Pol Pot (born 1928) was a key figure in the Cambodian Communist movement, becoming premier of the government of Democratic Kampuchéa (DK) from 1976 to 1979. He directed the mass killing of intellectuals, professional people, city dwellers—perhaps one-fifth of his own people.
Pol Pot was born Saloth Sar on May 19, 1928. He was the second son of a conservative, prosperous, and influential small landowner. Pol Pot's father had social and political connections at the royal court at the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, some 70 miles south from Prek Sbau, the small hamlet in Kompong Thom, the province where Pol Pot was born. Visits by court officials—and, on at least one occasion, even by King Monivong himself—to Pol Pot's father's home appear to have been common. Pol Pot consistently denied that he was Saloth Sar, probably because his family and educational background clashed with Communist proletarian perceptions and because his tactical and organizational skills seemed to have flourished best in an atmosphere of extreme secrecy. Even after he had become premier of the victorious Communist Democratic Kampuchéa (DK) regime in Phnom Penh on April 5, 1976, there was widespread uncertainty about who he was.
The Education of a Radical
Pol Pot's intellectual development showed a sharp break from traditional toward radical values. He was educated in a Buddhist monastery and a private Catholic institution in Phnom Penh and then enrolled at a technical school in the provincial quiet and security of the town of Kompong Cham to learn carpentry. Despite his later claims, there is no evidence that as early as his mid-teens he joined Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh resistance for a while. He seemed at first destined for a trade in carpentry. However, the program of French colonial policymakers to accelerate development of a more diversified "polytechnic" elite in the overseas territories enabled Pol Pot in 1949 to obtain a government scholarship to study radio and electrical technology in Paris.
In France Pol Pot joined a small circle of leftist Cambodian students—some of whom later became prominent Marxist and/or Communist Party leaders (such as Ieng Sary, the future DK foreign minister, and Hou Yuon, an independent Marxist radical who repeatedly served in Prince Norodom Sihanouk's cabinets until his death in 1975 in the Pol Pot holocaust). Pol Pot soon became an anti-colonialist, Marxist radical. Among the European countries he visited during this period was Yugoslavia, whose determination to chart its own national Communist course of thoroughgoing reform reportedly particularly impressed him.
Upon his return to Cambodia in 1953, Pol Pot first drifted into the Viet Minh "United Khmer Issarak (Freedom) Front" of underground Cambodian Communists and radical nationalists. After 1954 the Issarak's principal above-ground organizational mainstay became the Krom Pracheachon ("Citizens Association"). The Front, along with other Cambodian political groups, opposed both the remnant of French colonial power in Cambodia and the government of Sihanouk. The latter was perceived by many Cambodians to be a French puppet. Pol Pot served for several months with Viet Minh and Issarak units, some of whom had joined in the loose leftist radical resistance groups supervised by the Krom Pracheachon. But Cambodia's 1954 achievement of independence from the French also found him increasingly involved in the organization of the Khmer People's Revolutionary Party (KPRP), the first Cambodian Communist party, founded in 1951.
In the post-independence era Pol Pot appears to have resented as much the continued heavy Communist Vietnamese influence in the KPRP and its armed units as the hothouse atmosphere of partisan political intrigues in the capital deftly manipulated by the wily Sihanouk. Pol Pot's contempt for intellectuals and politicians jockeying for favor and power was greatly increased and helped shape his own ruthless radical reforms once he assumed power. Pol Pot's mentor in these years was Tou Samouth, the onetime Unified Issarak Front's president and later the KPRP's secretary general. Like Pol Pot, Samouth was primarily interested in building the KPRP into a genuinely Cambodian, broad-based organization capable of rallying all opposition elements among peasants, urban workers, and intellectuals against the Sihanouk regime. This effort led to tensions with the Vietnamese, who continued to try to dominate the left and anti-Sihanouk Cambodian resistance.
Building a Revolutionary Party
On September 28, 1960, Pol Pot, Tou Samouth, Ieng Sary, and a handful of followers reportedly met in secret in a room of the Phnom Penh railroad station to found the "Workers Party of Kampuchea" (WPK). Samouth was named secretary general and Pol Pot became one of three Politburo members. But on February 20, 1963, at the WPK's second congress, Pol Pot succeeded Samouth as party secretary. The latter had disappeared on July 20, 1963, under mysterious circumstances and subsequently was reported to have been assassinated. Whether Pol Pot was involved in Samouth's murder remains uncertain.
