Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge Regime

Story posted: Thursday, 26. May 2011 by CPA Media

Pictures From History / Themes /DEMOCRATIC KAMPUCHEA




Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge Regime


'Whoever questions is an enemy; whoever opposes is a corpse'. 

Khmer Rouge maxim


For most of the last half of the 20th century Cambodia was racked by war and famine. Considered a ‘sideshow' in the Second Indochina War, it was invaded by both North and South Vietnam, bombed to bits by the United States, strewn with land mines and lethal weapons of every kind, and – worst of all – ruled, between 1975 and 1979, by the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime headed by Pol Pot. By 1979 the situation had become so terrible that the very name ‘Cambodia' was synonymous with suffering...




In March 1970, whilst on a visit to Beijing, Cambodia's King Sihanouk was overthrown in a coup d’etat by the Cambodian military, headed by General Lon Nol, and with apparent tacit US support. Lon Nol was a mystery, a throw-back to an earlier time. Little was known of him—one US correspondent reported enigmatically that: ‘the only thing we know about Lon Nol is that Lon Nol spells Lon Nol backwards’.

People soon found out that the stooped, superstitious general did have a political belief of a kind. Bitterly anti-communist and hostile to the Vietnamese, he believed that the Khmers (and their linguistically related brethren, the Mon) were potential supermen, warriors who could defeat the Khmer Rouge and the North Vietnamese Army with charmed bullets and amulets. To this end he sent two major columns northwards into communist territory. Comprised mainly of ill-trained and poorly armed young boys, and grandiosely named Chen La 1 and Chen La 2, they were cut to pieces by the insurgent forces.

Meanwhile, as territories under the control of the Lon Nol regime continued to shrink, Sihanouk took up residence in Beijing and allied himself with his erstwhile communist enemies, the Khmer Rouge. Embittered by their casualties and the failure of their strategy, the US 'Vietnamized' the war, withdrawing most or all of their combat troops from Vietnam by 1973.

Cambodia remained a sideshow—but word had spread amongst correspondents based in Phnom Penh that the Khmer Rouge were strangely different to the Viet Cong, the NVA and the communist Pathet Lao. Whilst they fought just as well, they were said to be quite merciless, and to be emptying small cities and towns of people as they fell under their control. Moreover, they were increasingly hostile to their supposed Vietnamese 'mentors'—by no means the puppet army of Hanoi that had been supposed.

The true nature of Cambodian communism as interpreted by the Khmer Rouge leadership began to become clear on April 17, 1975, when Phnom Penh fell to the KR fully two weeks before the NVA rolled into Saigon. Most residents of the Cambodian capital were openly delighted the war was at last over, and were prepared to give the victorious communist guerrillas a courteous, if careful welcome. Instead they watched with mounting dismay as groups of sullen-faced, often openly hostile child-soldiers, some of them no more than fourteen years old but burdened by masses of heavy weaponry, swarmed into the city. Most were clad in black pyjamas, though some—KR troops from the eastern zone closest to Vietnam—wore khaki.

Almost the first order broadcast by the new regime, which called itself Democratic Kampuchea, was the expulsion of the entire population of Phnom Penh on the pretext that a bombing raid was to be launched by the USAF. In fact, KR policy was the complete ruralisation of Cambodian society—all cities, towns and major villages were to be emptied and the population sent to work in the fields. This policy was implemented with extraordinary ruthlessness—even patients in operating theatres were turned out onto the street to fend for themselves. Those who couldn’t make it or argued were shot or beaten to death. Meanwhile a search was instituted for all members of the former Lon Nol army, who were marked for execution. A similar fate awaited all ‘intellectuals’, from university professors and doctors to anybody who spoke a foreign language. Often, in DK, it was enough to wear spectacles to be considered an intellectual and taken away for ‘reeducation’—which inevitably meant death.

