“Everything I did, I did for my country,” stated the Red tyrant who has been accused of slaughtering upwards of a million of his own people following the official end of the Vietnam War in 1975. The United States had been bombing Cambodian “sanctuaries” with alleged Communist secret headquarters, supply dumps and troop training camps in 1969 during the first year of the Presidency of Richard Nixon. When, in May 1970, Nixon ordered a full-scale “incursion” into Cambodia, students on virtually all American college campuses rioted in protest against the widening of the war.
At the time, I was a sophomore at then-Towson State College outside Baltimore, and I well remember how the National Guard shootings on the Kent State campus in Ohio inspired student unrest and general talk of “revolution,” as well as even darker rumors that Nixon planned to cancel the 1972 Presidential election and inaugurate instead a military dictatorship.
Of course, none of this happened , but what did, in the light of the end of the ground war in Vietnam, was a political victory there as well as another in Cambodia on Apr. 17, 1975 that was to be even more brutal, right in the middle of the short Presidency of Gerald R. Ford.
According to authors Jerry Adler and Ron Moreau, “Within hours of the Communist victory…the true face of the Khmer Rouge emerged. An army of grim-faced teens waving machine guns descended on Phnom Penh’s hospitals and ordered the patients into the streets. They herded them into the countryside, leaving the sick to die by the roadside. By the end of the same day, the rest of the populace, with only what food they could carry, began shuffling off toward the rice fields to start the process of remaking Cambodian society.
“In the city they left behind, virtually all civic institutions, including schools, temples and businesses, were abandoned and razed. Banks were dynamited, and a rain of money—abolished, along with all other forms of private property—fell on the empty streets. Among the first to be killed was anyone associated with the former government, including Army officers, teachers and civil servants—and often their wives and children as well.”
The man who waged the bloodbath against his own country was a largely unknown Communist leader whose name was either Pol Pot or Saloth Sar, according to which account one believes. He was never photographed or seen in public after he officially became Cambodian Prime Minister in April 1976, a year after his Party took power, and—in the end—there were more pictures published after his death than before. His horrendous crimes became internationally known only with the release of the film starring American actor Sam Waterston, The Killing Fields.
Who was this man who has been likened to a combined version of Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler in postwar Southeast Asia as a mass killer concluding one of the 20th Century’s most brutal wars, and one of the main international foes of President Ford?
Historically, Cambodia’s last real power as a country was under its Khmer Kings of the Middle Ages, followed by several invasions from neighboring Vietnam and Thailand, as well as French occupation in 1863 during the reign of the final ruling Bonaparte, Emperor Napoleon III. A native rebellion in the 1880s against the colonial French regime failed, and it was into this heritage that Pol Pot was born on May 25, 1928 at the village of Prek Sbauv, north of the traditional capital of Phnom Penh that he would one day seize.
As a child, young Pol Pot was taught Buddhism like his peers.
It was in the early Thirties that both the Vietnamese and Cambodian nationalist independence movements began against the French occupiers, influenced by the embryonic Communist Parties of the period.
According to The Life and Times of Pol Pot by author Sandy Noble, “Pol Pot went to the Ecole Miche, a Catholic primary school, when he was eight, and stayed there for six years. There he mixed with French and Vietnamese children and acquired the rudiments of a Western education, and learnt French.
“Towards the end of this period, the Thais took advantage of the fall of France in June 1940 and the Japanese threat from China (which Japan had invaded in 1937), against France’s Southeast Asian colonies, to invade Cambodia in 1940-41, and annexed the provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap in the northwest. This catastrophe led to the
decline and death of King Monivong. The French appointed his grandson Norodom Sihanouk as the new King.”
After the liberation of European France from the Germans in 1944, the Free French forces under Gen. Charles de Gaulle agreed to continue fighting the Japanese in Asia if French colonies there were returned. This led to some unusual alliances, as noted by Ms. Noble: “In Vietnam, the Viet Minh (the resistance organization led by Ho Chi Minh) attacked Japanese positions and the Americans bombed both Phnom Penh and the coastal waters of Indochina.
“The Japanese response, in March 1945, was to take over Cambodia, intern French officials, including the schoolteachers at Sihanouk College, throughout Indochina, and to persuade the Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians to declare independence, which Sihanouk did on March 11, 1945.”
The situation was reversed the following September with the unconditional surrender of Japan after the twin atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and once more the French returned to take over Cambodia, but left Sihanouk on the throne with a written constitution. Cambodian political waters were getting murky, indeed.
Meanwhile, Pol Pot in 1947 was a carpentry student at the Russey Keo Ecole Technical College, where he met later Communist revolutionary leader Ieng Sary.
France granted Cambodia a partial form of independence in 1949, the same year that Pol Pot journeyed to Paris to study on a government-sponsored scholarship. He
joined the Indochinese Communist Party in 1946, and in Paris was exposed to the virulent form of Stalinist education of the era. In the summer of 1950, Pol Pot worked in
Josip Broz Tito’s Red Yugoslavia, where he was impressed by its public works projects. Upon his return to Paris that same year, he and Ieng Sary joined the French Communist Party. Their joint idols were Stalin in Moscow, Tito in Belgrade, Mao in Beijing, and the powerful French Party cadres they saw daily. With the Korean War also raging, to them it seemed that Communism was the irresistible wave of the future, particularly so since it had just defeated fascism in Europe and Japanese imperialism in China.
