Pol Pot, who become responsible for the deaths of over two million of his own people, was born Saloth Sar in a small Cambodian village about 140 kilometers north of Phnom Penh.
Saloth Sar (19 May 1925 – 15 April 1998), better known as Pol Pot (Khmer), was a Cambodian Maoist revolutionary who led the Khmer Rouge from 1963 until his death in 1998. From 1976 to 1979, he served as the prime minister of Democratic Kampuchea. Pol Pot became leader of Cambodia on April 17, 1975. During his time in power he imposed agrarian socialism, forcing urban dwellers to relocate to the countryside to work in collective farms and forced labour projects. The combined effects of forced labor, malnutrition, poor medical care, and executions resulted in the deaths of approximately 21% of the Cambodian population. In all, an estimated 800,000 to three million people (out of a population of approximately seven million) died under his three-year premiership.
In 1979, after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, Pol Pot fled to the jungles of southwest Cambodia, and the Khmer Rouge government collapsed.From 1979 to 1997, he and a remnant of the old Khmer Rouge operated near the border of Cambodia and Thailand, where they clung to power, with nominal United Nations recognition as the rightful government of Cambodia. Pol Pot died in 1998 while under house arrest by the Ta Mok faction of the Khmer Rouge. Since his death, rumours that he was poisoned have persisted.
Early life (1925–61)
Birthplace of Pol Pot.
Saloth Sar was born on May 19, 1925—the eighth of nine children, and the second of three sons. He was from a moderately wealthy family of Chinese descent living in the small fishing village of Prek Sbauv, Kampong Thom Province during the years of French colonialism. In 1935, Sar left Prek Sbauv to attend the École Miche, a Catholic school in Phnom Penh. As his sister Roeung was a concubine of King Sisowath Monivong, he often visited the royal palace. In 1947, he gained admission to the exclusive Lycée Sisowath, but was unsuccessful in his studies.
After switching to a technical school at Russey Keo, north of Phnom Penh, Saloth Sar qualified for a scholarship allowing for technical study in France. He studied radio electronics at the EFR in Paris from 1949 to 1953. He also participated in an international labour brigade building roads in Zagreb in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1950. After the Soviet Union recognised the Viet Minh as the government of Vietnam in 1950, French Communists (PCF) took up the cause of Vietnam’s independence. The PCF’s anti-colonialism attracted many young Cambodians, including Sar.
In 1951 he joined a communist cell in a secret organisation known as the Cercle Marxiste (“Marxist circle”) which had taken control of the Khmer Student’s Association (AER) that same year. Within a few months Saloth also joined the PCF. His poor academic record was a considerable advantage within the anti-intellectual PCF who saw uneducated peasants as the true proletariat.
As a result of failing his exams in three successive years, Sar was forced to return to Cambodia in January 1953. He was the first member of the Cercle Marxiste to return to Cambodia, and was given the task of evaluating the various groups rebelling against the government. He recommended the Khmer Viet Minh, and in August 1954, Sar, along with Rath Samoeun, travelled to the Viet Minh Eastern Zone headquarters in the village of Krabao in the Kampong Cham Province/Prey Veng Province near the border of Cambodia.
Sar learned that the Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP) was little more than a Vietnamese front organization. Due to the 1954 Geneva peace accord requirement that all Viet Minh forces and insurgents be expelled, a group of Cambodians followed the Vietnamese back to Vietnam (as cadres Vietnam would use in a future war to liberate Cambodia). The rest, including Sar, returned to Cambodia.
After Cambodian independence following the 1954 Geneva Conference, both left and right wing parties struggled for power in the new government. Khmer King Norodom Sihanouk played the parties against each other while using the police and army to suppress extreme political groups. Corrupt elections in 1955 led many leftists in Cambodia to abandon hope of taking power by legal means. The communist movement, while ideologically committed to guerrilla warfare in such circumstances, did not launch a rebellion due to the party’s weakness.
After his return to Phnom Penh, Sar became the liaison between the above-ground leftist parties (Democrats and Pracheachon) and the underground communist movement. He married Khieu Ponnary on July 14, 1956. She returned to Lycée Sisowath, becoming a teacher, while Sar taught French literature and history at Chamraon Vichea, a newly established private college.
