Posted: Saturday, April 9, 2016
Some names should never be lost to history, and Pol Pot's is one of them. He was the leader of one of the most ruthless communist regimes in history (and that's saying something), the Khmer Rouge, which ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Ironically, the United States inadvertently paved Pol Pot's path to power. In 1973, at the height of the Vietnam War, the United States tried to prevent North Vietnamese guerilla forces from using Cambodia as a base by bombing it, forcing the North Vietnamese to retreat but creating a power vacuum that the Khmer Rouge eventually filled.
Once in power Pol Pot launched one of the worst, and in many ways most bizarre, genocides in modern history. Seeking to establish a communal agrarian "Utopia," Pol Pot ordered all cities evacuated, all factories closed, all schools destroyed, and all private property abolished. If you had an education or marketable skill you were killed. If you even spoke a foreign language, wore glasses or owned a watch, you were suspected of having an education or marketable skill, so you were also killed. Being a parent was also problematic. Other than dirt-poor peasants, all Cambodians of adult age were suspected of being tainted by capitalist "free-market activities," which the Khmer Rouge did not want them teaching their children. So parents and children were separated, and the children underwent intense communist indoctrination, in which they were encouraged to inform on their parents.
It is estimated that 2 million Cambodians died in this genocide, many thousands by being executed or tortured to death, but thousands more by starvation because the Khmer Rouge's collective agricultural policies were a massive failure. Many also died from easily preventable and treatable diseases — malaria, for example — because the Khmer Rouge's emphasis on "self-sufficiency" meant no medicines. And, of course, many thousands were worked to death in the collective farms and labor camps.
Pol Pot's bloody reign ended in 1979 when Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia and established a more moderate Communist regime. He and the Khmer Rouge subsequently retreated back into the jungle, engaging in a prolonged guerilla war against the new government, but in 1997 Pol Pot was overthrown in a coup, put on trial, and sentenced to life imprisonment. All subsequent attempts to extradite him and indict him for crimes against humanity proved fruitless, and he died this week (April 15) in 1998, apparently from natural causes.
Tellingly, the Khmer Rouge's motto with respect to the Cambodian people it ruled and murdered was, "To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss." Which may be why, a few months before he died, Pol Pot stated, "My conscience is clear."