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On January 5, 1976, Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot announces a new constitution changing the name of Cambodia to Kampuchea and legalizing its Communist government. During the next three years his brutal regime was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1 to 2 million Cambodians.
Pol Pot, who was born Saloth Sar in 1925 to a relatively well-off Cambodian family, became involved in the Communist movement as a young man studying in Paris. After he returned home to Cambodia, which gained its independence from France in 1954, he rose through the ranks of his homeland’s small, underground Communist Party. Influenced by China’s Mao Zedong, by the mid-1960s, Pol Pot, also known as Brother Number One, was heading up Cambodia’s Communist movement and living in a remote part of the country with a band of supporters.
Cambodia’s ruler, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, was overthrown in a pro-American coup in 1970 and the Khmer Rouge, with initial help from Vietnamese Communists, then waged a civil war against the new government of Lon Nol. At the same time, the U.S. launched a bombing campaign and sent in soldiers to Cambodia to hunt down North Vietnamese Communist troops operating there.
In April 1975, following five years of fighting, Pol Pot’s guerillas seized power in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Pehn. Exhausted by years of conflict, many of the city’s 2 million residents initially welcomed the Khmer Rouge as liberators who would bring about a social revolution. Instead, Pol Pot’s inept attempt at building a peasant-based agrarian utopia became a nightmarish reign of terror and genocide. Cambodians were forced into the countryside to work in communes, anyone with education or wealth was killed and schools, newspapers, hospitals, culture, religion and private property were abolished. Tens of thousands of Cambodians died of starvation while countless others succumbed to disease and forced labor or were murdered.
In December 1978, following clashes over territory, Vietnam invaded Cambodia. Pol Pot fled to Thailand and spent almost two decades hiding out in jungle camps there and in northern Cambodia, protected by guerillas and the Thai military. In 1997, following an internal power struggle, Pol Pot was arrested by members of his own party on charges of treason. He died of natural causes on April 15, 1998, without ever having to face justice for his crimes.
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Pol Pot, original name Saloth Sar, (born May 19, 1925, Kompong Thom province, Cambodia—died April 15, 1998, near Anlong Veng, along the Cambodia-Thailand border), Khmer political leader who led the Khmer Rouge totalitarian regime (1975–79) in Cambodia that imposed severe hardships on the Cambodian people. His radical communist government forced the mass evacuations of cities, killed or displaced millions of people, and left a legacy of brutality and impoverishment.
The son of a landowning farmer, Saloth Sar was sent at age five or six to live with an elder brother in Phnom Penh, where he was educated in a French curriculum. A mediocre student, he failed the entrance examinations for high school and so instead studied carpentry for a year at a technical school in Phnom Penh. In 1949 he went to Paris on a scholarship to study radio electronics. There he became involved with the French Communist Party and joined a group of young left-wing Cambodian nationalists who later became his fellow leaders in the Khmer Rouge. In France he spent more time on revolutionary activities than on his studies. His scholarship was cut short after he failed examinations, and he returned to Phnom Penh in 1953.
Pol Pot taught at a private school in Phnom Penh from 1956 to 1963, when he left the capital because his communist ties were suspected by the police. By 1963 he had adopted his revolutionary pseudonym, Pol Pot. He spent the next 12 years building up the Communist Party that had been organized in Cambodia in 1960, and he served as the party’s secretary.
An opponent of the Norodom Sihanouk government and of the military government of Gen. Lon Nol, he led the Khmer Rouge guerrilla forces in their overthrow of Lon Nol’s regime in 1975. Pol Pot was prime minister of the new Khmer Rouge government from 1976 until he was overthrown by invading Vietnamese in January 1979. It is estimated that from 1975 to 1979, under the leadership of Pol Pot, the government caused the deaths of more than one million people from forced labour, starvation, disease, torture, or execution while carrying out a program of radical social and agricultural reforms.
Following the Vietnamese invasion of his country, Pol Pot withdrew to bases in Thailand to lead the Khmer Rouge forces against the new Hanoi-supported government in Phnom Penh, which refused to consider peace negotiations as long as he remained at the head of the party. Although ostensibly removed from the military and political leadership of the Khmer Rouge in 1985, he remained a guiding force in the organization, which continued its guerrilla campaign into the 1990s, though with diminishing intensity. By 1997 the Khmer Rouge were in deep decline, their ranks riddled by desertions and factionalism. In June of that year Pol Pot was forcibly ousted from the organization’s leadership and placed under house arrest by his colleagues, and in July he was convicted of treason. Pol Pot died of natural causes in 1998.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica This article was most recently revised and updated by Adam Zeidan, Assistant Editor.
