After a solid 30 years of solemnly pledging "never again," the world stood by and watched in horror as another 20th century genocide unfolded — this time in Cambodia.
Pol Pot Khmer Rouge

Omar Havana/Getty ImagesA young Cambodian woman looks at the main stupa in Choeung Ek Killing Fields, which is filled with thousands of skulls of those killed during the reign of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime.

On the evening of April 15, 1998, news source Voice of America announced that General Secretary of the Khmer Rouge and wanted war criminal Pol Pot was scheduled for extradition. He would then face an international tribunal for genocide and crimes against humanity.

Shortly after the broadcast, at around 10:15 pm, the former leader’s wife found him sitting upright in his chair next to the radio, dead from a possible overdose of prescription drugs.

Despite the Cambodian government’s request for an autopsy, his body was cremated and the ashes interred in a wild part of northern Cambodia, where he had led his defeated troops against the outside world for almost 20 years following the collapse of his regime.

Opportunities Wasted

Pol Pot And Friends

AFP/Getty ImagesAn undated photo of genocidal leader Pol Pot (left) with former Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary (center). The man on the right is unidentified.

Though he later claimed to have risen from poor peasant stock, Pol Pot was actually quite a well-connected young man. Born under the name Saloth Sar in a small fishing village in 1925, he was lucky enough to be a first cousin of one of the King’s concubines. Through her, Sar got a chance to study at a prestigious Cambodian school for the elites.

After flunking out of the school, he traveled to Paris to study. Sar fell in with French communists and, after flunking out of his French school, he volunteered to return to Cambodia to evaluate the local communist parties. Stalin’s Comintern — an international organization that advocated world communism — had just recognized the Viet Minh as the legitimate government of Vietnam, and Moscow was interested in whether the small agrarian country next door had potential.

Sar arrived back home in 1953 and set himself up as a teacher of French literature. During his off time, he organized his most promising students into revolutionary cadres and met with leaders from Cambodia’s three major communist groups. Picking one of them as the “official” Cambodian communist party, Sar oversaw the merger and absorption of other leftist groups into a united front backed by the Viet Minh.

Largely unarmed, Sar’s group confined itself to virulently anti-monarchist propaganda. When King Sihanouk got tired of this and exiled the left parties, Sar moved from Phnom Penh to a guerrilla camp on the Vietnamese border. There, he spent his time making key contacts with the North Vietnamese government and honing what would become the ruling philosophy of the Khmer Rouge.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.
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