On 17 April 1975, 40 years ago today, an army dressed head to toe in black stormed Phnom Penh, Cambodia. They were the Khmer Rouge (KR) and they had arrived in the capital not just to liberate it from the Khmer Republic government of Lon Nol, but to destroy the very concept of a Cambodian city, emptying the capital of its population.
The KR faced little opposition as they entered Phnom Penh’s streets after weeks of slowly tightening the noose-like perimeter it held around the city. The government troops retreated ever closer to the centre and the city’s population, swollen by the influx of refugees from the countryside, followed suit. Once victory for the communist KR was inevitable, the Lon Nol government raised white flags and welcomed the troops in while music blasted from loudspeakers. At around midday on 17 April the music stopped and government leader General Mey Sichan began to speak about how both sides had entered peace talks, but he was quickly interrupted by a KR official who announced: ‘we enter Phnom Penh not for negotiation, but as conquerors’.
KR foot soldiers filed into the city and began to gather material goods that symbolised Western capitalism, such as televisions, cars and refrigerators, to burn in dramatic, symbolic funeral pyres. Soon thousands of people were being forced out of their homes and into the streets, being made to evacuate the city. They were told they could return once the Khmer Rouge had cleansed Phnom Penh of its enemies. Those who refused were murdered.
Moving along on foot, the city’s population were herded into the countryside with all they could carry. The young and the old were not spared. Even the sick were forced out of the main hospital, some still connected to their IV drips, to join the slow-moving exodus from Phnom Penh. The weak would be the first to perish.
‘A general air of misery hung over the whole crowd as we trudged along. Our entire fabric of life had been torn apart,’ said survivor Var Ashe Houston.
These people would not return for four years, and many would not return at all. This day marked the beginning of the Genocide in Cambodia, a brutal experiment by the KR and its leader Pol Pot in social engineering and agricultural reform. The calendar was set to ‘Year Zero’ as the KR aimed to wipe out all the existing culture and traditions of Cambodia to start from scratch, and the country was given its Khmer name ‘Kampuchea’. There were no political or civil rights, religion was outlawed, only the Khmer language was permitted to be spoken, and the newly rural population was forced to work impossibly long days on collective farms on meagre rations. Famine, disease and summary executions would kill an estimated two million Cambodians, a quarter of its population. Minority ethnic groups were targeted, such as ethnic Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese, as well as religious groups including Cham Muslims, Christians and Buddhists. Artists, teachers, the former ruling classes and qualified professionals were a threat to the KR vision of Cambodia and faced the threat of death, having to hide their identity or else face the Killing Fields. Many would be persecuted simply for wearing glasses, a supposed giveaway to being one of these outcast intellectuals. 'To spare you is no profit,’ one KR slogan ran, ‘to destroy you is no loss.'
After nearly four years of toil, torture and suffering, Cambodia was liberated by the Vietnamese army. The Khmer Rouge was overrun in just two weeks following the invasion. Phnom Penh fell once again on 7 January 1979, with Vietnam establishing the People's Republic of Kampuchea while the remaining guerrillas were driven into the jungle. Those lucky enough to return to their homes they left on 17 April 1975 found them ransacked and rotting, and often with their relatives nowhere to be found.