|Intro||Former General Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea|
|Birth||19 May 1925, Prek Sbauv, Kampong Thom Province, Cambodia|
|Death||15 April 1998, Anlong Veng District, Oddar Meanchey Province, Cambodia (aged 72 years)|
|Politics||Communist Party of Kampuchea, Party of Democratic Kampuchea, Cambodian National Unity Party|
Pol Pot (, US: ; Khmer: ប៉ុល ពត; 19 May 1925 – 15 April 1998, born Saloth Sar; Khmer: សាឡុត ស) was a Cambodian politician and revolutionary who led the Khmer Rouge from 1963 until 1997. From 1963 to 1981, he served as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea. As such, he became the leader of Cambodia on 17 April 1975, when his forces captured Phnom Penh. From 1976 to 1979, he also served as the Prime Minister of Democratic Kampuchea (30th Prime Minister of Cambodia).
He presided over a totalitarian dictatorship, in which his government made urban dwellers move to the countryside to work in collective farms and on forced labour projects. The combined effects of executions, strenuous working conditions, malnutrition and poor medical care caused the deaths of approximately 25 percent of the Cambodian population. In all, an estimated 1 to 3 million people (out of a population of slightly over 8 million) perished as a result of the policies of his four-year premiership.
After Cambodia lost the Cambodian–Vietnamese War in 1979, Pol Pot relocated to the jungles of southwest Cambodia, and the Khmer Rouge government collapsed. From 1979 to 1997, he and a remnant of the old Khmer Rouge operated near the border of Cambodia and Thailand. Until 1993, they clung to power as part of a coalition government that was internationally recognized as the rightful government of Cambodia. Pol Pot died on 15 April 1998, while under house arrest by the Ta Mok faction of the Khmer Rouge. Since his death, rumours that he committed suicide or was poisoned have persisted.
Saloth Sar was born on 19 May 1925, the eighth of nine children and the second of three sons to Pen Saloth and Sok Nem. His older brother Saloth Chhay was born three years earlier. The family lived in the small fishing village of Prek Sbauv, Kampong Thom Province when French colonialists controlled the area. Pen Saloth was a rice farmer who owned 12 hectares of land and several buffaloes; the family was considered moderately wealthy by the standards of the day. Although Pen Saloth's family was of Sino-Khmer descent and Saloth Sar was named accordingly due to his fair complexion ("Sar" means white in Khmer), the family had already assimilated themselves with mainstream Khmer society by the time Sar was born. Saloth Sar was educated in a Buddhist monastery. He would later give his Marxism a "tincture of Buddhism."
In 1935, Saloth Sar left Prek Sbauv to attend the École Miche, a Catholic school in Phnom Penh. He lived with his cousin, a woman called Meak, a member of the Royal Ballet. In 1926, she bore King Monivong's son, HRH Prince Sisowath Kusarak. She was given the official title Khun Preah Moneang Bopha Norleak Meak. Saloth Sar stayed with Meak's household until 1942. His sister Roeung was a concubine of King Monivong, so through the two women, he often had cause to visit the royal palace. In 1947, he gained admission to the exclusive Lycée Sisowath, but was unsuccessful in his studies.
After switching to a technical school at Russey Keo, north of Phnom Penh, Saloth Sar qualified for a scholarship for technical studies in France. He studied radio electronics at the EFR in Paris from 1949 to 1953. He also participated in an international labour brigade building roads in Zagreb in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1950. After the Soviet Union recognized the Viet Minh as the government of Vietnam in 1950, French Communists (PCF) took up the cause of Vietnam's independence. The PCF's anti-colonialism views attracted many young Cambodians, including Sar.
In 1951, he joined a communist cell in a secret organization known as the Cercle Marxiste ("Marxist circle"), which had taken control of the Khmer Student's Association (AER) that same year. Within a few months, Sar joined the PCF.
Due to failing his exams in three successive years, Sar was forced to return to Cambodia in January 1953. He was the first member of the Cercle Marxiste to return to Cambodia. He was given the task of evaluating the various groups rebelling against the government. He recommended the Khmer Viet Minh, and in August 1954, Sar, along with Rath Samoeun, travelled to the Viet Minh Eastern Zone headquarters in the village of Krabao in the Kampong Cham Province/Prey Veng Province near the border of Cambodia.
