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(born Saloth Sâr;[b] 25 May 1925 – 15 April 1998) was a Cambodian revolutionary and politician who governed Cambodia as the Prime Minister of Democratic Kampuchea between 1976 and 1979. Ideologically a Marxist–Leninist and Khmer nationalist, he was a leading member of Cambodia’s communist movement, the Khmer Rouge, from 1963 until 1997 and served as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea from 1963 to 1981. Under his administration, Cambodia was converted into an agrarian socialist one-party state governed according to Pol Pot’s interpretation of Marxism-Leninism.
Born to a prosperous farmer in Prek Sbauv, French Cambodia, Pol Pot was educated at some of Cambodia’s elite schools. In Paris, France during the 1940s, he joined the French Communist Party and adopted Marxism–Leninism. Returning to Cambodia in 1953, he joined the Marxist–Leninist Khmer Việt Minh organisation in its guerrilla war against King Norodom Sihanouk‘s newly independent government. Following the Khmer Việt Minh’s 1954 retreat into Marxist–Leninist controlled North Vietnam, Pol Pot returned to Phnom Penh, working as a teacher while remaining a central member of Cambodia’s Marxist–Leninist movement. In 1959, he helped convert the movement into the Kampuchean Labour Party, which was later renamed the Communist Party of Kampuchea. To avoid state repression, he relocated to a Việt Cộng jungle encampment in 1962 before visiting Hanoi and Beijing. In early 1963, Pol Pot took control as the party secretary. In 1968, he re-launched the war against Sihanouk’s government, but after the 1970 coup, Pol Pot’s forces sided with Sihanouk against Lon Nol’s government, which was bolstered by the United States military. Aided by the Việt Cộng and North Vietnamese troops, Pol Pot’s forces advanced and controlled all of Cambodia by 1975.
Pol Pot reformed Cambodia as a new, one-party state called Democratic Kampuchea. Seeking to create an agrarian socialist society, his government forcibly relocated the urban population to the countryside to work on collective farms. Those regarded as enemies of the new government, including Buddhist monks and ethnic minorities, were killed. These mass killings, coupled with malnutrition, strenuous working conditions, and poor medical care, killed between 1.5 and 2 million people, approximately a quarter of Cambodia’s population, a period later termed the Cambodian genocide. Marxist–Leninists opposed to Pol Pot’s government encouraged Vietnamese intervention. After Pol Pot attacked several Vietnamese villages, the newly unified Vietnam invaded Cambodia in December 1978, toppling Pol Pot’s government in 1979. The Vietnamese installed a rival Marxist–Leninist faction opposed to Pol Pot which renamed the country the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge retreated to a jungle base near the border of Thailand. Until 1993, they remained part of a coalition internationally recognized as Cambodia’s legitimate government. The Ta Mok faction placed Pol Pot under house arrest, where he died in 1998, possibly from suicide.
For Pol Pot’s supporters, he was an advocate of communism who championed Cambodian sovereignty in the face of Vietnamese imperialism. He received Chinese support as a bulwark against Soviet Union influence in the region. Conversely, he has been internationally denounced for his role in the Cambodian genocide, regarded as a totalitarian dictator guilty of crimes against humanity.