Pol Pot (born Sar Saloth) came from a rather wealthy peasant family in the central Cambodian Kampong Thum Province. Through family connections to the Cambodian Royal Court, he was able to gain access to a formal education in both Cambodia and France.
He was not the best student and ended up in a technical school. While studying in France, Pol Pot joined several communist organizations and student groups, including the Cercle Marxist, whose members would later provide the leadership of the Cambodian Communist Party.
Antidemocratic policies imposed by Cambodian King Sihanouk and rampant corruption in the electoral process after the 1954 Geneva Conference convinced the left that they would never gain control over Cambodia through peaceful means.
A 1962 government roundup of Cambodian leftist and communist leaders left Pol Pot in charge of the party. In 1963 Pol Pot went into hiding in the jungle near the Vietnamese border and contacted the North Vietnamese government hoping that it would aid his communist movement and revolutionary aims.
Help was not forthcoming due to North Vietnam’s agreements with Sihanouk over their use of the border for the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It was in the border camps that Pol Pot fashioned the Khmer Rouge ideology.
The Khmer Rouge held that Cambodia’s rural peasant farmers were the working-class proletarians. This was necessary because Cambodia had almost no industrial working class and because most of the Khmer Rouge leaders came from peasant backgrounds.
In 1968 Pol Pot transformed himself into an absolutist leader and minimized collective decision making in the Khmer Rouge leadership. This coincided with a continuing growth of the party due to successive waves of government repression, which also shifted the loyalty of the peasants toward the Khmer Rouge.
In 1970 the national assembly voted to remove Sihanouk from power and expel the Vietnamese from the border region. This caused an antigovernment alliance between the Khmer Rouge and Sihanouk. Their main military force consisted of 40,000 Vietnamese sent to secure access to the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
During this time, the Khmer Rouge began to "liberate" significant portions of Cambodia and remolded society into their view of agrarian paradise. Communes were organized, private property was banned, and the trappings of wealth were removed from the people.
They evacuated all cities and towns they controlled and sent their people to work in rice fields. Former military and government officials, along with the rich and those who had an education, were "purged" (murdered).
These policies were applied to the entire country and even Khmer Rouge members after Phnom Penh fell in 1975. Eventually, more than one-quarter of Cambodia’s population of 8 million was killed through starvation, sickness, or murder. Education all but ceased after most intellectuals were murdered.
In late 1978 Vietnam invaded Cambodia after a series of border clashes instigated by the Cambodians. A new Vietnamese-backed regime was installed in January 1979 after Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge fled the capital for the Thai border region.
For the next 19 years, Pol Pot led an insurgency against the new government until his death. The legacy of the Khmer Rouge has been continuing misery brought on by their sowing of millions of Chinese-supplied land mines over significant areas of Cambodia.