For the next 13 years, as the WPK increasingly seemed to distance itself from Hanoi, Pol Pot and other top WPK cadres virtually disappeared from public notice. They set up their main party encampments in a remote forest area of Ratanakiri province. During this period Pol Pot appears not only to have been consolidating his own leadership position in the WPK, but he also gradually and successfully contested pro-Hanoi elements in the anti-Sihanouk resistance generally. However, Pol Pot at this time carefully avoided an open breach with the Vietnamese Communists, who were consolidating their hold on the Ho Chi Minh trail and adjacent pockets of Cambodian territory. Nevertheless, a 1965 visit by Pol Pot to Hanoi designed to win acceptance as top party leader was shrouded in mutual mistrust. More successful was Pol Pot's journey and extended stay in Beijing in the same year. He remained in China for some seven months, during which time he likely received ideological and organizational schooling. Pol Pot's pro-Chinese orientation became more pronounced upon his return to Cambodia in September 1966. The WPK soon changed its name to Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK).
CPK-instigated demonstrations against the Sihanouk regime now steadily mounted. The prince's blanket denunciation and execution of scores of what his government termed the Khmer Rouge ("Red Khmers") solidified the CPK-led opposition. At the same time it made that opposition appear more formidable than it actually was. In December 1969 and January 1970 Pol Pot and other CPK leaders again visited Hanoi and Beijing, evidently in preparation for a final drive against the Sihanouk regime. But the drive was preempted as on March 18, 1970, a right-wing coup in Phnom Penh overthrew Sihanouk, bringing Lon Nol to the Cambodian presidency.
Although some CPK members and other Communist Pracheachon resistance leaders—including Pol Pot's colleague the future DK President Khieu Sampan—rallied to Sihanouk's call for a united front against Lon Nol, Pol Pot himself remained aloof. After Sihanouk's fall, Hanoi had begun infiltrating some 1, 000 Vietnamese-trained Cambodian Communists into Cambodia. But on orders of Pol Pot most of these were identified and quickly killed. Despite this action and clashes with Pol Pot's followers in Kompong Chom province, Hanoi avoided rupture in the interest of winning first a decisive Communist victory throughout Indochina.
In mid-September 1971 a new CPK congress reelected Pol Pot as secretary general and as commander of its "Revolutionary Army." Tensions between Hanoi and Pol Pot increased further when the CPK refused a Vietnamese request to negotiate with the Lon Nol regime and the United States as Vietnamese-U.S. discussions took place in Paris. In keeping with the Paris Accords, the Vietnamese in the early months of 1973 left some of their Cambodian encampments. But CPK "Revolutionary Army" units quickly took their place as Pol Pot further strengthened his power base. Clashes between Lon Nol's forces and Pol Pot's guerrillas, as well as new "Revolutionary Army" raids on pro-Hanoi Cambodian resistance units and on followers of Sihanouk's coalition exile government continued, however. Yet throughout 1974, in letters to Hanoi and Vietnamese party leaders and in public messages, Pol Pot affirmed his friendship and gratitude.
A Holocaust on His Own People
On April 17, 1975, Phnom Penh fell to several Communist Cambodian and Sihanoukist factions. The CPK and Pol Pot slowly managed to establish hegemony over the capital. Fighting continued between Pol Pot's "Revolutionary Army" and Vietnamese troops in disputed border territories and on islands in the Gulf of Thailand. At a meeting with Vietnamese representatives along the border in early June 1975, Pol Pot reportedly apologized for his troops' "faulty map reading." Tensions between Pol Pot and his associates and the Vietnamese did not abate, however, despite another Pol Pot visit to Hanoi in order to suggest a friendship treaty.
For nearly a year Pol Pot and other Cambodian Communists, as well as the embattled Norodom Sihanouk, struggled for power in the newly proclaimed state of "Democratic Kampuchea." Another CPK party congress in January 1976 reaffirmed Pol Pot's position as secretary general but also revealed emergent leadership rifts between Pol Pot and some outlying zone organizations of the party. Relations with Hanoi continued to worsen. On April 14, 1976, after CPK-controlled elections for a new "People's Representative Assembly" and the resignation as head of state of Sihanouk, a new DK government was proclaimed. Pol Pot, who officially had been elected to the assembly as a delegate of a "rubber workers organization, " now became premier.
However, his authority still was being contested both by Hanoi-influenced party cadres and rival party zone leaders. Beginning in November 1976 Pol Pot accelerated extensive purges of rivals, including cabinet ministers and other top party leaders. This provoked repeated explosions of unrest in Kompong Thom and Oddar Meanchey.
