named after a former Russian paper. In October 1951, Yuon was elected head of the Khmer Student Association (AEK; I'Association des Estudiants Khmers), establishing close links between the organisation and the leftist Union Nationale des Étudiants de France. The Cercle Marxiste manipulated the AEK and its successor organisations for the next 19 years. Several months after the Cercle Marxiste's formation, Sâr and Sary joined the French Communist Party (CFP). Sâr attended party meetings, including those of its Cambodian group and read its magazine, Les Cahiers Internationaux. The Marxist–Leninist movement was then in a strong position globally; the Communist Party of China had recently come to power under Mao Zedong and the French Communist Party was one of the country's largest political parties, attracting the votes of around 25% of the French electorate.
Sâr found many of Karl Marx's denser texts difficult, later revealing that he "didn't really understand" them. Instead, he became familiar with the writings of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, including Stalin's The History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks). Stalin's approach to Marxism—known as Stalinism—gave Sâr a sense of purpose in life. Sâr also read Mao's work, especially On New Democracy, a text outlining a Marxist–Leninist framework for carrying out a revolution in colonial and semi-colonial, semi-feudal societies. Alongside these Marxist texts, Sâr read the anarchist Peter Kropotkin's book on the French Revolution of 1789, The Great Revolution. From Kropotkin, he took the idea that an alliance between intellectuals and the peasantry was necessary for revolution; that a revolution needed to be carried out to its final conclusion without compromise for it to succeed; and that egalitarianism was the basis of a communist society.
In Cambodia, growing internal strife resulted in King Sihanouk dismissing the government and declaring himself Prime Minister. In response to Sihanouk's growing power, Sâr wrote the article "Monarchy or Democracy?"; it was published in student magazine Khmer Nisut under the pseudonym "Khmer daom" ("Original Khmer"). In this essay, he referred positively toward Buddhism, portraying Buddhist monks as an anti-monarchist force on the side of the peasantry. At a meeting, the Cercle decided to send someone back to Cambodia to assess the situation and determine which rebel group they should support; Sâr volunteered for the role. His decision to leave may also pertain to the fact that he had failed his second year exams two years in a row and had thus lost his scholarship. In December, he boarded the SS Jamaïque, returning to Cambodia without a degree.
Revolutionary and political activism
Return to Cambodia: 1953–1954
Sâr arrived in Saigon on 13 January 1953, the same day on which Sihanouk disbanded the Democratic-controlled National Assembly, began ruling by decree, and imprisoned Democratic members of parliament without trial. Amid the broader First Indochina War in neighboring French Indochina, Cambodia was in a state of civil war, with civilian massacres and other atrocities being carried out by all sides. Sâr spent several months at the headquarters of Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey—the leader of one of these factions—in Trapeng Kroloeung, before moving to Phnom Penh, where he met with fellow Cercle member Ping Say to discuss the situation. Sâr regarded the most promising resistance group to be the Khmer Việt Minh, a mixed Vietnamese and Cambodian guerrilla sub-group of the North Vietnam-based Việt Minh. Sâr believed that the Khmer Việt Minh's relationship to the Việt Minh and thus the international Marxist–Leninist movement made it the best group for the Cercle Marxiste to support. His recommendation was agreed by the Cercle members in Paris.
In August 1953, Sâr and Rath Samoeun travelled to Krabao, the headquarters of the Việt Minh Eastern Zone. Over the following nine months, around 12 other Cercle members joined them there. They found that the Khmer Việt Minh was run by—and numerically dominated by—Vietnamese guerrillas, with Khmer recruits largely given menial tasks; Sâr was tasked with growing cassava and working in the canteen. At Krabao, he gained a rudimentary grasp of Vietnamese, and rose to become secretary and aide to Tou Samouth, the Secretary of the Khmer Việt Minh's Eastern Zone.
Sihanouk desired independence from French colonial rule, but after France's government refused his requests he called for public resistance to their administration in June 1953. Khmer troops deserted the French Army in large numbers and the French government—fearing a costly, protracted war to retain control—relented. In November, Sihanouk declared Cambodia's independence. The civil conflict then intensified, with France backing Sihanouk's war against the rebels. Following the Geneva Conference held to end the First Indochina War, Sihanouk secured an agreement from the North Vietnamese that they would withdraw Khmer Việt Minh forces from Cambodian territory. The final Khmer Việt Minh units left Cambodia for North Vietnam in October 1954. Sâr was not among them, deciding to remain in Cambodia; he trekked, via South Vietnam, to Prey Veng to reach Phnom Penh. He and other Cambodian Marxist–Leninists now decided to pursue their aims through electoral means.
Developing the Marxist–Leninist movement: 1955–1959
Cambodia's Marxist–Leninists wanted to operate clandestinely but also established a socialist party, Pracheachon, to serve as a front organization through which they could compete in the forthcoming 1955 election. Although Pracheachon had strong support in some areas, most observers expected the Democratic Party to win. The Marxist–Leninists engaged in entryism to influence Democratic Party policy; Vannsak had become deputy party secretary, with Sâr working as his assistant, perhaps helping to alter the party's platform. Sihanouk feared a Democratic Party government and in March 1955 abdicated the throne in favor of his father, Norodom Suramarit. This allowed him to legally establish a political party, the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, with which to contest the election. The September election witnessed widespread voter intimidation and electoral fraud, resulting in Sihanouk's Sangkum winning all 91 seats. Sihanouk's establishment of a de facto one-party state extinguished hopes that the Cambodian Left could take power electorally. North Vietnam's government nevertheless urged Cambodia's Marxist–Leninists not to restart the armed struggle; the former were focusing on undermining South Vietnam and had little desire to destabilize Sihanouk's regime given that it had—conveniently for them—remained internationally un-aligned rather than following the Thai and South Vietnamese governments in allying with the anti-communist United States.
Sâr rented a house in the Boeng Keng Kang area of southern Phnom Penh. Although not qualified to teach at a state school, he gained employment teaching history, geography, French literature, and morals at a private school, the Chamraon Vichea ("Progressive Knowledge"); his pupils, who included the later novelist Soth Polin, described him as a good teacher. He courted society belle Soeung Son Maly, before entering a relationship with fellow communist revolutionary Khieu Ponnary, who was the sister of Sary's wife Thirith. They were married in a Buddhist ceremony in July 1956. He continued to oversee many of the Marxist–Leninists' underground communications; all correspondence between the Democratic Party and the Pracheachon went through him. Sihanouk cracked down on the Marxist–Leninist movement, whose membership had halved since the end of the civil war. Links with the North Vietnamese Marxist–Leninists declined, something Sâr later portrayed as a good thing. He and other members increasingly regarded the Cambodians as being too subordinate to their Vietnamese counterparts; to deal with this, Sâr, Tou Samouth, and Nuon Chea drafted a programme and statutes for a new Marxist–Leninist party that would be allied, although not subordinate, to the Vietnamese. They established party cells, emphasising the recruitment of small numbers of dedicated members, and organized political seminars in safe houses.