Saloth learned that the Khmer People's Revolutionary Party (KPRP) was little more than a Vietnamese front organization. Due to the 1954 Geneva peace accord requiring all Viet Minh forces and insurgents to be expelled, a group of Cambodians followed the Vietnamese back to Vietnam where they were later used as cadres to liberate Cambodia. The rest, including Sar, returned to Cambodia.
After Cambodian independence following the 1954 Geneva Conference, both left and right wing parties struggled for power in the new government. Khmer King Norodom Sihanouk pitted the parties against each other while using the police and army to suppress extreme political groups. Corrupt elections in 1955 led many leftists in Cambodia to abandon hope of taking power by legal means. The socialist movement, while ideologically committed to guerrilla warfare in such circumstances, did not launch a rebellion due to the party's weakness.
After his return to Phnom Penh, Sar became the liaison between the above-ground leftist parties (Democrats and Pracheachon) and the underground socialist movement. He married Khieu Ponnary on 14 July 1956. She returned to Lycée Sisowath, becoming a teacher, while Sar taught French literature and history at Chamraon Vichea, a newly established private college.
In January 1962, the Cambodian government arrested most of the leadership of the far-left Pracheachon party before parliamentary elections, which were to take place that June. Their newspapers and other publications were closed. Such measures had effectively ended any legitimate political role of the socialist movement in Cambodia. In July 1962, the underground communist party secretary Tou Samouth was arrested and later killed while in custody, allowing Sar to become the acting leader. At a 1963 party meeting, attended by at most 18 people, Sar was elected secretary of the party's central committee. That March, Saloth went into hiding after his name was published in a list of leftist suspects put together by the police for Norodom Sihanouk. He fled to the Vietnamese border region and made contact with Vietnamese units fighting against South Vietnam.
In early 1964, Sar convinced the Vietnamese to help the Cambodian socialists set up their own base camp. The party's central committee met later that year and issued a declaration calling for armed struggle, emphasizing "self-reliance" in accordance with extreme Cambodians. In the border camps, the ideology of the Khmer Rouge was gradually developed. The party, breaking with Marxism, declared that rural peasant farmers were the true working class proletarian and lifeblood of the revolution, the central committee members having grown up in a feudal peasant society.
After another wave of repression by Sihanouk in 1965, the Khmer Rouge movement under Saloth grew at a rapid rate. Many teachers and students left the cities for the countryside to join the movement.
In April 1965, Sar went to North Vietnam to gain approval for an uprising in Cambodia against the government. North Vietnam refused to support any uprising due to ongoing negotiation with the Cambodian government. Sihanouk promised to allow the Vietnamese to use Cambodian territory and Cambodian ports in their war against South Vietnam.
After returning to Cambodia in 1966, Sar organized a party meeting where a number of important decisions were made. The party was officially, but secretly, renamed the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK). Lower ranks of the party were not informed of the decision. It was also decided to establish command zones and prepare each region for an uprising against the government.
In early 1966, fighting broke out in the countryside between peasants and the government over the price paid for rice. Sar's Khmer Rouge was caught by surprise by the uprisings and could not take any real advantage of them. But the government's refusal to find a peaceful solution to the problem created rural unrest that played into the hands of the socialist movement.
It was not until early 1967 that Sar decided to launch a national uprising, even though North Vietnam refused to assist in any meaningful way. The uprising was launched on 18 January 1968, with a raid on an army base south of Battambang. The Battambang area had already seen two years of great peasant unrest. The attack was driven off by the army, but the Khmer Rouge had captured a number of weapons, which were then used to drive police forces out of Cambodian villages.
By the summer of 1968, Sar began transitioning from a party leader working with a collective leadership, into the absolutist leader of the Khmer Rouge movement. Where before he had shared communal quarters with other leaders, he now had his own compound with a personal staff and guards. Outsiders were no longer allowed to approach him. Rather, people were summoned into his presence by his staff.
The movement was estimated to consist of no more than 200 regular members, but the core of the movement was supported by a number of villages many times that size. While weapons were in short supply, the insurgency still operated in twelve out of nineteen districts of Cambodia. In 1969, Sar called a party conference and decided to change the party's propaganda strategy. Before 1969, opposition to Sihanouk was the main focus of its propaganda. However, in 1969, the party decided to shift the focus of its propaganda in order to oppose the right-wing parties of Cambodia and their alleged pro-American attitudes. While the party ceased making anti-Sihanouk statements in public, in private the party had not changed its view of him.
