Magazine article New Internationalist

The Original Cambodian: Pol Pot, Leader of the Khmer Rouge, Achieved Worldwide Notoriety as the Architect of the Killing Fields

Magazine article New Internationalist

The Original Cambodian: Pol Pot, Leader of the Khmer Rouge, Achieved Worldwide Notoriety as the Architect of the Killing Fields

Article excerpt

THE story began in a large, red - tiled, timber house on stilts overlooking a broad, brown river, downstream from a sleepy town named Kompong Thom. The river teemed with fish, its lush banks lined by coconut and mango trees. Ducks, chickens and pigs darted, pecked and rooted in the dust. Behind the houses along the bank stretched large rice fields. A small Chinese shop sold a few consumables.

It was the heat of the dry season in the Year of the Dragon: 19 May 1928. Pol Pot was born Saloth Sar, the youngest of a family of a girl and six boys. His parents owned nine hectares of riceland, three of garden - land and six buffalo. Old Saloth, with two sons and adopted nephews, harvested enough rice for about 20 people.

In later years the family would have been 'class enemies'. But few villagers thought so then. Rich or poor, everyone tilled the fields, fished the river, cooked tasty soups, raised children, propitiated local spirits and French colonial officials or througed Buddhist festivities in Kompong Thom's pagoda. In 1929 a French official described Kompong Thom people as 'the most deeply Cambodian and the least susceptible to our influence'.

But the Saloth family were Khmer peasants with a difference. They had royal connections. Pol Pot's cousin had grown up a palace dancer, becoming one of King Monivong's principal wives. At 15 his eldest sister Sareung was chosen a consort. In 1928 the eldest brother, Loth Suong, began a career in palace protocol. Pol Pot joined him in 1934, aged six.

The country boy never worked a rice field or knew much of village life. A year in the royal monastery was followed by six in an elite Catholic school. His upbringing was strict. The girl next door, Saksi Sbong, recalls that Suong 'was very serious and would not gamble or allow children to play near his home'. The palace compound was closeted and conservative, the old king a French puppet. Outside, Phnom Penh's 100,000 inhabitants were mostly Chinese shopkeepers and Vietnamese workers. Few Cambodian childhoods were so removed from their vernacular culture.

At 14 Pol Pot went off to high school in a bustling Khmer market town. But he missed World War Two's tumultuous end in Phnom Penh. Youths forced his cousin, the new boy - king Norodom Sihanouk, briefly to declare independence from France, and Buddhist monks led Cambodian nationalists in common cause with Vietnamese communists. In 1948, back in the capital learning carpentry, Pol Pot's life changed. He received a scholarship to study radio - electricity in Paris.

He wrote Suong occasionally, asking for money. But one day a letter arrived asking for the official biography of Sihanouk. Suong sent back advice: Don't get involved in politics. But Pol Pot was already a revolutionary in the Cambodian section of the French Communist Party, then in its Stalinist heyday. Those who knew him then insist that 'he would not have killed a chicken'; he was self - effacing, charming. He kept company with Khieu Ponnary, eight years his senior, the first Khmer woman to get the Baccalaureat. The couple chose Bastille Day for their wedding back home in 1956 - - Suong was not invited and never saw his brother again.

Most of Pol Pot's Paris student friends, like Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary and Son Sen, remain in his circle today. But Pol Pot stood out in the choice of a nom de plume: 'Original Cambodian'. Others preferred less racial, more modernist code - names like 'Free Khmer' or 'Khmer Worker'.

Pol Pot's scholarship ended after he failed his course three years in a row. His ship arrived home in January 1953, the day after King Sihanouk had declared martial law to suppress Cambodia's independence movement, which was becoming radicalized by French colonial repression. Pol Pot's closest brother, Saloth Chhay, joined the Cambodian and Vietnamese communists and took him along. They began teaching him how to 'work with the masses at the base, to build up the independence committees at the village level, member by member'. …

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