Kampuchean Labour Party: 1959–1962
At a 1959 conference, the movement's leadership established the Kampuchean Labour Party, based upon the Marxist–Leninist model of democratic centralism. Sâr, Tou Samouth and Nuon Chea were part of a four-man General Affair Committee leading the party. Its existence was to be kept secret from non-members. The Kampuchean Labour Party's conference, held clandestinely from September to October 1960 in Phnom Penh, saw Samouth become party secretary and Nuon Chea his deputy, while Sâr took the third senior position and Ieng Sary the fourth.
Sihanouk spoke out against the Cambodian Marxist-Leninists; although he was an ally of China's Marxist–Leninist government and admitted Marxism–Leninism's capacity to bring swift economic development and social justice, he also warned of its totalitarian character and its suppression of personal liberty. In January 1962, Sihanouk's security services cracked down further on Cambodia's socialists, incarcerating the leaders of Pracheachon and leaving the party largely moribund. In July, Samouth was arrested, tortured and killed. Nuon Chea had also taken a step back from his political activities, leaving the way for Sâr to become party leader.
As well as facing leftist opposition, Sihanouk's government faced hostility from right-wing opposition centred upon Sihanouk's former Minister of State, Sam Sary, who was backed by the United States, Thailand and South Vietnam. After the South Vietnamese supported a failed coup against Sihanouk, relations between the countries deteriorated and the United States initiated an economic blockade of Cambodia in 1956. After Sihanouk's father died in 1960, Sihanouk introduced a constitutional amendment allowing himself to become head of state for life. In February 1962, anti-government student protests turned into riots, at which Sihanouk dismissed the Sangkum government, called new elections, and produced a list of 34 left-leaning Cambodians, demanding that they meet him to establish a new administration. Sâr was on that list—perhaps because of his role as a teacher—but refused to meet with Sihanouk. He and Ieng Sary left Phnom Penh for a Viet Cong encampment near Thboung Khmum in the jungle along Cambodia's border with South Vietnam. According to Chandler, "from this point on he was a full-time revolutionary".
Plotting rebellion: 1962–1968
Conditions at the Viet Cong camp were basic and food scarce. As Sihanouk's government cracked down on the movement in Phnom Penh, growing numbers of its members fled to join Sâr in his jungle base. In February 1963, at the party's second conference, held in a central Phnom Penh apartment, Sâr was elected party secretary, but soon fled into the jungle to avoid repression from Sihanouk's government. In early 1964, Sâr established his own encampment, Office 100, on the South Vietnamese side of the border. Although allowing his actions to be officially separate from the Viet Cong, the latter still wielded significant control over his camp. At a plenum of the party's Central Committee, it was agreed that they should re-emphasize their independence from the Vietnamese Marxist–Leninists and endorse armed struggle against Sihanouk.
The Central Committee met again in January 1965 to denounce the "peaceful transition" to socialism being espoused by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, accusing him of being a revisionist. In contrast to Khrushchev's interpretation of Marxism–Leninism, Sâr and his comrades sought to develop their own, explicitly Cambodian variant of the ideology. Their interpretation moved away from the orthodox Marxist focus on the urban proletariat as the forces of a revolution to build socialism; instead they gave that role to the rural peasantry, who were a far larger class in Cambodian society. By 1965, the party regarded Cambodia's small proletariat as being full of "enemy agents" and systematically refused them party membership. The party's main area of growth was in the rural provinces and by 1965 membership was at 2000. In April 1965, Sâr travelled—by foot, along the Ho Chi Minh Trail—to Hanoi to meet North Vietnamese government figures, among them Ho Chi Minh and Lê Duẩn. The North Vietnamese were preoccupied with the ongoing Vietnam War and thus did not want Sâr's forces to destabilize Sihanouk's government; the latter's anti-American stance rendered him a de facto ally. In Hanoi, Sâr read through the archives of the Workers' Party of Vietnam, concluding that the Vietnamese Marxist–Leninists were committed to pursuing an Indochinese Federation and that their interests were therefore incompatible with those of Cambodia.
In November 1965, Pol Pot flew from Hanoi to Beijing, where his official host was Deng Xiaoping, although most of his meetings were with Peng Zhen. Sâr gained a sympathetic hearing from many in the governing Communist Party of China (CPC)—especially Chen Boda, Zhang Chunqiao and Kang Sheng—who shared his negative view of Khrushchev amid the Sino-Soviet split. He also received training from the CPC officials on topics like dictatorship of the proletariat, class struggles and political purge. In Beijing, Pol Pot witnessed China's ongoing Cultural Revolution, influencing his later policies in Cambodia.
Sâr left Beijing in February 1966, and flew back to Hanoi before a four-month journey along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to reach the Cambodian Marxist–Leninists' new base at Loc Ninh. In October 1966, he and other Cambodian party leaders reached several key decisions. They decided to rename their organisation the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), a decision initially kept secret. Sihanouk began referring to its members as the "Khmer Rouge" ('Red Cambodians'), although they did not adopt this term themselves. It was agreed that they would move their headquarters in Ratanakiri Province, away from the Viet Cong, and that—despite the views of the North Vietnamese—they would command each of the party's zone committees to prepare for the re-launch of armed struggle. North Vietnam refused to assist in this, rejecting their requests for weaponry. In November 1967, Sâr travelled from Tay Ninh to the base Office 102 near Kang Lêng. During the journey, he fell ill with malaria and required a respite in a Viet Cong medical base near Mount Ngork. By December, plans for armed conflict were complete, with the war to begin in the North-West Zone and then spread to other regions. As communication across Cambodia was slow, each Zone would have to operate independently much of the time.
Cambodian Civil War
In January 1968, the war was launched with an attack on the Bay Damran army post south of Battambang. Further attacks targeted police and soldiers and seized weaponry. The government responded with scorched earth policies, aerially bombarding areas where the rebels were active. The army's brutality aided the insurgents' cause. As the uprising spread, over 100,000 villagers joined the rebels. In the summer, Sâr relocated his base thirty miles north, to the more mountainous Naga's Tail, to avoid encroaching government troops. In this base, called K-5, Sâr established his growing dominance over the party and had his own separate encampment; his own staff and guards and no outsider was allowed to meet him without an escort. He took over from Sary as the Secretary of the North East Zone. In November 1969, Sâr trekked to Hanoi to persuade the North Vietnamese government to provide direct military assistance. They refused, urging him to revert to a political struggle. In January 1970 he then flew to Beijing. There, his wife began showing early signs of the chronic paranoid schizophrenia she would later be diagnosed with.