Quotations: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge
This selection of Vietnam War quotations pertains to Cambodia during the Vietnam War and then under the Khmer Rouge. It contains statements and remarks about the Vietnam conflict by notable political figures, military commanders, contemporaries and historians. These quotations have been researched and compiled by Alpha History authors. If you would like to suggest a quotation for this collection, please contact us.
“Everything I saw at Angkor proves to me unequivocally that Cambodia was once rich, civilised and much more heavily populated than it now is but all these riches have disappeared and the civilisation has died out.”
Charles-Emile Bouillevaux, French missionary, circa 1858
“Unhappy is the Cambodian. Hemmed in between the Siamese… and the Annamites [Vietnamese], who together have robbed him of his richest provinces rendered stationary by the operation of a feudal law which prevents him from acquiring lands of his own… a vigorous hand is needed to support him and enable him to preserve his autonomy, while the [benefits] of European civilisation are gradually brought to bear upon him.”
Francois Garnier, French military officer, 1884
“People usually refer to the bombing of Cambodia as if it had been unprovoked, secretive U.S. action. The fact is that we were bombing North Vietnamese troops that had invaded Cambodia, that were killing many Americans from these sanctuaries, and we were doing it with the acquiescence of the Cambodian government, which never once protested against it, and which, indeed, encouraged us to do it… Why is it moral for the North Vietnamese to have 50,000 to 100,000 troops in Cambodia, why should we let them kill Americans from that territory… and why in all these conditions is there a moral issue?”
Henry Kissinger on the bombing of Cambodia in 1969
“No country has ever experienced such concentrated bombing. On this, perhaps the most gentle and graceful land in all of Asia, President Nixon and Mr Kissinger unleashed 100,000 tons of bombs, the equivalent of five Hiroshimas. The bombing was their personal decision, made illegally and secretly. They bombed Cambodia, a neutral country, back to the Stone Age. And I mean Stone Age in its literal sense.”
John Pilger, Australian-born British journalist
“Wherever we went, we saw thousands of cheerful people working at water conservancy construction sites. We… were deeply impressed by the magnificent scenes of collective labour… Their broadcast system carried songs over the entire worksite, and the people were digging, hauling and building energetically, though the sun was beating down hard.”
Chinese journalists reporting from Khmer Rouge held areas, March 1975
“Men in black will come from the forests… the houses will be made empty and people will no longer circulate in the streets… the educated men will fall much lower than the ignorants. There will be an era without Buddhism.”
Prophecy attributed to a Cambodian Buddhist monk
“If I didn’t worry about the Khmer Rouge, it was because I didn’t believe they could be any worse than the Lon Nol regime… For every story we heard about the Khmer Rouge atrocities, there were several about the Lon Nol regime – mostly massacres of Vietnamese civilians… Every day we heard accounts of government soldiers stealing chickens and livestock from civilians in the countryside, or setting up roadblocks to collect bonjour. But we never heard of the Khmer Rouge stealing anything, even a piece of paper or a grain of rice. It was said that the guerrillas kept to a strict and honourable code of behaviour – no gambling, no abuse of peasants and, above all, no corruption.”
Haing Ngor, Cambodian physician and writer
“The Khmer Rouge approached the house in vehicles, yelling over megaphones for everyone to get out of their houses… When I was walking on the streets I saw 13 and 14-year-old children wearing green uniforms. I asked someone ‘Who are these kids wearing green uniforms?’ He said they were communists called the Khmer Rouge… I saw these kid-soldiers pointing guns and yelling at people to get out of their houses and walk faster. They said ‘All people, do not worry about your houses… You will just be gone a few days and then you will come back…’ And so we walked.”
Bun Yom, Cambodian civilian, describing the events of April 1975
“Beloved brothers and sisters, workers, youths, students, teachers and functionaries, now is the time! Here are our Cambodian People’s National Liberation Armed Forces, brothers! Rebel! It is time for you to rise up and liberate Phnom Penh!”
Radio broadcast in Phnom Penh, April 16th 1975
“[Prime minister] Long Boret had stayed in Cambodia, thinking that he could have some kind of dialogue with the Khmer Rouge. When he realized that that was impossible, he raced to the airport with his family in a jeep to try and get out of the country. When they arrived at the airport, they got on a helicopter with some military officers. One officer brutally shoved him off the helicopter. The copter took off. The Khmer Rouge captured Long Boret and his family and killed them all.”
John Gunther Dean, US ambassador to Cambodia 1974-75
“We saw Pol Pot’s behaviour and heard his words and he did not seem to us to be a killer. He seemed kindly. He did not speak very much. He just smiled and smiled… And his words were light, not strong. In general, you would estimate that Pol Pot was a kindly person, simple, with a mass view. But his methods were confrontational, he was a killer.”
