Saloth Sar, better known as Pol Pot, gained notoriety as the leader of the Khmer Rouge. This communist regime controlled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, resulting in a tragic loss of over one million lives.
Pol Pot was born on May 19, 1925, in a small village in central Cambodia. Coming from a relatively prosperous family, he received education in various French-speaking schools. At the age of 24, he earned a scholarship to study in France, where he became involved in communist groups.
Portrait of Pol Pot, date unknown
After spending four years in Paris, Pol Pot returned to Cambodia and quickly became one of the leaders of the proto-communist Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP) and newly formed Khmer Rouge guerilla army. They set up guerrilla bases in remote regions of the country to fight the government of Cambodia’s hereditary leader, Prince Norodom Sihanouk.
In March 1970, while Prince Sihanouk was away, General Lon Nol carried out a military coup, sparking a civil war. Prince Sihanouk formed an alliance with the Khmer Rouge, while Lon Nol garnered support from the United States.
As part of the Vietnam War, approximately 70,000 soldiers from the United States and South Vietnam launched an offensive across the Vietnam-Cambodian border. Additionally, U.S. President Richard M. Nixon authorized a covert bombing operation. For four years, Cambodia faced relentless bombing, with U.S. planes dropping 500,000 tons of bombs. This exceeded the total amount dropped on Japan during World War II by more than threefold.
As the U.S. bombing campaign concluded, the Khmer Rouge saw a remarkable surge in their ranks, ultimately gaining control over approximately three-quarters of Cambodia’s land. Following this, they seized Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, emerging victorious in the civil war and putting an end to the conflict. Tragically, the civil war claimed the lives of around half a million Cambodians, but the nation was yet to face its darkest chapter.
I want you to know that everything I did, I did for my country.
Under the leadership of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge implemented a radical plan to reshape Cambodia according to their communist ideals, beginning with the declaration of “Year Zero” and renaming the country as Democratic Kampuchea. The state assumed complete control over every aspect of people’s lives. Money, private property, and religion were banned, agriculture was collectivized, children were forcibly recruited into the military, and strict regulations were imposed on sexual relations, language, and clothing.
During Pol Pot’s rule from 1975 to 1979, it is estimated that 1.5 to 2 million people, nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population, perished due to forced labor, starvation, diseases, torture, or execution.
Our policy was to provide an affluent life for the people. There were mistakes made in carrying it out. Several thousand people may have died.
Cambodian and Vietnamese forces frequently clashed at the border, and in December 1978, the Vietnamese launched a massive offensive. They deployed more than 60,000 troops, along with air and artillery units, across the border. The Vietnamese quickly seized control of Phnom Penh, causing Pol Pot to retreat into the jungle. There, he resumed guerrilla operations.
During the 1980s, the Khmer Rouge received military support from China and political backing from the United States, as they opposed the Vietnamese occupation that had lasted for a decade. However, the influence of the Khmer Rouge began to wane after a ceasefire agreement was reached in 1991. Eventually, by the end of the 1990s, the movement completely disintegrated.
In 1997, after a power struggle within the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot was arrested by former comrades and placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life. He passed away on April 15, 1998, at the age of 72 due to heart failure.
Words of Wisdom
“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.” —Seneca
“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” —Albert Einstein
“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” —Friedrich Nietzsche
“Life is never fair, and perhaps it is a good thing for most of us that it is not.” —Oscar Wilde