Against Lon Nol
Collaboration with Sihanouk: 1970–1971
In March 1970, while Sâr was still in Beijing, Cambodian parliamentarians led by Lon Nol deposed Sihanouk when he was out of the country. Sihanouk also flew to Beijing, where the Chinese and North Vietnamese Communist Parties urged him to form an alliance with the Khmer Rouge to overthrow Lon Nol's right-wing government. Sihanouk agreed. On Zhou Enlai's advice, Sâr also agreed, although his dominant role in the CPK was concealed from Sihanouk. Sihanouk then formed his own government-in-exile in Beijing and launched the National United Front of Kampuchea to rally opponents of Lon Nol.
In April 1970, Sâr flew to Hanoi. He stressed to Lê Duẩn that while he wanted the Vietnamese to supply the Khmer Rouge with weapons, he did not want troops, for the Cambodians needed to oust Lon Nol themselves. The North Vietnamese armies, in collaboration with the Viet Cong, nevertheless invaded Cambodia to attack Lon Nol's forces; in turn, the South Vietnamese and United States sent troops to the country to bolster his government. This pulled Cambodia into the Second Indochina War already raging across Vietnam. The U.S. dropped three times as many bombs on Cambodia during the conflict as they had dropped on Japan during the Second World War. Although targeting Viet Cong and Khmer Rouge encampments, their bombing primarily affected civilians. This fuelled recruitment to the Khmer Rouge, which had an estimated 12,000 regular soldiers at the end of 1970 and four times that number two years later.
In June 1970, Sâr left Vietnam and reached his K-5 base. In July he headed south; it was at this point that he began referring to himself as "Pol", a name he later lengthened to "Pol Pot". By September, he was based at a camp on the border of Kratie and Kompong Thom, where he convened a meeting of the CPK Standing Committee. Although few senior members could attend, it issued a resolution setting out the principle of "independence-mastery", the idea that Cambodia must be self-reliant and fully independent of other countries. In November, Pol Pot, Ponnary, and their entourage relocated to the K-1 base at Dângkda. His residence was set up on the northern side of the Chinit river; entry was strictly controlled. By the end of the year, Marxist forces had a presence in over half of Cambodia; the Khmer Rouge played a restricted role in this, for throughout 1971 and 1972, the majority of fighting against Lon Nol was carried out by Vietnamese or by Cambodians under Vietnamese control.
In January 1971, a Central Committee meeting was held at this base, bringing together 27 delegates to discuss the war. During 1971, Pol Pot and the other senior party members focused on the construction of a regular Khmer Rouge army and administration which could take a central role when the Vietnamese withdrew. Membership of the party was made more selective, permitting only those regarded as "poor peasants" and not those who were seen as "middle peasants" or students. Over July and August, Pol Pot oversaw a month-long training course for CPK cadres in the Northern Zone headquarters. This was followed by the CPK's Third Congress, attended by around 60 delegates, where Pol Pot was confirmed as the Secretary of the Central Committee and Chairman of its Military Commission.
Continuing the conflict: 1972
In early 1972, Pol Pot embarked on his first tour of the Marxist-controlled areas across Cambodia. In these areas, referred to as "liberated zones", corruption was stamped out, gambling was banned, and alcohol and extra-marital affairs were discouraged. From 1970 to 1971, the Khmer Rouge had generally sought to cultivate good relations with the inhabitants, organising local elections and assemblies. Some people regarded as being hostile to the movement were executed, although such acts were comparatively uncommon. Private motor transport was requisitioned. Co-operative stores selling goods like medicines, cloth, and kerosene were formed, providing goods imported from Vietnam. Wealthier peasants had their land redistributed so that by the end of 1972, all families living in the Marxist-controlled areas possessed an equal sized area of land. The poorest strata of Cambodian society benefited from these reforms.
From 1972, the Khmer Rouge began trying to refashion all of Cambodia in the image of the poor peasantry, whose lives—which were rural, isolated, and self-sufficient—were regarded as worthy of emulation. From May that year, the group began ordering all of those living under its control to dress like poor peasants, with black clothes, red-and-white krama scarves, and sandals made from car tyres. These clothing restrictions were initially imposed on the Cham ethnic group before being rolled out across other communities. Pol Pot himself also dressed in this fashion.
CPK members were expected to attend regular (sometimes daily) "lifestyle meetings" in which they engaged in criticism and self-criticism. These cultivated an atmosphere of perpetual vigilance and suspicion within the movement. Either Pol Pot or Nuon Chea led such sessions at their headquarters, although they were exempt from being criticised themselves. By early 1972, relations between the Khmer Rouge and its Vietnamese Marxist allies were becoming strained and some violent clashes between the two had broken out. That year, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong main-force divisions began pulling out of Cambodia, primarily because they were needed for the offensive against Saigon. As they became more dominant, the CPK imposed increasing numbers of controls over the Vietnamese troops active in Cambodia. In 1972, Pol Pot suggested that Sihanouk leave Beijing and tour the areas of Cambodia under CPK control. When the latter did so, he met with senior CPK figures, including Pol Pot, although the latter's identity was concealed from the king.
Collectivisation and the Conquest of Phnom Penh: 1973–1975
In May 1973, Pol Pot ordered the collectivisation of villages in the territory it controlled. This move was both ideological, in that it was seen as helping to build a socialist society free from private property, and pragmatic, in that it allowed the Khmer Rouge greater control over the food supply, ensuring that farmers did not sell their produce to government forces. Many villagers resented the collectivisation and slaughtered their livestock to prevent it becoming collective property. Over the following six months, approximately 60,000 Cambodians fled from areas under Khmer Rouge control. The Khmer Rouge introduced conscription to bolster its forces. Relations between the Khmer Rouge and the North Vietnamese remained strained. After the latter temporarily reduced the flow of arms to the Khmer Rouge, in July 1973 the CPK Central Committee agreed that the North Vietnamese should be considered "a friend with a conflict". Pol Pot ordered the internment of many of the Khmer Rouge who had spent time in North Vietnam, and who were considered too sympathetic to them. Most of these were later executed.