Heng Samrin, Khmer Rouge leader
“…The militarisation of language, the preference for ‘Red’ over ‘expert’, the theory that peasants are to be learned from rather than taught, the idea of class as an ideological rather than economic category, the notion of continuous revolution, and the emphasis on revolutionary will…”
David Chandler, American historian, on elements of Khmer Rouge ideology
“The new rulers of Cambodia call 1975 ‘Year Zero’, the dawn of an age in which there will be no families, no sentiment, no expressions of love or grief, no medicines, no hospitals, no schools, no books, no learning, no holidays, no music, no song, no post, no money – only work and death.”
John Pilger, Australian-born British journalist
“After two hours we reached the market place called Phsar Doeum Kor, where there were two piles of bodies in civilian clothes, as if two whole families had been killed, babies and all. Two pieces of hardboard stuck out of the pile and [on them] someone had scrawled in charcoal ‘For refusing to leave as they were told’. From here on, both sides of the road were covered with dead bodies, some soldiers, some not.”
Someth May, Cambodian teenager, on his family’s flight from Phnom Penh in 1975
“People were terrified by the killings but their terror gave them courage. Reports circulated of villages elsewhere turning on soldiers and hacking them to death with machetes and hoes… An underground opposition had sprung up called the Khmer Blanc [White Khmer]… Their only desire was to kill in revenge as many soldiers and cadres as they could.”
Bunhaeng Ung, Cambodian survivor
“You see the ox, comrades? He eats where we command him to eat. If we let him graze in this field, he eats. If we take him to another field where there is not enough grass, he grazes all the same… When we tell him to pull the plough, he pulls it. He never thinks of his wife and children… Comrade Ox never refuses to work. Comrade Ox was obedient. Comrade Ox did not complain. Comrade Ox did not object when his family was killed.”
A Khmer Rouge parable
“To build a democratic Cambodia by renewing everything on a new basis, to do away with every reminder of colonial and imperial culture… To rebuild a new Cambodia, one million men is enough. Prisoners of war, people expelled from the cities and villages controlled by the government, are no longer needed, and local chiefs are free to dispose of them as they please.”
An unnamed Khmer Rouge official, January 1976
“My refusal to serve Pol Pot’s Kampuchea from April 1976 carried with it some responsibility for the elimination of my relatives. But in working with the Khmer Rouge, I would have betrayed the confidence of the millions of my compatriots who were the victims of worse horrors. I torture myself thinking about this.”
Norodom Sihanouk, on his resignation as head of state in 1976
“The life is worse than a cow’s… There is no rice ration unless we work. I ate a rat. It was delicious… God, please forgive me with the ordeal I have suffered.”
Yasuko Naito, Japanese widow of a murdered Cambodian official, April 1976
“We have overcome all our obstacles, undertaking actively our production work based mainly on the principle of self-reliance. Since liberation, we have succeeded in solving the living conditions of our people. Particularly, we have solved the problem of food… Nevertheless we constantly have to strengthen our revolutionary vigilance, for our experience has taught us that the enemy will never give up their dark schemes to destroy our revolution.”
Khieu Samphan, August 1976
“We must remove the lazy, it is useless to keep them, else they will cause trouble. We have to send them to hell.”
“The sick are victims of their own imagination… We must wipe out those who imagine that they are ill, and expel them from society!”
“To keep you is no gain to kill you is no loss.”
Slogans used by Khmer Rouge commanders and soldiers
“Since the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975, a virtual extermination of a people has taken place [in Cambodia], something the United States helped delay with the massive bombing strikes carried out on behalf of the Lon Nol regime… the fact that the US helped postpone the communist triumph was worth something.”
Former US president Richard Nixon, May 1977
“Our children do not play with toy cars, toy boats and toy guns, which were formerly imported at considerable cost. Our children are happy with driving sparrows away from crops, tending cattle and buffalo, collecting natural fertiliser and helping to build dams and embankments and dig reservoirs and ditches.”
Khieu Samphan, Khmer Rouge leader, September 1977
“We have no reason to reduce or cause our population to level off, for the current size of our population – nearly eight million – is still far too small to cope with our country’s potential, which calls for more than 20 million Cambodian people. Therefore our aim is to increase the population as quickly as we can.”
Khieu Samphan, September 1977
“America cannot avoid the responsibility to speak out in condemnation of the Cambodian government, the worst violator of human rights in the world today.”
Jimmy Carter, US president, April 1978
“We must purify our armed forces, our party and the masses of people in order to continue fighting the enemies in defence of Cambodian territory and the Cambodian race.”
Khmer Rouge radio broadcast, May 1978
“We want only peace, to build up our country. World opinion is paying great attention to the threat against Democratic Kampuchea. They are anxious. They fear Kampuchea cannot oppose the Vietnamese. This could hurt the interests of Asian countries and all of the world’s countries.”
Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge leader, December 1978
“The Pol Pot regime started off with the view that everything in the cities was corrupt… the strength of the country lay in its soil, with the peasants… Pol Pot’s regime took it a lot further than that. They enslaved people to do it. Furthermore, they decided that anybody who was corrupted by the city, that is, anyone who had a Western education, whether doctor or official or their wife or child, it was impossible to re-educate them. So like a cancer they had to be removed, cut out and destroyed.”
Leonard Teale, Australian actor, after visiting Cambodia in 1979
“[Pol Pot] said that he knows that many people in the country hate him and think he’s responsible for the killings. He said that he knows many people died. When he said this he nearly broke down and cried. He said he must accept responsibility because the line was too far to the left and because he didn’t keep proper track of what was going on. He said he was like the master in a house he didn’t know what the kids were up to, and that he trusted people too much.”
An unidentified Khmer Rouge member, speaking in 1981
“For generation after generation, we followed our customs until in 1975 the communists put an end to our way of life. We lost everything, our families, our monks, our villages, our land, all our possessions. Everything. When we came to the United States we couldn’t put our old lives back together. We didn’t even have the pieces.”
Haing S. Ngor, Cambodian doctor, writing in 1988
“I did not see the killing fields. I was practically a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge in the Royal Palace. I was completely isolated. I saw only one man, Khieu Samphan, from time to time. He came to the Royal Palace just to say ‘Hello, how are you?’ I tried to get from Pol Pot … for instance, on the occasion of my birthday … to have my children, my grandchildren. But he said ‘No, no, no. Now they are far from Phnom Penh. They are in good health. But please don’t have a family life anymore, because now, under our new communism, we have to think of our homeland only. No more family life.'”
Norodom Sihanouk on his contact with the Khmer Rouge
“The Khmer Rouge took over and began ruthlessly driving the people of the city into the countryside. Most of the soldier were teenagers, which is startling. They were universally grim, robot-like, brutal. Weapons hung from them like fruit from trees… grenades, pistols, rifles, rockets.”
Sydney Schanberg, US writer, 1980
“New Cambodia (or Kampuchea, as it was called) under Pol Pot and his comrades was a nightmare for the privileged, for the wealthy and for their retainers but poor people had enough food and were taught to read and write. As for the mass killings, these are just horror stories, averred my Cambodian interlocutors. Surely the victorious peasants shot marauders and spies, but many more died of American-planted mines and during the subsequent Vietnamese takeover, they said.”
Israel Shamir, Russian journalist, writing in 2012
“Answer exactly what you are asked. Never try to dodge the question. Answer immediately without taking even a moment to consider. Do not scream when you are beaten or electrocuted. Do nothing. Sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I give you a command, obey immediately without protest.”
Orders of Kang Kek Ieu at S-21
“The thing that strikes you about Kampuchea is the sheer enormity of it all. The extermination was simply scientific, much like the Nazi extermination camps. The [killing] was not just the bloodletting that occurs after a conflict of anger. It was the sheer weight. Two million have gone and another similar number are flat out just trying to survive now.”
James Sinclair, Australian doctor, October 1979
“I want my country to be independent, always independent. I have to defend my convictions as a patriot and as a national leader. I have done my best, but as a human being I cannot be perfect. Nobody is perfect.”
Norodom Sihanouk, speaking in 1985
This Day In History: Pol Pot Changes Cambodia’s Name to Kampuchea (1976).
On this day in 1976, the brutal dictator Pol Pot changed the name of his country from Cambodia to Kampuchea. This was all part of his policy of turning the country into an agrarian communist utopia. In fact, his attempt to turn his country into a paradise turned it into a hell. The next three years as a result of his plans, between one and two million people died. Pol Pot was born into an affluent family in Cambodia and was sent abroad to study. While studying in Paris he came under the influence of communists. He returned to his homeland and was determined to launch a communist revolution in a country he saw as being backward and feudal.
Cambodia received its independence from France in 1954 after the French defeat by the Communist Viet Minh. Pol Pot soon became a leading figure in the small Communist movement in Cambodia. He was popularly known as Brother Number One by his fellow communists. For many years he and his Party (Khmer Rouge) operated in the jungles along the Vietnamese border. When the army overthrew the popular monarch the Khmer Rouge waged a brutal guerrilla war against the military regime. The US repeatedly bombed Cambodia at this time in a bid to destroy the North Vietnamese bases in the country.