The path to rebellion (1962–68)
In January 1962, the Cambodian government arrested most of the leadership of the far-left Pracheachon party before parliamentary elections, which were to take place that June. Their newspapers and other publications were closed. Such measures effectively ended any legitimate political role of the communist movement in Cambodia. In July 1962, the underground communist party secretary Tou Samouth was arrested and later killed while in custody, allowing Sar to become the acting leader. At a 1963 party meeting, attended by at most 18 people, Sar was elected secretary of the party’s central committee. That March, Saloth went into hiding after his name was published in a list of leftist suspects put together by the police for Norodom Sihanouk. He fled to the Vietnamese border region and made contact with Vietnamese units fighting against South Vietnam.
In early 1964, Sar convinced the Vietnamese to help the Cambodian communists set up their own base camp. The party’s central committee met later that year and issued a declaration calling for armed struggle, emphasizing “self-reliance” in accordance with extreme Cambodian. In the border camps, the ideology of the Khmer Rouge was gradually developed. The party, breaking with Marxism, declared that rural peasant farmers were the true working class proletarian and lifeblood of the revolution. This is, in some sense, explained by the fact that none of the central committee were in any sense “working class.” All of them had grown up in a feudal peasant society.
After another wave of repression by Sihanouk in 1965, the Khmer Rouge movement under Saloth grew at a rapid rate. Many teachers and students were forced to leave the cities to the countryside to join the movement.
In April 1965, Saloth went to North Vietnam to gain approval for an uprising in Cambodia against the government. North Vietnam refused to support any uprising because of agreements being negotiated with the Cambodian government. Sihanouk promised to allow the Vietnamese to use Cambodian territory and Cambodian ports in their war against South Vietnam.
After returning to Cambodia in 1966, Saloth organized a party meeting where a number of important decisions were made. The party was officially but secretly renamed the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK). Lower ranks of the party were not informed of the decision. It was also decided to establish command zones and prepare each region for an uprising against the government.
In early 1966 fighting broke out in the countryside between peasants and the government over the price paid for rice. Saloth’s Khmer Rouge was caught by surprise by the uprisings and was unable to take any real advantage of them. But the government’s refusal to find a peaceful solution to the problem created rural unrest that played into the hands of the Communist movement.
It was not until early 1967 that Saloth decided to launch a national uprising, even after North Vietnam refused to assist it in any real way. The uprising was launched on January 18, 1968 with a raid on an army base south of Battambang. The Battambang area had already seen two years of great peasant unrest. The attack was driven off by the army, but the Khmer Rouge had captured a number of weapons, which were then used to drive police forces out of Cambodian villages.
By the summer of 1968, Saloth began the transition from a party leader working with a collective leadership into the absolutist leader of the Khmer Rouge movement. Where before he had shared communal quarters with other leaders, he now had his own compound with a personal staff and a troop of guards. Outsiders were no longer allowed to approach him. Rather, people were summoned into his presence by his staff.
The path to power (1969–75)
The movement was estimated to consist of no more than 200 regular members, but the core of the movement was supported by a number of villagers many times that size. While weapons were in short supply, the insurgency was still able to operate in twelve of nineteen districts of Cambodia. In 1969 Saloth called a party conference and decided on a change in the propaganda strategy. Prior to 1969, opposition to Sihanouk was the main focus of their propaganda. However, the party decided to shift the propaganda against the right-wing parties of Cambodia and their alleged pro-American attitudes. While the party ceased making anti-Sihanouk public statements, in private the party had not changed its view of him.
The road to power for Saloth and the Khmer Rouge was opened by the events of January 1970 in Cambodia. Sihanouk, while out of the country, ordered the government to stage anti-Vietnamese protests in the capital. The protesters quickly went out of control and wrecked the embassies of both North and South Vietnam. Sihanouk, who had ordered the protests, then denounced them from Paris and blamed unnamed individuals in Cambodia for them. These actions, along with intrigues by Sihanouk’s followers in Cambodia, convinced the government that he should be removed as head of state. The National Assembly voted to remove Sihanouk from office. Afterward, the government closed Cambodia’s ports to Vietnamese weapons traffic and demanded that the Vietnamese leave Cambodia.
