- pol pot: the early years
- Khmer Rouge
- Khmer Rouge take control
- Cambodian genocide
- last years of pol pot
Pol Pot was a political leader whose communist Khmer Rouge government led Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. During that time, an estimated 1.5 to 2 million Cambodians died of starvation, execution, disease, or overwork. One detention center, S-21, was so notorious that only seven of the roughly 20,000 people incarcerated there are known to have survived. The Khmer Rouge, in their attempt to socially engineer a classless communist society, particularly targeted intellectuals, city residents, ethnic Vietnamese, public officials, and religious leaders. Some historians regard Pol Pot’s regime as one of the most barbaric and murderous in recent history.
pol pot: the early years
saloth sar, better known by his nom de guerre pol pot, was born in 1925 in the small town of prek sbauv, located about 100 miles north of the cambodian capital, phnom penh. his family was relatively well off and owned about 50 acres of rice paddies, or about 10 times the national average.
In 1934, Pol Pot moved to Phnom Penh, where he spent a year in 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 he was there, he studied radio technology and was active in communist circles.
did you know? millions of people living in cambodia were killed during the brutal regime of the pol pot and the khmer rouge. their bodies were buried in mass graves that became known as “extermination camps”. the phrase later became the title of a film about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge era, the death camps.
When Pol Pot returned to Cambodia in January 1953, the entire region was in revolt against French colonial rule. Cambodia officially gained its independence from France later that year.
Pol Pot, meanwhile, joined the proto-Communist Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP), which had been established in 1951 under the auspices of the North Vietnamese. From 1956 to 1963, Pol Pot taught French history, geography, and literature at a private school while plotting a revolution.
in 1960, pol pot helped reorganize the kprp into a party that specifically espoused marxism-leninism. Three years later, following a crackdown on communist activity, he and other party leaders moved into the northern Cambodian countryside, initially camping with a group of Viet Cong.
Pol Pot, who had begun to emerge as the leader of the Cambodian party, and the newly formed Khmer Rouge guerrilla army, launched a national uprising in 1968. Their revolution started slowly, though they were able to gain a foothold in the sparsely populated northeast.
Khmer Rouge take control
in march 1970, general lon nol launched a military coup while cambodia’s hereditary leader, prince norodom sihanouk, was out of the country. A civil war then broke out in which Prince Norodom sided with the Khmer Rouge, and Lon Nol was backed by the United States.
both Khmer Rouge and lon nol troops allegedly committed mass atrocities. at the same time, about 70,000 u.s. and south vietnamese soldiers stormed across the vietnam-cambodian border to fight north vietnamese and viet cong troops who had taken refuge in cambodia.
we president ricardo m. nixon also ordered a secret bombing campaign as part of the vietnam war. in the span of four years, usa The planes dropped 500,000 tons of bombs on Cambodia, more than triple the amount dropped on Japan during World War II.
for when the usa The 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 began in January 1975, with the Khmer Rouge bombing the airport and blockading river crossings. A US airlift of supplies failed to prevent thousands of children from starving.
Finally, on April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge entered the city, won the civil war, and ended the fighting. around half a million Cambodians had died during the civil war, but the worst was yet to come.
Almost immediately after seizing power, the Khmer Rouge evacuated Phnom Penh’s 2.5 million inhabitants. former civil servants, doctors, teachers and other professionals were deprived of their assets and forced to work in the fields as part of a re-education process.
Those who complained about work, hid their rations, or broke the rules were often tortured in a detention center, like the infamous s-21, and then killed. During the Cambodian genocide, the bones of millions of people who died from malnutrition, overwork, or inadequate medical care also filled mass graves across the country.
under pol pot, the state controlled all aspects of a person’s life. money, private property, jewelry, gambling, most reading material, and religion were banned; agriculture was collectivized; children were taken from their homes and forced into the army; and strict rules governing sexual intercourse, vocabulary, and dress were established.
The Khmer Rouge, who renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea, even insisted on realigning the rice fields to create the symmetrical checkerboard depicted on their coat of arms.
In the beginning, Pol Pot ruled largely behind the scenes. he became prime minister in 1976 after prince norodom was forced to resign. at the time, border skirmishes occurred regularly between the Cambodians and the Vietnamese.
The fighting intensified in 1977, and in December 1978 the Vietnamese sent more than 60,000 troops, along with air and artillery units, across the border. On January 7, 1979, they captured Phnom Penh and forced Pol Pot to flee into the jungle, where he resumed guerrilla operations.
last years of pol pot
During the 1980s, the Khmer Rouge received weapons from China and political support from the United States, which opposed the decade-long Vietnamese occupation. But the influence of the Khmer Rouge began to wane after a 1991 ceasefire agreement, and the movement completely collapsed by the end of the decade.
In 1997, a splinter group of the Khmer Rouge captured Pol Pot and placed him under house arrest. he died in his sleep on April 15, 1998, at age 72, due to heart failure. A United Nations-backed court has convicted only a handful of Khmer Rouge leaders for crimes against humanity.