Meanwhile, the shadowy elite of the Khmer Rouge who would control the fate of Democratic Kampuchea installed themselves in some considerable comfort in the administrative centre of Phnom Penh. The core group included, besides Pol Pot and Ieng Sary, former schoolteacher Khieu Samphan, Thai-educated Nuon Chea—who would emerge as ‘Brother No 2’, second only to Pol Pot, yet still more of an enigma—and Vorn Vet. Also of considerable importance were two sisters, Khieu Ponnary and Khieu Thirith, the former married to Pol Pot, and the latter to Ieng Sary.

Their erstwhile ally, the former King Sihanouk, was flown back to Phnom Penh from Beijing, where he was held under de facto house arrest in the Royal Palace. Subsequently, in the bizarre world of Khmer Rouge politics, it was announced that his services were no longer needed and that he was going into retirement. A statue was to be built in his honour, and he was to receive a pension of US$8,000 per annum; needless, perhaps, to add, neither the monument nor the pension ever materialised! During the Zero Years around 20 members of Sihanouk’s family were murdered by the Khmer Rouge, and it is more than likely that he too would have become a victim had it not been for direct appeals on his behalf from such communist luminaries as Mao Tse-tung, Chou En-lai, and Kim Il-sung.

Once in power the DK elite began building a ‘new society’ through what they called a ‘super great leap’ to socialism—clearly designed to surpass China’s disastrous ‘Great Leap Forward’. Society at all levels was divided and then subdivided into different groups. The 'Old People'—that is, those who had lived under KR rule before the fall of Phnom Penh—were most favoured, whilst the former city-dwellers, or 'New People', were without any rights at all. In between were 'Depositees' or candidates for theoretically becoming supporters of the revolution.

To begin with, the Old People really were better treated than the New. A chilling but common threat made against New People in Democratic Kampuchea was ‘destroying you is no loss; keeping you is no gain’. Tens of thousands were bludgeoned to death, forced to work on massive construction sites with almost no food, or sent to develop ‘new frontiers’ in the malarial Elephant and Cardamom Mountains. Frontiers were sealed, all religion banned, the Buddhist Supreme Patriarch murdered, temples turned into rice barns and mosques into pigsties… Pol Pot announced that feeding monks was a crime punishable by death, but Nuon Chea kept one temple with four monks open for his pious old mother… DK rule was hypocrisy writ large. It was also paranoia. Pol Pot and his immediate henchmen saw traitors and Vietnamese agents everywhere they looked. Even as mad instructions were given for the country to be turned into a precise chequer-board of identically-shaped rice fields, the dreaded santebal or secret police began a witch-hunt for opponents of the regime, real or imagined.

The nerve centre of this operation became the interrogation and torture centre known as S21 or Tuol Sleng, a former high school converted into a special prison under the direction of another high KR official known as Deuch. During 1975 and the first part of 1976, the majority of the victims of KR brutality were ordinary people, but as time passed so angkar—the organisation—began to consume more and more of its own. Pol Pot particularly distrusted the khaki-clad troops of the Eastern Zone who had not been under his direct command during the civil war, denouncing them as ‘Khmer bodies with Vietnamese minds’. In 1976 and 1977 he unleashed his most loyal and most feared military commander, the one-legged general Ta Mok, against them.

Ta Mok and his dreaded nirdei or Southeast Zone soldiers gradually extended their control—and thereby that of their master, Pol Pot—across the entire country. Communist cadres and party members arrested and taken to Tuol Sleng were forced, under the most barbarous tortures, to confess to ridiculous conspiracies. Old revolutionaries like Hu Nim and even Vorn Vet were beaten and electrocuted until they signed statements that they worked for the CIA, Vietnam, the KGB or an unlikely combination of all three. Most were then taken to the nearby Killing Fields of Choeung Ek just south of Phnom Penh and executed with axe-handles or hoes ‘to avoid wasting bullets’.

