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Pol Pot's Charisma

by Socheat Som


Pol Pot was actually named Saloth Sar when he came into the world in January 1925 (Thayer, 1997, p. 21). Much of what has been written about Pol Pot since his time in power has been intemperate, reflecting the prevailing human reactions toward the brutal dictator's rule responsible for the deaths of over one million Cambodians in the late 1970s. The horrors of his crimes against his own people and the sort of ignominy he inflicted on his victims have all been well documented and are beyond the scope of this paper. This paper will instead focus on the notion of Pol Pot as a charismatic political leader. My portrayal of Pol Pot as a charismatic leader is not an attempt to diminish the magnitude, the enormity of his crimes, nor is it an attempt to deflect the responsibility for such crimes away from Pol Pot. Any attempts to do so would constitute grave injustice to the memories of the innocent lives perished during Pol Pot's rule, to the truth and history.

The senseless human destructions and sufferings occurred during his time in power have predisposed people to empathize with the strong feelings against a man whose deeds were nothing short of an utter reduction of a country of seven million people into mass killing fields. It is difficult, however, to explain how this man, whom some have called "worse than Hitler" and a "genocidal maniac" (Chandler, 1999, p. 4), was able to lead a political and armed movement to national power. His military triumph in April 1975 paved the way for him to impose his vision of "a collectivist agrarian utopia (Thayer, 1997, p. 14) on the entire nation.

What made Pol Pot a charismatic leader in the eyes of his followers? And, why did Pol Pot, whose political career seemed all but over when he was driven from power in 1979 and when his horrific crimes against his own people became known to the world, continue to command respect from his core followers virtually up until his death in 1998? To answer these questions, it is necessary to understand the phenomena of charisma, the basis for charismatic authority, the conditions under which charismatic leadership often arises, and the characteristics that are typical of charismatic leaders. To understand Pol Pot as a charismatic leader capable of appealing to the hearts and minds of his followers, it is also necessary to place him inside a Cambodian context.


Charismatic Leadership Theory

The word Charisma is derived from a Greek word meaning "gift of grace." For years, social scientists have analyzed and debated the origin of charisma and why people gravitate toward charismatic leaders. Influential sociologist Max Weber was one of the first to study the theory of charismatic leadership. According to Weber, social actions are controlled and directed by a general belief on the part of the members of a society that a legitimate social order exists. The probability that social behavior will be oriented in terms of that order constitutes the basis for its authority. Weber postulated that there were three ways to convert power into legitimate authority: rational, traditional, and charismatic, and that each type of authority was validated differently. Established orders such as educational institutions or courts of law give rise to rational authority. Traditional authority arises when leader and follower relationships such as parent/child, teacher/student, or officer/soldier are bounded by long-standing traditions. Traditional and rational bases of authority are not effective forms of authority to bring social or organizational changes.

Charismatic authority, on the other hand, is part of the expression of schismatic tendencies in society. In contrast to legal or traditional authority, charismatic authority is the antithesis of routine activities and represents the desire for disruption and change of the prevailing social order. It is a necessary part of the dialectic between the human need for structure and the equally human need for variation and innovation in society. Charismatic authority is different from rational or traditional authority in that it spawns not from established orders or traditions, but rather from the special trust the charismatic leader induces in his followers, the peculiar powers he exhibits, and the unique qualities he possesses. According to Weber, it is difficult for charismatic leaders to maintain their authority because followers must continue to legitimize this authority. There is a need for the charismatic leader to constantly exhibit leadership performance to his followers to reinforce the legitimacy of his authority.

Several theoretical frameworks have been put forth to explain the crucial elements that give rise to charismatic leadership. Our psychological sense of self worth or self-esteem is a function of the status of our identifications with certain self-objects. These self-objects may be tangible (i.e., a social class to which we belong or a car we drive) or intangible (i.e., a belief or a cause). When the status of the self-objects with which we identify increases, our self-esteem increases. When the status of the self-objects with which we identify diminishes in value, our self-esteem diminishes. Effective leaders elevate the status of the self-objects with which their followers identify, raising their followers' self-esteem to new heights. When followers identify with a leader, and that leader enhances their self-esteem, the followers perceive the leader as charismatic.

