10 Brutal Realities of Life in Pol Pot’s Cambodia


In 1975, the communist revolutionary group Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, had taken over Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. Soon they had control of the entire country and declared its new name as “Democratic Kampuchea.” They wanted to create an idealized communist agrarian society, and started making radical changes. While their reign was short — the group was ousted by the Vietnamese government in 1979 — they proved just how much damage can be done in a short four years. While we will never know the exact number, most estimates put the amount of civilians killed by Pol Pot and his regime during their time in power as around 2 million, or close to 25% of the population at the time. While the Cambodian genocide is hardly talked about in the West, those who survived have definitely not forgotten.

10. Under Pol Pot You Had No Right To Private Property — The Government Owned It All

One of the first things Pol Pot did is decide that his government would be truly, ideally socialist, which means absolutely no personal property at all. Under Pol Pot, all personal property was seized, and anything like clothes or other things you needed to live were still chosen by, and considered property of, the government. The truth is that this was extreme even for a communist society, and many other communist nations were watching with concern.

Pol Pot wanted to take total control of people’s lives and absolutely own all the population in pretty much every way, but part of the point of communism had been to at least give the illusion of everyone being equal and being taken care of according to their needs, as long as they worked. Even most communist societies tended to allow people a certain amount of personal property to feel they can aspire to something, so Pol Pot was being extremely radical in this regard.

9. Most Fun Things Were Outlawed… You Couldn’t Gamble, Own Jewelry, Or Be Religious

Religion was, of course, quite dangerous for a regime like Pol Pot’s to survive, so it was one of the very first things to go. The Khmer Rouge immediately banned the practice of religion, and slaughtered a massive number of Buddhist monks. Some people believe the amount killed may have been in the tens of thousands, but like many of the numbers regarding the Cambodian genocide, we will likely never know for certain.

On top of religion, most fun was also outlawed. Since you couldn’t own property, you certainly couldn’t wear gaudy things like jewelry, and gambling was outlawed. Many traditional folk entertainment practices were also banned because Pol Pot wanted to separate people from their old culture. People were now spending the vast majority of their time working for the government, and barely getting enough food to live.

8. Doctors, Civil Servants, And Other “Dangerous” People Were Detained Or Murdered

Pol Pot was himself a teacher and highly educated before he became a revolutionary leader and brutal dictator, and so he felt that the most dangerous types of people were those intellectuals who could be subversive and turn people against him. For this reason, he decided that anyone decently educated or smart was too dangerous to live, and the majority of the country’s best and brightest were rounded up and murdered. Doctors, civil servants, teachers, policeman and other important people were gunned down for the danger they posed to his regime.

This particular communist movement was unique in that it was truly anti-intellectual. While communist regimes certainly repress intellectuals who argue with them, many others throughout history tend to bring intellectuals into the fold, and use them for their own propaganda. Instead, Pol Pot seemed completely uninterested in propaganda, and instead just wanted to do it all by brutal force, and do it all at once.

7. Pol Pot Had His Own Infamous Detention Center (S-21), But He Had Way More Than That

When Pol Pot and his team finally took over they declared it year zero in Cambodian history, a callback to the French Revolution, and immediately went on a rampage of mass detention, torture, interrogation, and execution. Some estimates put the number of total detention centers at 150 and some put it at closer to 200, but it is hard to know the exact amount, as most of the country became temporary detention centers. High schools and other public buildings were turned into prisons instead of places of learning — after all, you don’t need a high school when the teachers have been murdered.

The most infamous of these is a building that had once been a high school called Tuol Svay Pray, but was renamed to S-21 by the Khmer Rouge. An estimated 14,000 people were detained at this facility, and only seven are believed to have survived. We know these things because the Khmer Rouge authorities made the torturers keep incredibly detailed photographic records to prove they were carrying out the cruelties they had been ordered to perpetrate. One photo shows someone who is only a boy, wearing no shirt, with a prisoner tag literally safety pinned directly to his chest, his skin covered in bruises.

6. People Were Forced Out Of Their Homes To Work In Rural Areas; Schools Were Closed

Pol Pot grew up in relative privilege, born to a wealthy farm owner, and got to go study in France, which a lot of young men in Cambodia could not afford. For this reason, as we mentioned earlier, he spent his time as a teacher before he became the cruel murderer we all know of today, and was for the most part a mild-mannered and kind person to all appearances before the genocide. Perhaps it was his love for farms that caused him to come up with such a strange idea, but Pol Pot decided to do something even most communist countries would consider extreme, and shut down the urban areas entirely.

Everyone was forced out of the cities and sent down to work in rural areas on farms or other farming cooperatives. This was all rigidly enforced by the Khmer Rouge soldiers, who made sure that the entire country turned into an agrarian society practically overnight. The purity and importance of farming and rural life were emphasized above all else, and learning and intellectualism were a thing of the past. With all the teachers murdered and the schools turned into detention centers school was done — the only thing the Khmer Rouge wanted to teach was farming and obedience.