The road to power for Sar and the Khmer Rouge was opened by the events of January 1970, in Cambodia. While he was out of the country, Sihanouk ordered the government to stage anti-Vietnamese protests in the capital. The protests quickly spilled out of control and the embassies of both North and South Vietnam were wrecked. Sihanouk, who had ordered the protests, then denounced them from Paris and blamed unnamed individuals in Cambodia for inciting them. These actions, along with clandestine operations by Sihanouk's followers in Cambodia, convinced the government that he should be removed as head of state. The National Assembly voted to remove Sihanouk from office and closed Cambodia's ports to North Vietnamese weapons traffic, demanding that the North Vietnamese leave Cambodia.
The North Vietnamese reacted to the political changes in Cambodia by sending Premier Phạm Văn Đồng to meet Sihanouk in China and recruit him into an alliance with the Khmer Rouge. Sar was also contacted by the North Vietnamese, who reversed their position, offering him whatever resources he wanted for his insurgency against the Cambodian government. Sar and Sihanouk were actually in Beijing at the same time, but the Vietnamese and Chinese leaders never informed Sihanouk of the presence of Sar or allowed the two men to meet. Shortly afterward, Sihanouk issued an appeal by radio to the people of Cambodia asking them to rise up against the government and to support the Khmer Rouge. In May 1970, Sar finally returned to Cambodia and the insurgency gained traction.
Earlier, on 29 March 1970, the North Vietnamese had taken matters into their own hands and launched an offensive against the Cambodian army. A force of North Vietnamese quickly overran large parts of eastern Cambodia reaching to within 25 km (15 mi) of Phnom Penh before being pushed back. In these battles, the Khmer Rouge and Sar played a very small role.
In October 1970, Sar issued a resolution in the name of the Central Committee. The resolution stated the principle of independence-mastery (aekdreach machaskar), which was a call for Cambodia to decide its own future independent of the influence of any other country. The resolution also included statements describing the betrayal of the Cambodian Socialist movement in the 1950s by the Viet Minh. This was the first statement of the anti-Vietnamese policy that would be a major part of the Pol Pot regime when it took power years later.
Kaing Guek Eav has claimed that US support for the Lon Nol coup contributed to the Khmer Rouge's rise to power. However, diplomat Timothy M. Carney disagreed, asserting that Pol Pot won the war due to support from Sihanouk, massive supplies of military aid from North Vietnam, government corruption, the cut-off of U.S. air support after Watergate, and the determination of the Cambodian Socialists.
Throughout 1971, the Vietnamese (North Vietnamese and Viet Cong) did most of the fighting against the Cambodian government while Sar and the Khmer Rouge functioned almost as auxiliaries to their forces. Sar took advantage of the situation in order to gather in new recruits and to train them according to a higher standard than was previously possible. Sar also put the resources of all Khmer Rouge organizations into political education and indoctrination. While accepting anyone regardless of background into the Khmer Rouge army at this time, Sar greatly increased the requirements for membership in the party. Students and so-called "middle peasants" were now rejected by the party. Those with clear peasant backgrounds were the preferred recruits for party membership. These restrictions were ironic in that most of the senior party leadership including Sar came from student and middle peasant backgrounds. They also created an intellectual split between the educated old guard party members and the uneducated peasant new party members.
In early 1972, Sar toured the insurgent/North Vietnamese controlled areas in Cambodia. He saw a regular Khmer Rouge army of 35,000 men taking shape supported by around 100,000 irregulars. China was supplying five million dollars a year in weapons and Sar had organized an independent revenue source for the party in the form of rubber plantations in eastern Cambodia using forced labor.
After a central committee meeting in May 1972, the party under the direction of Sar began to enforce new levels of discipline and conformity in areas under their control. Minorities such as the Chams were forced to conform to Cambodian styles of dress and appearance. These policies, such as forbidding the Chams from wearing jewelry, were soon extended to the whole population. A haphazard version of land reform was undertaken by Sar. Its basis was that all land holdings should be of uniform size. The party also confiscated all private means of transportation. The 1972 policies were aimed at reducing the peoples of the liberated areas to a sort of feudal peasant equality. These policies were generally favorable at the time to poor peasants and were extremely unfavorable to refugees from towns, who had fled to the countryside.
