issue 242 - April 1993
The original Cambodian
Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge, achieved worldwide notoriety
as the architect of the ‘killing fields’. Ben Kiernan reveals the
strange background of a political serial killer.
The story began in a large, red-tiled, timber house on stilts overlooking a broad, brown river, downstream from a sleepy town named Kompong Thom. The river teemed with fish, its lush banks lined by coconut and mango trees. Ducks, chickens and pigs darted, pecked and rooted in the dust. Behind the houses along the bank stretched large rice fields. A small Chinese shop sold a few consumables.
It was the heat of the dry season in the Year of the Dragon: 19 May 1928. Pol Pot was born Saloth Sar, the youngest of a family of a girl and six boys. His parents owned nine hectares of riceland, three of garden-land and six buffalo. Old Saloth, with two sons and adopted nephews, harvested enough rice for about 20 people.
In later years the family would have been ‘class enemies’. But few villagers thought so then. Rich or poor, everyone tilled the fields, fished the river, cooked tasty soups, raised children, propitiated local spirits and French colonial officials or thronged Buddhist festivities in Kompong Thom’s pagoda. In 1929 a French official described Kompong Thom people as ‘the most deeply Cambodian and the least susceptible to our influence’.
But the Saloth family were Khmer peasants with a difference. They had royal connections. Pol Pot’s cousin had grown up a palace dancer, becoming one of King Monivong’s principal wives. At 15 his eldest sister Sareung was chosen a consort. In 1928 the eldest brother, Loth Suong, began a career in palace protocol. Pol Pot joined him in 1934, aged six.
The country boy never worked a rice field or knew much of village life. A year in the royal monastery was followed by six in an elite Catholic school. His upbringing was strict. The girl next door, Saksi Sbong, recalls that Suong ‘was very serious and would not gamble or allow children to play near his home’. The palace compound was closeted and conservative, the old king a French puppet. Outside, Phnom Penh’s 100,000 inhabitants were mostly Chinese shopkeepers and Vietnamese workers. Few Cambodian childhoods were so removed from their vernacular culture.
At 14 Pol Pot went off to high school in a bustling Khmer market town. But he missed World War Two’s tumultuous end in Phnom Penh. Youths forced his cousin, the new boy-king Norodom Sihanouk, briefly to declare independence from France, and Buddhist monks led Cambodian nationalists in common cause with Vietnamese communists. In 1948, back in the capital learning carpentry, Pol Pot’s life changed. He received a scholarship to study radio-electricity in Paris.
He wrote Suong occasionally, asking for money. But one day a letter arrived asking for the official biography of Sihanouk. Suong sent back advice: Don’t get involved in politics. But Pol Pot was already a revolutionary in the Cambodian section of the French Communist Party, then in its Stalinist heyday. Those who knew him then insist that ‘he would not have killed a chicken’; he was self-effacing, charming. He kept company with Khieu Ponnary, eight years his senior, the first Khmer woman to get the Baccalauréat. The couple chose Bastille Day for their wedding back home in 1956 – Suong was not invited and never saw his brother again.
Most of Pol Pot’s Paris student friends, like Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary and Son Sen, remain in his circle today. But Pol Pot stood out in the choice of a nom de plume: ‘Original Cambodian’. Others preferred less racial, more modernist code-names like ‘Free Khmer’ or ‘Khmer Worker’.
Pol Pot’s scholarship ended after he failed his course three years in a row. His ship arrived home in January 1953, the day after King Sihanouk had declared martial law to suppress Cambodia’s independence movement, which was becoming radicalized by French colonial repression. Pol Pot’s closest brother, Saloth Chhay, joined the Cambodian and Vietnamese communists and took him along. They began teaching him how to ‘work with the masses at the base, to build up the independence committees at the village level, member by member’. It seemed a patronizing slight, like his failure to rise quickly to the leadership despite his overseas experience. A former Cambodian comrade claims that Pol Pot ‘said that everything should be done on the basis of self-reliance, independence and mastery. The Khmers should do everything on their own.’
In his view Cambodia did not need to learn or import anything from its neighbours. Rather, he would recover its pre-Buddhist glory by rebuilding the powerful economy of the medieval Angkor kingdom, and regain ‘lost territory’ from Vietnam and Thailand. Pol Pot treasured the Cambodian ‘race’, not individuals. National impurities included the foreign-educated (apart from his own group) and ‘hereditary enemies’, especially the Vietnamese.
After France withdrew from Cambodia in 1954 Pol Pot rose within the communist movement. In 1962 he became Party leader after his predecessor, a former Buddhist monk, was mysteriously killed. Pol Pot criticized rivals like Hou Yuon who supported Sihanouk’s neutral foreign policy, thereby consolidating his position in the Party during eight years of guerilla warfare (1967-75), when he first used the code-name ‘Pol’. The leadership of the Cambodian Communist Party, once rural, Buddhist, moderate and pro-Vietnamese, was now urban, French-educated, radical and anti-Vietnamese. Pol Pot had a thousand Vietnamese-trained Cambodian communists quietly murdered. By 1978 their fate had been shared by half the members of the Party’s Central Committee, which had rarely if ever met.
Although it was indigenous, Pol Pot’s revolution would not have won power without the US economic and military destabilization of Cambodia, which began in 1966 after the American escalation in next-door Vietnam. Sihanouk’s increasingly brutal repression drove the veterans of the country’s independence struggle into dissidence, where the younger Paris-educated Party elite subjected them to its plan for a new rebellion. In 1969, embroiled in Vietnam, the US began a secret B-52 bombardment of Cambodia. A year later Sihanouk was overthrown by the US-backed Lon Nol. The Vietnam War spilled across and a new civil war tore Cambodia apart. The American assault on its countryside increased until 1973 when Congress imposed a halt: 540,000 tonnes of bombs had been dropped, half of them in the last six months. Up to 150,000 civilians had been killed.
Pol Pot’s forces used the devastation as an excuse for their brutal, radical policies and purges. In May 1973 the CIA reported that communist recruiters were ‘using damage caused by B-52 strikes as the main theme of their propaganda’ and that their campaign had been ‘effective’.
In his 1975 victory speech Pol Pot claimed ‘clean victory... without any foreign connection’. The cities were evacuated amid continuing warfare, now against Vietnam. Rice was exported to China in exchange for weapons. The regime’s rural bias had initial support from peasants, but they were rewarded with a life of unpaid collective labour. Dissident communists who favoured ‘a system of plenty’ were considered corrupted by ‘a little prosperity’, ‘taken to pieces’ by material things.
Pol Pot soon claimed to be ‘four to ten years ahead’ of the other Asian communist states, adding: ‘We have no model in building up our new society’. This glossed over the close links with China, which had supported Pol Pot ever since his visit to Beijing in 1964, when he met Deng Xiaoping. It disguised the influence of Maoism in the call for a ‘Super Great Leap Forward’, of Stalinism and even of the French Revolution, copied by redesigning Cambodia’s working month into three ten-day weeks with one-day weekends.
A true national chauvinist, Pol Pot could not see Cambodia living in peace with its neighbours in a community of nations. ‘When we are strong they are weak, when they are weak we are strong.’ He shared the traditional Khmer elite’s racism and grandiose designs on ‘lost territories’. New raids on Vietnam, Thailand and Laos began simultaneously in 1977.
Imposing these policies led to a one-man dictatorship. In his administration Pol Pot was honorifically known as ‘the Organization’ – one which made speeches, watched movies and could be asked favours if one dared. Wedded to this, Khieu Ponnary reputedly went mad. They had no children.
One day in late 1978 Pol Pot’s poster went up in a mess hall in Kompong Thom. Loth Suong gasped. So it was his own brother who had been running the country for four years! Terrified, Suong kept quiet. Their other brother Saloth Chhay had been murdered in 1975.
When Cambodian communists rebelled in the eastern zone in May 1978 Pol Pot’s armies were unable to crush them quickly. On 10 May his radio broadcast a call not only to ‘exterminate the 50 million Vietnamese’ but also to ‘purify the masses of the people’ of Cambodia. Of 1.5 million easterners, branded as ‘Khmer bodies with Vietnamese minds’, at least 100,000 were exterminated in six months. In 1979 their surviving leaders, like current Prime Minister Hun Sen, succeeded Pol Pot after Hanoi drove his army into Thailand.
In a secret briefing to his commanders in 1988 Pol Pot blamed most of the killings on ‘Vietnamese agents’. But he defended having massacred the defeated Lon Nol regime’s officers, soldiers and officials. ‘This stratum of the imperialists had to be totally destroyed,’ he insisted. In ‘abandoning communism’ now, Pol Pot added, his movement discards its ‘peel’, but not the fruit inside. ‘The politics has changed, but the spirit remains the same.’ The Khmer Rouge predict their return with the slogan: ‘When the water rises, the fish eat the ants, but when the water recedes, the ants eat the fish.’
Ben Kiernan is Associate Professor of South-East Asian History at Yale University and author of How Pol Pot Came to Power (Verso, 1985).