The North Vietnamese reacted to the political changes in Cambodia by sending Premier Phạm Văn Đồng to meet Sihanouk in China and recruit him into an alliance with the Khmer Rouge. Saloth was also contacted by the Vietnamese who now offered him whatever resources he wanted for his insurgency against the Cambodian government. Saloth and Sihanouk were actually in Beijing at the same time but the Vietnamese and Chinese leaders never informed Sihanouk of the presence of Saloth or allowed the two men to meet. Shortly after, Sihanouk issued an appeal by radio to the people of Cambodia to rise up against the government and support the Khmer Rouge. In May 1970, Saloth finally returned to Cambodia and the pace of the insurgency greatly increased.
Earlier, on March 29, 1970, the Vietnamese had taken matters into their own hands and launched an offensive against the Cambodian army. A force of 50 Vietnamese quickly overran large parts of eastern Cambodia reaching to within 15 miles (24 km) of Phnom Penh before being pushed back. In these battles the Khmer Rouge and Saloth played a very small role.
In October 1970, Saloth issued a resolution in the name of the Central Committee. The resolution stated the principle of independence mastery which was a call for Cambodia to decide its own future independent of the influence of any other country. The resolution also included statements describing the betrayal of the Cambodian Communist movement in the 1950s by the Viet Minh. This was the first statement of the anti-Vietnamese/self-sufficiency at all costs ideology that would be a part of the Pol Pot regime when it took power years later.
Through 1971, the Vietnamese (North Vietnamese and Viet Cong) did most of the fighting against the Cambodian government while Saloth and the Khmer Rouge functioned almost as auxiliaries to their forces. Saloth took advantage of the situation to gather in new recruits and to train them to a higher standard than previously was possible. Saloth also put resources of Khmer Rouge organizations into political education and indoctrination. While accepting anyone regardless of background into the Khmer Rouge army at this time, Saloth greatly increased the requirements for membership in the party. Students and so-called middle peasants were now rejected by the party. Those with clear peasant backgrounds were the preferred recruits for party membership. These restrictions were ironic in that most of the senior party leadership including Saloth came from student and middle peasant backgrounds. They also created an intellectual split between the educated old guard party members and the uneducated peasant new party members.
In early 1972, Saloth toured the insurgent/Vietnamese controlled areas in Cambodia. He saw a regular Khmer Rouge army of 35,000 men taking shape supported by around 100,000 irregulars. China was supplying five million dollars a year in weapons and Saloth had organized an independent revenue source for the party in the form of rubber plantations in eastern Cambodia using forced labour.
The Khmer Rouge also used the massive U.S bombings of villages in Eastern Cambodia, where over two million tons of bombs were dropped during Operation Menu, to aid in their recruitment of members.
After a central committee meeting in May 1972, the party under the direction of Saloth began to enforce new levels of discipline and conformity in areas under their control. Minorities such as the Chams were forced to conform to Cambodian styles of dress and appearance. These policies, such as forbidding the Chams from wearing jewelry, were soon extended to the whole population. A haphazard version of land reform was undertaken by Saloth. Its basis was that all land holdings should be of uniform size. The party also confiscated all private means of transportation at this time. The 1972 policies were aimed at reducing the peoples of the liberated areas to a sort of feudal peasant equality. These policies were generally favourable at the time to poor peasants and extremely unfavourable to refugees from towns who had fled to the countryside.
In 1972, the Vietnamese army forces began to withdraw from the fighting against the Cambodian government. Saloth issued a new set of decrees in May 1973 which started the process of reorganizing peasant villages into cooperatives where property was jointly owned and individual possessions banned.
Control of the countryside
The Khmer Rouge advanced during 1973. After they reached the edges of Phnom Penh, Saloth issued orders during the peak of the rainy season that the city be taken. The orders led to futile attacks and wasted lives among the Khmer Rouge army. By the middle of 1973, the Khmer Rouge under Saloth controlled almost two-thirds of the country and half the population. Vietnam realised that it no longer controlled the situation and began to treat Saloth as more of an equal leader than a junior partner.