Meanwhile KR policies were making the group more and more hated in the country as a whole. Following the introduction of compulsory collectivised eating in 1976 even the Old People began to turn against them, at least in their hearts—nobody questioned angkar directly and survived. Meanwhile orders were given to the effect that rice production should be increased threefold, and people laboured long into the night. Even when they returned home their travails were far from over. They could expect a thin gruel of rice chaff and morning glory vines, followed by long sessions of political propaganda before being allowed a few hours sleep.

The KR were sexual puritans, too. Marriage was only permitted with the permission of angkar, and extra-marital sex was generally punishable by death. In some extreme cases women—who were obliged to cut their hair short and wear identical black clothing—were even killed for leaving the top button of their blouse open. Medical treatment was basic in the extreme. Most doctors had been killed, those that survived were obliged to hide their identity to survive, and KR ‘hospitals’ were generally dirty shacks where illiterate teenagers administered injections of coconut juice. Schools were closed, money was banned, any form of trading made illegal—even individual ‘foraging’ for food such as lizards and insects after work was made a capital offence.

Hardly surprisingly, people were miserable. Where did all the extra rice go, they wondered? In fact, we now know that the DK regime systematically starved its population both as a method of political control, and to raise rice exports to China and North Korea in exchange for armaments. But why did the KR need all this new weaponry? The war with Lon Nol and the United States was over and won, the people cowed and incapable of rebellion. The answer—at least in the mind of Pol Pot and his lieutenants—was a single word: Vietnam.

By 1977 relations with Hanoi had reached an all time low. Pol Pot openly announced his intention of retaking 'Kampuchea Krom', or the Mekong Delta, from Vietnam (similar Khmer-speaking areas around Surin in Northeast Thailand were to be recovered later). Vicious cross border attacks resulting in the worst sorts of rape and massacre were launched around the Parrot’s Beak area of Vietnam. Meanwhile the DK party and military fed on itself in a frenzy of purges and killings. Vietnam responded by launching warning counter-attacks across the border, sometimes driving 30 kilometres (19 mi) into Cambodia before withdrawing.

What the Vietnamese authorities discovered amazed them. The opposition put up by the once-formidable Khmer Rouge soldiery was much less than expected—many of the DK forces were purged and demoralised, sick of killing their own people and far from loyal to the regime in Phnom Penh. As the Vietnamese withdrew, so thousands of Khmers fled with them, taking refuge across the frontier in Vietnam. Amongst those who deserted in desperation at this time was a young Khmer Rouge commander called Hun Sen. Subsequently, in collaboration with the Vietnamese, he began to build a Cambodian liberation army with the aim of overthrowing Pol Pot and establishing a regime friendly to Vietnam in Phnom Penh.

Khmer Rouge misrule came to a sudden end in December, 1978, when an understandably exasperated Vietnam sent its forces rolling across the Cambodian frontier, seizing Phnom Penh and forcing the discredited DK leadership to take refuge in camps along the Thai border. They were accompanied by around 20,000 members of the Vietnamese- backed Cambodian liberation army as well as by Hun Sen and other Cambodian opponents of the Khmer Rouge regime. There followed a cynical period of nine years when the regime established by the Vietnamese—which everyone, including most Cambodians, saw as a major improvement on DK—was made an international pariah, whilst the Khmer Rouge guerillas received military and food aid from an unlikely collection of backers, including China, the USA, Britain and Thailand.

In September 1989, bled white by the continuing conflict with KR remnants, Vietnam finally withdrew its forces from Cambodia, handing over to UNTAC, the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia. Elections were held in 1993 with an impressive 89% turnout—but the KR, though offered the chance to stand as a legitimate political party, refused. The story since then was one of gradual KR decline, mostly through a series of spectacular defections, notably by Ieng Sary, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan.