Another theory states that individuals who have solved for themselves problems the followers have not been able to solve for themselves are perceived as charismatic. The perception of charisma is of great importance only between the leaders and their followers. How non-followers perceive the leaders has very little relevance to the notion of charisma. According to Weber, people have extraordinary needs, especially in times of great stress and crisis in a society, and leaders who are able to satisfy these needs are considered charismatic. Charismatic leaders help their followers achieve a state of transcendence by becoming the embodiment of the qualities they wish that they possessed. Charismatic leaders appear most frequently in times of societal crisis.

What are some of the common qualities and characteristics of charismatic leaders? Charismatic leaders are able to distill complex thoughts and ideas into simple messages through the use of symbolism, analogies, and metaphors. Charismatic leaders embrace risk and feel empty in its absence. And, they take chances without fear of failure. Charismatic leaders rebel against the status quo and conventional wisdom. According to Weber, charismatic leaders reject rational, economic objectives and orders, choosing more "irrational" but more humanistic pursuits, and that one of the signs of charismatic leadership lies in the leader's ability to leave a significant mark on the traditional institutionalized structure that he rejects. Charismatic leaders have robust empathic capacity - they attempt to see the world through their followers' eyes. Finally, charismatic leaders challenge, prod, and poke their followers to test their courage and their commitment. Charismatic leaders score high on expression of values, emphasis on commitment, setting high standards, stressing a sense of mission, talking optimistically about the future, expressing confidence, making personal sacrifices, providing encouragement to followers, and displaying conviction in ideals.


Pol Pot's Rise to Leadership

Postcolonial Cambodia was a society with a deeply rooted sense of hierarchy that permitted one man to exercise enormous power. From 1945 until 1970, that one man was Norodom Sihanouk, who ruled Cambodia first as king and then as its Head of State (Chandler, 1991, pp. 14-178). Cambodian political structure during Sihanouk's rule bestowed "power on a small group of men who…exploit[ed] the majority of the people at every level" (Chandler, 1999, p. 39). "Nepotism and corruption" (Chandler, 1999, p. 47) were the way of life. Cambodia was an agrarian society whose economy did not develop beyond agriculture and other small labor-intensive industries. The absence of strong economic bases manifested in the people's low standard of living. The resulting gulf of economic disparities between a concentrated group of wealthy ruling elite and the poor masses served as the battle cries for social and political changes intended to wrest political and economic power from the ruling elite and to distribute them to the poor masses.

Pol Pot's entrance onto Cambodia political landscape was inspired by the desire to bring about such social and political changes to benefit the poor masses. After having spent three years at a university in France, where he was exposed to Communist ideology, Pol Pot returned to Cambodia in 1953. Pol Pot "saw communism as a set of techniques" that would allow for social and political changes to occur in Cambodia (Chandler, 1999, p. 34).

To spread the message of Communism to his compatriots, in 1956 Pol Pot embarked on a career teaching French and geography at a private college in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Teaching provided Pol Pot with a stage for his budding political talents to attract young people to the Communist movement. Many recollections of Pol Pot referred to his skills as a teacher. In choosing to play this role, he drew on the reservoir of reverence Cambodians have always had for their teachers, reflecting the centuries in which education was in the hands of Hindu Brahmans or Buddhist monks and the high status accorded teachers in the French Third Republic under which Pol Pot was raised. In the Cambodian education system, even a mathematics professor taught ethics. Students traditionally gave respect to their teachers, as they did to elderly relatives, in exchange for moral guidance. Older brothers and teachers who returned this respect with warmth and kindness were rare and doubly honored. Among his students, Pol Pot seemed to have been an immediate success as a teacher of "progressive knowledge" (Chandler, 1999, pp. 50-53).