Nicolae CeauÈescu with Pol Pot (2nd from right)
In April 1975, after almost five years of war, Pol Pot&rsquos guerrillas seized Phnom Penh, after they had effectively cut- it off from the outside world. Many people initially regarded them as liberators but they were to be mistaken. Pol Pot inspired by Mao sought to create peasant utopia in his country He drove all the city and town dwellers into the countryside. Those who refused were brutally killed. The majority of Cambodians had to live in communes where they were terrorized by Pol Pot&rsquos followers, the Khmer Rouge. All Cambodians had to become peasants and the educated were often murdered as they were seen as âclass-enemies&rsquo. Members of ethnic minorities were also murdered in huge numbers. Pol Pot&rsquos social revolution was a disaster and it resulted in famines in which unknown numbers died. He also had thousands more tortured and executed. Pol Pot in order to distract attention from his failures started a series of armed clashes with Vietnam. Hanoi exasperated by the attacks soon decided to invade Cambodia and drove Pol Pot from power. He and his hardline supporters retreated to jungle bases and they waged a guerrilla war against the Vietnamese occupation and those Cambodians who supported them. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge was able to hide out in the jungles of Cambodia for almost two decades. After a power struggle, Pol Pot was arrested by members of his own party. Before he was brought to justice he died of natural causes.
Pol Pot was one of the most brutal dictators of all time and his crimes were almost as terrible as Stalin and Hitler.
Chilling Photographs of the Cambodian War
The Cambodian genocide was perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge regime, the Communist Party of Kampuchea, led by Pol Pot from 1975-1979. The Khmer Rouge wanted to transform Cambodia into a socialist agrarian republic based on the policies of Maoism.
In order to bring these goals to fruition, the Khmer Rouge forced Cambodians from cities all over the country to relocate to labor camps and farms in the countryside. The mass executions, forced labor physical abuse, starvation, and spread of disease that ensued resulted in the deaths of an estimated 3 million people, about 25 percent of Cambodia&rsquos total population.
Those who were seen as enemies of the Khmer Rouge were taken to the Killing Fields, where they were executed, often with pickaxes in order to save bullets, and buried in mass graves.
Many people were also take to Tuol Sleng Prison (Tuol Sleng translates to âHill of the Poisonous Trees&rsquo), a former high school that was converted into a Security Prison. Tuol Sleng was one of 150 death camps established by the Khmer Rouge. It is estimated that 20,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng, where they were tortured for information, and then killed. The Documentation Center of Cambodia estimates that only about 180 prisoners survived imprisonment.
The Khmer Rouge targeted anyone suspected of having connections to the former Cambodian government or other foreign governments, professionals, intelligentsia, journalists, doctors, lawyers, Buddhist monks, and ethnic minorities such as Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, Cham Muslims, and Cambodian Christians. The Khmer Rouge banned more than 20 minority groups, constituting 15% of the population, and banned the use of minority languages.
The Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia ended the genocide by defeating the Khmer Rouge in 1979.
Khmer Rouge soldiers drive through the capital. Phnom Penh. 1975. SJOBERG: AFP: Getty Images A young girl and her baby, inside of Tuol Sleng Prison. Phnom Penh. Wikimedia Commons A child soldier stands over a blindfolded soldier. Though the atrocities of the killing fields were unjustifiably horrible, this photo shows a more complex version of the story. Here, the child soldier is fighting for the Khmer Republic &ndash and his prisoner is a member of the Khmer Rouge. Angkor Chey, Cambodia. 1973. Bettmann/Getty Images A child soldier with a human skull resting on the tip of his rifle. Dei Kraham, Cambodia. 1973. Bettmann: Getty Images A family of starving refugees struggle to make their way across the border to Thailand. Phnom Penh. 1979. Roland Neveu: Light Rocket via Getty Images A group of women huddle together. 1975. Romano Cagnoni: Hulton Archive:Getty Images A line of a thousand Cambodian refugees makes it into Thailand. Klong Kwang, Thailand. 1979. Bettmann: Getty Images A terrified prisoner is photographed inside the Tuol Sleng prison. Of the nearly 20,000 people locked in Tuol Sleng, only 180 survived. Phnom Penh. Wikimedia Commons A woman rides a bicycle by a stack of destroyed cars, cast aside by the Khmer Rouge as of symbol of the bourgeoisie. Phnom Penh. 1979. John Bryson:The LIFE Images Collection:Getty Images An employee at the French Embassy offers a cigarette to a Khmer Rouge soldier. The gate to the embassy, by this time, had been barricaded off with barbed wire. Phnom Penh. 1975. Express:Archive Photos:Getty Images As the Khmer Rouge moves into the capital, thousands of people abandon their country in fear of what&rsquos to come. Phnom Penh. 1975. Roland Neveu: Light Rocket via Getty Images At the twilight of the Cambodian Civil War, the people of Phnom Penh start to evacuate, as the burning gasoline depot behind them signals the arrival of the Khmer Rouge. Phnom Penh. 1975. CLAUDE JUVENAL:AFP:Getty Images Cambodian soldiers who fought against the Khmer Rouge in the Olympic Stadium, the place the Khmer Rouge used for their executions. Phnom Penh. 1975. Roland Neveu:Light Rocket via Getty Images Cambodians climb over a fence, trying to escape to the French Embassy. Phnom Penh. 1975. SJOBERG:AFP:Getty Images Child soldiers working for the Khmer Rouge show off their machine guns. Galaw, Cambodia. Circa 1979. Bettmann: Getty Images Injured people hide out in the hospital, before the capital was under complete Khmer Rouge control. Phnom Penh. 1975. Roland Neveu: Light Rocket via Getty Images
Salot Sar known as Pol Pot
[ More about Pol Pot ]
[ Click picture to see more pictures of IENG SARY ]
- Original Name: Salot Sar, born in May 1925. He grew up in a well off farming family in Kompong Thong province (about 140 kilometers north of
- 1998, died in the evening of 15 April, reportedly from heart failure
- (Originated by By DAVID CHANDLER ) (24 September 2001. Reviewed 4 June 2003. Updated 16 August 2005) BBC: News
A Brief History of the Khmer Rouge
ArtsEmerson is honored to welcome nineteen Cambodian artists to the Paramount Center who will perform their powerful piece See You Yesterday (MAY 16-19), a show brought to Boston in collaboration with the Global Arts Corps, an organization that brings together people from opposite sides of violent conflicts and helps facilitate healing discussions. The performers in this incredibly moving show are second-generation survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime and Cambodian genocide–a four-year horror that still haunts millions of people around the world.
