Pol Pot (1925-1998) was a Cambodian communist revolutionary, the leader of the Khmer Rouge and the nation’s de facto leader between April 1975 and January 1979. Pol Pot was born Saloth Sar in a small village around 90 miles north of the capital Phnom Penh. His father was an affluent farmer rather than a peasant, so Sar’s upbringing was more comfortable than that of other village children. At age nine he was sent to Phnom Penh for schooling, studying first at Buddhist monastery and then at a French Catholic school. Having failed his academic courses, Sar studied carpentry before winning a government scholarship and studying radio electronics in France. While in France he became interested in Marxist ideology. Sar undertook volunteer work in socialist Yugoslavia and joined the French Communist Party in 1951.
Sar returned to Cambodia in 1953 and taught history and geography at a private school. His true passion, however, was revolution. Using the pen name Pol Pot, he worked as an organiser and strategist with Cambodian communist groups. In late 1960 Pol Pot and his followers seized control of the Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP) and renamed it the Workers’ Party of Kampuchea (WPK). As the Vietnam conflict intensified, Pol Pot and the WPK relocated to Cambodia’s north-east, to establish a base camp and link up with North Vietnamese forces. The WPK was renamed the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) in 1966. Pol Pot and his followers spent the late 1960s recruiting, building support and training for an armed takeover of Cambodia.
The active membership of the CPK remained small until 1969-70 when the Vietnam War started to spill over the Cambodian border. In March 1969 the United States launched Operation Menu, bombing North Vietnamese and Viet Cong camps inside Cambodia. Operation Menu lasted almost four years, decimated large areas of eastern Cambodia and killed between 500,000 and one million Cambodians. This, along with the March 1970 coup by US-backed general Lon Nol, produced a significant increase in support for Pol Pot and the CPK. The Khmer Rouge evolved from a small insurgency into a significant revolutionary force. Under Pol Pot’s leadership, they placed Phnom Penh under siege in 1973, finally taking control of the capital in April 1975. With the Lon Nol government dispersed, Pol Pot became the de facto leader of Cambodia, heading the CPK’s Central Committee and using the title ‘Brother Number One’.
Under Pol Pot’s leadership, the Khmer Rouge began to impose its own form of ‘peasant communism’ on Cambodia. Agricultural production was prioritised and collectivised, while other industries and pursuits, such as education, were outlawed. The Khmer Rouge used genocide to eliminate intellectuals, political dissidents, class enemies, even those considered surplus to the country’s labour needs. Unlike other communist leaders, like Mao Zedong, Pol Pot was a reclusive figure who rarely delivered speeches, issued comments or appeared in public. Instead, he relied on his lieutenants and functionaries to implement his orders. Pol Pot was driven from power in January 1979, after Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia and captured Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge continued to wage war against subsequent Cambodian governments, though by the 1990s their numbers had dwindled significantly.
Pol Pot lived in exile in Thailand, then in northern Cambodia. In 1985 he handed nominal leadership of the Khmer Rouge to his former defence minister, Son Sen. In 1997 he ordered Sen’s execution, an act that led to him being placed on trial by his own party. In 1998 the Khmer Rouge agreed to hand Pol Pot to an international court to face charges of war crimes and genocide. He died shortly after, probably taking his own life to avoid facing justice. Today Pol Pot is remembered for leading one of the 20th century’s most destructive regimes and overseeing one of history’s deadliest genocides.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn & S. Thompson, “Pol Pot”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], https://alphahistory.com/vietnamwar/pol-pot/.