In the summer of 1973, the Khmer Rouge launched its first major assault on Phnom Penh, but was forced back amid heavy losses. Later that year, it began bombarding the city with artillery. In the autumn, Pol Pot travelled to a base at Chrok Sdêch on the eastern foothills of the Cardamon Mountains. By the winter, he was back at the Chinit Riber base where he conferred with Sary and Chea. He concluded that the Khmer Rouge should start talking openly about their commitment to turning Cambodia into a socialist society and launch a secret campaign to oppose Sihanouk's influence. In September 1974, a Central Committee meeting was held at Meakk in Prek Kok commune. There, the Khmer Rouge agreed that as part of its policy for governance, it would expel the populations of Cambodia's cities to live in rural villages. They saw this as a necessary measure in dismantling capitalism and its associated urban vices.
By 1974, Lon Nol's government had lost a great deal of support, both domestically and internationally. In 1975, the troops defending Phnom Penh began discussing surrender, eventually doing so and allowing the Khmer Rouge to enter the city on 17 April. There, Khmer Rouge soldiers executed between 700 and 800 senior government, military, and police figures. Other senior figures escaped; Lon Nol fled into exile in the US. He left Saukham Khoy as acting president, although he too fled aboard a departing US Navy ship shortly after. Within the city, Khmer Rouge militia under the control of different Zone commanders clashed with one another, partly as a result of turf wars and partly due to the difficulties in establishing who was a group member and who was not.
The Khmer Rouge had long viewed Phnom Penh's population with mistrust, particularly as the city's numbers had been swelled by peasant refugees who had fled the Khmer Rouge's advance and who were seen as traitors. Shortly after taking the city, the Khmer Rouge announced that its inhabitants had to evacuate to escape a forthcoming US bombing raid; the group erroneously claimed that the population would be allowed to return after three days. This evacuation entailed moving over two and a half million people out of the city with very little preparation; between 15,000 and 20,000 of these were removed from the city's hospitals and forced to march. Checkpoints were erected along the roads leading out of the city, where Khmer Rouge cadres searched marchers and removed many of their belongings. The march took place at the hottest month of the year and many died along the route; estimates put the death toll at 20,000. For the Khmer Rouge, emptying Phnom Penh was seen as demolishing not just capitalism in Cambodia, but also Sihanouk's power base and the spy network of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). This helped to secure Khmer Rouge dominance over the country and was a step toward ensuring the urban population's move toward agricultural production.
Leader of Kampuchea
Establishing the new government: 1975
On 20 April 1975, three days after Phnom Penh fell, Pol Pot secretly arrived in the abandoned city. Along with other Khmer Rouge leaders, he based himself in the railway station, which was easy to defend. In early May, they moved their headquarters to the former Finance Ministry building. The party leadership soon held a meeting at the Silver Pagoda, where they agreed that raising agricultural production should be their government's top priority. Pol Pot declared that "agriculture is key both to nation-building and to national defence"; he believed that unless Cambodia could develop swiftly then it would be vulnerable to Vietnamese domination, as it had been in the past. Their goal was to reach 70 to 80% farm mechanisation in five to ten years, and a modern industrial base in fifteen to twenty years. As part of this project, Pol Pot saw it as imperative that they develop means of ensuring that the farming population worked harder than before.
The Khmer Rouge wanted to establish Cambodia as a self-sufficient state. They did not reject foreign assistance altogether although regarded it as pernicious. While China supplied them with substantial food aid, this was not publicly acknowledged. Shortly after the taking of Phnom Penh, Ieng Sary travelled to Beijing, negotiating the provision of 13,300 tons of Chinese weaponry to Cambodia. At the National Congress meeting in April, the Khmer Rouge declared that it would not permit any foreign military bases on Cambodian soil, a threat to Vietnam, which still had 20,000 troops in Cambodia. To quell tensions arising from recent territorial clashes with Vietnamese soldiers over the disputed Wai Island, Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, and Ieng Sary travelled secretly to Hanoi in May, where they proposed a Friendship Treaty between the two countries. In the short term, this successfully eased tensions. After Hanoi, Pol Pot proceeded to Beijing, again in secret. There he met with Mao and then Deng. Although communication with Mao was hindered by the reliance on translators, Mao urged the younger Cambodian to not uncritically imitate the path to socialism pursued by China or any other country and to avoid repetition of more extreme acts that the Khmer Rouge had been conducting. In China, Pol Pot also received medical treatment for his malaria and gastric ailments. Pol Pot then travelled to North Korea, meeting with Kim Il Sung. In mid-July he returned to Cambodia, and spent August touring the South-Western and Eastern Zones.
— Mao's advice to Pol Pot, 1975
In May, Pol Pot adopted the Silver Pagoda as his main residence. He then relocated to the city's tallest structure, the 1960s-built Bank Buildings, which became known as "K1". Several other senior government figures—Nuon Chea, Sary, and Vorn Vet—also lived there. Pol Pot's wife, whose schizophrenia had worsened, was sent to live in a house in Boeung Keng Kâng. Later in 1975, Pol Pot also took Ponnary's old family home in the rue Docteur Hahn as a residence, and subsequently also took a villa in the south of the city for his own. To give his government a greater appearance of legitimacy, Pol pot organised a parliamentary election, although there was only one candidate in every constituency except in Phnom Penh. The parliament then met for only three hours.
Although Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge remained the de facto government, initially the formal government was the GRUNK coalition, although its nominal head, Penn Nouth, remained in Beijing. Throughout 1975, the Communist Party's governance of Cambodia was kept secret. At a special National Congress meeting from 25–27 April, the Khmer Rouge agreed to make Sihanouk the nominal head of state, a status he retained throughout 1975. Sihanouk had been dividing his time between Beijing and Pyongyang but in September was allowed to return to Cambodia. Pol Pot was aware that if left abroad, Sihanouk could become a rallying point for opposition and thus was better brought into the Khmer government itself; he also hoped to take advantage of Sihanouk's stature in the Non-Aligned Movement. Once home, Sihanouk settled into his palace and was well treated. He was allowed to travel abroad, in October addressing the UN General Assembly to promote the new Cambodian government and in November embarking on an international tour.
The Khmer Rouge's military forces remained divided into differing zones and at a July military parade Pol Pot announced the formal integration of all troops into a national Revolutionary Army, to be headed by Son Sen. Although a new Cambodian currency had been printed in China during the civil war, the Khmer Rouge decided not introduce it. At the Central Committee Plenum held in Phnom Penh in September, they agreed that currency would lead to corruption and undermine their efforts to establish a socialist society. Thus, there were no wages in Democratic Kampuchea. The population were expected to do whatever the Khmer Rouge commanded of them, without pay. If they refused, they faced punishment, sometimes execution. For this reason, Short characterised Pol Pot's Cambodia as a "slave state", with its people effectively forced into slavery by working without pay. At the September Plenum, Pol Pot announced that all farmers were expected to meet a quota of three tons of paddy, or unmilled rice, per hectare, an increase on what was previously the average yield. There he also announced that manufacturing should focus on the production of basic agricultural machinery and light industrial goods such as bicycles.
