Evil Dictators: Pol Pot Edition

There is an Eddie Izzard bit about mass murderers that seems appropriate to mention right about now. He talks about Hitler, Stalin, and then he talks about Pol Pot. 

He says that we just don’t know how to deal with mass murderers: you kill one person, you go to jail, you kill twenty you get sent to a hospital to get monitored, but you kill a hundred thousand or more, we don’t really know what to do, and almost say “well done?”.

And that’s Pol Pot, the mass murderer who killed one in four Cambodians (estimates go up to 3million) from 1975-1979 and then hid out in the woods for twenty years, still recognized by the UN, by the US, by England, by Australia as a leader, until the last year of his life he was placed under comfortable house arrest. 

In April 1975, the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot (real name Saloth Sar) came to power in Cambodia. When they marched into Phnom Penh they were seen as liberators, the Communists that had ended the fighting. 

Within twenty four hrs, schools and hospitals were closed, religion was banned. The city was emptied in three days. 

In an effort to create a “Year Zero” of a pure communal society Pol Pot felt that the country needed to be cleansed. Everyone needed to be equal, everyone needed to a farmer. Teachers, doctors, lawyers were murdered. Anyone intellectual, anyone who looked intellectual – anyone who wore glasses or had soft hands, was murdered. One of the Khmer Rouge slogans was, “to destroy you is no loss, to preserve you is no gain.”

People were sent back to the farms, into forced labor camps. In order to make the society “work” Pol Pot decreed that rice production needed to be tripled, he was a former teacher who now murdered teachers, but math (or logic) was not really his thing. Thousands died from overwork, from starvation. 

Over the next three years and eight months, until January, 1979 – Cambodians lived in state of fear. As with most dictators, Pol Pot became increasingly paranoid and increasingly evil. 

Prisons were set up to find “traitors” and torture people. Killing Fields were set up kill people after they had been tortured, “better to kill an innocent by mistake, than spare an enemy by mistake.”

Rules in the S-21 prison, Phnom Penh

At the Killing Fields mass graves were filled with people that had been executed in a variety of ways: babies and women were bashed against “killing trees”, people had their throats slit with the sharp and jagged edges of palm leaves, hammers, and knives delivered fatal blows – but not a lot of bullets were used – bullets were too valuable. Most of the killing was done at night, under giant speakers that blasted music to drown out screams, then – DDT was thrown over the (sometimes still living) bodies to cover up the stench. 

Mass Grave, Choeung Ek Killing Fields, outside Phnom Penh
Choeung Ek Killing Fields, outside Phnom Penh
Catalogue of murders, Choeung Ek Killing Fields, outside Phnom Penh

Then, in January 1979, the Vietnamese marched into Phnom Penh and started what would be a ten year occupation of Cambodia. Originally, the North Vietnamese had helped the Khmer Rouge ascend to power, but once that was accomplished Pol Pot feared Vietnamese expansionism and began purging them from his ranks. During his reign, there were skirmishes along the border, and at the end of 1978, Vietnam had enough, and launched a full scale invasion. 

Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge fled to the forest, where for the next twenty years, the world would still recognize their government. 

Eddie Izzard is right, we just don’t know what to do in these situations – what do you say to people who lived through the horror? What do you say to people who lost most their family? There are no words that sound appropriate, meaningful enough. All you can do is admire that somehow, people manage to put themselves back together again.

Here is the Eddie Izzard bit:

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