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Lord of Terror

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For a time, Tuck Outhuok had only fond memories of the man who taught him history during the 1950s in his native Cambodia. The teacher he knew as Saloth Sar “was a charming person,” recalls Outhuok, now 59, “very gentle, very nice.” Later that same amiable man, using the nom de guerre Pol Pot, would unleash the chaos that wiped out 1.7 million of his people, including Outhuok’s entire family. Such was the enigma of Pol Pot, who died at 72 on April 15, apparently of heart failure, in a remote jungle hut. Often warm and engaging in person, he was also guilty of monstrous deeds. To create his notion of a communist Utopia, Pol Pot was responsible for emptying Cambodia’s cities between 1975 and ’78, splitting families and butchering one-third of his countrymen (see following story). “He may have been the worst killer of the 20th century,” says former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. “He killed more of his people than Stalin or Hitler.”

Born Saloth Sar, the eighth of nine children of a middle-class farmer, “he was a quiet, smart boy who never got into fights,” recalls his brother Saloth Nhep, 70. As a government scholarship student in Paris in 1949, Pol Pot immersed himself in communism. He returned in 1953 and, seven years later, helped found Cambodia’s Communist Party, becoming its leader in 1963. By 1970, the Vietnam War had spilled into Cambodia, posing a threat that helped swell the ranks of Pol Pot’s jungle-based Khmer Rouge guerrillas. Five years later, 70,000 of them marched into the capital, Phnom Penh, and began the bloody reign that ended only in 1979, after an invasion by Vietnam. Having spent the past two decades in hiding, Pol Pot ended his days under house arrest by his own soldiers for ordering the death of a comrade. The years had not changed him, according to Far Eastern Economic Review’s Nate Thayer, who interviewed the fallen despot in 1997. “He did not feel remorse,” says Thayer. “The guy went to his grave without saying, ‘I’m sorry.’ ”