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Pol Pot was the ruler of Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 and presided over one of the worst genocides of the twentieth century. In approximately 1925 (the exact date of this birth remains unclear), he was born Saloth Sar to a fairly well-to-do family in Kompong Thom Province, Cambodia. Although Pol Pot’s political zest developed while he was in his home country, his path to political leadership began to be forged after his arrival in Paris in 1949 to study radio electronics. There he became a member of the French Communist Party and met other Cambodian intellectual elites who would become powerful figures in the years 1975 to 1979.
Having failed his exams three years in a row, Pol Pot (a nom de guerre, short for the French politique potentielle) returned to Cambodia in January 1953. He had, however, become well-versed in socialism and communism—his intellectual models were Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Tse-tung—and his opposition to the government of Prince Norodom Sihanouk led him to join the Communist resistance. Pol Pot became a member of the Indochina Communist Party, which was dominated by Viet Minh, within a month after his return. He then joined the Cambodian Communist Party Group, whom Sihanouk named the Khmer Rouge or Red Cambodians, and became secretary general in 1962. This group then started agitating against the Phnom Penh government. Ultimately, through armed rebellion, the Khmer Rouge gained full control of the country. The party took power on April 17, 1975, less than two weeks before the fall of Saigon ended the Vietnam War, and renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea. One of the Khmer Rouge’s first acts was to implement a complete evacuation of Phnom Penh to the countryside.
Under his four-year plan, Pol Pot’s stated aim was to turn Cambodia into a Maoist agrarian utopia; he planned to nationalize all industry and finance the economy through increased agricultural exports. His regime seized all legislative and judicial powers. Every Cambodian was forced to become an unpaid agrarian laborer and was allowed limited food and rest. Under the four-year plan, at least one million Cambodians died as a result of starvation, disease, or murder. Anyone suspected of betraying the government was killed.
Throughout the late 1970s relations with Vietnam worsened. Pol Pol’s government was toppled on January 7, 1979, by the invading Vietnamese army. Pol Pot himself never surrendered; he fled into the jungle near Thailand and led a Khmer Rouge guerrilla war from there. As Cambodia worked to return to normalcy, it remained under threat from the Khmer Rouge, which never recognized the Phnom Penh government and claimed some western provinces on the border with Thailand. Pol Pot maintained his opposition to the new coalition government until the national elections of 1993. Never brought to justice for having decimated his country, he died on April 15, 1998, in the Thai-Cambodian border area.
- Kiernan, B 2002. The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975–1979. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Short, Philip. Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare. New York: Henry Holt.
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