From 1975 on, all those living in rural co-operatives, meaning the vast majority of Cambodia's population, were reclassified as members of one of three groups: the full-rights members, the candidates, and the depositees. The full-rights members most of whom were poor or lower-middle peasants, were entitled to full rations, and able to hold political posts in the co-operatives and join both the army and the Communist Party. Candidates could still hold low-level administrative positions. The application of this tripartite system was uneven and it was introduced to different areas at different times. On the ground, the basic societal division remained between the "base" people and the "new" people. It was never Pol Pot and the party's intention to exterminate all "new" people although the latter were usually treated harshly and this led some commentators to believe extermination was the government's desire. Pol Pot instead wanted to double or triple the country's population, hoping it could reach between 15 and 20 million within a decade.
Within the village co-operatives, Khmer Rouge militia regularly killed those they deemed to be "bad elements". A common statement used by the Khmer Rouge to those they executed was that "to keep you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss." Those killed were often buried by the fields, to act as fertiliser. During the first year of Khmer Rouge governance, most areas of the country were able to stave off starvation despite significant population increases caused by the evacuation of the cities. There were exceptions, such as parts of the North-West Zone and western areas of Kompong Chhnang, were starvation did occur in 1975.
The new Standing Committee decreed that the population would work ten day weeks with one day off from labor; a system modelled on that used after the French Revolution. Measures were taken to indoctrinate those living in the co-operatives, with set phrases about hard work and loving Cambodia being widely employed, for instance broadcast via loudspeakers or on the radio. New neologisms were introduced and everyday vocabulary was altered to encourage a more collectivist mentality; Cambodians were encouraged to talk about themselves in the plural "we" rather than the singular "I". While working in the fields, people were typically segregated by sex. Sport was prohibited. The only reading material that the population were permitted to read was that produced by the government, most notably the newspaper Padevat ("Revolution"). Restrictions were placed on movement, with people permitted to travel only with the permission of the local Khmer Rouge authorities.
Democratic Kampuchea: 1976–1979
In January 1976, a cabinet meeting was held to promulgate a new constitution declaring that the country was to be renamed "Democratic Kampuchea". The constitution asserts state ownership of the means of production, declared equality of men and women, and the rights and obligation of all citizens to work. It outlined that the country would be governed by a three-person presidium, and at the time Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge leaders expected that Sihanouk would take one of these roles. Sihanouk was nevertheless increasingly uncomfortable with the new government and in March he resigned his role as head of state. Pol Pot tried repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, to get him to change his mind. Sihanouk asked to be allowed to travel to China, citing the need for medical treatment, although this was denied. He was instead kept within his palace, where he was sufficiently stocked with goods to live a luxurious lifestyle throughout the Khmer Rouge years.
The removal of Sihanouk ended the pretence that the Khmer Rouge government was a united front. With Sihanouk no longer part of the government, Pol Pot's government stated that the "national revolution" was over and that the "socialist revolution" could begin, allowing the country to move towards pure communism as swiftly as possible. Pol Pot described the new state as "a precious model for humanity" with a revolutionary spirit that outstripped that of earlier revolutionary socialist movements. In the 1970s, the Marxist-Leninist was at its strongest point in history, and Pol Pot presented the Cambodian example as the one which other revolutionary movements should follow.
As part of the new Presidium, Pol Pot became the country's Prime Minister. It was at this point that he took on the public pseudonym of "Pol Pot",  As no-one in the country knew who this was, a fictitious biography was presented. Pol Pot's key allies took the other two positions, with Nuon Chea as President of the Standing Committee of the National Assembly and Khieu Samphân as the head of state. In principle, the Khmer Rouge Standing Committee made decisions on the basis of the Leninist principle of democratic centralism. In reality it was more autocratic, with Pol Pot's decisions being implemented. The parliament which had been elected the previous year never met after 1976. In September 1976, Pol Pot publicly revealed that Angkar was a Marxist-Leninist organisation. In September 1977, at a rally in the Olympic Stadium, Pol Pot then revealed that Angkar was a pseudonym for the CPK. In September 1976, it was announced that Pol Pot had stepped down as Prime Minister, to be replaced by Nuon Chea, but in reality he remained in power. This was possibly a diversionary tactic to distract the Vietnamese government while Pol Pot purged the CPK of individuals he suspected of harbouring Vietnamese sympathies.
— Pol Pot
The Cambodian population were officially known as "Kampuchean" rather than "Khmer" to avoid the ethnic specificity associated with the latter term. The Khmer language, now labelled "Kampuchean" by the government, was the only legally recognised language, and the Sino-Khmer minority were prohibited from speaking in the Chinese languages they commonly used. Pressure was exerted on the Cham to culturally assimilate into the larger Khmer population.
Pol Pot initiated a series of major irrigation projects across the country. In the Eastern Zone, for instance, a huge dam was built. Many of these irrigation projects failed due to a lack of technical expertise on the part of the workers.
The Standing Committee agrees to link several villages in a single co-operative of 500 to 1000 families, with the goal of later forming commune-sized units twice that size. Communal kitchens were also introduced so that all members of a commune ate together rather than in their individual homes. Foraging or hunting for additional food was prohibited, regarded as individualistic behaviour. From the summer of 1976, the government ordered that children over the age of seven would live not with their parents but communally with Khmer Rouge instructors. The co-operatives produced less food than the government believed, in part due to a lack of motivation among laborers and the diversion of the strongest workers to irrigation projects. Many party cadres also claimed that they met the government's food production quota when they had failed to do, fearing that they would be criticised for failure. The government became aware of this, and by the end of 1976 Pol Pot acknowledged food shortages in three quarters of failure.
Members of the Khmer Rouge received special privileges not enjoyed by the rest of the population. Party members had better food, with cadres sometimes having access to clandestine brothels. Members of the Central Committee could go to China for medical treatment, and the highest echelons of the party had access to imported luxury products.
Purges and executions
The Khmer Rouge also classified people based on their religious and ethnic backgrounds. Under the leadership of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge had a policy of state atheism. All religions were banned, and the repression of adherents of Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism was extensive. Nearly 25,000 Buddhist monks were massacred by the regime.
Buddhist monks were viewed as social parasites and designated a "special class". Within a year of the Khmer Rouge's victory in the civil war, the country's monks were set to manual labor in the rural co-operatives and irrigation projects. Despite its ideological iconoclasm, many historical monuments were left undamaged by the Khmer Rouge; for Pol Pot's government, like its predecessors, the historic state of Angkor was a key point of reference.