In 1975, the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), also known as the Khmer Rouge, won the Cambodian Civil War when they successfully seized the country’s capital, Phnom Penh, and overthrew the government. The new regime, which ruled from 1975-1979, was led by Marxist Dictator Pol Pot, who wanted to create a Cambodian “master race” and recreate the country so it would function as a communist-style, agricultural utopia. This campaign to reimagine Cambodia began during “Year Zero” (1975) when Pol Pot and his loyal followers isolated the country–renamed as Kampuchea–from the global community and began to resettle its citizens away from the cities and into rural farming communes, where they were overworked and underfed. Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians died from disease, starvation and abuse at the hands of Khmer Rouge soldiers. The Khmer Rouge also abolished currency, made the ownership of private property illegal and outlawed the practice of religion.
In order to further solidify their power, Pol Pot and his regime assassinated anyone they deemed to be an enemy of the state. This included those suspected of having connections with the former Cambodian government or foreign governments, as well as professionals, intellectuals, the Buddhist monkhood and ethnic minorities. The Khmer Rouge forcibly relocated minority groups, banned the use of minority languages and ultimately banned the existence of more than 20 minority groups–over 15% of the country’s population. In addition, thousands of educated, middle-class Cambodians were tortured and executed in detention centers within Cambodian cities. The most infamous of these centers was Tuol Sleng jail, where over 17,000 men, women and children were imprisoned and executed during the regime’s four years in power. The mass killings that took place between 1975 and 1979 became known as the Cambodian Genocide. An estimated 1.7 to 3 million Cambodians died during Pol Pot’s time in charge of the country, around 25% of the country’s population.
During his time in power, Pol Pot attempted to extend his influence into Vietnam, but was unable to defeat the Vietnamese Army during battles that took place on the border between the two countries. The Khmer Rouge regime eventually fell in 1979 when the Vietnamese Army invaded Cambodia and removed Pol Pot from power. Vietnam retained control in the country for much of the 1980s, although Pol Pot and his most loyal followers remained somewhat active as insurgents in remote areas of the country. In 1997, Pol Pot was tried for his crimes, although the former dictator died while under house arrest before he could be convicted of any crimes against humanity.
Since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia has been able to rebuild their ties with the global community, an opportunity that was taken from them by Pol Pot and his followers. However, the psychological scars from these dark years still affect many Cambodian families, including younger generations who have inherited the traumas of the past. In 2009, Cambodia’s Ministry of Education implemented a new policy to teach Khmer Rouge history in high schools, allowing students to learn about Pol Pot’s rule and helping them heal from the horrors of the genocide. Recently, younger Cambodians, like those involved in See You Yesterday, have started new lines of dialogue through art between themselves and with older generations in order to further understand and recover from the Khmer Rouge regime. Art, like See You Yesterday, allows individuals who have experienced trauma to begin and continue their healing processes and help others recover as well.
Be sure not to miss the beautiful and cathartic story of See You Yesterday (MAY 16-19).
Killing Fields 1975–1979
- In 1975, at the beginning of Killing Fields, the population of Cambodia was approximately 7.5 million.
- In 1979, at the end of Killing Fields, the population of Cambodia was approximately 6.7 million.
Accounting for new births and natural deaths, Killing Fields resulted in 1.3 million deaths.