In late 1973, Saloth made strategic decisions about the future of the war. His first decision was to cut the capital off from contact from outside supply and effectively put the city under siege. The second decision was to enforce tight command on people trying to leave the city through the Khmer Rouge lines. He also ordered a series of general purges. Former government officials, along with anyone with an education, were singled out in the purges. A set of new prisons was also constructed in Khmer Rouge run areas. The Cham minority attempted an uprising around this time against attempts to destroy their culture. While the uprising was quickly crushed, Saloth ordered that harsh physical torture be used against most of those involved in the revolt. As previously, Saloth tested out harsh new policies against the Cham minority before extending them to the general population of the country.
The Khmer Rouge also had a policy of evacuating urban areas to the countryside. When the Khmer Rouge took the town of Kratie in 1971, Saloth and other members of the party were shocked at how fast the liberated urban areas shook off socialism and went back to the old ways. Various ideas were tried to re-create the town in the image of the party, but nothing worked. In 1973, out of total frustration, Saloth decided that the only solution was to send the entire population of the town to the fields in the countryside. He wrote at the time “if the result of so many sacrifices was that the capitalists remain in control, what was the point of the revolution?”. Shortly after, Saloth ordered the evacuation of the 15,000 people of Kompong Cham for the same reasons. The Khmer Rouge then moved on in 1974 to evacuate the larger city of Oudong.
Internationally, Saloth and the Khmer Rouge were able to gain the recognition of 63 countries as the true government of Cambodia. A move was made at the UN to give the seat for Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge prevailed by three votes.
In September 1974, Saloth gathered the central committee of the party together. As the military campaign was moving toward a conclusion, Saloth decided to move the party toward implementing a socialist transformation of the country in the form of a series of decisions. The first one was, that after their victory, they would evacuate the main cities, moving the population to the countryside. The second was that they would cease to put money in circulation and quickly phase it out. The final decision was that the party would accept Saloth’s first major purge. In 1974, Saloth had purged a top party official named Prasith. Prasith was taken out into a forest and shot without any chance to defend himself. His death was followed by a purge of cadres who, like Prasith, were ethnically Thai. Saloth offered as explanation that the class struggle had become acute required a strong stand against party enemies.
The Khmer Rouge were positioned for a final offensive against the government in January 1975. At the same time at a press event in Beijing, Sihanouk proudly announced Saloth’s “death list” of enemies to kill after victory. The list, which originally contained seven names, expanded to 23, including all the senior government leaders along with the military and police leadership. The rivalry between Vietnam and Cambodia also came out into the open. North Vietnam, as the rival socialist country in Indochina, was determined to take Saigon before the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh. Shipments of weapons from China were delayed and in one instance the Cambodians were forced to sign a humiliating document thanking Vietnam for shipments of what were in fact Chinese weapons.
Mass grave in Skulls of Khmer Rouge victims
Leader of Kampuchea (1975–79
In September 1975, the government formed a Supreme National Council with new leadership, with the aim of negotiating a surrender to the Khmer Rouge. It was headed by Sak Sutsakhan who had studied in France with Saloth, and was cousin to the Khmer Rouge Deputy Secretary Nuon Chea. Saloth reacted to this by adding the names of everyone involved to his post-victory death list. Government resistance finally collapsed on September 17, 1975.
The Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. As the leader of the Communist Party, Saloth Sar was the designated leader of the new regime. He took the name “brother number one” and declared his nom de guerre Pol Pot. This has generally supposed to derive from Politique potentielle, the French equivalent of a phrase supposedly coined for him by the Chinese leadership. An alternative version of the origin of Pol Pot’s name is from Philip Short, who states that Saloth Sar announced that he was adopting the name in July 1970 and suspects that it is derived from pol: “the Pols were royal slaves, an aboriginal people,” and that “Pot” was simply a “euphonic monosyllable” that he liked.
A new constitution was adopted on January 5, 1976, officially altering the country’s name to “Democratic Kampuchea.” The newly established Representative Assembly held its first plenary meeting on April 11 – , electing a new government with Pol Pot as prime minister. His predecessor, Khieu Samphan was instead given the position of head of state as President of the State Presidium. Prince Sihanouk was given no role in the government and was placed under detention.