People who knew him at that time found him "well presented…an attractive figure. His deep voice and calm gestures were reassuring. He seemed to be someone who could explain things in such a way that you came to love justice and honesty and hate corruption" (Chandler, 1999, p. 51). Some students remembered him "as calm, self-assured, smooth featured, honest, and persuasive, even hypnotic when speaking to small groups" (Chandler, 1999, p. 5). During group discussions, he attacked dishonesty and corruption in Sihanouk government circles without revealing his communist political alignment. One of his students recalled Pol Pot as "popular among students, a good teacher and very correct in his ways." In 1950s' Cambodia, the term "Communist" often referred to people like Pol Pot who had simple taste, a good education and a hatred for corruption. A good education meant and included a post-secondary education in France. People like Pol Pot were thought to be the only ones who cared about the poor (Chandler, 1999, p. 53).

In 1962, Pol Pot spoke at a seminar in Phnom Penh to an audience consisting of Buddhist monks and college students. One participant remembered Pol Pot's speech as "harmonious and persuasive; he used examples skillfully. He made himself easy to like (Chandler, 1999, p. 62)." He appealed to his audience to consider Cambodian society. He mentioned that the Sihanouk government charged people fees when they were born, when they were married, and when they died. "No one can do anything, unless the government gets its fee," he said. He suggested that the pervasive corruption within the government led the people into deeper and deeper poverty. He spoke of a new society with equality among all its members (Chandler, 1999, p. 62).

While teaching about the domestic situation inside Cambodia, he abruptly stopped the lesson and asked, "What can we do to make the people love us?" Several suggested exposing the corruption of other factions and demonstrating the Khmer Rouge's patriotism; others maintained that the key was economics…Pol Pot kept shaking his head, dissatisfied. Then one man raised his hand and responded, "We must put ourselves in the same position as the poorest of the poor, then the people will crowd around us and love us." "Yes," cried the teacher, delighted that one of his students had answered correctly. "Yes! Yes!" (Chandler, 1999, p. 175)

In a document used at a study session by the Khmer Rouge in 1970 as the Cambodian Communist movement entered its armed struggle phase, its anonymous author wrote: "A revolutionist should be kind and sympathetic to the people; a revolutionist should always use kind words when talking to the people. These words should cause no harm; make the listeners sympathetic to the speaker; sound polite in all circumstances; be pleasing to everyone; and make the listeners happy" (Chandler, 1999, p. 90). This passage seemed to reflect the mannerism of Pol Pot. Other documents stressed that revolutionists "must be drawn from poor peasant…and worker backgrounds" - from deep down in rural areas. To use the Khmer Rouge parlance, revolutionists must be "extracted from the earth like diamonds" (Chandler, 1999, p. 94).


Pol Pot as a Charismatic Leader

Pol Pot was a charismatic leader for several reasons consistent with the theoretical explanations mentioned earlier. As discussed in the previous section, his genteel charisma combined with simple taste, a good education and staunch hatred of corruption had a broad appeal to certain segments of Cambodian society, particularly the students and the peasants. "Cambodians who came into his presence found him charismatic because he embodied the ideals of conduct - self-control, …kind-heartedness - that had been drummed into them for years" (Chandler, 1999, p. 151). People who were not brought up in this social context may likely find Pol Pot exasperating and hypocritical. However, as discussed in class numerous times, how non-followers perceive a leader has very little relevance to the notion of charisma.

Pol Pot and his ideals represented the good virtues (i.e. social and economic equity, anti-corruption) desired by the average Cambodian. On the other hand, the traditional authority represented all evil forces - social contaminants - infecting Cambodian society, which the people wanted, but were not able, to eliminate on their own. In this respect, the people, who came to share his view about Cambodian social order and its problems at that time, regarded Pol Pot as someone who had solved for himself problems that they had not been able to solve for themselves. These people had endured years of "narcissistic injuries" at the hands of their own government. They looked to Pol Pot to bring them together in order to bring about changes in Cambodian social order to improve basic living conditions of the poor and uneducated.

