The Trotskyite – Nikita Khrushchev – ascended to power in the USSR in 1956, and immediately set about destroying the reputation of his predecessor – Joseph Stalin. This move immediately set in motion the Sino-Soviet Split – which saw the Leader of Communist China – Mao Zedong – declaring Khrushchev a ‘revisionist’, and stating that China considered Stalin’s style of Leadership to have been correct. This led to immense political and military tensions between the USSR and the PRC, with Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam trying to balance both sides. However, following Ho Chi Minh’s death in 1969, the new Vietnamese Leadership took a definite pro-USSR direction, and began to ‘distance’ itself from direct PRC influence (this included removing ‘Mao Zedong Thought’ from Vietnamese textbooks). This was the geopolitical situation that Cambodia’s Pol Pot emerged within. Although encountering Soviet-style Marxist-Leninism in France during the early 1950’s, Pol Pot’s preference lay with Communist China, and it was in that ideological direction that he steered the Communist Party of Cambodia (i.e. ‘Kampuchea’). In 1978, following crop failures, famine and persecution by the Khmer Rouge, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and ousted Pol Pot from power (in 1979), establishing the pro-Soviet ‘People’s Republic of Kampuchea’. This effectively ended Chinese political influence in Cambodia, and as an act of retaliation, Communist China briefly invaded and occupied Vietnam in 1979. The ‘People’s Republic of Kampuchea’ lasted until the collapse of the USSR, and in 1993 was replaced by a restored monarchy in Cambodia. Whereas previously I accessed Chinese language sources to build a picture of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge (see: Pol Pot (in Chinese Sources): How It All Went Wrong), I am now accessing Russian language sources to create a ‘balanced’ interpretation of the complex events surrounding Pol Pot’s rise to power, and ultimate demise.
The pseudonym ‘Pol Pot’ is an abbreviation from the French term ‘politique potentielle’ – or the ‘politics of the possible’. Salin Sar began to use the name ‘Pol’ in the 1950’s, adopting ‘Pol Pot’ in 1976. Pol Pot was born in 1925 and died on April 15th, 1998. He served as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Cambodia from 1963 to 1979. As the leader of the Khmer Rouge (another name for the Communist Party in Cambodia), his rule of Cambodia was typified by wide-spread famine and massive repression, with various reports recording the death-toll as being somewhere between 1 to 3 million in total, spanning years 1975 to 1979 – the years the Khmer Rouge held political power in the country.
His exact date of birth is unknown, but is believed to have been in 1925. He was born as ‘ Salot Sar’ into a wealthy peasant family and was 1 of 9 children. His family enjoyed a certain elevated social status due to the fact that one of his female cousins served as a ‘concubine’ to Prince Sisovath Monivong – giving birth to his son Kossarak – and one of his elder brothers was employed at the palace. A sister of Pol Pot used to dance in the royal ballet – but after seeing her – Prince Sisovath Monivong took her as yet another concubine. These facts demonstrate that Pol Pot’s family were considered ‘noble’ within Cambodia’s feudalistic society. At the age of 9 years old, Pol Pot was sent to live with relatives in Phnom Penh, where he atended Wat Botum Waddey, – a Buddhist temple – within which he worked as a servant, and was taught how to read and write the Cambodian language, and to understand Buddhist philosophy. In 1937, Pol Pot enrolled in a local Catholic School, where he received the basics of a classical education. In 1942, Pol Pot continued his studies at Norodom College of Sihanouk in Kampong Cham, before failing his exams at the prestigious Lyceum of Sisovata. This situation forced him to finish his education at the Technical School in Phnom Penh – from which he graduated in 1949 – winning a full scholarship to study in Paris, France.
Arriving in France, Pol Pot went to Paris, where he studied radio electronics. Recalling the first year of his student life at the University of Paris, Pol Pot later noted that he worked hard and was a good student. In the summer of 1950, together with other students, Pol Pot went to Yugoslavia, where he worked for about a month in Zagreb. At the end of the same year, an old friend (Sarah-Ieng Sari) arrived in Paris. Ieng Sari introduced Pol Pot to Keng Vannsak, a patriotic nationalist with whom he had studied at the Lyceum of Sisovath. It was at Keng Vannsaka’s flat that the Marxist Study Group began to function, the initiators of which were Ieng Sari and Rat Samoyon. Among the works discussed was Marx’s ‘Capital’.