Several isolated revolts broke out against Pol Pot's government. The Khmer Rouge Western Zone regional chief Koh Kong and his flowers began launching small-scale attacks on government targets along the Thai border. There were also several village rebellions among the Cham. In February 1976, explosions in Siem Reap destroyed a munitions depot. Pol Pot suspected senior military figures were behind the bombing and, although unable to prove who was responsible, had several army officers arrested.
In September 1976, various party members were arrested and accused of conspiring with Vietnam to overthrow Pol Pot's government. Over the coming months the numbers arrested grew. The government invented claims of assassination attempts against its leading members to justify this internal crack-down within the CPK itself. These party members were accused of being spies for either the CIA, the Soviet KGB, or the Vietnamese. They were encouraged to confess to the accusations, often after torture or the threat of torture, with these confession then being read out at party meetings. As well as occurring in the area around Phnom Penh, trusted party cadres were sent into the country's zones to initiate further purges among the party membership there.
The Khmer Rouge converted a disused secondary school in Phnom Penh's Tuol Sleng region into a security prison, S-21. It was placed under the responsibility of the defence minister, Son Sen. The numbers sent to S-21 grew steadily as the CPK purge proceeded. In the first half of 1976, about 400 people were sent there; in the second half of the year that number was nearer to 1000. By the spring of 1977, 1000 people were being sent there each month. Between 15,000 and 20,000 people would be killed at S-21 during the Khmer Rouge period. About a dozen of them were Westerners. Pol Pot never personally visited S-21.
From late 1976 onward, and especially in the middle of 1977, the levels of violence increased across Democratic Kampuchea, particularly at the village level. Across the country, peasant cadres tortured and killed members of their communities whom they disliked. Many cadres ate the livers of their victims and tore unborn foetuses from their mothers for use as kun krak talismans. The CPK Central Command was aware of such practices but did nothing to stop them. By 1977, the growing violence, coupled with poor food, was generating disillusionment even within the Khmer Rouge’s core support base. Growing numbers of Cambodians attempted to flee into Thailand and Vietnam. In the autumn of 1977, Pol Pot declared the purges at an end. According to the CPK's own figures, by August 1977 between 4000 and 5000 party members had been liquidated as "enemy agents" or "bad elements".
Outwardly, relations between Cambodia and Vietnam were warm following the establishment of Democratic Kampuchea; after Vietnam was unified in July 1976, the Cambodian government issues a message of congratulations. Privately, relations between the two were declining. In a speech on the first anniversary of their victory in the civil war, Khieu referred to the Vietnamese as imperialists. In May 1976, a negotiation to draw up a formal border between the two countries failed.
On taking power, the Khmer Rouge spurned both the Western states and the Soviet Union as sources of support. Instead, China became Cambodia's main international partner. With Vietnam increasingly siding with the Soviet Union over China, the Chinese saw Pol Pot's government as a bulwark against Vietnamese influence in Indochina. Mao pledged $1 billion in military and economic aid to Cambodia, including an immediate $20 million grant. Many thousands of Chinese military advisors and technicians were also sent to the country to assist in projects like the construction of the Kampong Chhnang military airport. The relationship between the Chinese and Cambodian governments was nevertheless marred by mutual suspicion and China had little influence on Pol Pot's domestic policies. It had greater influence on Cambodia's foreign policy, successfully pushing the country to pursue rapprochement with Thailand and open communication with the U.S. to combat Vietnamese influence in the region.
After Mao died in September 1976, Cambodia declared an official period of mourning. In November 1976, Pol Pot travelled secretly to Beijing, seeking to retain his country's alliance with China after the Gang of Four were arrested. From Beijing, he was then taken on a tour of China, visiting sites associated with Mao and the Chinese Communist Party.
The Chinese were the only country allowed to retain their old Phnom Penh embassy. All other diplomats were made to live in assigned quarters on the Boulevard Monivong. This street was barricaded off and the diplomats were not permitted to leave without escorts. Their food was brought to them and provided through the only shop that remained open in the country. Pol Pot saw the Khmer Rouge as an example that should be copied by other revolutionary movements across the world and courted Marxist leaders from Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, allowing Thai Marxists to establish bases along the Cambodian border with Thailand. In November 1977, Burma's Ne Win was the first foreign head of government to visit Democratic Kampuchea, followed soon after by Romania's Nicolae Ceaușescu.
Number of deaths
Ben Kiernan estimates that 1.671 million to 1.871 million Cambodians died as a result of Khmer Rouge policy, or between 21% and 24% of Cambodia's 1975 population. A study by French demographer Marek Sliwinski calculated slightly fewer than 2 million unnatural deaths under the Khmer Rouge out of a 1975 Cambodian population of 7.8 million; 33.5% of Cambodian men died under the Khmer Rouge compared to 15.7% of Cambodian women. According to a 2001 academic source, the most widely accepted estimates of excess deaths under the Khmer Rouge range from 1.5 million to 2 million, although figures as low as 1 million and as high as 3 million have been cited; conventionally accepted estimates of deaths due to Khmer Rouge executions range from 500,000 to 1 million, "a third to one half of excess mortality during the period". However, a 2013 academic source (citing research from 2009) indicates that execution may have accounted for as much as 60% of the total, with 23,745 mass graves containing approximately 1.3 million suspected victims of execution.
While considerably higher than earlier and more widely accepted estimates of Khmer Rouge executions, the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam)'s Craig Etcheson defended such estimates of over one million executions as "plausible, given the nature of the mass grave and DC-Cam's methods, which are more likely to produce an under-count of bodies rather than an over-estimate." Demographer Patrick Heuveline estimated that between 1.17 million and 3.42 million Cambodians died unnatural deaths between 1970 and 1979, with between 150,000 and 300,000 of those deaths occurring during the civil war. Heuveline's central estimate is 2.52 million excess deaths, of which 1.4 million were the direct result of violence. Despite being based on a house-to-house survey of Cambodians, the estimate of 3.3 million deaths promulgated by the Khmer Rouge's successor regime, the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), is generally considered to be an exaggeration; among other methodological errors, the PRK authorities added the estimated number of victims that had been found in the partially-exhumed mass graves to the raw survey results, meaning that some victims would have been double-counted.
An estimated 300,000 Cambodians starved to death between 1979 and 1980, largely as a result of the after-effects of Khmer Rouge policies.