Inspired by Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution, Pol Pot wanted to exterminate the educated population of Cambodia, claiming that most educated people were capitalists and bourgeoisie. Starting with medical doctors, lawyers, teachers, professors, and anyone who was educated overseas, Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge arrested and murdered them.
To reform the country from a capitalist economy to a self sufficient communist society, Pol Pot was obsessed with finding and exterminating anything that was related to capitalism. Many cars were confiscated and burned, people that spoke a foreign language were murdered, and privately purchased medications were made illegal.
Children were separated from parents and put into schools that were taught by teachers that received communist education from Khmer Rouge. To make sure Cambodia was self sufficient economy, Pol Pot forced most of the population to become farmers, even those with skills and education. Pol Pot believed that in order to achieve a true communist paradise, he needed to kill every single capitalist in Cambodia.
- Around 20,000 were put into the concentration camp of Phnom Pehn at the start of Killing Fields.
- Only 7 made it out in 1979.
Origins of Communism in Cambodia
In 1930, French-trained Marxist Ho Chi Minh founded the Communist Party of Vietnam. Hoping to spread communism to neighboring Cambodia and Laos, he soon renamed the party the Indochinese Communist Party. However, communism did not begin to take hold in Cambodia until the people's simmering opposition to French colonization reached a boiling point.
In 1945, a group of Cambodian patriots known as the Khmer Issaraks launched a hit-and-run guerrilla rebellion against the French. After two years of frustration, the Khmer Issaraks sought the assistance of Vietnam’s powerful communist Viet Minh independence coalition. Seeing this as a chance to advance their communist agenda, the Viet Minh tried to take over the Khmer independence movement. The effort split the Cambodian rebels into two factions—the original Khmer Issaraks and the Khmer Viet Minh, controlled by Ho Chi Minh’s Indochinese Communist Party. The two communist factions soon merged to become the Khmer Rouge.
Pol Pot renames Cambodia - HISTORY
Pol Pot (Born as/also known as Saloth Sar) was a Cambodian Communist revolutionary who led the Khmer Rouge (the followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea in Cambodia) from 1968 until his death in 1998. He served the roles of the General Secretary of the above mentioned political party and as the Prime Minister of the Democratic Kampuchea. Though he sparked both social and political change, he is infamously known as the man whom used his power to impose agrarian socialism. Unlike standard socialist systems that are generally have a prime focus on urban and industrial systems, are internationally oriented, and more liberal in terms of social orientation, Agrarian socialism tends to be rurally based – an emphasis on decentralization and smaller government along with smaller businesses – locally focused, and traditionally conservative. The effect of Pol Pot’s rule is, and always be viewed as, tyrannical. The combined effects of public executions, and poor medical care systems and led to the death of approximately 25% of the total Cambodian population (which accounts for an estimated 1 to 3 million deaths out of the population of 8 million).Through examination of his formal speeches, we can provide a reasonable amount of evidence as to how Pol Pot proves Machiavellian theory. Before we can analyse the evidence these compare and contrasts will leave us, Machiavellian Theory must be first explained, along with its political importance. Machiavelli is considered as one of the great Italian political minds during the Renaissance in Florence from the 14 th century until the 17 th century, where his political guidebook ‘’II Principe’’ or ‘’The Prince’’ proved that human nature will always remain the same. Through careful analysis of his novel and the various chapters that compose it, it is possible for us to draw clean lines of commonality in regards to human condition between the time of the Renaissance and the political leader Pol Pot. This stands to prove that humans will always and forever, as Thomas Hobbes stated in Leviathan ‘’[Men live in] continual fear and danger of violent death’’ through the examination of Pol Pot as a Machiavellian leader.
In his speech at the banquet given in honor of the delegation of the Communist Party of China and the government of the People’s Republic of China in 1978, he stated
‘’The Communist Party of China and the People’s Republic of China have become a very important factor of confidence of the revolutionary movement, the exploited and oppressed peoples the world over as well as the peoples and the countries in struggling to defend and safeguard their independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and the right to determine their own destiny’’
During this time, Pol Pot is displaying what Machiavelli writes about in Chapter XVIII, that ‘’…it is unnecessary for a prince to have all good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them’’. These good ‘qualities’ consist of ‘’…[to] appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright…’’ Pol Pot, knowing that is has yet to gain a position of true power, carefully ‘keeps faith’ with the Chinese delegates in order to secure his country’s own security. Not only that, but when speaking of the Vietnamese/Democratic Kampuchea conflict of the late 1970’s, he shows the traits of being humane and merciful by stating
‘’The only way and best way for the Vietnamese is to immediately put an end to their aggression against Kampuchea and accept to conclude a friendship and non-aggression treaty between Kampuchea and Vietnam for the interest of both Vietnam and Kampuchea as well as for that of South Asia, Asia and the world’’
Thankfully, there are those who will be able to look at this statement and see its true intentions. Pol Pot appears to portrait the above mentioned traits, but in reality he is doing what Machiavelli writes as ‘to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite’’. From what can be pulled from Pol Pot’s speech (which can be found here ), he exemplifies what Machiavelli conveys in Chapter XVIII: Concerning the Way in Which Princes Should Keep Faith. Knowing that his only true opposition in terms of power is the Cambodian/Chinese relationship, praises the Chinese government for their brilliant political/social standing on the world stage.