Pol Pot died—either through committing suicide or at the hands of his former colleagues—at the remote jungle base of Anlong Veng in 1998, thereby avoiding impending arrest and trial. In March 1999 the last KR holdout, the one-legged general Ta Mok, was arrested near the Thai border and flown by helicopter to prison in the Cambodian capital. Later in the same year Deuch, the dreaded former commander of Tuol Sleng Prison, who had personally sent more than twenty thousand people to their deaths, was discovered working anonymously with a Western NGO in Battambang Province.


The Enigma of Saloth Sar

The Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, generally known to his followers as “Brother No. 1”, was born in 1928 at the village of Prek Sbauv, near the provincial capital of Kompong Thom, some 140 kilometres (88 mi) north of Phnom Penh. He was the eigth of nine children and his parents, who were well-to-do farmers, called him Saloth Sar. In common with most revolutionary communist leaders, Saloth Sar was neither a peasant nor a proletarian. Rather, his family enjoyed close relations with the Royal Court in Phnom Penh. His cousin Meak had joined the Royal Ballet in the 1920s and was a consort of Prince—subsequently King—Sisowath Monivong, whom she bore a son, Kossarak. Saloth Sar’s sister, Saroeun, subsequently joined the Royal Ballet and also became a royal consort, while his elder brother, Loth Suong, worked at the palace as a clerk and again married a court dancer.

In 1934, when he was about six years old, Saloth Sar was sent to live at the Royal Court with his relatives. During this time he spent several months as a novice monk at Vat Bottum Vaddei, a monastery near the palace which was favoured by the royal family. Here he studied the Buddhist scriptures and Khmer language. Later he went on to learn French and study at Russei Keo Technical College in Phnom Penh.  Although not an outstanding student, he was chosen as one of a contingent of Cambodians to be sent for further education in Paris. Here he came into contact with Cambodian nationalists, including Ieng Sary, who would become a key associate.

In the summer of 1950 Saloth Sar visited Yugoslavia, and was apparently much impressed by Tito’s independent stand, rejecting both the West and the Soviet Union. In the same year, together with Ieng Sary, he joined the French Communist Party. Two years later, having returned to Cambodia without any qualifications but with a newly acquired and keen sense of nationalism, he joined the Indo-Chinese Communist Party which was dominated by the Vietnamese. Although secretly nurturing an intense hatred for all things Vietnamese, Saloth Sar rose steadily through the ranks and became General Secretary of the (still clandestine) Cambodian Communist Party in 1962.

Soon after Saloth Sar and his close colleagues disappeared into the jungled hills of Ratanakiri Province, where they began building the communist guerrilla faction which would be dubbed the “Khmer Rouge” by King Sihanouk. During the subsequent years of civil war Saloth Sar used his increasingly powerful position to eliminate Hanoi-trained or pro-Vietnamese cadres building, in essence, a movement which, though nominally internationalist, was deeply xenophobic, anti-urban and above all hostile to Vietnam. In 1975—Year Zero— the Khmer Rouge seized power and established the Democratic Kampuchea regime, but still Saloth Sar, now hiding behind the pseudonym 'Pol Pot', remained out of the limelight. Between 1975 and his overthrow in 1979 Pol Pot established what has been accurately characterised as ‘an indentured agrarian state’. Brooking no rivals, he gradually eliminated all those whom he saw as a potential threat to his personal power—not to mention more than two million ordinary Cambodians who were murdered, worked to death or died of starvation.

Overthrown by the Vietnamese in 1979, Pol Pot and his followers took to the jungles where, over a period of almost two decades, their numbers dwindled through desertion, disease and military attrition. The architect of ‘Democratic Kampuchea’ was eventually arrested by his few remaining comrades, and either died or was killed in a remote jungle camp near Anlong Veng in 1999. In retrospect it is difficult to see what inner demons drove Saloth Sar to develop into the paranoid political monster Pol Pot. Certainly his elder brother, Loth Suong, who survived the Zero Years, was unable to explain it, commenting with obvious bewilderment that ‘the contemptible Pot was a lovely child’.




Text copyright © Andrew Forbes / CPA Media 2011.

Category:  Cambodia

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