Meanwhile, the fury of Pol Pot's social and economic reform policies carried out by the mystery-shrouded Angka, or "inner" party organization, eventually was to make Pol Pot's name synonymous with one of the modern world's worst holocausts. Forced evacuation, through extended death marches, of the inhabitants of major cities and resettlement and harshly exploitive labor of tens of thousands in agricultural work projects; deliberate withholding of adequate food and medical care; systematic mass killings of all "old dandruff"—i.e., suspected subversives, especially those who had white collar or intellectual occupations or political experience—all these reflected Pol Pot's brand of ideology in which Rousseauist purism and Stalinist terrorism were uniquely blended. Great emphasis was placed in Pol Pot's policies on the training of the young and on the creation of a "New Man" in Cambodia. Even after Pol Pot was driven from power, young teenagers remained among his dedicated followers in the DK's "Revolutionary Army." But the killings and deliberate neglect by the Pol Pot regime cost some 1.6 million Cambodians their lives—nearly 20 percent of the country's total population.
Regime policies prompted mounting opposition among divisional commanders and party cadres. Pol Pot's visit to China and North Korea in September and October 1977 solidified his standing among other Asian Communist leaders, even as fighting with Vietnamese border forces intensified. On December 31, 1977, all diplomatic relations with Hanoi were severed, Pol Pot charging that the Vietnamese were seeking to impose their hegemony on both Laos and Cambodia through an "Indochinese Federation."
The Fall of a Dictator
On May 26, 1978, Eastern Zone party leaders and their followers rose up in revolt against Pol Pot. But the rising failed, and thousands of cadres either were killed or, like Heng Samrin (who would succeed Pol Pot as premier), made good their escape to Vietnam. Some Eastern Zone leaders charged Pol Pot with selling Cambodia to the Chinese. Vietnamese attacks on and military penetration of DK territory became more severe and extensive during the second half of 1978. Pol Pot's premiership also became more precarious and his overtures toward the Chinese to deter Vietnamese intervention found little response. In the wake of a final Vietnamese military drive, Pol Pot and other DK leaders were forces to flee Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979. They eventually regrouped their forces and established an underground government in Western Cambodia and in the Cardamom mountain range.
On July 20, 1979, Pol Pot was condemned to death in absentia, on grounds of having committed genocide. The verdict was issued by a "People's Tribunal" of the new government of the "People's Republic of Kampuchea, " installed with the aid of Vietnamese forces. As growing world attention focussed on the plight of wartorn Cambodia and on the bloody violence of the Pol Pot era, Pol Pot himself increasingly became a liability to his Chinese backers and the underground DK leaders. At a CPK congress on December 17, 1979, Pol Pot stepped down as DK prime minister, and the post was taken over by DK President Khieu Sampan. However, he remained as party secretary general and as head of the CPK's military commission, making him in effect the overall commander of the DK's 30, 000-man guerrilla force battling the Vietnamese in Cambodia. (But throughout most of the 1980s the Vietnamese army controlled Cambodia (Kampuchea) under the presidency of Heng Samrin.)
After leaving his premiership little was known of Pol Pot's whereabouts or activities. Reportedly he repeatedly sought medical attention for a cardio-vascular condition in Beijing in the course of 1981-1983. On September 1, 1985, the DK's clandestine radio announced that Pol Pot had retired as commander of the DK's "National Army" and had been appointed to be "Director of the Higher Institute for National Defense."
Pol Pot was married to Khieu Ponnary, a former fellow student activist of his Paris days and later the CPK women's movement leader in Phnom Penh.
Captured at Last
After several years of living underground, Pol Pot was finally captured on June 18, 1997 by a rival faction of his own comrades. The Khmer Rouge had suffered from internal factionalism in recent years, and finally splintered into opposing forces, the largest of which, in the northern zone, joined with the government of Cambodia under Sihanouk and hunted down their former leader. Upon capturing him, the guerrillas sentenced Pol Pot, leader of the modern day reign of terror, to life in prison.
Further Reading on Pol Pot
Pol Pot kept out of the limelight even during his premiership, and no comprehensive full length biography of him as yet exists. Various stages of his life and career are dealt with in Ben Kiernan and Stephen Heder, "Why Pol Pot? Roots of the Cambodian Tragedy, " Indochina Issues (Center for International Policy, Washington, D.C.), 52 (December 1984); Serge Thion, "Chronology of Khmer Communism, 1940-1982, " in David P. Chandler and Ben Kiernan, editors, Revolution and Its Aftermath in Kampuchea (Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, Monograph Series, no. 25, 1983); Ben Kiernan and Chanthou Boua, editors, Peasants and Politics in Kampuchea, 1942-1981 (1982); Michael Vickery, Cambodia, 1975-1982 (1984); and David P. Chandler, A History of Cambodia (1983). For the PRK view of Pol Pot see Say Phouthong, "Fidelity to the Chosen Path, " World Marxist Review (February 1985). The horror of the Pol Pot holocaust was reported by Elizabeth Becker in When the War Was Over: The voices of Cambodia's revolution and its people (1986).