Today (April 15th) marks the anniversary of the death of Pol Pot, one of the most feared and ruthless leaders of the 20th century.
Pol Pot was born as Saloth Sar on the 19th of May 1925 to a prosperous farmer, and ended up attending some of the most elite schools in Cambodia, as well as studying in Paris, where he joined the French Communist Party and began his revolutionary “career”.
In 1953 he returned to Cambodia and became involved in the Marxist-Leninist movement that would lead to all out war in the whole Indochina region.
In 1963 he became leader of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, originally fighting against the government of the enigmatic Prince Sihanouk, before the 1970 coup that brought Lon Nol and started off one of the strangest parts in the history of the Cold War.
Prince Sihanouk, despite being royalty, and therefore not all that communist, was a staunch ally of not just China, but also North Korea. In 1970, following his ousting, he flew to Beijing where he was convinced to form an alliance with Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. And thus the seeds were sown for an all-out Cambodian Civil War.
In 1975, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge rolled victoriously into Phnom Penh, and initiated one of the most perverse interpretations of socialism that has ever existed.
The whole population of Phnom Penh and all other major cities were emptied and sent to the countryside to work in communes. Lots has been written about this, as well as amazing movies made such as The Killing Fields, First They Killed My Father, and the documentary on S-21. I will therefore not going into huge details about The Killing Fields, but the net result was almost 2 million people in a 7.7 population of millions perishing.
The Khmer Rouge were driven away from power by defectors from the party and their Vietnamese allies in 1979, but alas this was not to be the end of Pol Pot. In one of the most shameful episodes of western diplomacy, the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge were allowed to keep their seat in the UN, with the western world helping to finance further civil war in a country that had already suffered so much.
Following a peace process, elections were eventually held in 1991 which were boycotted by the Khmer Rouge, who continued the civil war from the 6% or so of the country it still controlled.
After various power struggles, defections, and assassinations within the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot was eventually removed from leadership of Angkar – the organization leading the Khmer Rouge, but he was never to stand trial or admit to his crimes and finally died in relative obscurity.
Sadly even his death added further punishment to the Khmer people occurring on April 15th, Khmer New Year, the biggest holiday in the country. What occurred in Cambodia over that period is still too recent for the population, and it is impossible to meet any Khmer person who wasn’t affected in some way by the Pol Pot regime.
I remember talking with a Cambodian friend and we got to talking about the Khmer Rouge period, and he passed in comment that Pol Pot had shot his grandfather, not literally of course, but the regime. But to Cambodians they see no difference – Pol Pot was the maker of this suffering.
And on this day in 1998, he died, apparently in his sleep. His body was preserved with ice and formaldehyde so that his death could be verified by people, including journalists attending his funeral. Three days later, his body was cremated by his wife on a pyre of tyres and rubbish, utilizing in an ironically Buddhist ceremony (Democratic Kampuchea was extremely atheist).
Some have speculated that Pol Pot killed himself, but it really didn’t matter. The Khmer Rouge continued to lose ground until 1999 when the last leader, Ta Mok, was captured..