The Cult Of Sar

Pol Pot Smiling

Wikimedia CommonsPol Pot liked to have his picture taken in humble surroundings. This was part of a nationwide propaganda effort to win over peasants.

By the early 1960s, Sar had grown disillusioned with his Vietnamese allies. From his point of view, they were weak on support and slow with communications, as if his movement wasn’t important to Hanoi. In a way, it probably wasn’t. Vietnam was on fire with war at the time, and Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese Communist revolutionary leader, had a lot to contend with.

Sar changed during this time. Once friendly and approachable, he started cutting himself off from his subordinates and consenting to see them only if they made an appointment with his staff, despite living in an open-walled hut in the same village.

He began to sideline central committee members in favor of a more authoritarian leadership style, and he broke with traditional Marxist doctrine about urban proletariats in favor of an agrarian-peasant version of socialism that he must have thought more in keeping with Cambodia’s demographics. Vietnamese and Soviet support began to fade for the Communist Party of Kampuchea and its increasingly eccentric leader.

If history had worked out better for Cambodia, that’s where Saloth Sar’s story would have ended: as a kind of Southeast Asian Jim Jones, a minor cult leader with crazy ideas and a bad end. Instead of fading away, however, events were conspiring to hoist Sar as high as he could rise in tiny, agrarian Cambodia. While he tightened control over the cult he led, the country around him unraveled.

Death From Above

Pol Pot Bombers

STF/AFP/Getty ImagesUS B52 drop bombs over a Viet Cong controlled area in South Vietnam on August 2, 1965 during the Vietnam War.

The American war in Vietnam saw an absurd amount of violence dumped out on a tiny strip of tropical jungle. US airstrikes dropped three times the ordnance used in all theaters of WWII over Vietnam, while ground forces poured into the country for almost daily firefights.

By 1967 some of it was spilling over into Laos and Cambodia. The infamous Secret War U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger ran in Cambodia started as an effort to dig out Viet Cong forces from border camps, but it quickly developed into Agent Orange and napalm strikes deep into Cambodia’s core territory. American B-52s swarmed the area and occasionally dropped surplus bombs over Cambodia to save fuel on the flight back to Thailand.

This drove the exodus of rural farmers from the land into the city, where they had no choice but to beg for food and shelter, as well as the increasing desperation of Cambodia’s legitimate left-wing politics.

King Sihanouk was – understandably – not sympathetic to his country’s socialists, and tended to lean to the right. When he (allegedly) helped Cambodia’s rightist parties rig an election and order the socialist parties disbanded, tens of thousands of formerly moderate leftists fled the mass arrests and joined the Khmer Rouge.

The right-wing government repressed dissident parties, collaborated with foreign governments to escalate the bombings, and operated a regime so corrupt it was normal for army officers to draw their official paychecks along with the extra paycheck of fictitious officers that only existed on the payroll ledgers.

Grumbling about this state of affairs got loud enough that King Sihanouk decided to pit his rivals against each other to bolster his control over the country.

He did this by abruptly breaking off negotiations with North Vietnam, which was at the time using a Cambodian port for supply runs, and ordering his own government employees to stage anti-Vietnamese demonstrations in the capital.

These protests got out of hand while the King was visiting France. Both North and South Vietnamese embassies were sacked and the far-right autocrat Lon Nol staged a coup, which the U.S. recognized within hours. Sihanouk returned and began plotting with the Vietnamese to regain his throne and, incidentally, reopen that supply route for the NVA.

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