The peasants' acceptance of this view laid the foundation for the Cambodian Communist movement to eventually achieve victory. Cambodian peasants were willing to take up arms and sacrifice their lives in open military conflicts against what they perceived to be the force of evil. Cambodian peasants, within Cambodian social, economic and political structure, were treated as the ruled, and were never part of the ruling circle. Pol Pot identified with and raised the self-esteem of his followers - Cambodian peasants - when the ruling elites looked at the peasants with contempt and disdain. He raised their self-esteem by allowing them to play active roles in determining the political future of Cambodia. By participating in the armed struggle against the corrupt regime, these peasants were led to feel that they, for the first time in Cambodia's history, had an opportunity to affect the course of history. The peasants viewed active participation in Cambodia's political process as the ultimate form of gratification.

Pol Pot exhibited the qualities and characteristics of a charismatic leader. He was able to communicate his messages in simple terms and he usually spoke with complete candor. His message to the people and his deeds, his way of life, reinforced the image of a man who was incorruptible and who cared passionately about the poor. He was a man with broad empathic capacity for Cambodian peasants. When he spoke of the corrupt government, people accepted his message readily because they, too, saw corruptions with their own eyes. When he spoke of his vision of a new society free from all corruptions, people were eager to embrace this vision. He instilled confidence in his followers and was able to inspire them to rise up and fight against "the enemy."



As suggested by David P. Chandler in his political biography of Pol Pot entitled Brother Number One, Pol Pot or Saloth Sar belonged among the visionary leaders of Cambodian history - a history filled with prolonged exploitations by foreign powers from near and far. At some stage in his life, he reacted against the subservience and quietude of the Cambodian people. The traditional authority of Cambodian royal family and the royal family's indolence depressed him. In the 1950s, he came to see communism as a set of empowering and liberating techniques that could be applied to Cambodia to remove the traditional authority, social and economic injustice, and subservience. The crucial role to be played by intellectuals like Pol Pot in this process was the inclusion of Cambodia's peasants as the main instrument, the means, with which social transformation could be achieved. His charisma played an important role in recruiting followers from among Cambodia's poor and illiterate to his cause. For the most part, the people from this social stratum of Cambodian society remained loyal to Pol Pot virtually until the day of his death in April 1998.

Throughout his life, this man seemed to have tailored his performance to fit the people he was with - to fit the expectations of his followers - making the "genocidal maniac" hard to find. Such masterful performances demonstrated his broad understanding of the fundamental notion that an effective leader must appeal to the needs of the masses. Until the end, many people, particularly Cambodian peasants, continued to embrace his vision of "a new society." The disjunction between his genteel charisma and the death toll of his regime, however, remains an enigma that transcends dispositional explanations. As Pol Pot told Nate Thayer in 1997, "look at me, am I a savage person? My conscience is clear."

At the end, an observer of Cambodia's contemporary history cannot overlook one important irony. In retrospect, the man, whose revolutionary awakening was firmly rooted in his utter hatred of traditional authority, was no better than his predecessor was in ruling this small nation. Pol Pot's rule turned out to be a human tragedy much, much worse than the rules of those before him. His unswerving love of power resulted in the deaths of more than a million of his compatriots, or one in seven, in less than four years. So many innocent lives perished pointlessly and in unimaginable pain. The actions of one man changed the course of the entire nation. This was not the first time that humanity had to endure this kind of injustice. It is very doubtful that it would be the last!

-- December 2001



Chandler, David P. Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1999.

Chandler, David P. The Tragedy of Cambodian History: War, Politics and Revolution since 1945. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.

Thayer, Nate. "Day of Reckoning." Far Eastern Economic Review, 30 October, 1997: pp. 14-20.

Thayer, Nate. "My Education." Far Eastern Economic Review, 30 October, 1997: p. 21.

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