Pol Pot was the leader of Cambodia from 1976 until 1979 and responsible for the atrocities of the Cambodian Genocide. Ideologically, Pol Pot was a communist and considered himself to be a Marxist-Leninist after Russian Vladimir Lenin. In Cambodian, the communism was linked with the nationalist movement of the Khmer Rouge, which was a leading political party of the time. As such, Pol Pot was a central figure of the Khmer Rouge.
POL POT'S EARLY LIFE
Pol Pot was born on March 15th, 1925 in a small village outside of the city of Kampong Thom, Cambodia. He was actually born with the name Saloth Sar, and later changed it to Pol Pot. His parents were successful farmers who owned land for farming rice and several cattle. Pol Pot was the eighth of nine children and the family practiced Buddhism.
When Pol Pot was young, a King and royal family ruled over Cambodia as Monarchy. The Cambodian Monarchy had a long history in the country with power transferring from one king to another by hereditary right. However, in the time frame of Pol Pot’s life, the Cambodian Monarchy was actually controlled by the French as a colony. France had established a protectorate in Cambodian in 1867 and it continued until 1949. This colonial practice was relatively common at the time, as European nations colonized many different regions of the world in the 18th and 19th centuries during the Age of Imperialism.
In 1935, at about the age of 10, Pol Pot went to live with his brother where he was educated at a Roman Catholic Primary School. While there, he learned to speak French and the principles of Christianity. He continued his education at prestigious academic institutions in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. At these schools, he met and interacted the upper class and elites in Cambodian society. However, Pol Pot was not a strong student and struggled to maintain his grades. As a result, in 1948, he switched to a school to study carpentry, where he was placed with children from working-class families. His education was important because he made connections with other students in these schools, and some of them later served in his government in his time as leader of Cambodia. Also, in 1949 Pol Pot won a scholarship to study in France and spent three years in Paris from 1950 until 1953. The chance to study in Paris, France was significant for Pol Pot because there he learned and developed an interest in different ideas about government and society. For instance, he began to study the ideas of Marxism and joined a group in Paris called the ‘Marxist Circle’. He became particularly impressed with the writings of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and Chinese leader Mao Zedong. In fact, he began to write his own articles about the negatives of the Cambodian Monarchy. He returned to Cambodia in 1953.
POL POT'S SUPPORT FOR MARXISM
When Pol Pot returned to Cambodian in 1953, the country was in the midst of civil unrest. He quickly went to work to grow a Marxist-Leninist presence in Cambodia and the surrounding regions. For instance, he joined the nationalist and communist group ‘Khmer Viet Minh’, which was made up of left-wing members from both Cambodia and Vietnam. Later in 1959, Pol Pot served as part of a leadership group that established the Kampuchean Labour Party in Cambodia, which was also based on the basic principles of the Marxist–Leninist model. The party operated in secret and faced fierce opposition from the then current government of Cambodia. This caused Pol Pot and other Marxist supporters to flee and become revolutionaries.
Pol Pot and the other Cambodian revolutionaries began meeting and organizing their efforts with similar-minded Marxists from neighboring countries Vietnam and China. At the time, Vietnam was the in the midst of the Vietnam War while China was undergoing its Cultural Revolution. Both of these events influenced Pol Pot and his views and later actions. For instance, in October of 1966, Pol Pot and other Cambodian party leaders renamed their party as the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK). Norodom Sihanouk, the Head of State of Cambodia at the time, began referring to the CPK as the ‘Khmer Rouge’ in reference to their communist or ‘red’ principles.
POL POT AND THE CAMBODIAN CIVIL WAR
Next, in 1969, the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) or Khmer Rouge launched an attack against the government forces of the Kingdom of Cambodia, which began the Cambodian Civil War. The Khmer Rouge were supported by the communists in North Vietnam and China, while the government of Cambodia (led by Norodom Sihanouk) were supported by the United States. Pol Pot played an important role in the conflict as he persuaded North Vietnam and others to support and supply the Khmer Rouge. For its part, the United States sought to protect its ally in South Vietnam and stop the spread of communism to Cambodia. This was related to the American policy of containment from the time frame of the Cold War. Regardless, after five years of brutal fighting between both sides the Khmer Rouge claimed victory in 1975 and established the Democratic Kampuchea in Cambodia. The Democratic Kampuchea was the name of Cambodian from 1976 to 1979 under the control of Pol Pot and was based on Marxist principles of the Khmer Rouge. Since Pol Pot was the leader of the Khmer Rouge, he also became leader of Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge took control of the country. As leader of Cambodia, Pol Pot became known as ‘brother number one’. The major events of the Cambodian Genocide followed.
