Born on 19 May 1925 as Saloth Sar, Pol Pot was the Prime Minister of Cambodia from 1976 to 1978. While he was in power, Cambodia was known as Democratic Kempuchea and underwent a series of experiments in order to become a socialist society. Sar was born in the Kampung Thrum Province in Cambodia to a wealthy family. He was familiar with the royal family, since his sister was the concubine of a king.
After attending college and technical schools in Cambodia, Pol Pot also studied in France and volunteered with the international labor brigade to build roads in Yugoslavia in 1950. While abroad, he became involved with the French Communist (PCF) anti-colonialist movement, which supported the Vietnamese war against France. Pol Pot joined a secret communist cell known as Cercle Marxiste that had taken over the Khmer Student Association (AER) that year, 1951.
Failed exams forced him to return to Cambodia in 1953. While teaching French literature and history, he became the link between established political parties such as the Democrats and Pracheachon and the underground communist movement. In the 1960s, as the Cambodian government arrested members of Pracheachon, Pol Pot rose up the ranks rapidly to become Secretary of the communist party.
His involvement with communism eventually caused him to flee to Vietnam, where he founded the Khmer Rouge movement. Emphasizing self-reliance, the movement broke from its communist roots to embrace Cambodian nationalism. Elements of Therewada Buddhism also helped to enable the party to move away from communist ideology.
It the late 1960s and early 1970s, as North Vietnam continually denied support, Pol Pot organized the Khmer Rouge movement into a legitimate political party, the Cambodia Party of Kampuchea (CPK), which led uprisings against the Cambodian government. One of the party's major tenets was that proletariats should be defined as working class farmers, and the betterment of their lives was the purpose of the movement. Gaining momentum among students and teachers, the Khmer Rouge movement, by 1974, was recognized by 63 countries. The United Nations voted on whether to recognize the movement or the then current government as the legitimate government of Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge movement lost by two votes.
Pol Pot came into power once the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, fell in 1975. The party began to execute his plan of eliminating capitalism. This included evacuating cities and sending mass amounts of people to the countryside. Currency was rendered useless. Eating and education were conducted through communal living.
Anyone who posed a threat was eliminated ruthlessly. Out of a population of eight million in 1975, two million were executed. Economic failure induced a countrywide hunger crisis; however, outside aid was not accepted, because self-reliance continued to be the foundation of the Khmer Rouge.
In 1978, the Vietnam invasion of Cambodia caused Pol Pot to flee to Thailand. Thereafter, he spent the remaining 20 years of his life in the forests of Cambodia and Thailand, although he still retained some power within the Khmer Rouge. On 15 April 1998, he would hear through the radio show Voice of America that the party he had founded was handing him over to US authorities. On the same day, suffering from Hodgkins disease and cancer and paralyzed by a stroke, he died in his sleep. Questions remain whether his death was due to heart failure or suicide.