Immediately after the fall of Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge began to implement their concept of Year Zero and ordered the complete evacuation of Phnom Penh and all other recently captured major towns and cities. Those leaving were told that the evacuation was due to the threat of severe American bombing and it would last for no more than a few days.
Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge had been evacuating captured urban areas for many years, but the evacuation of Phnom Penh was unique in scale. The first operations to evacuate urban areas occurred in 1968 in the Ratanakiri area and were aimed at moving people deeper into Khmer Rouge territory to better control them. From 1971–1973, the motivation changed. Pol Pot and the other senior leaders were frustrated that urban Cambodians were retaining old habits of trade and business. When all other methods had failed, evacuation to the countryside was adopted to solve the problem.
In 1976, people were reclassified as full-rights (base) people, candidates and depositees – so called because they included most of the new people who had been deposited from the cities into the communes. Depositees were marked for destruction. Their rations were reduced to two bowls of rice soup, or “p’baw” per day. This led to widespread starvation. “New people” were allegedly given no place in the elections taking place on March 20, 1976, despite the fact the constitution was said to have established universal suffrage for all Cambodians over age 18.
The Khmer Rouge leadership boasted over the state-controlled radio that only one or two million people were needed to build the new agrarian communist utopia. As for the others, as their proverb put it, “To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.”
Hundreds of thousands of the new people, and later the depositees, were taken out in shackles to dig their own mass graves. Then the Khmer Rouge soldiers beat them to death with iron bars and hoes or buried them alive. A Khmer Rouge extermination prison directive ordered, “Bullets are not to be wasted.” These mass graves are often referred to as The Killing Fields.
The Khmer Rouge also classified by religion and ethnic group. They banned all religion and dispersed minority groups, forbidding them to speak their languages or to practice their customs. They especially targeted Buddhist monks, Muslims, Christians, Western-educated intellectuals, educated people in general, people who had contact with Western countries or with Vietnam, disabled people, and the ethnic Chinese, Laotians and Vietnamese. Some were put in the S-21 camp for interrogation involving torture in cases where a confession was useful to the government. Many others were summarily executed. Confessions forced at S-21 were extracted from prisoners through such methods as raising prisoners by their arms tied behind and dislocating shoulders, removing toenails with pliers, suffocating a prisoner repeatedly, and skinning a person while alive.
According to François Ponchaud’s book Cambodia: Year Zero, “Ever since 1972 the guerrilla fighters had been sending all the inhabitants of the villages and towns they occupied into the forest to live and often burning their homes, so that they would have nothing to come back to.” The Khmer Rouge refused offers of humanitarian aid, a decision that caused a humanitarian catastrophe: millions died of starvation and brutal government-inflicted overwork in the countryside. To the Khmer Rouge, outside aid went against their principle of national self-reliance.
Property became collective, and education was dispensed at communal schools. Children were raised on a communal basis. Even meals were prepared and eaten communally. Pol Pot’s regime was extremely paranoid. Political dissent and opposition were not permitted. People were treated as opponents based on their appearance or background. Torture was widespread. Thousands of politicians and bureaucrats accused of association with previous governments were executed. Phnom Penh was turned into a ghost city, while people in the countryside were dying of starvation or illnesses or simply killed.