In 1972, the North Vietnamese army's forces began to withdraw from the fighting against the Cambodian government. Sar issued a new set of decrees in May 1973 that started the process of reorganizing peasant villages into cooperatives where property was jointly owned and where individual possessions were banned.
Control of the countryside
The Khmer Rouge advanced during 1973. After they reached the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Sar issued orders during the peak of the rainy season that the city be taken. The orders led to futile attacks and wasted lives within the Khmer Rouge army. By the middle of 1973, the Khmer Rouge under Sar controlled almost two-thirds of the country and half the population. North Vietnam realized that it no longer controlled the situation and it began to treat Sar as more of an equal leader than as a junior partner.
In late 1973, Sar made strategic decisions that determined the future of the war. First, he decided to cut the capital off from contact with outside sources of supplies, putting the city under siege. Second, he enforced tight control over people trying to leave the city through Khmer Rouge lines. He also ordered a series of general purges of former government officials, and anyone with an education. A set of new prisons was also constructed in Khmer Rouge run areas. The Cham minority attempted an uprising in order to stop the destruction of their culture. The uprising was quickly crushed: Sar ordered that harsh physical torture be used against most of those involved in the revolt. As previously, Sar tested out harsh new policies against the Cham minority, before extending them to the general population of the country.
The Khmer Rouge also had a policy of evacuating urban areas and forcibly relocating their residents to the countryside. When the Khmer Rouge took the town of Kratie in 1971, Sar and other members of the party were shocked at how fast the "liberated" urban areas shook off socialism and went back to the old ways. Various ideas were tried in order to re-create the town in the image of the party, but nothing worked. In 1973, out of total frustration, Sar decided that the only solution was to send the entire population of the town to the fields in the countryside. He wrote at the time "if the result of so many sacrifices was that the capitalists remain in control, what was the point of the revolution?". Shortly after, Sar ordered the evacuation of the 15,000 people of Kompong Cham for the same reasons. The Khmer Rouge then moved on in 1974 to evacuate the larger city of Oudong.
Internationally, Sar and the Khmer Rouge gained the recognition of 63 countries as the true government of Cambodia. A move was made at the UN to give the seat for Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge; they prevailed by three votes.
In September 1974, Sar gathered the central committee of the party together. As the military campaign was moving toward a conclusion, Sar decided to move the party toward implementing a socialist transformation of the country in the form of a series of decisions, the first being to evacuate the main cities, moving the population to the countryside. The second dictated that they would cease putting money into circulation and quickly phase it out. The final decision was that the party would accept Sar's first major purge. In 1974, Sar had purged a top party official named Prasith. Prasith was taken out into a forest and shot without being given any chance to defend himself. His death was followed by a purge of cadres who, like Prasith, were ethnically Thai. Sar's explanation was that the class struggle had become acute, requiring a strong stand against party enemies.
The Khmer Rouge were positioned for a final offensive against the government in January 1975. Simultaneously, at a press event in Beijing, Sihanouk proudly announced Sar's "death list" of enemies who were to be killed after victory. The list, which originally contained seven names, was expanded to 23, and it included the names of all senior government leaders along with the names of all officials who were in positions of leadership within the police and military. The rivalry between Vietnam and Cambodia also came out into the open. North Vietnam, as the rival socialist country in Indochina, was determined to take Saigon before the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh.
In April 1975, the government formed a Supreme National Council with new leadership, with the aim of negotiating a surrender to the Khmer Rouge. It was headed by Sak Sutsakhan who had studied in France with Sar, and was a cousin of the Khmer Rouge Deputy Secretary Nuon Chea. Sar reacted to this by adding the names of everyone involved in the Supreme National Council onto his post-victory death list. Government resistance finally collapsed on 17 April 1975.
Leader of Kampuchea
The Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975. As the leader of the Communist Party, Saloth Sar became the de-facto leader of the country. He adopted the title "brother number one" and used the nom de guerre "Pol Pot". Philip Short offered an explanation for the origin of Pol Pot's name, stating that Saloth Sar announced that he was adopting the name in July 1970. Short suspects that it derives from pol: "the Pols were royal slaves, an aboriginal people", and that "Pot" was simply a "euphonic monosyllable" that he liked. This Khmer word pol, however, is derived from Sanskrit bala ‘army, guard’ and the Khmer spelling differs from the spelling of Pol Pot's name. The name has no particular meaning in Khmer.
Cambodia adopted a new constitution on 5 January 1976, officially changing the country's name to "Democratic Kampuchea". The newly established Representative Assembly held its first plenary session from 11 to 13 April, electing a new government with Pol Pot as prime minister. His predecessor, Khieu Samphan, became head of state as President of the State Presidium. Prince Sihanouk received no role in the government and was placed in detention. The Khmer Rouge rėgime saw agriculture as the key to nation-building and national defense. Pol Pot's goal for the country was to have 70-80% of the farm mechanization completed within 5 to 10 years, to build a modern industrial base on the farm mechanization within 15 to 20 years, and to become a self-sufficient state. He wanted to take the economy and make it the primary source of goods for the nation, sever foreign relationships, and radically reconstruct the society to maximize the production of agriculture. To avoid foreign domination of industries, Pol Pot refused to purchase goods from other countries.
Immediately after the fall of Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge began to implement their concept of Year Zero and ordered the complete evacuation of Phnom Penh and all other recently captured major towns and cities. Those leaving were told that the evacuation was due to the threat of severe American bombing and that it would last for no more than a few days. Western media depicted the events as a "death march", with American sources predicting that the Khmer Rouge policy of forced evacuation would result in famine and the mass death of hundreds of thousands.
Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge had been evacuating captured urban areas for many years, but the evacuation of Phnom Penh was unique in its scale. Pol Pot stated that "...the first step in progress [was] deliberately designed to exterminate an entire class". The first operations to evacuate urban areas occurred in 1968, in the Ratanakiri area and aimed at moving people deeper into Khmer Rouge territory to control them more easily. From 1971–1973, the motivation changed. Pol Pot and the other senior leaders were frustrated that urban Cambodians retained old capitalist habits of trade and business. When all other methods had failed, the government adopted the policy of evacuation to the countryside in order to solve the "problem".
In 1976, Pol Pot's régime reclassified Kampucheans into three groupings: as full-rights (base) people, as candidates and as depositees, so-called because they included most of the new people who had been deposited from the cities into the communes. Depositees were marked for destruction. Their rations were reduced to two bowls of rice soup or p'baw per day, leading to widespread starvation. "New people" were allegedly given no place in the elections which took place on 20 March 1976, despite the fact that the constitution established universal suffrage for all Cambodians over the age of 18.
The Khmer Rouge leadership boasted over the state-controlled radio that only one or two million people were needed to build the new agrarian socialist utopia. As for the others, as their proverb put it, "To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss."
Hundreds of thousands of the new people, and later the depositees, were taken out in shackles to dig their own mass graves. Then the Khmer Rouge soldiers buried them alive. A Khmer Rouge extermination prison directive ordered "Bullets are not to be wasted." Such mass graves are often referred to as "the Killing Fields".
The Khmer Rouge also classified people based on their religious and ethnic backgrounds. Under the leadership of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge had a policy of state atheism. All religions were banned, and the repression of adherents of Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism was extensive. Nearly 25,000 Buddhist monks were massacred by the regime. The regime dispersed minority groups, forbidding them to either speak their languages or practice their customs. They especially targeted Muslims, Christians, Western-educated intellectuals, educated people in general, people who had contact with Western countries or with Vietnam, disabled people, and the ethnic Chinese, Laotians, and Vietnamese. Some were put in the S-21 camp for interrogation involving torture in cases where a confession was useful to the government. Many others were summarily executed.
According to François Ponchaud's book Cambodia: Year Zero: "Ever since 1972, the guerrilla fighters had been sending all the inhabitants of the villages and towns they occupied into the forest to live and often burning their homes, so that they would have nothing to come back to." The Khmer Rouge systematically destroyed food sources that could not be easily subjected to centralized storage and control, cut down fruit trees, forbade fishing, outlawed the planting or harvesting of mountain leap rice, abolished medicine and hospitals, forced people to march long distances without access to water, exported food, and refused offers of humanitarian aid. As a result, a humanitarian catastrophe unfolded: hundreds of thousands died of starvation and brutal government-inflicted overwork in the countryside. To the Khmer Rouge, outside aid went against their principle of national self-reliance. According to Solomon Bashi, the Khmer Rouge exported 150,000 tons of rice in 1976 alone. In addition:
Coop chiefs often reported better yields to their supervisors than they had actually achieved. The coop was then taxed on the rice it reportedly produced. Rice was taken out of the people's mouths and given to the Center to make up for these inflated numbers....'There were piles of rice as big as a house, but they took it away in trucks. We raised chickens and ducks and vegetables and fruit, but they took them all. You'd be killed if you tried to take anything for yourself.'
According to Henri Locard, "the reputation of KR leaders for Spartan austerity is somewhat overdone. After all, they had the entire property of all expelled town dwellers at their full disposal, and they never suffered from malnutrition."
Property was collectivized, and education was dispensed at communal schools. Children were raised on a communal basis. Even meals were prepared and eaten communally. Pol Pot's regime was extremely paranoid. Political dissent and opposition was not permitted. People were treated as opponents based on their appearance or background. Torture was widespread, thousands of politicians and bureaucrats accused of association with previous governments were executed. The régime turned Phnom Penh into a ghost city, while people in the countryside died of starvation or illnesses, or were simply killed.
Modern research has located 20,000 mass graves from the Khmer Rouge era all over Cambodia. Various studies have estimated the death toll at between 740,000 and 3,000,000 - most commonly arriving at figures between 1.7 million and 2.2 million, with perhaps half of those deaths being due to executions, and the rest being attributable to starvation and disease. Demographic analysis by Patrick Heuveline suggests that between 1.17 and 3.42 million Cambodians were killed. Demographer Marek Sliwinski concluded that at least 1.8 million were killed from 1975 to 1979 on the basis of the total population decline. Researcher Craig Etcheson of the Documentation Center of Cambodia suggests a death toll of between 2 and 2.5 million, with a "most likely" figure of 2.2 million. After five years of researching some 20,000 grave sites, he concludes that "these mass graves contain the remains of 1,386,734 victims of execution". A U.N. investigation reported 2–3 million dead, while UNICEF estimated that 3 million had been killed. The Khmer Rouge themselves stated that 2 million had been killed—though they attributed those deaths to a subsequent Vietnamese invasion. By late 1979, U.N. and Red Cross officials were warning that another 2.25 million Cambodians could die of starvation due to "the near destruction of Cambodian society under the regime of ousted Prime Minister Pol Pot", most of whom were saved by international aid after the Vietnamese invasion. An additional 300,000 Cambodians starved to death between 1979 and 1980, largely as a result of the after-effects of Khmer Rouge policies.
Pol Pot aligned the country diplomatically with the People's Republic of China and adopted an anti-Soviet line. This alignment was more political and practical than it was ideological. Vietnam was aligned with the Soviet Union, so Cambodia aligned itself with the Asian rival of the Soviet Union and Vietnam (China had supplied the Khmer Rouge with weapons for years before they took power).
In December 1976 Pol Pot issued directives to the senior Khmer Rouge leadership to the effect that Vietnam was now an enemy. Defenses along the border were strengthened and unreliable deportees were moved deeper into Cambodia. Pol Pot's actions came in response to the Vietnamese Communist Party's fourth Congress (14 to 20 December 1976), which approved a resolution describing Vietnam's special relationship with Laos and Cambodia. It also talked of how Vietnam would forever be associated with the building and defense of the other two countries.
Unlike many communist leaders, Pol Pot never became the object of a personality cult. Even in power, the CPK maintained the secrecy it had kept up during its years in the battlefield. For over two years after taking power, the party only referred to itself as "Angkar" ("the Organization"). It was not until a speech on 15 April 1977 that Pol Pot revealed the CPK's existence. At that time international observers confirmed the identification of "Pol Pot" as Saloth Sar.
Conflict with Vietnam
In May 1975, a squad of Khmer Rouge soldiers raided and took the island of Phú Quốc. By 1977, relations with Vietnam began to fall apart. There were small border clashes in January. Pol Pot tried to prevent border disputes by sending a team to Vietnam. The negotiations failed, which caused even more border disputes. On 30 April, the Cambodian army, backed by artillery, crossed over into Vietnam. In attempting to explain Pol Pot's behavior, one region-watcher suggested that Cambodia was attempting to intimidate Vietnam, by irrational acts, into respecting or at least fearing Cambodia to the point they would leave the country alone. However, these actions only served to goad the Vietnamese people and government against the Khmer Rouge.
In May 1976, Vietnam sent its air force into Cambodia in a series of raids. In July, Vietnam forced a Treaty of Friendship on Laos that gave Vietnam almost total control over the country. In Cambodia, Khmer Rouge commanders in the Eastern Zone began to tell their men that war with Vietnam was inevitable and that once the war started their goal would be to recover parts of Vietnam (Khmer Krom) that were once part of Cambodia, whose people, they alleged, were struggling for independence from Vietnam. Whether these statements were the official policy of Pol Pot has never been confirmed.
In September 1977, Cambodia launched division-scale raids over the border, which once again left a trail of murder and destruction in villages. The Vietnamese claimed that around 1,000 people had been killed or injured. Three days after the raid, Pol Pot officially announced the existence of the formerly secret Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) and finally announced to the world that the country was a Communist state. In December, after having exhausted all other options, Vietnam sent 50,000 troops into Cambodia in what amounted to a short raid. The raid was meant to be secret. The Vietnamese withdrew after declaring that they had achieved their goals, and the invasion was just a warning. Upon being threatened, the Vietnamese army promised to return with support from the Soviet Union. Pol Pot's actions made the operation much more visible than the Vietnamese had intended and they created a situation in which Vietnam appeared to be weak.
After making one final attempt to negotiate a settlement with Cambodia, Vietnam decided that it had to prepare for a full-scale war. Vietnam also tried to pressure Cambodia through China. However, China's refusal to pressure Cambodia and the flow of weapons from China into Cambodia were both signs that China also intended to act against Vietnam.
When Cambodian socialists rebelled in the eastern zone in May 1978, Pol Pot's armies could not crush them quickly. On 10 May, his radio broadcast a call not only to "exterminate the 50 million Vietnamese" but also to "purify the masses of the people" of Cambodia. Of 1.5 million easterners, branded as "Khmer bodies with Vietnamese minds", at least 100,000 were exterminated in six months. Later that year, in response to threats to its borders and the Vietnamese people, Vietnam attacked Cambodia to overthrow the Khmer Rouge, which Vietnam justified on the basis of self-defense.
The Cambodian army was defeated, the regime was toppled and Pol Pot fled to the Thai border area. In January 1979, Vietnam installed a new government under Khmer Rouge defector Heng Samrin, composed of Khmer Rouge who had fled to Vietnam to avoid the purges. Pol Pot eventually regrouped with his core supporters in the Thai border area where he received shelter and assistance. At different times during this period, he was located on both sides of the border. The military government of Thailand used the Khmer Rouge as a buffer force to keep the Vietnamese away from the border. The Thai military also made money from the shipments of weapons from China to the Khmer Rouge. Eventually, Pol Pot rebuilt a small military force in the west of the country with the help of the People's Republic of China. The PRC also initiated the Sino-Vietnamese War around this time.
The People's Republic of China was the main international supporter of the Khmer Rouge and its leader Pol Pot. The Chinese provided financial and military support to the party even after its overthrow in 1979. The UN also recognized the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea, which included the Khmer Rouge, instead of the People's Republic of Kampuchea.
Pol Pot lived in the Phnom Malai area, giving interviews in the early 1980s and accusing all of those who opposed him of being traitors and "puppets" of the Vietnamese until he disappeared from public view. In 1985, his "retirement" was announced, but he retained his influence over the party. A cadre interviewed during this period described Pol Pot's views on the death toll under his government:
He said that he knows that many people in the country hate him and think he's responsible for the killings. He said that he knows many people died. When he said this he nearly broke down and cried. He said he must accept responsibility because the line was too far to the left, and because he didn't keep proper track of what was going on. He said he was like the master in a house he didn't know what the kids were up to, and that he trusted people too much. For example, he allowed [one person] to take care of central committee business for him, [another person] to take care of intellectuals, and [a third person] to take care of political education.... These were the people to whom he felt very close, and he trusted them completely. Then in the end ... they made a mess of everything.... They would tell him things that were not true, that everything was fine, that this person or that was a traitor. In the end they were the real traitors. The major problem had been cadres formed by the Vietnamese.
In December 1985, the Vietnamese launched a major offensive and overran most of the Khmer Rouge and other insurgent positions. The Khmer Rouge headquarters at Phnom Malai and its base near Pailin were completely destroyed; the Vietnamese attackers suffered substantial losses during the attack.
Pol Pot fled to Thailand where he lived for the next six years. His headquarters was a plantation villa near Trat.
Pol Pot officially resigned from the party in 1985 citing asthma as a contributing factor, but he continued to be the de facto leader of the Khmer Rouge and he also remained a dominant force within the anti-Vietnamese alliance. He handed day-to-day power to Son Sen, his hand-picked successor.
In 1986, his new wife Mea Son gave birth to a daughter, Sitha, (now Sar Patchata, wed in 2014), named after the heroine of the Khmer religious epic, the Reamker. Shortly afterwards, Pol Pot moved to China for medical treatment for cancer. He remained there until 1988.
In 1989, Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge established a new stronghold in the west near the Thai border and Pol Pot relocated back into Cambodia from Thailand. Pol Pot refused to cooperate with the peace process, and he continued to fight against the new coalition government. The Khmer Rouge kept the government forces at bay until 1996, when troops started deserting. Several important Khmer Rouge leaders also defected. The government followed a policy of making peace with Khmer Rouge individuals and groups, after negotiations with the organization as a whole failed. In 1995, Pol Pot experienced a stroke that paralyzed the left side of his body.
Pol Pot ordered the execution of his lifelong right-hand man Son Sen on 10 June 1997 for attempting to make a settlement with the government. Eleven members of his family were also killed, although Pol Pot later denied that he had ordered this. He then fled his northern stronghold, but was later arrested by Khmer Rouge military Chief Ta Mok on 19 June 1997. Pol Pot had not been seen in public since 1980, two years after his overthrow at the hands of an invading Vietnamese army. He was sentenced to death in absentia by a Phnom Penh court soon afterwards. In July, he was subjected to a show trial for the death of Son Sen and sentenced to lifelong house arrest.
On the night of 15 April 1998, two days before the 23rd anniversary of the Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh, the Voice of America, of which Pol Pot was a devoted listener, announced that the Khmer Rouge had agreed to turn him over to an international tribunal. According to his wife, he died in his bed later that night while waiting to be moved to another location. Ta Mok claimed that his death was due to heart failure.
Ta Mok later described the way he died: "He was sitting in his chair waiting for the car to come. But he felt tired. His wife asked him to take a rest. He laid down on his bed. His wife heard a gasp of air. It was the sound of dying. When she touched him he had already died. It was at 10:15 last night."
Despite government requests to inspect the body, it was cremated at Anlong Veng in the Khmer Rouge zone a few days later, raising suspicions that he had committed suicide by taking an overdose of the medication which he had been prescribed. Journalist Nate 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 America.
He concluded that "Pol Pot died of a lethal dose of a combination of Valium and chloroquine." Ta Mok's assertion that "no one poisoned him" encouraged speculation that this was exactly what had happened. Thus some sources state that he was murdered by his own colleagues.
- Long live the 17th anniversary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (speech), New York: Group of Kampuchean Residents in America, 1977
- Speech made by comrade Pol Pot, Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kampuchea "At the banquet given in honour of the delegation of the Communist party of China and the government of the People's Republic of China. Phnom Penh, November 5, 1978." [Phnom Penh]: Dept. of Press and Information, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Democratic Kampuchea, 1978
- Interview to the representatives of the Hong Kong's newspapers Wen wei po and Ta kun pao, Phnom Penh, September 21, 1978 [Phnom Penh]: Dept. of Press and Information, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Democratic Kampuchea, 1978
- Interview of Comrade Pol Pot, Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, Prime Minister of the Government of Democratic Kampuchea to the delegation of Yugoslav journalists in visit to Democratic Kampuchea, March 17, 1978 [Phnom Penh]: Dept. of Press and Information, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Democratic Kampuchea, 1978
- Talks with the delegation of the Sweden-Kampuchea Friendship Association [August 1978] [Phnom Penh]: Dept. of Press and Information, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Democratic Kampuchea, 1978
- Let us continue to firmly hold aloft the banner of the victory of the glorious Communist Party of Kampuchea in order to defend Democratic Kampuchea, carry on socialist revolution and build up socialism: speech made by Comrade Pol Pot on the occasion of the 18th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, Phnom Penh, September 27, 1978 [Phnom Penh]: Dept. of Press and Information, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Democratic Kampuchea, 1978
- Talks with the delegation of the Association Belgium-Kampuchea, Phnom Penh, August 5, 1978 [Phnom Penh]: Dept. of Press and Information, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Democratic Kampuchea, 1978