1950 was also the year when anti-French resistance fighting broke out in both Vietnam and Cambodia, and by 1954, the French—with their vaunted Foreign Legion paratroopers—had been defeated by the Viet Minh at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. A new struggle now began there against the South Vietnamese regime in Saigon and its international supporter, the United States.
Pol Pot had returned home in 1953, and in November of that year, the French wisely granted full independence to Cambodia. During the period 1953-65—while the war in Vietnam began building in its intensity—Pol and others carefully and quietly taught school, and constructed the Cambodian Communist Party cadre for the day when they would take power, much as Hitler and his Nazis did in Weimar Republican Germany during 1925-33.
Notes Ms. Noble, “During this period, Pol Pot was based at Office 100, a mobile base which moved between Vietnam and Cambodia depending on military circumstances. Sihanouk, who was becoming increasingly anti-American as the war between North and
South Vietnam heated up, now allowed right of passage to Vietnamese troops, and also agreed that the Cambodian port of Kompong Song could be used as an entry point for arms from China, destined for the North Vietnamese.
“This policy of cooperation with the North Vietnamese was highly dangerous, since it meant that Cambodia was no longer truly neutral. Cambodians worried about Sihanouk’s policies, while Sihanouk responded by trying to suppress dissent, something which actually tended to drive more Cambodians into the arms of the Communists and the resistance.”
Pol Pot himself went to North Vietnam in 1965, and then on to Red China in 1966, where Mao Zedong’s ideological Cultural Revolution was then going full-tilt, with gangs of young Red Guards running rampant through the streets of all China’s major cities, a vision that Pol would reenact in Cambodia a decade later.
Following the American defeat of the Communist Viet Cong Tet Offensive in Vietnam early in 1968, Sihanouk decided to reopen diplomatic relations with the US, and the following year the bombing of the Red sanctuaries began in earnest. Notes Ms. Noble, “The situation became slightly surreal. Both Sihanouk and the North Vietnamese pretended that there were no Vietnamese in Cambodia, yet the Americans were bombing them without the knowledge of their own population; meanwhile, Sihanouk and the
North Vietnamese were allies, while Cambodian government forces fought (Red) Khmer Rouge units which were frequently Vietnamese-led!”
Sihanouk was voted out of office on March 19, 1970 as Chief of State by the National Assembly while he was on a trip to the Soviet Union, and Army Gen. Lon Nol took over his government, ordering the Vietnamese out of Cambodia and fighting the Communists.
Politically, things became more confused than ever, with Sihanouk in exile in Mao’s China (!), Pol Pot in alliance with the North Vietnamese, and Lon Nol at war with both! The Americans and South Vietnamese jumped into the fray by invading Cambodia in support of Lon Nol, who overthrew the monarchy and declared a Khmer Republic.
As the Americans withdrew from South Vietnam in 1973, the North Vietnamese likewise left Cambodia, forcing Pol Pot to convert the Khmer Rouge into a traditional guerilla movement. This was followed by a further 250,000 tons of American bombs being dropped on Cambodia, but this, too, ended in early 1975 during the first year of the Ford Presidency, leading to the fall of Gen. Nol and his regime and the occupation of the capital by the Khmer Rouge. Now the real Red bloodbath began, as it has in all Communist-led revolts and wars that have been successful since 1871 in France.
Sihanouk returned, and was briefly a figurehead Chief of State during 1975-76, while North and South Vietnam were unified under a single Communist regime. Pol Pot became Cambodian Prime Minister, and Sihanouk resigned in 1978, being allowed—remarkably!—to live on under a peaceful house arrest as a permanent political prisoner.
As in Red China before him, Pol Pot’s economic Four-Year Plan was a disaster, and many thousands died of starvation. Political executions allegedly committed by all Communist factions—Cambodians, Vietnamese and Chinese—are thought to be upwards
of one million in number but, as with the Nazi Holocaust in Europe earlier, most likely the true number will never be known for sure.
In 1979, Pol Pot fled to Thailand, and then disappeared from public view until his mysterious death was announced in Newsweek magazine’s edition of Apr. 27, 1998 which displayed a picture of his rotting corpse, “crudely embalmed in formaldehyde but already starting to smell in the jungle heat…lying face up on a mattress, a small spray of purple flowers near his head. His white hair had been dyed black in preparation for, officials said, yet another trek to a more secure location. Artillery fire from encircling Cambodian troops thumped nearby.”
Although the 70-year-old former leader apparently died peacefully in his own bed of natural causes, there were alleged rumors of assassination by poisoning and a call from American authorities for an autopsy. Even while the incumbent Cambodian Prime Minister called his late predecessor “cow shit,” an enraged populace wanted to try his dead body for war crimes, since the live version was no longer available to place in the dock before the bar of justice.
This was averted, however, three days after his demise, when “his body had been cremated on a pyre of brush and car tires soaked in gasoline,” like Hitler in the ditch outside the Fuhrer Bunker in Berlin in 1945.
Ironically, long after his murderous regime had been overthrown by his former Communist allies the North Vietnamese, Pol Pot—or Saloth Sar—was convicted in a show trial by former aides and sentenced to “house arrest for life,” a fate he himself had
once visited on his rival for power, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who—born Oct. 31, 1922—has survived them all. During 1991-93, the Prince served as the elected President of Cambodia and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, and was also crowned King at last in September 1993.
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