POL POT AND THE CAMBODIAN GENOCIDE
The Cambodian Genocide is considered to be a significant example of genocide and crimes against humanity in the 20th century, alongside others, such as: Armenian Genocide, Holodomor, Nanking Massacre, Holocaust, Rwanda Genocide and the Bosnian Genocide. A genocide is defined as a mass killing of a certain group of people based on their religion, ethnicity or cultural background. A crime against humanity is considered to be when a group of people are subjected to humiliation, suffering and death on a mass scale by another group. The Cambodian Genocide occurred in the country of Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. The genocide and crimes against humanity that occurred in the country are considered to be the actions and result of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot.
After capturing Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital on April 17th, 1975, Pol Pot and the communist leaders set out straight away to transform the country into a classless society based on Marxist ideals. For example, they ordered people out of the capital and other cities and forced them to relocate to the Cambodian countryside. The communist leadership did this to force Cambodian people to work on collective farms and transform the country into an agrarian-based economy. This meant that people in the cities lost all of their possessions and lifestyles and were forcibly removed to government owned and operated farms. This process led to the genocidal acts carried out by Pol Pot and the regime of the Khmer Rouge.
A key feature of any genocide is the focused and mass killing of different groups of people based on their religious or ethnic background. This was especially true in the Cambodian Genocide because the Khmer targeted different groups, including: ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Chinese, Christians and Buddhists. As well, educated professionals and members of rival political parties were systematically removed from their positions and forced out of the city-centers. Essentially, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge focused their power against groups of people they did not deem to be ‘desirable’ to Cambodia or who had the intellectual ability to question the authority of the government. Many of the first deaths of the Cambodian Genocide were a result of the forced removals from the cities. For example, anyone that was unwilling to relocate was either forcibly removed or executed. Furthermore, many people died from exhaustion and starvation during the process.
However, anyone that survived the transportation to the countryside suffered due to the grueling work that was expected on the collective farms. In fact, the farms were little more than labor camps in which the workers experienced continual abuse, threat of death and exhausting work. Many more died there also from starvation and exhaustion. As time progressed, the survival of a person was determined by the ability to complete work in the labor camps. As a result, many people who could not keep up with the work demands of the Khmer were killed, including: young children, elderly and the sick. When starvation no longer resulted in the deaths of these ‘undesirable’ people, the Khmer Rouge resorted to a method that historians refer to as the ‘Killing Fields’.
In general, the term ‘Killing Fields’ refers to sites across Cambodia in which people were taken to be tortured, interrogated and executed for their alleged crimes against the state. Most of the estimated one million victims, were buried in mass graves. The most famous of these sites was called Security Prison 21 (S-21), which was a former high school just outside of the Cambodian capital. The high school was transformed into a detention center in 1975 during the reign of the Khmer Rouge in which ‘enemies’ of the state were tortured and eventually executed.
In all, it is estimated that as many as 1.5 million to 3 million people died in the killing fields and as a result of the events of the Cambodian Genocide which occurred between 1975 and 1979. To date, over 23,000 mass graves have been discovered in Cambodia containing the majority of the reported victims.
POL POT'S LATER YEARS
The reign of the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian Genocide ultimately ended in 1979 when Vietnamese forces invaded the country and toppled the rule of Pol Pot. The Cambodian dictator fled and lived out much of his remaining years on the Cambodian border with Thailand where he would often move between the two countries. While the Khmer Rouge remained a force in the region throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it lost its power and ability to rule especially with the ‘retirement’ of Pol Pot in 1985.
Pol Pot died on April 15th, 1998 from heart failure. However, some historians suggest that he might have committed suicide or been poisoned since he was supposedly going to be turned over to Cambodian officials in order to face justice for his crimes. In an interview he gave late in his life, Pol Pot, claimed he had no regrets and denied his involvement in the mass killings during the genocide.
In 2001, the Cambodian government established the Khmer Rouge Tribunals for the purpose of trying leaders of the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian Genocide. It was a national court established by the Cambodian government but supported by the United Nations with some international lawyers and judges. The full name for the tribunals was ‘Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia’ or ECCC. In general, the perpetrators of the Cambodian Genocide were accused and made to stand trial for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. However, Pol Pot evaded facing responsibility for his involvement in the Cambodian Genocide due to his death in 1998.
CITE THIS ARTICLE