If there’s one thing that all of the dictators in this book have in common; it is grandiosity and hubris that can’t be contained.

They just don’t look at the world the way most of us do, so when they see a problem, they often come up with the craziest way to solve it. And using a whole lot of crazy to “solve” a major “problem” is where we begin with our first dictator—Pol Pot.

Pol Pot was the leader of the Khmer Rouge or the Communist Party of Cambodia and eventually became that country’s dictator from 1975 to 1979.

During Pot’s rule—and the ten years of civil war in Cambodia and war against Vietnamese occupation that followed—between 1.5 and 2 million Cambodians were killed, or nearly 25% of its 1975 population. Some of those people died fighting, but most were ruthlessly murdered or starved by Khmer Rouge troops and followers as part of Pol Pot’s grand scheme.

You see, for ideological reasons, Pol Pot decided to depopulate Cambodia’s cities and make everyone become peasants. Pot’s plan was to build a utopian, agrarian society, but it quickly descended into a nightmare and became the worst example of political violence and genocide since World War II.

Becoming a Communist

Pol Pot was born Saloth Sâr on May 19, 1925, in what is today Cambodia, but was then the French colony of Indochina. Life wasn’t bad for young Sâr, as his father was a respected and successful farmer and his mother was a devout Buddhist. He was also educated in some of the best schools in Indochina.

It certainly wasn’t the type of background one would expect for a notorious communist dictator.

Sâr’s privilege allowed him to attend university in Paris from 1949 to 1953, where his world outlook changed dramatically. Before leaving Cambodia, most of his daily interactions were with ethnic Khmers (the term used for ethnic Cambodians) and French; although the French were always in a superior position as teachers, clergy, and government officials, military, and police. In Paris, he met people from all over the world and many French who told him that they were against their countrymen ruling his country.

The discussions at first confused Sâr, but the more he heard, the more intrigued he became. He began reading Marx and studying Lenin, although the bright but simple Sâr found the writings of Marx a bit too dense and impractical.

Sâr quickly found that Stalin and Mao were more to his liking. Probably more than anything, Sâr’s sojourn in Europe influenced him to become the crazy dictator known as Pol Pot. Or maybe it just shone a light on the person he really was. Sâr wasn’t interested in Marxist platitudes that could be recited for coeds at coffee shops; no, he was a man of action, just like Stalin and Mao. If Sâr could ever influence the course of his country’s history, he decided that he’d do so like those two communist icons.

Sâr decided that to make the omelet of Cambodian independence, he’d have to break a few eggs!

When Sâr returned to Indochina, he worked as a teacher but devoted most of his time to activities in various communist groups in the newly independent country. He also spent a lot of time in North Vietnam, networking, and eventually fought alongside the communist forces against the Americans and South Vietnamese during the 1960s and early 1970s.

To Sâr, the spirit of a communist revolution was in the air in Southeast Asia, so in 1968, he took everything he had learned abroad and used it to launch an uprising against the Cambodian government in 1968.

Leading the Khmer Rouge (literally “Red Cambodians”), Sâr gained a reputation as a ruthless yet effective leader and by 1970 he began going by “Pol Pot.” He took the name “Pol” from an ancient Cambodian tribe that fought the monarchy and “Pot” because it was a Cambodian tradition for those with no last name to make one up that sounds like the first name.

Despite American bombing raids, by 1975, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge had won the war in Cambodia, and in no time he set out to change the country into his vision.

The Cambodian Killing Fields

Besides being grandiose, most dictators are also extremely paranoid, usually because people are actually trying to kill them. In Pol Pot’s case, it was others within the Cambodian Communist Party. So, shortly after officially changing the name of the country to “Democratic Kampuchea”—many dictators also have in common a desire to project to the rest of the world how “democratic” their countries are—and writing a new constitution in 1975, he turned to his enemies.

And there was no shortage of enemies: anyone associated with the former monarchy, those thought to be on the rightwing of the political spectrum, Cambodians of non-Cambodian ethnic ancestry, and any intellectuals who could question the new order.

The problem was a majority of the population could fit into any of those categories, so getting rid of them would be difficult and costly.

But then Pol Pot decided to kill two birds with one stone.

Since Pol Pot was a big admirer of Mao Zedong and the Chinese version of communism; and since the Khmer Rouge was receiving monetary support from Communist China, Pol decided to base his new vision on China’s “Great Leap Forward.”

Essentially, the Great Leap Forward was the Chinese government’s plan to nationalize the country’s farms.

Pol Pot saw this as a good idea, ideologically speaking, for Cambodia. In 1975, Cambodia was still primarily rural and most of the Khmer Rouge’s support came from the peasants, unlike in more industrialized communist countries where support came from factory workers. At the same time, most of Pol Pot’s political enemies were located in Cambodia’s cities.

So, in what Pol Pot and probably a couple of his closest advisors thought was a flash of brilliance, he decided to totally depopulate Cambodia’s cities!

The 2.5 million inhabitants of the capital city of Phnom Penh were evacuated and most of the other cities soon followed. The people of the cities were labeled “New People” and were portrayed as decadent and corrupt, as opposed to the virtuous “Old People” of the rural areas. The New People were marched and trucked to the rural areas where they were forced to work ten hours or more, seven days a week, on meager rations.

Right-wingers, former monarchists, university professors, and even people with glasses were often singled out for ridicule, physical abuse, or straight-up murder.

The fields that the New People were forced to work were places of misery, where it was common to see bodies floating in rice paddies or piled up in ditches. It’s because of this that they became known as Cambodia’s “killing fields.”

And Pol Pot never hid from the world what he was trying to do. The Khmer Rouge had a common saying in the late 1970s directed to the New People: “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.”

Needless to say, the New People died by the thousands, but the policy was also devastating to the Old People. In 1976, 80% of the population had malaria and the country’s food supply was unable to compensate for the sudden demographic shift.

Starvation became common and dysentery was an everyday occurrence.

Things got so bad in Cambodia that Vietnam, which was also a communist country, invaded to stop Pol Pot and his crazy policy. War with Vietnam and civil war within Cambodia continued through the 1980s before finally ending in the 1990s.

Pol Pot continued to lead the Khmer Rouge from the jungles of Cambodia until he was finally turned in to the new Cambodian government by some of his own people in 1997.

On 15 April 1998, Pol Pot died in his sleep, apparently of heart failure. His body was preserved with ice and formaldehyde so that his death could be verified by journalists attending his funeral. Three days later, his wife cremated his body on a pyre of tyres and rubbish, utilizing traditional Buddhist funerary rites. There were suspicions that he had committed suicide by taking an overdose of the medication which he had been prescribed. Thayer, who was present, held the view that Pol Pot killed himself when he became aware of Ta Mok’s plan to hand him over to the United States, saying that “Pol Pot died after ingesting a lethal dose of a combination of Valium and chloroquine”

There is little doubt that Pol Pot’s idea of depopulating Cambodia’s cities was clearly crazy and one that led to nearly two million deaths and the collapse of his government.

Did You Know?

  • Sâr means “pale” or “light” in Cambodian. Pol Pot was given that name because he had a much lighter complexion than the usual brown complexion of Cambodians, perhaps due to Chinese ancestry.
  • Pol Pot was married twice but only had one child.
  • While the people of Cambodia were starving on meager rations in the killing fields, Pol Pot enjoyed large, multi-course meals. He was said to have a fondness for Chinese wine and cobra stew!
  • Pol Pot was never a very good student as a child, but like most dictators, he had a certain amount of charisma and was said to have a keen ability to read people.
  • Pol Pot died on April 15, 1998, at the age of 72, in Anlong Veng, Cambodia.