Saloth Sâr [Pol Pot]

3 February, 2008
Chandler David

The eighth of nine children, Saloth Sâr was born in the mid 1920s into a prosperous farming family in the small village of Prek Sbauv, near Kompong Thom, 130 kilometers north of Phnom Penh. According to the protectorate registers, he was born in 1928, but according to him, it was in 1925: he would have changed the date to benefit from a grant to study in . His grandfather, a provincial notable, enjoyed the patronage of the Royal Family in Phnom Penh. Sâr was sent to the capital, where his cousin Meak was a royal ballet dancer and one of King Monivong’s favourites. Besides, his elder sister Roeung was a concubine to the old king. Pol Pot said that he spent six years in a Buddhist monastery, as tradition has it. According to Chandler and Kiernan, he was rather less than two years a novice rote learning the sutras near the Royal Palace (Kiernan, 1985: 25-27; Chandler, 1992). In 1935, he was moved to a primary school, the Ecole Miche, run by French Catholic fathers. A mediocre pupil, Sâr went on to a technical college to learn carpentry. It was a good move, for Cambodia lacked technicians. In 1949 he obtained a coveted scholarship to study as a radio engineer in France. There, under the tutelage of an older student, Keng Vannsak, he became involved in the struggle for Cambodian independence, which was supported by the French Communist Party [PCF]. Some analysts, like Philip Short, consider that Sâr’s poor academic record was in fact a definite advantage within the anti-intellectual PCF that saw uneducated peasants and workers as the true proletariat; this allowed him to establish a leadership role in the study group, the Cercle Marxiste that Sâr contributed to found. While in Europe, he also participated during his holidays in an international labor brigade building roads in Yugoslavia. Sâr would have read Stalin’s works which, he said later, he found easier than those of Marx and Lenin. He was also strongly influenced by earlier French revolutionary traditions: the Commune of 1871, marked by the betrayal of the bourgeoisie; and the French Revolution, which, to Sâr’s mind, proved that, while an alliance of peasants and intellectuals could change history, a revolution which stops half-way would always be jeopardized (Short, 2004).

Sâr left having failed his exams for three successive years. He returned to his country in 1953, convinced that making revolution in Cambodia was his vocation. He spent a year in the maquis of eastern Cambodia with the Viet Minh, who were fighting the French in neighboring Vietnam, and joined the People’s Revolutionary Party of Khmerland [PRPK], a proto-communist party set up by the Vietnamese. After the Indochina peace conference in 1954, Sâr accompanied Tou Samouth, the deputy leader of the PRPK, back to Phnom Penh, and helped establish a clandestine organization in the city. As a cover, he collaborated to newspapers and taught French, history, geography and civics (Chandler, 1992). In 1960, when the CPK was founded as a full-fledged communist party, independent of the Vietnamese one, Samouth became Party leader, with Sâr and Nuon Chea as members of the Standing Committee. Three years later, after Samouth’s murder in still unsolved circumstances (but most likely by Prince Sihanouk’s security services), Sâr succeeded him as Party leader, with Nuon as his deputy. Over the next 34 years, Sâr’s dominance within the Party was never seriously challenged. He was the ultimate arbiter of all aspects of Khmer Rouge policy and, as his power grew, became the sole decision maker.

As Sihanouk’s repression of the communists intensified, Sâr moved his headquarters – called ‘office 100’ – first, in 1963, to a Vietnamese base just across the border from eastern Cambodia, then to Ratanakiri in north-Eastern Cambodia. During this period, he also traveled to Hanoi and Beijing. After Sihanouk’s overthrow by Lon Nol in 1970, Sâr moved to the jungle near Kompong Cham. The small-scale guerrilla movement which he had launched against Sihanouk’s government in the late 1960s developed, with Vietnamese and Chinese backing, into a full-scale resistance army fighting the American-backed Lon Nol regime in Phnom Penh. At the same time, Sâr developed the distinctive ideology which made the CPK very different from all other Marxist-Leninist parties. He mistrusted the working class, relying instead on the poor peasantry whom he saw as the incarnation of Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ (Short, 2004). His Party functioned like a sect, and some authors underline that his “communism” was coloured by Cambodian Buddhist structures (Short, 2004; Ponchaud, 1998). Its members were required to renounce not only material possessions but also spiritual ties: the ultimate goal was to crush individual personality and replace it by unquestioning adherence to the collectivity. Discipline was ferocious; secrecy omnipresent. Sâr abhorred the limelight, preferring to operate from the shadows and using multiple aliases – Pouk, Hay, ‘87’, Pol, Grand Uncle, Elder Brother, First Brother, and, in later years, ‘99’ or Pem. Yet his fanaticism was masked by great personal charisma. People who met him remembered his winning smile and considerable talent as an orator (Chandler, 1992; Short, 2004; Sher, 2004).

