Why The World Should Not Forget About Khmer Rouge And Pol Pot, The Brutal Cambodian Dictator

Published April 4, 2017
Updated December 10, 2018
Published April 4, 2017
Updated December 10, 2018

After 30 years of solemnly pledging "never again," the world stood by and watched in horror as another genocide unfolded — this time in Cambodia.

Pol Pot Khmer Rouge

Omar Havana/Getty ImagesA young Cambodian woman looks at the main stupa in Choeung Ek Killing Fields, which is filled with thousands of skulls of those killed during the reign of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime.

On the evening of April 15, 1998, news source Voice of America announced that General Secretary of the Khmer Rouge and wanted war criminal Pol Pot was scheduled for extradition. He would then face an international tribunal for genocide and crimes against humanity.

Shortly after the broadcast, at around 10:15 pm, the former leader’s wife found him sitting upright in his chair next to the radio, dead from a possible overdose of prescription drugs.

Despite the Cambodian government’s request for an autopsy, his body was cremated and the ashes interred in a wild part of northern Cambodia, where he had led his defeated troops against the outside world for almost 20 years following the collapse of his regime.

Opportunities Wasted

Pol Pot And Ieng Sary

AFP/Getty ImagesAn undated photo of genocidal leader Pol Pot (left) with former Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary (center). The man on the right is unidentified.

Though he later claimed to have risen from poor peasant stock, Pol Pot was actually quite a well-connected young man. Born under the name Saloth Sar in a small fishing village in 1925, he was lucky enough to be a first cousin of one of the King’s concubines. Through her, Sar got a chance to study at a prestigious Cambodian school for the elites.

After flunking out of the school, he traveled to Paris to study.

Sar fell in with French communists and, after flunking out of his French school, he volunteered to return to Cambodia to evaluate the local communist parties. Stalin’s Comintern — an international organization that advocated for worldwide communist revolution — had just recognized the Viet Minh as the legitimate government of Vietnam, and Moscow was interested in whether the small agrarian country next door had potential.

Sar arrived back home in 1953 and set himself up as a teacher of French literature. During his off time, he organized his most promising students into revolutionary cadres and met with leaders from Cambodia’s three major communist groups. Picking one of them as the “official” Cambodian communist party, Sar oversaw the merger and absorption of other leftist groups into a united front backed by the Viet Minh.

Largely unarmed, Sar’s group confined itself to virulently anti-monarchist propaganda. When King Sihanouk got tired of this and exiled the left parties, Sar moved from Phnom Penh to a guerrilla camp on the Vietnamese border. There, he spent his time making key contacts with the North Vietnamese government and honing what would become the ruling philosophy of the Khmer Rouge.

The Cult Of Saloth Sar

Pol Pot Smiling

Wikimedia CommonsPol Pot liked to have his picture taken in humble surroundings. This was part of a nationwide propaganda effort to win over peasants.

By the early 1960s, Sar had grown disillusioned with his Vietnamese allies. From his point of view, they were weak on support and slow with communications, as if his movement wasn’t important to Hanoi. In a way, it probably wasn’t. Vietnam was on fire with war at the time, and Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese Communist revolutionary leader, had a lot to contend with.

Sar changed during this time. Once friendly and approachable, he started cutting himself off from his subordinates and consenting to see them only if they made an appointment with his staff, despite living in an open-walled hut in the same village.

He began to sideline central committee members in favor of a more authoritarian leadership style, and he broke with traditional Marxist doctrine about urban proletariats in favor of an agrarian-peasant version of socialism that he must have thought more in keeping with Cambodia’s demographics. Vietnamese and Soviet support began to fade for the Communist Party of Kampuchea and its increasingly eccentric leader.

If history had worked out better for Cambodia, that’s where Saloth Sar’s story would have ended: as a kind of Southeast Asian Jim Jones, a minor cult leader with crazy ideas and a bad end. Instead of fading away, however, events were conspiring to hoist Sar as high as he could rise in tiny, agrarian Cambodia. While he tightened control over the cult he led, the country around him unraveled.

Death From Above

Pol Pot Bombers

STF/AFP/Getty ImagesUS B52 drop bombs over a Viet Cong controlled area in South Vietnam on August 2, 1965 during the Vietnam War.

The American war in Vietnam saw an absurd amount of violence dumped out on a tiny strip of tropical jungle. US airstrikes dropped three times the ordnance used in all theaters of World War II over Vietnam, while ground forces poured into the country for almost daily firefights.

By 1967, some of it was spilling over into Laos and Cambodia. The infamous Secret War U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger ran in Cambodia started as an effort to dig out Viet Cong forces from border camps, but it quickly developed into Agent Orange and napalm strikes deep into Cambodia’s territory. American B-52s swarmed the area and occasionally dropped surplus bombs over Cambodia to save fuel on the flight back to Thailand.

This drove the exodus of rural farmers from the land into the city, where they had no choice but to beg for food and shelter, as well as the increasing desperation of Cambodia’s legitimate left-wing politics.

King Sihanouk was – understandably – not sympathetic to his country’s socialists, and tended to lean to the right. When he (allegedly) helped Cambodia’s rightist parties rig an election and ordered the socialist parties disbanded, tens of thousands of formerly moderate leftists fled the mass arrests and joined the Khmer Rouge.

The right-wing government repressed dissident parties, collaborated with foreign governments to escalate the bombings, and operated a regime so corrupt it was normal for army officers to draw their official paychecks along with the extra paycheck of fictitious officers that only existed on the payroll ledgers.

Grumbling about this state of affairs got loud enough that King Sihanouk decided to pit his rivals against each other to bolster his control over the country.

He did this by abruptly breaking off negotiations with North Vietnam, which was at the time using a Cambodian port for supply runs, and ordering his own government employees to stage anti-Vietnamese demonstrations in the capital.

These protests got out of hand while the King was visiting France. Both North and South Vietnamese embassies were sacked and the far-right autocrat Lon Nol staged a coup, which the U.S. recognized within hours. Sihanouk returned and began plotting with the Vietnamese to regain his throne and, incidentally, reopen that supply route for the NVA.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.