U.S. officials had predicted that more than one million people would be killed by the Khmer Rouge if they took power, and President Gerald Ford had warned of “an unbelievable horror story.” Different estimates as to the number killed by the Khmer Rouge regime vary from 750,000 to over three million. Analysis of 20,000 mass grave sites by the DC-Cam Mapping Program and Yale University indicate at least 1,386,734 victims. Estimates of the total number of deaths resulting from Khmer Rouge policies, including disease and starvation, range from 1.7 to 2.5 million out of a population of around 8 million.[. A figure of 3 million deaths between 1975 and 1979 was given by the People's Republic of Kampuchea. François Ponchaud suggested 2.3 million, R.J. Rummel 2.4 million (counting democide in the civil wars), the Yale Cambodian Genocide Project 1.7 million, and Amnesty International 1.4 million. Demographer Marek Sliwinski concluded that at least 1.8 million were killed from 1975–9 on the basis of the total population decline, compared to roughly 40,000 killed by the U.S. bombing. Researcher Craig Etcheson of the Documentation Center of Cambodia suggests that the death toll was between 2 and 2.5 million, with a "most likely" figure of 2.2 million. After five years of researching some 20,000 grave sites, he concludes that, "these mass graves contain the remains of 1,386,734 victims of execution." Execution is believed to have accounted for about 30–50 percent of the death toll. This would indicate 2.5 to 3 million deaths, but normal mortality over this period would have accounted for about 500,000 deaths — subtracting this from the total sum, we arrive at Etcheson's range for the number of "excess" deaths attributable to the Khmer Rouge regime. A U.N. investigation reported 2–3 million dead, while UNICEF estimated 3 million had been killed. Even the Khmer Rouge acknowledged that 2 million had been killed—though they attributed those deaths to a subsequent Vietnamese invasion. By late 1979, U.N. and Red Cross officials were warning that another 2.25 million Cambodians faced death by starvation due to “the near destruction of Cambodian society under the regime of ousted Prime Minister Pol Pot,” who were saved by American and international aid after the Vietnamese invasion. It is estimated that at least half a million more were starved to death or slaughtered after the invasion from Vietnam.
Pol Pot aligned the country politically with the People's Republic of China and adopted an anti-Soviet line. This alignment was more political and practical than ideological. Vietnam was aligned with the Soviet Union so Cambodia aligned with the rival of the Soviet Union and Vietnam in Southeast Asia. China had been supplying the Khmer Rouge with weapons for years before they took power.
In December 1976, Pol Pot issued directives to the senior leadership to the effect that Vietnam was now an enemy. Defenses along the border were strengthened and unreliable deportees were moved deeper into Cambodia. Pol Pot's actions were in response to the Vietnamese Communist Party's fourth Congress which approved a resolution describing Vietnam's special relationship with Laos and Cambodia. It also talked of how Vietnam would forever be associated with the building and defense of the other two countries.
Conflict with Vietnam
In May 1975 a squad of Khmer Rouge soldiers raided and took Phu Quoc Island. By 1977, relations with Vietnam began to fall apart. There were small border clashes in January. Pol Pot tried to prevent border disputes by sending a team to Vietnam. The negotiations failed which resulted in even more border disputes. On April 30, the Cambodian army, backed by artillery, crossed over into Vietnam. In attempting to explain Pol Pot's behaviour, one region-watcher suggested that Cambodia was attempting to intimidate Vietnam, by irrational acts, into respecting or at least fearing Cambodia to the point they would leave the country alone. However, these actions only served to anger the Vietnamese people and government against the Khmer Rouge.
In May 1976, Vietnam sent its air force into Cambodia in a series of raids. In July, Vietnam forced a Treaty of Friendship on Laos which gave Vietnam almost total control over the country. In Cambodia, Khmer Rouge commanders in the Eastern Zone began to tell their men that war with Vietnam was inevitable and that once the war started their goal would be to recover parts of Vietnam (Khmer Krom) that were once part of Cambodia, whose people, they alleged, were struggling for independence from Vietnam. It is not clear whether these statements were the official policy of Pol Pot.
In September 1977, Cambodia launched division-scale raids over the border which once again left a trail of murder and destruction in villages. The Vietnamese claimed that around 1,000 people had been killed or injured. Three days after the raid, Pol Pot officially announced the existence of the formerly secret Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) and finally announced to the world that the country was a Communist state. In December, after having exhausted all other options, Vietnam sent 50,000 troops into Cambodia in what amounted to a short raid. The raid was meant to be secret. The Vietnamese withdrew after declaring they had achieved their goals, and the invasion was just a warning. Upon being threatened, the Vietnamese army promised to return with support from the Soviet Union. Pol Pot's actions made the operation much more visible than the Vietnamese had intended and created a situation in which Vietnam appeared weak.
After making one final attempt to negotiate a settlement with Cambodia, Vietnam decided that it had to prepare for a full war. Vietnam also tried to pressure Cambodia through China. However, China's refusal to pressure Cambodia and the flow of weapons from China into Cambodia were both signs that China also intended to act against Vietnam.
When Cambodian communists rebelled in the eastern zone in May 1978 Pol Pot’s armies were unable to crush them quickly. On May 10 his radio broadcast a call not only to ‘exterminate the 50 million Vietnamese’ but also to ‘purify the masses of the people’ of Cambodia. Of 1.5 million easterners, branded as ‘Khmer bodies with Vietnamese minds’, at least 100,000 were exterminated in six months. Later that year, in response to threats to its borders and the Vietnamese people, Vietnam attacked Cambodia to overthrow the Khmer Rouge, which Vietnam could justify on the basis of self-defense. The Cambodian army was defeated, the regime was toppled and Pol Pot fled to the Thai border area. In January 1979, Vietnam installed a new government under Heng Samrin, composed of Khmer Rouge who had fled to Vietnam to avoid the purges. Pol Pot eventually regrouped with his core supporters in the Thai border area where he received shelter and assistance. At different times during this period, he was located on both sides of the border. The military government of Thailand used the Khmer Rouge as a buffer force to keep the Vietnamese away from the border. The Thai military also made money from the shipment of weapons from China to the Khmer Rouge. Eventually Pol Pot was able to rebuild a small military force in the west of the country with the help of the People's Republic of China. The PRC also initiated the Sino-Vietnamese War around this time.
After the Khmer Rouge were driven from power by the Vietnamese in 1979, the United States and other powers refused to allow the Vietnamese-backed Cambodian government to take the seat of Cambodia at the United Nations. The seat, by default, remained in the hands of the Khmer Rouge. These countries considered that however negative allowing the Khmer Rouge to hold on to the seat was, recognising Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia was worse. Also, representatives of these countries argued that both claimants to the seat were Khmer Rouge governments, because Vietnam's Cambodian government was formed from ex-Khmer Rouge cadres.
Nicolae Ceauşescu with Pol Pot (1978)
Pol Pot lived in the Phnom Malai area, giving interviews in the early 1980s accusing all those who opposed him of being traitors and "puppets" of the Vietnamese until he disappeared from public view. In 1985, his "retirement" was announced, but he kept hiding somewhere close by, still pulling the Khmer Rouge strings of power.
Phnom Malai was the location where in 1981 Pol Pot made his famous declarations denying guilt for the brutalities of the organization he led:
[Pol Pot] said that he knows that many people in the country hate him and think he’s responsible for the killings. He said that he knows many people died. When he said this he nearly broke down and cried. He said he must accept responsibility because the line was too far to the left, and because he didn’t keep proper track of what was going on. He said he was like the master in a house he didn’t know what the kids were up to, and that he trusted people too much. For example, he allowed [one person] to take care of central committee business for him, [another person] to take care of intellectuals, and [a third person] to take care of political education…. These were the people to whom he felt very close, and he trusted them completely. Then in the end … they made a mess of everything…. They would tell him things that were not true, that everything was fine, that this person or that was a traitor. In the end they were the real traitors. The major problem had been cadres formed by the Vietnamese.
In December 1985, the Vietnamese launched a major offensive and overran most of the Khmer Rouge and other insurgent positions. The Khmer Rouge headquarters at Phnom Malai and its base near Pailin were completely destroyed; the Vietnamese attackers suffered substantial losses during the attack.
Pol Pot fled to Thailand where he lived for the next six years. His headquarters were a plantation villa near Trat. He was guarded by Thai Special Unit 838, though it has been argued that operatives of the Central Intelligence Agency had possibly engineered his assassination and replacement by an impostor.
Pol Pot officially resigned from the party in 1985 citing asthma as a contributing factor, but continued as the de facto Khmer Rouge leader and a dominant force within the anti-Vietnam alliance. He handed day to day power to Son Sen, his hand-picked successor. Opponents of the Khmer Rouge claimed that they were sometimes acting in an inhumane manner in territory controlled by the alliance but none of the forces fighting in Cambodia could be said to have clean hands.
