Episode #10 of the course Deadliest dictators in history
“Pol Pot” was the pseudonym for a man born Saloth Sar (1925–1998). As prime minister of Cambodia and leader of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (or “CPK”), Pol Pot caused the deaths of nearly half of Cambodia’s people in four short years with his policies and totalitarian rule. The reign of terror in Cambodia that is sometimes simply referred to as “Pol Pot Time” reduced the national population from about 8 million people to about 5 million.
When Pol Pot was born in 1925, Cambodia was a French colony, part of French Indo-China. The Cambodian province was ruled over by a Khmer king who was supposed to be a puppet of the French government. During World War II, the Japanese threatened to invade Cambodia, and the French rule of the country was weak. Under Japanese pressure, the 19-year-old Cambodian king Norodom Sihanouk declared Cambodian independence in 1945, and fighting erupted as France did not want to let go of its colony. An agreement was not struck until 1953.
During the 1950s, King Sihanouk tried to keep Cambodia neutral in international politics, and in the 1960s he was contending with two problems: the escalating situation in neighboring Vietnam and a growing Communist party in Cambodia itself. This Communist party was led by Parisian-educated intellectuals and gifted leaders, including Pol Pot, and proved to be a source for popular uprisings in Cambodia. To make matters worse, North Vietnamese troops established bases in Cambodian territory, eventually dragging Cambodia into the conflict between North and South Vietnam.
In 1970, the king visited China and was overthrown. The new government abolished the monarchy and quickly deported all Vietnamese communists living in Cambodia. Struggles to entrench the new Communist government continued for five years until the CPK was able to gain full power over the government.
Pol Pot called himself “Brother Number One” in the new Communist government, though he was effectively the prime minister. He wanted to strengthen Cambodia with a regime of self-sufficiency and nationalistic pride. Therefore, he refused international trade or commerce and set about making Cambodia self-sustaining. Pol Pot restructured Cambodian society to focus on agriculture and abandoned industrial efforts. He directed the army to increase border tensions and fighting in territories near Vietnam.
As part of Pol Pot’s “restructuring” efforts, Cambodian citizens suspected of capitalist sympathies or traditionalists who clung to old values were simply considered a “problem” to be solved. Citizens from the city were sent to labor camps and prisons in the countryside. They were executed en masse or worked to death. Over the next four years, these “purges” were constant.
Over 20,000 mass graves have been found throughout Cambodia that are attributed to the Khmer Rouge period of rule. Half of all people who died were probably the victims of executions, while the other half likely perished from disease and starvation.
Pol Pot fled to the jungles of southwest Cambodia in 1979 after the Cambodian-Vietnamese War, and the Khmer Rouge government collapsed. He operated as a refugee, while technically still holding international recognition as the leader of the country from the UN, until his death in 1998.
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