Fall of Democratic Kampuchea
In December 1976, the Cambodian Central Committee’s annual plenum proposed the country ready itself for the prospect of war with Vietnam. Pol Pot believed that Vietnam was committed to expansionism and thus was a threat to Cambodian independence. There were renewed border clashes between Cambodia and Vietnam in early 1977, continuing into April. On 30 April, Cambodian units, backed by artillery fire, entered Vietnam and attacked a series of villages, killing several hundred Vietnamese civilians. Vietnam responded by ordering its Air Force to bomb Cambodian border positions. Several months later, the fighting resumed; in September, two divisions of the Cambodian Eastern Zone entered the Tay Ninh area of Vietnam, where they attacked several villages and slaughtered their inhabitants. That month, Pol Pot travelled to Beijing, and from there to North Korea, where Kim Il Sung spoke out against Vietnam in solidarity with the Khmer Rouge.
In December, Vietnam sent 50,000 troops over the border along a 100 mile stretch, penetrating 12 miles into Cambodia. Cambodia then formally broke off diplomatic relations with Vietnam. Cambodian forces fought back against the invaders, who had returned to Vietnam by 6 January 1978. The Vietnamese Politburo then concluded that it must not leave Pol Pot in power, but must remove him from power before the Cambodian military strengthened further. In 1978, it established military training camps for Cambodian refugees in southern Vietnam. The Cambodian government also readied itself for war. Plans for a personality cult revolving around Pol Pot were drawn up, based on the Chinese and North Korean models, in the belief that such a cult would unify the population in wartime. The cult was ultimately never implemented.
When Cambodian socialists rebelled in the eastern zone in May 1978, Pol Pot's armies could not crush them quickly. On 10 May, his radio broadcast a call not only to "exterminate the 50 million Vietnamese" but also to "purify the masses of the people" of Cambodia. Of 1.5 million easterners, branded as "Khmer bodies with Vietnamese minds", at least 100,000 were exterminated in six months. On 25 December 1978, in response to threats to its borders and the Vietnamese people, Vietnam attacked Cambodia to overthrow the Khmer Rouge, which Vietnam justified on the basis of self-defense.
The Cambodian army was defeated, the regime was toppled and Pol Pot fled to the Thai border area. In January 1979, Vietnam installed a new government under Khmer Rouge defector Heng Samrin, composed of Khmer Rouge who had fled to Vietnam to avoid the purges. Pol Pot eventually regrouped with his core supporters in the Thai border area where he received shelter and assistance. At different times during this period, he was located on both sides of the border. The military government of Thailand used the Khmer Rouge as a buffer force to keep the Vietnamese away from the border. The Thai military also made money from the shipments of weapons from China to the Khmer Rouge. Eventually, Pol Pot rebuilt a small military force in the west of the country with the help of the People's Republic of China. The Sino-Vietnamese War began around this time.
After Democratic Kampuchea
The People's Republic of China was the main international supporter of the Khmer Rouge and its leader Pol Pot. The Chinese provided financial and military support to the party even after its overthrow in 1979. The UN also recognized the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea, which included the Khmer Rouge, instead of the People's Republic of Kampuchea.
Pol Pot lived in the Phnom Malai area, giving interviews in the early 1980s and accusing all of those who opposed him of being traitors and "puppets" of the Vietnamese until he disappeared from public view. In 1985, his "retirement" was announced, but he retained his influence over the party. A cadre interviewed during this period described Pol Pot's views on the death toll under his government as such:
He said that he knows that many people in the country hate him and think he's responsible for the killings. He said that he knows many people died. When he said this he nearly broke down and cried. He said he must accept responsibility because the line was too far to the left, and because he didn't keep proper track of what was going on. He said he was like the master in a house he didn't know what the kids were up to, and that he trusted people too much. For example, he allowed [one person] to take care of central committee business for him, [another person] to take care of intellectuals, and [a third person] to take care of political education. [...] These were the people to whom he felt very close, and he trusted them completely. Then in the end [...] they made a mess of everything [...] They would tell him things that were not true, that everything was fine, that this person or that was a traitor. In the end they were the real traitors. The major problem had been cadres formed by the Vietnamese.
In December 1985, the Vietnamese launched a major offensive and overran most of the Khmer Rouge and other insurgent positions. The Khmer Rouge headquarters at Phnom Malai and its base near Pailin were completely destroyed, though the Vietnamese attackers suffered substantial losses during the attack.
Pol Pot fled to Thailand where he lived for the next six years. His headquarters was a plantation villa near Trat.
Pol Pot officially resigned from the party in 1985 citing asthma as a contributing factor, but he continued to be the de facto leader of the Khmer Rouge and he also remained a dominant force within the anti-Vietnamese alliance. He handed day-to-day power to Son Sen, his hand-picked successor.
In 1986, his new wife Mea Son gave birth to a daughter, Sitha, (now Sar Patchata, wed in 2014), named after the heroine of the Khmer religious epic, the Reamker. Shortly afterwards, Pol Pot moved to China for medical treatment for cancer. He remained there until 1988.
In 1989, Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge established a new stronghold in the west near the Thai border and Pol Pot relocated back into Cambodia from Thailand.
Fall of the Khmer Rouge
Pol Pot refused to cooperate with the peace process, and he continued to fight against the new coalition government. The Khmer Rouge kept the government forces at bay until 1996, when troops started deserting. Several important Khmer Rouge leaders also defected. The government followed a policy of making peace with Khmer Rouge individuals and groups, after negotiations with the organization as a whole failed. In 1995, Pol Pot experienced a stroke that paralyzed the left side of his body.
Pol Pot ordered the execution of his lifelong right-hand man, Son Sen, on 10 June 1997 for attempting to make a settlement with the government. Eleven members of Son Sen's family were also killed, although Pol Pot later denied that he had ordered this. He then fled his northern stronghold, but was later arrested by Khmer Rouge military Chief Ta Mok on 19 June 1997. Pol Pot had not been seen in public since 1980, two years after his overthrow at the hands of an invading Vietnamese army. He was sentenced to death in absentia by a Phnom Penh court soon afterwards. In July, he was subjected to a show trial for the death of Son Sen and sentenced to lifelong house arrest.
On the night of 15 April 1998, the Voice of America, of which Pol Pot was a devoted listener, announced that the Khmer Rouge had agreed to turn him over to an international tribunal. According to his wife, he died in his bed later that night while waiting to be moved to another location. Ta Mok claimed that his death was due to heart failure, later saying, "He was sitting in his chair waiting for the car to come. But he felt tired. His wife asked him to take a rest. He laid down on his bed. His wife heard a gasp of air. It was the sound of dying. When she touched him he had already died. It was at 10:15 last night".
