On this day in 1976, Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot announces a new constitution changing the name of Cambodia to Kampuchea and legalizing its Communist government. During the next three years his brutal regime sent the nation back to the Middle Ages and was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1 to 2 million Cambodians.
Pol Pot, who was born Saloth Sar in 1925 to a relatively well-off Cambodian family, became involved in the Communist movement as a young man studying in Paris. After he returned home to Cambodia, which gained its independence from France in 1954, he rose through the ranks of his homeland’s small, underground Communist Party. Influenced by China’s Mao Zedong, by the mid-1960s, Pol Pot, also known as Brother Number One, was heading up Cambodia’s Communist movement and living in a remote part of the country with a band of supporters.
Cambodia’s ruler, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, was overthrown in a pro-American coup in 1970 and the Khmer Rouge, with initial help from Vietnamese Communists, then waged a civil war against the new government of Lon Nol. At the same time, the U.S. launched a bombing campaign and sent in soldiers to Cambodia to hunt down North Vietnamese Communist troops operating there.
In April 1975, following five years of fighting, Pol Pot’s guerillas seized power in the Cambodian capitol of Phnom Pehn. Exhausted by years of conflict, many of the city’s 2 million residents initially welcomed the Khmer Rouge as liberators who would bring about a social revolution. Instead, Pol Pot’s inept attempt at building a peasant-based agrarian utopia became a nightmarish reign of terror and genocide. Cambodians were forced into the countryside to work in communes, anyone with education or wealth was killed and schools, newspapers, hospitals, culture, religion and private property were abolished. Tens of thousands of Cambodians died of starvation while countless others succumbed to disease and forced labor or were murdered.
In December 1978, following clashes over territory, Vietnam invaded Cambodia. Pol Pot fled to Thailand and spent almost two decades hiding out in jungle camps there and in northern Cambodia, protected by guerillas and the Thai military. In 1997, following an internal power struggle, Pol Pot was arrested by members of his own party on charges of treason. He died of natural causes on April 15, 1998, without ever having to face justice for his crimes.
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