As leader of the Khmer Rouge regime, Pol Pot brought extremist ideology with ethnic animosity to the Democratic Kampuchea. As previously stated, Pol Pot was responsible for the deaths of approximately 25% of the total Cambodian population, which lends itself well to the Machiavellian theory of Chapter XV: Concerning Things For Which Men, And Especially Princes, Are Praised Or Blamed. As the Vietnamese/Democratic Kampuchea war came to an end, Pol Pot fled to the jungles where he kept control of the countryside for years to come. In this chapter, Machiavelli states that ‘’Hence it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity’’. This is what Pol Pot very easily had done for the years ramping up to his power he knew when to align himself with allies and when to seek out praise but due to the fact that he became an extremist, Cambodian communists rebelled against Pol Pot in 1978 after gross mistreatments. He instructed ‘exterminate the 50 million Vietnamese’ and ‘purify the masses of people’ of Cambodia’  as a last ditch effort to cling onto his power. Pol Pot brashly threw away his values by losing his ability to ‘know how to do wrong’ which led to his loss of power. Machiavelli forecasts these events by stating
‘’…Because how one lives is so far distant from how one ought to live, that he who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation for man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil’’
The intention of Machiavelli’s novel is to tell ‘Princes’ how to keep their power, but when his directions aren’t followed then the ‘prince’ will come to an untimely end just as the power of Pol Pot had.
Though Machiavelli’s theories are well-known and respected, the Democratic Kampuchea was heavily influenced by Maoism, a political theory derived from the teaching of Chinese political leader Mao Zedong which outlines that Maoists see the agrarian peasantry, rather than the working class, as the key revolutionary force to transform capitalist society towards socialism. Pol Pot was a firm believer in this theory over the span of his power and his role as General Secretary. This belief led, one way or another, to Pol Pot making the conscious decision to lead the Khmer Rouge. Unlike what he advertised while in the public eye, under his reign the state controlled every aspect of the day to day life of his citizens. To intensify the situation, there was a constant war going on between the Vietnamese and Cambodian armies. Pol Pot’s downfall was brought about by what he did not plan for a Vietnamese force bigger than his own. Machiavelli addresses this exact situation in Chapter XXV, where he states
‘’One can also see of two cautious men the one attain his end, the other fail and similarly, two men by different observances are equally successful, the one being cautious, the other impetuous all this arises from nothing else than whether or not they conform in their methods to the spirit of the times. This follows from what I have said, that two men working differently bring about the same effect, and of two working similarly, one attains his object and the other does not.’’
By this Machiavelli means that two men who are on the same path with the same intentions, but one accounts for ‘fortune’ and the other does not, the one who accounts for fortune will prevail. This is where Pol Pot made a crucial mistake, he did not account for the fact that something other than what he expects will happen. He did not plan for the 60,000 Vietnamese troops along with air support and artillery to cross his border, which led to his loss of power.
Pol Pot was one of the most ruthless political ‘serial killers’ of recent history, combined with the fact that he mistreated all his citizens to the point of death, made him the best selection as an example of a Machiavellian leader. As it turns out, through the examination of his speech to the delegation of the Communist Party of China and Machiavellian theory, that Pol Pot exemplified what it was to be a good leader (by Machiavellian standards) until he lost his power and influence by going against the Machiavellian theory. In short, Machiavelli’s theory holds true through the careful analysis of Pol Pot.
*Democratic Kampuchea was renamed Cambodia in 1990 in the run up to the UN-sponsored Paris Peace Agreement conference of 1991.
2: Heuveline, Patrick (1998), ‘’Between One and Three Million’’: Towards the Demographic Reconstruction of a Decade of Cambodian History (1970-79), Population Studies, Vol. 52, Number 1: 49-65
3: Hobbes, Thomas, ‘’Leviathan’’ (1651), The Enlightenment
4: Pot, Pol, “At the banquet given in honour of the delegation of the Communist party of China and the government of the People’s Republic of China. Phnom Penh, November 5, 1978.” (1978)’’
5: Machiavelli, Niccoli, ‘’II Principe’’, Chapter XVIII: Concerning the way in which Princes should Keep Faith.
6: Machiavelli, Niccoli, ‘’II Principe’’, Chapter XV: Concerning Things for which Men, and Especially Princes, are Praised or Blamed.