5. Pol Pot Created A New Social Hierarchy Overnight And Strictly Enforced It

In order to create an entirely new — and entirely agrarian — society overnight, Pol Pot decided that he needed to completely change the social order. He made four new categories of people, in order to class his new population of worker slaves. Those who were aligned with Western values, or had happened to live in the city, were the new people, and had a lot less rights than most. However, if you were loyal to the Khmer Rouge, maybe you could move up to deportee status.

Those who really, really behaved may eventually have been considered candidates for full citizenship, and if you really were a good little government stooge, you might eventually end up a full rights citizen. However, most people stayed at the status that the Khmer Rouge put them into when they first classified them. It was extremely rare for them to move up. This is partly because the entire new hierarchy was meant to glorify and elevate an existing category of people over others, and systems designed to discriminate don’t usually tend to be fair.

4. Families Were Forcibly And Entirely Separated To Better Brainwash The Populace

One of the biggest hallmarks of Pol Pot’s regime was a family separation policy that even many of the worst dictators in history would have thought cruel. When the people were forced out of the cities to go be worker drudges in the country, the Khmer Rouge separated families en masse. Unlike many dictators who have done such things in order to punish others for subversion, Pol Pot did it as a calculated move to make his regime into a perfectly well-oiled machine.

There were a couple big reasons for Pol Pot’s cruel policy: For starters, it makes it a lot easier to brainwash the populace when you remove the family unit — the government now essentially becomes the family authority that raises the children. However, Pol Pot also wanted to organize people based on their skills as efficiently as possible, which meant grouping children with other like children, women with women, and so on. And this also meant sending people away to areas where he felt they would make the most sense as workers, so it was a natural byproduct of his policies, regardless of brainwashing reasons, to separate families as much as possible. This sort of thing is what led many other communist regimes to wonder if something should be done. Even some of the worst were not this cruel unless actual counter-revolutionary crimes had been committed against them.

3. Pol Pot Literally Pitted The “Purer” Country Folk Against The City “Intellectuals”

Pol Pot, like many dictators, was an intellectual. Perhaps this is why he felt so threatened by educated people. Or, perhaps he really did just have an ultra-romanticized vision of farm life. Regardless, the true hallmark of the strangeness of Pol Pot’s cruel regime was his insistence on an entirely agrarian society, starting over entirely from the beginning. Even when countries are taken over by revolutionaries, they tend not to throw out the entire thing in terms of infrastructure, knowledge, and urban buildup, but the Khmer Rouge did just that.

He essentially made the entire thing a battle, in his own mind, of the dangerous and subversive city intellectuals versus the more pure folk who worked on farms. The irony here is that while Pol Pot felt that farm life and an agrarian society would make things more pure and wholesome (or at least so he claimed on the surface) in his supposed quest for moral purity, he was responsible for the deaths of roughly 2 million innocent people.

2. Some Were More “Equal” Than Others, Despite Claims Of Perfect Communism

While Pol Pot and his regime claimed they were creating an ideal and perfectly equal communist society, most of us know that that sort of thing rarely works out so well in actual practice. As we mentioned earlier, there were four classes of people, and even a lot of hard work and sucking up generally didn’t get you any further. Worse yet, if you happened to live in the city when he took over, you were a “new person” while anyone who had lived on a farm was already a full rights citizen.

To make matters worse, even if you had already lived on a farm, that didn’t necessarily mean you always had enough to eat during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, and didn’t mean things were equal even among that class. There are reports that the soldiers who worked for the Khmer Rouge, and anyone who administered for them, certainly seemed to have more luxury than most people living under the new regime of “Democratic” Kampuchea. As for Pol Pot himself, many people like to point out that despite his claims about the importance of hard farm work and everyone being equal, he always looked fresh-faced and soft-handed, like he hadn’t done any hard physical work in a very long time, if ever.

1. Pol Pot’s Cambodia Was An Attempt At Rapid Social Engineering

There are successful communist countries running today (although some would argue China isn’t technically a communist government anymore), and successful capitalist countries (like the USA), and other types as well. There isn’t really one perfect form of government, and any type of government can at least treat its people decently if it actually tries. This is why many other communist countries were alarmed from the beginning when it came to Pol Pot’s methods. Communism in many cases came about more naturally, because people were looking for something different that took a little better care of the common man, and communist countries had never really taken such drastic steps (aside from, arguably, perhaps Stalin). Many communist intellectuals feared from the beginning that Pol Pot’s regime could never work long term, and was an embarrassment to everyone because of how radical it was.

He wanted to turn his society to a level of Communism many would consider extreme, and go entirely agrarian essentially overnight. And, unlike most countries, he murdered his intellectuals instead of trying to subvert them to write things in favor of the government. His rapid style was so insane that many communist countries urged Vietnam, their closest neighbor, to put an end to his reign of terror. So, in 1978, at the urging of the international community, Vietnam invaded Cambodia. In 1979, they took over Phnom Penh and the remaining forces of the Khmer Rouge, as well as Pol Pot himself, retreated into the jungles. Pol Pot would never face justice — he committed suicide the night he found out he would be turned over to an international tribunal, but at least the invasion of the Vietnamese provided some immediate welcome relief from the horrific cruelties the Cambodian people were suffering.

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