In the middle of 1952, Salot Sar (i.e. ‘Pol Pot’), under the pseudonym Khmer Daom, produced his first political work entitled ‘Monarchy or Democracy?’ – which was published in a special issue of the Cambodian Student magazine entitled ‘Khmer Nisut’. Probably the same year, Salot Sar joined the Communist Party of France. By this time, Salot Sar had lost interest in studying and was expelled from the university. On December 15th, 1952, he left France. After returning to Cambodia, Pol Pot requested membership of the Vietnamese-dominated ‘Communist Party of Indonesia’ in 1953, on the grounds that he was already a member of the Communist Party of France. However, Pol Pot eventually joined the ‘People’s Revolutionary Party of Cambodia’ in August, 1953, where he set performed propaganda work. His abilities at this time were considered mediocre but consistent. Through hard-work and diligence, Pol Pot (and the ‘gang of six’ – Saloth Sar (Pol Pot), Ieng Sari, Son Sen and their wives – Khieu Ponnari, Ieng Tirith, and Yun Yat), lead the Communist Party of Cambodia (now more commonly known as the ‘Khmer Rouge’) in a Maoist ideological direction, as it was felt that the socio-economic conditions of feudal Cambodia resembled those of China, rather than those of Russia. Furthermore, Mao Zedong had developed a blue-print for a peasant-led revolutionary war, operating from bases in the countryside. (Mao had proven his ideas correct by leading the Communist Party of China to victory in 1949). In this regard, Pol Pot’s thinking appears logical and correct, and he achieved notable successes in the fighting that occurred throughout Cambodia in the 1960’s and 1970’s – against the Cambodian monarchy and US military interference in the area. Indeed, it was these tactics that made Pol Pot very popular amongst the Cambodian peasant population that eventually propelled him to victory over his enemies, and complete political power throughout Cambodia between 1975 and 1979.
The Khmer Rouge successfully entered Phnom Penh on the 17th of April, 1975 and established governance over Cambodia (On the 30th of April, the North Vietnamese launched a substantial military offensive upon South Vietnam – effectively ending US influence in the region). Between the 25th – 27th of April 1975, an Extraordinary National Congress was held in Phnom Penh, where it was announced that the new Khmer Rouge authorities intended to build in Cambodia a ‘national consensus community based upon equality and democracy, through the eradication of exploiters and exploited, and the dichotomy between rich and poor, where everyone will be assigned Work.’ Having come to power, the Pol Pot government advocated three tasks that required immediate resolution:
- Stop the ruining of the peasantry – as a ‘pure’ peasantry was to serve as the foundations of the future Kampuchean society.
- Stop corruption and usury.
- Eliminate the eternal dependence of Kampuchea on foreign countries;
As US interference in Cambodia, (together with royalist intrigue), was plunging the country into lawlessness, Pol Pot stated that a strict and disciplined political regime was required to establish social stability through law and order. To achieve this transformation, Pol Pot devised a system of dividing the Cambodian population into three distinct categories:
a) This comprised the ‘main’ or ‘indigenous’ Cambodian peasantry living historically in the rural areas. This was the most important and politically progressive part of the population.
b) The second group was categorised as those living in cities and towns, and who had come under the ideological influence of the Americans, or their rightwing allies – the ‘Lol Noi’. This group was considered ‘untrustworthy’ but able to be reformed through extensive re-education.
c) The third group was comprised of the intelligentsia, reactionary clergy, military officers and NCO’s that had served the royalists, the Vietnamese or the Americans, and any and all people that had served the previous regime in any capacity. This group was labelled ‘beyond reform’, and was designated for eradication (i.e. ‘execution’). Pol Pot termed this process the ‘cleansing’ of Cambodian society.
Pol Pot emptied all the towns and cities of their populations, and relocated this mass of humanity into rural communes consisting of single sex, military-style barracks. This policy essentially eradicated any form of bourgeois modernity throughout Cambodia, and returned the country to a state of dependence upon primitive agricultural living. However, this radical re-adjustment of society co-incided with crop failures and the outbreak of famine and disease. This fact alone led to the deaths of a substantial number of Cambodian people, even before the arbitrary ‘cleansing’ began. The Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia in 1978 because of the ‘racist’ policy pursued by Pol Pot – which singled-out Vietnamese people for execution. As Pol Pot lost his grip on power, he and his forces retreated westward, toward the jungle areas of the Cambodian-Thai border (where he lost complete political power in 1979). This is where he lived-out the remainder of his life, before dying at the age of 73 years old in 1998.
Russian Language Sources: