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Cambodia - an historical sketch

The Background of ‘Pol Pot’ and Birth of the ‘Khmer Rouge’

Saloth Sar was born on May 19th1925 in Prek Sbuav, Kompong Thom province north of Phnom Penh. He was born into a well-to-do farming family, with ties to the ruling royal family. He is sent with his older brother to live with a cousin who was a court dancer, and consort at the royal palace, when he is six years old (1931).

He is educated in a series of French schools and a Catholic college (he never earns his diploma). While attending the College Norodom Sihanouk in Kompong Cham, he meets other students who will later form the Khmer Rouge leadership.

While other members of this group go on to further their education in the more prestigious Lysee Sisowath, Pol Pot must settle for a technical college, where he is enrolled as a carpentry student at the Ecole Technique at Russey Keo.

In 1949 he wins a government scholarship to study radio electronics in Paris, most probably due to his palace connections rather than his academic performance. He is one of 100 selected to study in France. There he joins the French communist party. He and a small group of like-minded Cambodian students (all with the means to study abroad) form the nucleus of what will become the ‘Khmer Rouge’. They are Saloth Sar (Brother #1), Ieng Sary (Brother #2), Khieu Samphan (Brother #3), and Song Sen (Brother #4). The members of this ‘Paris study group’ would go on to become the leadership of the Khmer Rouge.

Apparently indifferent to his studies, he loses his scholarship. Pol Pot returns to Cambodia in 1952 without a degree, having never bothered to take his examinations. Most of his time, it seems, is spent studying communist doctrine.

In 1951, the Vietnamese re-organize Lao and Cambodian off-shoot Communist organizations. The Cambodian party is named the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP). Both organizations are under the control of Vietnamese leadership.

By 1953, Pol Pot supports himself by teaching history and geography at a private school in Phnom Penh, where his is well liked by his students.

In 1956 he marries Khieu Ponnary (marital ties & KR leaders)

In 1960 he and the ‘Paris student group’ gain control of the KPRP and re-name it the Worker’s Party of Kampuchea (WPK)

While teaching, he begins to quietly ‘educate’ mostly middle-class Cambodians about socialism. In 1963 Pol Pot and other communist activists flee to the eastern frontier with a handful of followers.

By 1962 America has been sending ‘advisors’ to South Vietnam for several years in order to prevent Vietnamese Communist forces from gaining control of the Saigon based government of President Diem and the south.


1965, Prince Sihanouk allows North Vietnamese forces to set up stations in Cambodia.  (copyright AFP)

In 1965 Pol Pot walks the Ho Chi Minh trail, liaising with expat Cambodian communists living in North Vietnam. Under Vietnamese control, he is told to continue a political campaign. There is no Vietnamese supply of arms at this time. The Ho Chi Minh trail, which the communists of the north have established as a means of transporting men and materiel to infiltrate the south, was, a complicated interconnected series of roads and paths that when combined was nearly 3000 mile long, even though its north south distance was a mere 400 miles. The Vietnamese used ostensibly neutral Laos and Cambodia for most of this north/south route abrogating the Geneva Accord.

This use of Laos and Cambodia by the Vietnamese prompted reaction from America. The resulting response led to the‘Secret War in Laos’ and the infamous secret ‘menu program’ bombings of Cambodia of the Nixon/Kissinger era.

Pol Pot’s reception by the Vietnamese in 1965 was cool, as he was now pushing for a more nationalistic agenda to his movement. The Vietnamese were more concerned with maintaining Cambodian status quo until the ‘American War’ has been one. This begins a rift between the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge.

In 1966 Pol Pot visits China, which is in the midst of the cultural-revolution. He sees Chairman Mao’s concept of ‘continuous revolution’ as a model to be emulated. He returns (with Chinese encouragement) to further loosen ties with the North Vietnamese

By 1966 Sihanouk, in an attempt to play the Americans against the Chinese and Vietnamese, had incorporated several left wing individuals such as Khieu Samphan (brother #4) and others into his cabinet. He was apparently shocked and surprised by a leftist uprising in Battambang, a prosperous town north and west of Phnom Penh He directs his new Prime Minister, Lon Nol to violently put down the rebellion. Sihanouk blames the leftists and Chinese communists for the uprising. By 1967 the leftists had joined Pol Pot into the forests. Many in Phnom Penh believe that they have been murdered. They re-emerge in 1970 as the leaders of the Khmer Rouge.

In hiding in the provincial hinterlands, Pol Pot again renames the party name from the Workers Party of Kampuchea to the Kampuchean Communist Party. Ironically it is Sihanouk who coins the term “Khmer Rouge” by which this group will be known. They refer to themselves as the Ankar, or organization.

By 1967, still in refuge in the northeast of Cambodia living with remote hill tribes, he is impressed by their simple lifestyle, and sees this simple, non-material existence as the ideal that his revolution will prompt a return the glory days of the ancient Angkor period.

As Sihanouk’s tight-rope walk becomes more difficult, a coup is staged by Lon Nol in 1970, who takes over the country. Lon Nol promptly asks for American aid for the arms to be able to better fight the Vietnamese and Khmer communist forces.

The Vietnamese have been using areas in Cambodia as refuge and as a ‘safe’ rear area to which their troops retreat if pursued by American operations in Vietnam.

The Americans begin sending in small special-forces squads to locate concentrations of the enemy within Cambodia. Eventual bombing of the country through the secret ‘menu program’ would see more bombs dropped on Cambodia than on Japan during WWII.

© R.J. Carver 2010

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The opinions and information expressed  in "Surviving Angkar" are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tabitha Foundation.