BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Chinese Vietnamese Burmese Thai Indonesian

BBC News World Edition
 You are in: Asia-Pacific  
News Front Page
Middle East
South Asia
Talking Point
Country Profiles
In Depth
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
Friday, 14 April, 2000, 13:59 GMT 14:59 UK
Pol Pot: Life of a tyrant
young pot
Pol Pot: A deadly blend of Maoism and nationalism
Pol Pot's death in April 1998 heralded the end of the brutal career of a man responsible for overseeing one of the worst genocides of the 20th century.

Between 1975 and 1979 his regime claimed the lives of more than 1m people - through execution, starvation and disease - as the Khmer Rouge tried to turn Cambodia back to the middle ages.

For many survivors of that era, the joy of his demise will only be tempered with the regret that he was not called to account for his crimes against humanity.

The "people's tribunal" at which his former colleagues sentenced him to life imprisonment last year was widely regarded as little more than a show trial.


Many precise details of Pol Pot's life remain shrouded in mystery.

Skulls in a memorial to Pol Pot's victims
He is thought to have been about 72 when he died, although the exact date of his birth is not clear.

Born Saloth Sar - Pol Pot was a nom de guerre - the fledgling tyrant grew up in a relatively prosperous farming family in Kompong Thong province, the heartland of the then French protectorate.

One of his brothers, Saloth Neap, once described Pol Pot as a gentle and kind child. He added he had no idea what his sibling had become until he saw a poster of "Brother Number One" - Pol Pot's title as leader of the Khmer Rouge - hung up at his work collective.

Having studied at a Buddhist monastery and a Roman Catholic school, he won a scholarship in 1949 to study radio electronics in Paris.

Pol Pot: educated in Paris
There, the young activist devoted his time to radical student politics and Marxism - charming converts at cell meetings in his Latin Quarter apartment in Paris.

He eventually lost his scholarship and returned to Phnom Penh in 1953.

Pol Pot then scaled the ranks of the underground Cambodian Communist Party and became secretary-general in 1962.

His success was attributed to his ability to combine remarkable charm and grace with an unflinching ruthlessness.

Warped nationalism

khmer rouge
Khmer Rouge: fought the US-backed forces then later received American aid
In 1963, fearing persecution from Prince Norodom Sihanouk's secret police, Pol Pot and several of his trusted right-hand men fled into the bush.

Based in remote northeastern Cambodia, he was influenced by the surrounding hill-tribes. These "original Khmers" were self-sufficient in their communal living, had no use for money and were "untainted" by Buddhism.

From this base he waged war against the US-backed Cambodian government.

Year zero

Khmer rouge
Anyone suspected of being an intellectual was killed
When he came to power in 1975, he quickly set about transforming the country into his vision of an agrarian utopia by emptying the cities, abolishing money, private property and religion and setting up rural collectives.

Pol Pot's radical social experiment claimed the lives of countless Cambodians.

Anyone thought to be an intellectual of any sort was killed. Often people were condemned for wearing glasses or knowing a foreign language.

Back to the jungle

The Khmer Rouge government fell in 1979 when Vietnam invaded Cambodia after a series of violent border confrontations.

Pol Pot and his forces once again fled to the northern jungle as evidence of their atrocities was broadcast around the world.

Pol Pot was increasingly frail in his last months
But even though international audiences were horrified by the Hollywood movie about his rule, The Killing Fields, the Khmer Rouge enjoyed support from the United States and other Asian nations because of its opposition to America's enemy Vietnam.

Pol Pot officially retired as leader of the Khmer Rouge at the end of the 1980s.

Following a bloody power struggle inside the Khmer Rouge he was arrested by his former colleagues in July 1997, and charged with treason.

After a "people's tribunal" sentenced him to life under house arrest he gave an interview two months later in which he declared: "My conscience is clear".

BBC News
Real Video : BBC Correspondent David Willis describes Pol Pot's brutal regime
BBC News
Journalist John Pilger describes the aftermath of Pol Pot's rule (1'59")
BBC News
Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on Pol Pot :'One of the greatest mass murderers of this century' (3'46")
See also:

16 Apr 98 | Asia-Pacific
16 Apr 98 | South Asia
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Asia-Pacific stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Asia-Pacific stories

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East |
South Asia | UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature |
Technology | Health | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |