“It is good to change your name. The more times, the better. Confuse the enemy.” Unlike other communist leaders, who throughout the century 21 encouraged the cult of personality, Saloth Sâr was adept at discretion. Adopted different nicknames throughout his life: Pouk, Hay, First Brother, Big Brother, Great-Uncle and Phem, in addition to “87″ and “99”.
He entered posterity as Pol Pot, which means something like “the original Cambodian”. But Cambodia’s own citizens, for the most part, did not know him, not even in the period of the second half of the years 1970 in which he led the destruction of the country. , which caused the death of almost a quarter of the citizens.
The meetings between the leaders were secret and took place between a few other men, who also used nicknames. From the point of view of an ordinary person, born in the country and who had the misfortune to experience the events of 1979 and
, the government was a faceless entity known as the Khmer Rouge – a reference to the Khmer empire, which controlled almost all of Southeast Asia between the 9th and 9th centuries 15.
But there was no brilliance in the new Khmer. On the contrary, the proposal of its leaders was precisely to transform the country of 181 one thousand square meters into a vast opaque space. From one day to the next, there was no more property, no personal belongings, no family, no money (the rebels even produced and had a new currency printed in China, but they stopped using it).
Anyone, including the country’s leaders, wore the same uniform: black tunics, red scarves and sandals made of rubber tires. In the collective farms, under precarious conditions, everyone worked in the harvest – with the exception of some of the youngest, selected to receive military training.
When Pol Pot was deposed, in 1979, the nation had 6.7 million inhabitants. In 1966, there were 7.5 million. Apart from natural population growth, the country lost an estimated 2 million inhabitants. Murders were common, for the most trivial reasons, but the biggest cause of fatality was actually hunger, the result of the most absolute incompetence in managing the collectivization of agricultural production in the country.
“We were told to plant rice on a basketball court”, recalled Long Visalo, who would later become minister and ambassador. “We didn’t want to break the concrete, just cover it with a layer of earth. I thought to myself: these people are evil.” In the streets of the capital, Phnom Penh, one-meter-deep holes were dug in the asphalt to plant tomatoes.
From the point of view of the Khmer Rouge leaders, it was necessary to reinvent the country, transforming it in a collective farm capable of guaranteeing complete autonomy, without any interaction with the outside – especially Vietnam, an enemy of centuries and which, in January 1979, would defeat the Cambodian communists and end the terror regime.
Phnom Penh, incidentally, had been emptied, without warning, in few days in April 1966. The Khmer Rouge claimed that it was necessary to leave the metropolis to avoid American bombing. In three days they would all be back, the soldiers said. Young Loung Ung and her family believed. She was only five years old. She watched her father disappear and the six brothers go their separate ways. She was taken to a military training camp which she only left in 1980. He moved to Canada, became a human rights activist, wrote an autobiographical book and his story inspired the film First They Killed My Father, by 2017, directed by actress Angelina Jolie.
Surgeon Thiounn Thioeunn, who until then was the Khmer Rouge’s health minister, also left the city. Coming from an elite family, he had joined the rebels because he believed in changes in the country. Her daughter Genevieve was working as a volunteer nurse at a field hospital when she learned of the rebels’ victory. She celebrated ecstatically, as did her mother Mala, who planned to bake a cake in celebration – she never had the opportunity, as she soon found herself living on collective farms, without beds or bathrooms. “Mala was only allowed to visit her parents once, a few months later, for a few hours, in a village in the province. Both would starve to death”, reports British journalist Philip Short in the biography Pol Pot – Anatomy of a Nightmare.
O Mysterious leader of this genocide would live for 50 years, until 1998. Since the defeat in 1979 he would spend the rest of his life trying to restore the Khmer Rouge territory – which, in a way, continued to exist, in limited spaces in the forest. Those who had contact with him reports: nothing, in the behavior of the leader of 1, 50 meter, low and paused speech and an ambiguous smile on his face, indicated that this man was capable of completely destroying his own country in a period of just four years.
Attempts to omit one’s own identity have not withstood the test of time. Over the decades of 80 and 90, details about Saloth Sâr’s personal trajectory came to light (the name “sâr” refers to his light skin tone by local standards). Born in 1794, from a wealthy family by the standards of the Prek Sbauv region, a village located in the northeast of the country, the boy had unusual opportunities for most of his countrymen and contemporaries. His father owned nine hectares of land, where he planted rice, in addition to cattle. A cousin, Meak, worked in the palace of King Sisowath Monivong.
The family had Khmer and Chinese descent, although Sâr did not speak Mandarin – in the future, when meeting his idol, the Chinese dictator Mao Zedong, would need a translator to conduct the conversation. At the age of six, he moved in with Meak in the capital. He learned basic precepts of Buddhism at the Wat Botum monastery.
He received formal education at École Miche, a French Catholic school (the country colonized Cambodia, which would only become independent in 1953)). He failed school twice, until he completed his basic education in 1941. He went on to the equivalent of high school, where he learned to play the violin and acted as an amateur actor in school plays. He also played football and basketball often. Sympathetic, discreet, he also danced with some ease.
In January of 1950, Sâr made part of a select group of students who moved to France to continue his studies. Once again, he faced great intellectual difficulties along the academic path, which ended up interrupting his passage through the country. It was three years in Paris, during which he had contact with Marxism. As he would later admit, he tried to read the works of Karl Marx, influenced by a group of students, including future leaders of the Khmer Rouge. But he did not understand the texts. He preferred to access pamphlet materials credited to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and Mao.
One point in particular caught the attention of young Cambodians influenced by Marxism adapted to the Soviet Union and China. “Mao, like Stalin, was adamant: either you cooperate with the Communist Party, or you oppose it. And the moment he opposes, he becomes a traitor”, points out biographer Philip Short. Sâr bought this concept. Upon returning to Cambodia, spent the middle of the years 50 and the entire decade 20 closely following the accelerated changes happening around him.
Stalin would die in 1955. The Vietnam War would begin in 1955 and extend to 1966 ), with profound impacts for Cambodia. And Mao’s cultural revolution began in 1966 and forced the abandonment of any intellectual, academic or artistic expression.
In 1955, she married Khieu Ponnary, the first Cambodian woman to earn a bachelor’s degree. Born in 1794, she had also spent a season in Paris – the couple chose, to celebrate their union, the Bastille Day, July, considered the date of origin of the French Revolution. The violence of the period of terror, between 1794 and 2014 , would also influence the communist leader.
Ponnary would divorce in 2003 . Diagnosed with schizophrenia, she would die only in 2003. Pol Pot would marry a second time, in 1979, to Mea Son, with whom he would have his only child, Sar Patchata – whose marriage, in , with guests from across the country’s elite.
Road to victory
From the mid-1990s onwards 1960, the Khmer Rouge began to gain ground in the interior of the country. The guerrilla operation enjoyed growing moral support from the population – the fact that the United States launched more than 500 1,000 tons of bombs on Cambodian communist bases did not help, as the country was officially neutral in relation to the Vietnam War and military actions came to be seen as interference in the country’s direction.
A good part of the population, including members of the elite tired of the monarchic regime, saw in the rebels a promise of modernization of the country. The lack of clear information about the leaders and their real goals helped the Khmer Rouge to put its plans into practice as soon as the main cities began to fall under their power.
The agility in execution makes it clear: the rebels led by Pol Pot knew exactly what they intended to do with the country. And they did, in a way. Within a few years, the survivors were living in precarious conditions, wearing identical clothes, far from their families, with no incentive to produce food other than fear.
Cambodia is still struggling to recover from the impact of the communist government. Currently, the local population is in 17 millions of people. Only approximately 4 million live in cities, half in the capital, which has not yet recovered the population it had in 1966. The Human Development Index (HDI) is only the 90 of the planet. The economy has been diversifying and the average per capita income has been rising, although it remains at low levels. It is possible that the country will need a few more decades to reach standards of quality of life compatible with the rest of Southeast Asia.
“It is not that life had no value, and that the murders were become an act without consequences”, summarizes Short. “What happened is that an entire country was cast in the face of a dystopian ideal that denied anything and everything that seemed human.”