Despite government requests to inspect the body, it was cremated at Anlong Veng in the Khmer Rouge zone a few days later, raising suspicions that he had committed suicide by taking an overdose of the medication which he had been prescribed. Journalist Nate Thayer, who was present, held the view that Pol Pot killed himself when he became aware of Ta Mok's plan to hand him over to the United States, claiming that "Pol Pot died after ingesting a lethal dose of a combination of Valium and chloroquine".
— Historian Philip Short, 2004
Pol Pot considered himself a communist, and described his CPK as adhering to a "Marxist-Leninist viewpoint", albeit one that had been adapted to Cambodian conditions. He took up ideas of orthodox Marxism–Leninism but, contrary to Marx and Lenin's concepts, he believed in the ideal of an entirely self-sufficient and agrarian socialist society that would be entirely free from all foreign influences. Joseph Stalin's work has been described as a "crucial formative influence" on Pol Pot. Even more influential was the work of Mao Zedong, particularly his New Democracy. Following Mao's thoughts and political example, in the mid-1960s Pol Pot reformulated his ideas about Marxism–Leninism to better suit the Cambodian situation. Due to these alterations, various other Marxist-Leninists claimed that he was not truly adhering to Marxist-Leninist ideas.
In re-interpreting the revolutionary role of classes and questioning the Marxist focus on the proletariat, Pol Pot embraced the idea of a revolutionary alliance between the peasantry and the intellectuals, an idea that Short linked to his reading of Peter Kropotkin while he was in Paris. Contrary to the principles of historical dialectics, he believed that peasants could develop a proletarian consciousness as an effect of the communist party's education of the masses, which resembles orthodox Marxist–Leninist thought. In addition to that, Philip Short maintained that "the grammar of Theravada Buddhism permeated" Pol Pot's thought as much as Confucianism had influenced the development of Maoism in China. According to key Khmer Rouge figure Khieu Samphan, a key concept was "zero for him, zero for you - that is communism", in that in a society where all things were the possession of the state and no individual owned anything, everyone would be equal.
Short also thought that the Khmer Rouge's ideology stood apart from other forms of Marxism due to its "monastic stress on discipline", with "the systematic destruction of the individual" being a "hallmark" of its ideology. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge believed that in order to crush the individualistic attitude that they thought was endemic in Cambodian society, coercion was needed to ensure the creation of a collectivised state. Short noted that an underlying doctrinal view among the Khmer Rouge was that "it is always better to go too far than not far enough", an approach that was "at the root of many of the abuses" which occurred under their regime. Within the Communist Party itself, hunger, lack of sleep, and long hours of labour were employed at training camps to ramp up the physical and mental pressure and thus facilitate indoctrination. Short commented that "no other communist party" in history ever went "so far in its attempts directly to remould the minds of its members".
Pol Pot's government was totalitarian. Pol Pot desired autarky, or complete self-sufficiency, for Cambodia. The party leadership has been described as xenophobic. Short observed that decision-making in Pol Pot's Cambodia was "unruly", making it dissimilar from the centralised, organised processes found in other Marxist-Leninist states. Within Democratic Kampuchea, there was much regional and local variation in how party cadres implemented Pol Pot's orders.
Pol Pot repeatedly stated or implied that Cambodians were an intrinsically superior group to other ethnic or national groups and that they were immune to foreign influences. Short also noted that the Khmer Rouge generally regarded foreigners as enemies; during the Cambodian civil war, they killed numerous foreign journalists whom they captured, whereas the Vietnamese Marxists typically let them go. Pol Pot was an extreme nativist, racist and xenophobe who sought to remove all ethnic and religious minorities from Kampuchea. In addition, native religions were banned as part of the Khmer Rouge's attempt to eliminate religion in the country.
Personal life and characteristics
Pol Pot had a thirst for power. He was introspective and highly reclusive. Short stated that he "delighted in appearing to be what he was not – a nameless face in the crowd". During his political career, he used a wide array of pseudonyms: Pouk, Hay, Pol, 87, Grand-Uncle, Elder Brother, First Brother and in later years he used the pseudonyms 99 and Phem. He told a secretary that "the more often you change your name the better. It confuses the enemy". In later life he concealed and falsified many details of his life. He never explained why he chose the pseudonym "Pol Pot".
— Historian David Chandler, 1992
Pol Pot displayed what Chandler called a "genteel charisma", with many observers commenting on his distinctive smile. As a child, his brother characterized him as having been sweet tempered and equable, while fellow school pupils recalled that Pol Pot was mediocre but pleasant. As a teacher, he was characterized by his pupils as having been calm, honest and persuasive, having an "evident good nature and an attractive personality". According to Short, Pol Pot's varied and eclectic upbringing meant that he was "able to communicate naturally with people of all sorts and conditions, establishing an instinctive rapport that invariably made them want to like him". When speaking to audiences he usually carried a fan, which in Cambodian culture was traditionally associated with monkhood.
Pol Pot was softly spoken. During speeches he was serene and calm, even in the midst of using violent rhetoric. Chandler noted that when meeting with people, Pol Pot displayed an "apparent warmth" and was known for his "slowly uttered words". Kong Duong, who worked with Pol Pot in the 1980s, said that he was "very likeable, a really nice person. He was friendly, and everything he said seemed very sensible. He would never blame you or scold you to your face."
He suffered from insomnia, as well as from malaria and intestinal ailments, which left him ill several times a year whilst he was in power. During his childhood, Pol Pot developed a love of music and romantic French poetry, with the work of Paul Verlaine being among his favorites.
Chandler suggested that the seven years that Pol Pot primarily spent in jungle encampments among his fellow Marxists had a significant effect on his world-view, and they "probably reinforced his sense of destiny and self-importance". Pol Pot had a nationalistic attitude and displayed little interest in events outside Cambodia. Short related that "Pol did believe he was acting for the common good and that sooner of later everyone would recognise that." Short suggested that Pol Pot, along with other senior members of the Khmer Rouge, engaged in the "glorification of violence" and saw bloodshed as a "cause for exultation". This, Short suggested, marked the Khmer Rouge's leadership out as being different from those who led the Chinese and Vietnamese Marxist movements, who tended to see violence as a necessary evil rather than something to embrace joyfully.
Pol Pot wanted his followers to develop a "revolutionary consciousness" that would allow them to act without his guidance and was often disappointed when they failed to display this. Partly because he did not fully trust subordinates he micro-managed events, scrutinising things such as menus for state receptions or the programming schedules for radio broadcasts.
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| Prime Minister of Democratic Kampuchea
| Director of the Higher Institute of National Defence
|Party political offices|
| General Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea
Party of Democratic Kampuchea
Kampuchean Communist Party
| General Secretary of the Party of Democratic Kampuchea
| Supreme Commander of the National Army of Democratic Kampuchea