Like most Cambodian leaders – communist or other – his political views were skewed by a paranoid suspicion against Vietnam, which he was convinced would eventually seek to swallow Cambodia. This provided one of the justifications for the ultra-radical policies he initiated after taking power in 1975 – 15 days before the fall of Saigon – in which all considerations of human dignity and wellbeing were subordinated to the goal of building Cambodia’s economic and military strength at breakneck speed in order to resist what he saw as an inevitable and imminent fight to the death with the Vietnamese communists next door (Short, 2004). Towns were emptied, administrators and soldiers of the old regime assassinated, money abolished, religion forbidden and repressed, families separated, people (especially the intellectuals: ‘the new people’) denied all basic rights and “enslaved”, in Short’s words, in building an irrigation network which would provide economic self-sufficiency. The result was the exact opposite of what Sâr – or Pol Pot, as he called himself from 1976 – had intended. The country was ruined. A quarter or even a third of the population – some 1.7 million people – was made to work to death, starved, died of malnutrition or health-related diseases, was executed for alleged indiscipline or liquidated in a succession of politic purges. By pushing his logic to its ultimate extreme, Pol Pot discredited forever the ideals he had sought to promote.

Pol Pot gave up a time his seat as Prime Minister to Nuon Chea (September 1976-January 1977) on the pretext of bad health. We might suppose that he feared a coup or that he wanted to slip away to handle the purges or visited other communist countries. It was only on September 1977 (more than two years after he seized power) that Pol Pot revealed in a discourse on the radio that the organization (Angkar) which ruled the country was the CPK, but never disclosed his identity as “Sâr” before he lost power in 1979 (Chandler, 1992). After Mok launched assaults over East borders, in December 1978, the Vietnamese government, convinced that coexistence with the Khmers Rouges was impossible, ordered a full-scale invasion. On the night of January 6, Pol Pot and the rest of the leadership fled. For the next 19 years, he lived on either side of the Thai-Cambodian border. In 1979, as well as Ieng Sary, he was sentenced to death in absentia by a political trial orchestrated by the new People’s Republic of Kampuchea. If he resigned officially in 1981 to be First Secretary and dissolved the CKP, he continued to exercise leadership over the Khmer Rouge guerrilla forces. Initially he was supported by China and, more discreetly, by the West, which, against the background of the Cold War, used the Khmer Rouge army as a pawn to strike at Vietnam and its patrons in Moscow. But after the Soviet Union had collapsed, this backing evaporated and Vietnam pulled off in 1989. After the Peace Agreement (1991) which ended the civil war and decided of a UN peace-keeping intervention, Sihanouk went back on the throne and Pol Pot failed to find a durable peacetime role for his movement. But nor was there any enthusiasm, even among his own followers, for renewed guerrilla war. As his support within the Cambodian countryside waned, he ordered one final purge, in which his long-time Defense Minister, Son Sen, and his family were butchered. The other leaders asked themselves whose turn would be next. The most powerful of them, Mok, placed Pol under house arrest and organized a show trial. A year later, in April 1998, Pol Pot died officially in his sleep of heart failure: however, as it occurred just after the USA announced their intention to turn him over to an international tribunal, the circumstances of his death became discussed and some suspects a suicide or a poisoning (Kane, 2007). Pol Pot was cremated in Anlong Veng the 17th April 1998, exactly 23 years after the Khmers Rouge’s victory. 

Some of Pol Pot’s writings have been translated and published by David Chandler, Ben Kiernan and Chantou Boua under the title Pol Pot plans the future. Two detailed and extensive biographies are David Chandler’s – Brother Number One (1992) – and Philip Short’s – Pol Pot, Anatomy of a Nightmare (2004).


CHANDLER, David, KIERNAN, Ben and BOUA Chantou, 1988, Pol Pot plans the future: confidential leadership documents from Democratic Kampuchea, 1976-1977, New Haven, Conn.: Yale Center for International and Area Studies.

CHANDLER, David, 1992, Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot, Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.

KANE, Solomon, 2007, Dictionnaire des Khmers rouges, IRASEC, Aux Lieux d’être.

KIERNAN, Ben, 1985, How Pol Pot Came to Power. A History of Communism in Kampuchea, 1930-1975, London: New Left Books. 

PONCHAUD, François, 1998, Cambodge, année zéro, , Pondichéry: Kailash, (1st ed. 1977).

SHER, Sacha, 2004, Le Kampuchéa des "Khmers rouges" : essai de compréhension d'une tentative de révolution, : L'Harmattan. 

SHORT, Philip, 2004, Pol Pot. Anatomy of a Nightmare, New York: Henry Holt.

Cite this item

Chandler David, Saloth Sâr [Pol Pot], Mass Violence & Résistance, [online], published on: 3 February, 2008, accessed 17/02/2021,, ISSN 1961-9898
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