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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The political awakening of Saloth Sar

The political awakening of Saloth Sar

T he bones stacked in the killing fields dotting Cambodia testify to the results

of Pol Pot's 1975-1978 experiment in radical agrarian reform. Until now, however,

the ideology that drove it has been left largely to the realm of speculation. Some

scholars have described Pol Pot as a Cultural Revolution-style Maoist, while others

have conjectured that a youthful grape-picking trip to Tito's Yugoslavia planted

the seeds for his later break with the mainstream Marxists of the Soviet Union and


But Pol Pot tells his own story differently. He claims that as a student in France

in 1949-53, he was influenced by a range of progressive movements-including, ironically,

that of non-violent Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi.

In his first interview with a foreign journalist in 18 years, Pol Pot may have

refused to repent for the horror of his rule, but he was clearly concerned with what

the history books say about his personal life. He became animated in talking about

his youth and family, after remaining impassive during questioning about the abuses

of his rule.

Historians haven't even been able to agree on the ultra-secretive Pol Pot's birthday:

Some say May 25, 1925, while others put it on the same day in 1927. Pol Pot said

neither was correct: He was born in January 1925. "January-I remember, because

my mother wrote it in chalk on the wall of the house, next to the cupboard,"

he said in Khmer, adding "janvier" in French to make sure there was no

mistake. He had lied about his age, he said, to remain eligible for a scholarship.

Born Saloth Sar in Kampong Thom province, he attended secondary school in Phnom

Penh and won a scholarship to France in 1949. Clearly defensive of his status as

an "intellectual," Pol Pot volunteered that biographer David Chandler was

"not entirely accurate" when characterizing him as a poor student. "I

was not a bad student. I was average . . . I studied just enough to keep my scholarship.

The rest of the time I just read books," he said.

It was those books, as well as the leftist student movements brewing in Europe

in the years after World War II, that gave Pol Pot his early political education.

"I looked at the second-hand books that were on sale along the Seine River,

the old books that I loved to read," he recalled. "When I got money from

my scholarship, I had to spend it on rent and food, so I only had 20 or 25 francs

left to spend.

But I got a lot of books to read. For example, La Grande Revolution Francaise.

I did not understand it all, but I just read. At the same time I saw the movement

in India of Mahatma Gandhi. He was well known and I was very pleased with that. And

later on Nehru.

"I started as a nationalist and then patriot and then I read progressive

books. Before that time, I never read L'Humanite [the French communist party newspaper].

It scared me, " he smiled, "But I got used to it because of the student


Pol Pot said there was nothing political about his trip or trips to Yugoslavia

in the early 1950s. "I went to Yugoslavia because it was vacation time and I

had no money. They organized a brigade... I paid just 2,000 francs, including everything.

It wasn't influenced by any ideology. We just went for pleasure.

The next year . . . I went camping. So I cannot tell you of any single influence.

Maybe it's a little from here, a little from there."

Pol Pot said his real political awakening, though, came upon his return home to

Cambodia. "Before I went to France, my relatives, they lived comfortably. They

were middle peasants. When I came back, I went to my village by bus. When I got off

the bus, I met someone with a wagon. He asked my name and he said: 'Ah- you've come

back!' And I look at him and see he's my uncle. And he asks me 'Do you want to go

home?' I was shocked. Before he had a piece of land and a buffalo, now he had become

a rickshaw-puller... I met and talked with the relatives who used to have land and

buffaloes and had nothing now... What influenced me most was the actual situation

in Cambodia."

The secrecy that made the Khmer Rouge so effective was, Pol Pot said, second nature

to him. "Since my boyhood, I never talked about myself ... That was my nature.

I was taciturn ... I'm quite modest. I don't want to tell people that I'm a leader

... I didn't tell anybody, not my brother, not my sister, because I didn't want to

worry them. If anything happened to me, I didn't want them to have any connection

to it. So some people think that I don't care about them. But on the contrary, I

respect, I love my relatives. But I never revealed my political thinking to them."

Pol Pot said that it was as much "by chance" as anything that he became

leader of the Cambodian communist party in 1960, when Tou Samouth disappeared. "There

was nobody else to become secretary of the party, so I had to take charge,"

he said.

He vehemently denied that he had killed his "best friend", explaining

in detail how Tou Samouth had been betrayed and arrested when he left his safe house

in Phnom Penh to fetch medicine for his sick child. Tou Samouth was taken to the

house of Lon Nol - the military commander who would later lead Cambodia- and interrogated

for a week, Pol Pot said. "At that time I was his aide. If Tou Samouth had talked,

I would have been arrested. He was killed at Stung Meanchey pagoda. We loved each




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