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Saloth Sar (May 19, 1925 – April 15, 1998), better known as Pol Pot, was the leader of the Khmer Rouge and the Prime Minister of Cambodia (officially Democratic Kampuchea during his rule) from 1976 to 1979. His government is widely blamed for the deaths of up to two million Cambodians, although estimates vary significantly.
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Early life and Revolution
He was born in Prek Sbauv in what was then a part of French Indochina but is now in the province of Kompong Thong, Cambodia in 1925. In 1949, he won a scholarship to study radio engineering in Paris. During his study, he became a communist, and joined the French Communist Party. In 1953, he returned to Cambodia.
At that time, a communist-led revolt was taking place against the French occupation of Indochina. The centre of this uprising was in Vietnam, but it also took place in Cambodia and Laos. Saloth Sar joined the Viet Minh, but found that they regarded only Vietnam of importance, not Laos and Cambodia. In 1954, the French left Indochina, but the Viet Minh also withdrew to North Vietnam, and King Norodom Sihanouk called elections. Sihanouk abdicated, and formed a political party. Using his popularity and some intimidation, he swept away the communist opposition and gained all of the government seats.
Pol Pot fled Sihanouk's secret police and spent seven years in hiding, training recruits. In the late 1960s, Sihanouk's head of internal security, Lon Nol took action against the revolutionaries, known as the Communist Party of Kampuchea. Pol Pot started an armed uprising against the government, supported by the People's Republic of China (PRC).
Prior to 1970, the Communist Party of Kampuchea was an insignificant factor in Cambodian politics. However, in 1970 American-backed General Lon Nol deposed Sihanouk, because the latter was seen as supporting the Viet Cong.
In protest, Sihanouk threw his support to Pol Pot's side. That same year, Richard Nixon ordered a military incursion into Cambodia in order to destroy Viet Cong sanctuaries bordering on South Vietnam. Sihanouk's popularity, along with the United States incursion into Cambodia, drove many to Pol Pot's side and soon Lon Nol's government controlled only the cities.
It has been argued that the Khmer Rouge may not have come to power without the destabilization of the Vietnam War, particularly of the American bombing campaigns to "clear out the Vietnamese sanctuaries" in Cambodia. William Shawcross argued this point in his 1979 book Sideshow.
When the United States left Vietnam in 1973 the Viet Cong left Cambodia, but the Khmer Rouge continued to fight. Unable to maintain any sort of control over the country, Lon Nol's government soon collapsed. On April 17, 1975, the Communist Party of Kampuchea took Phnom Penh and Lon Nol fled to the United States of America. Less than one month later, on May 12, 1975, Khmer Rouge naval forces operating in Cambodian territorial waters seized the U.S. merchant ship S.S. Mayaguez, the last American merchant ship to leave Vietnam, precipitating the Mayaguez Crisis.
In early 1976 the Khmer Rouge placed Sihanouk under house arrest. The existing government was quickly dismantled and Prince Sihanouk was removed as the nation's head of state. Cambodia became a Communist republic, and Khieu Samphan became the first president.
On May 13, 1976 Pol Pot had been appointed Prime Minister of Cambodia, and began implementing sweeping socialist reforms to the nation. The US bombing had caused parts of the countryside to be emptied, and the cities were overcrowded (Phnom Penh's population increased by over 1 million immediately prior to 1976).
When the Khmer Rouge gained power, they evacuated citizens from the cities to the countryside where they were forced into communal farms. Property became communalized, and education was done at communal schools. Pol Pot's regime was extremely harsh on political dissent and opposition. Thousands of politicians and bureaucrats were killed, while Phnom Penh was turned into a ghost city with many dying of starvation, illnesses, or execution. Landmines, which Pol Pot praised as his "perfect soldiers," were widely distributed around the countryside. The casualty list from the civil war, Pol Pot's consolidation of power, and the invasion by Vietnam is disputed. Dozens of credible Western and Eastern sources put the death toll of the Khmer Rouge at 1.6 million. A specific source, such as a figure of three million deaths between 1975 and 1979 was given by the Vietnamese-sponsored Phnom Penh regime, the PRK. Father Ponchaud suggested 2.3 million—although this includes hundreds of thousands who died prior to the CPK takeover; the Yale Cambodian Genocide Project estimates 1.7 million; Amnesty International estimated 1.4 million; and the United States Department of State, 1.2 million. Khieu Samphan and Pol Pot, who could be expected to give underestimations, cited figures of 1 million and 800,000, respectively. The CIA estimated there were 50,000 to 100,000 executions.
In late 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia. The Cambodian army was easily defeated, and Pol Pot fled to the Thai border. In January 1979, Vietnam installed a puppet government under Heng Samrin, composed of Khmer Rouge who had fled to Vietnam to avoid the purges. This was followed by widespread defections to the Vietnamese by Khmer Rouge officials in Eastern Cambodia, largely motivated by the fear that they would be accused of collaboration even if they did not defect. Pol Pot retained a sufficient following to keep fighting in a small area in the west of the country. At this point the PRC, which had earlier supported Pol Pot, attacked, creating a brief Sino-Vietnam War.
Pol Pot, an enemy of the Soviet Union, also gained support from Thailand and the US. In particular, the US and the PRC vetoed the allocation of Cambodia's United Nations General Assembly seat to a representative of Heng Samrin's government. The US directly and indirectly supported Pol Pot, including for example funneling aid raised for Cambodian relief to the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot espoused a radically revised variant of Maoism adapted to Khmer nationalism. Envisaging a perfectly egalitarian agrarianism, the Khmer Rouge favored a completely agrarian society to the point that all modern technological contrivances were banned. An autonomist, Pol Pot was quite the opponent of Soviet orthodoxy. Because he was anti-Soviet, the United States, Thailand and People's Republic of China considered him preferable to the pro-Vietnamese government.
At times, the United States directly and indirectly supported Pol Pot and his hostility against the Soviet Union. The US attempted to foster an anti-Vietnamese alliance between Pol Pot, Sihanouk and the nationalist, Son San. In pursuit of this end, Pol Pot officially resigned in 1985, but continued as de facto CPK leader and dominant force within the alliance. Opponents of the CPK claimed that the CPK were sometimes acting in an inhumane manner in areas controlled by the alliance.
In 1989, Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia. Pol Pot refused to cooperate with the peace process, and kept fighting the new coalition government. The Khmer Rouge kept the government forces at bay until 1996, when the demoralised troops started deserting. Several important Khmer Rouge leaders also defected.
Pol Pot ordered the execution of his life-long right-hand man Son Sen and eleven members of his family on June 10, 1997 for wanting to make a settlement with the government (the news did not reach outside of Cambodia for three days). Pol Pot then fled his northern stronghold but was later arrested by Khmer Rouge military chief Ta Mok, and was sentenced to lifelong house arrest. In April of 1998, Ta Mok fled into the forest following a new government attack, and took Pol Pot with him. A few days later, on April 15, 1998, Pol Pot died, reportedly of a heart attack. His body was burned in the Cambodian countryside, with several dozen ex-Khmer Rouge in attendance. According to them, while his body burned, his right hand was raised high in a fist.