In 1986, his new wife Mea Son gave birth to a daughter, Sitha, named after an experimental form of North Vietnamese cookery. Shortly after, Pol Pot moved to China for medical treatment for cancer of the face. He remained there until 1988.
In 1989, Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge established a new stronghold area in the west near the Thai border and Pol Pot relocated back into Cambodia from Thailand. 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 troops started deserting. Several important Khmer Rouge leaders also defected. The government had a policy of making peace with Khmer Rouge individuals and groups after negotiations with the organization as a whole failed. In 1995 Pol Pot experienced a stroke that paralyzed the left side of his body.
Pol Pot ordered the execution of his life-long right-hand man Son Sen on June 10, 1997 for attempting to make a settlement with the government. Eleven members of his family were killed also, although Pol Pot later denied that he had ordered this. He then fled his northern stronghold, but was later arrested by Khmer Rouge military Chief Ta Mok on June 19, 1997. Pol Pot had not been seen in public since 1980, two years after his overthrow at the hands of an invading Vietnamese army. He was sentenced to death in absentia by a Phnom Penh court soon afterward. In July he was subjected to a show trial for the death of Son Sen and sentenced to lifelong house arrest.
On the night of April 15, 1998, the Voice of America, of which Pol Pot was a devoted listener, announced that the Khmer Rouge had agreed to turn him over to an international tribunal. According to his wife, he died in his bed later in the night while waiting to be moved to another location. Ta Mok claimed that his death was due to heart failure. Despite government requests to inspect the body, it was cremated a few days later at Anlong Veng in the Khmer Rouge zone, raising strong suspicions that he committed suicide or was poisoned.
Analysis and perspectives
Demographic evidence indicates that the US bombings of Cambodia, especially the Menu bombings, ultimately killed about 40,000 Cambodian combatants and civilians. Some estimates go as high as between 50,000 and 150,000 killed by the bombing. The US Seventh Air Force argued that the bombing prevented the fall of Phnom Penh in 1973 by killing 16,000 of 25,500 Khmer Rouge fighters besieging the city.
On March 30, 2009, Kaing Guek Eav (also known by his nom de guerre Duch), Khmer Rouge commandant of Cambodia’s Tuol Sleng prison and torture house, testified at the UN-backed Tribunal, that US policies in the 1970s contributed to the brutal regime’s rise to power. “I think the Khmer Rouge would already have been demolished,” he said of their status by 1970.
“But Mr. Kissinger (then Special Assistant to the President for Foreign Affairs and National Security Advisor) and Richard Nixon were quick [to back coup leader General Lon Nol], and then the Khmer Rouge noted the golden opportunity.” “Because of this alliance, the Khmer Rouge were able to build up their power over the course of their 1970–75 war against the Lon Nol regime,” Duch said.
This view has been disputed, with author John M. Del Vecchio asserting that the Communist forces had the American equivalent of four million armed and organized troops overrun two-thirds of the country prior to any American bombing, and with documents uncovered from the Soviet archives revealing that the North Vietnamese invasion of 1970 was launched at the explicit request of the Khmer Rouge following negotiations with Nuon Chea.
Support from China
The P.R.C. was regarded as the main international support for the Khmer Rouge and its leader Pol Pot. The Chinese provided financial and military support to the party. China’s motivation is believed to have been its intense rivalry with Vietnam at the time, which coincided with Pol Pot’s plans to regain the ancient lands of the kingdom, which were and remain within neighbouring countries such as Vietnam.
Support from the US and UK
After the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge by the Vietnamese and the installation of a pro-Soviet, pro-Vietnamese government in Cambodia, the US and UK began supporting the deposed Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot. Due to American and British pressure, the Khmer Rouge retained the Cambodian seat in the United Nations for many years afterwards.
Support from UN
During the Khmer Rouge regime, and a period of time directly after, the Khmer Rouge was recognised by UN as a legitimate government, and therefore held a seat at the UN. While many leaders at the UN attempted to appeal this, the majority allowed the Khmer Rouge (later titled “Democratic Republic of Kampuchea”) to keep their seat for 15 years following the genocide.