Khmer Rouge soldiers marching into Phnom Penh on April 17, 19751
The Khmer Rouge had managed territory under its control in some areas (such as much of Kampot province) since before 1970. They gradually implemented their social ideas and experimented over the next 5 years. In April 1975, when they took control of the whole country, this experiment became writ large, and the first part of this was to empty the cities.
It was an agrarian revolution with no place for city dwellers – the implacable enemy. When the cities and towns were evacuated on such a large scale, and money simultaneously abolished2 the old regime and its power were dismantled in a few days. On the way to their new life in the rice fields, city dwellers were filtered for likely opposition to the revolution. Thousands of Lon Nol soldiers and officers were tricked into surrendering and quickly and quietly executed away from the public eye, in a manner that came to characterize the secretive regime.
At first people could go where they wanted and many stayed as close to Phnom Penh as they could. As the food, water and medical shortages started to bite, the regime, monopolizing all access to these resources, asserted its control. In late 1975 a mass migration of people occurred as hundreds of thousands of ex-city dwellers were moved, either tricked or forced, to the north west of the country, to Battambang and Pursat provinces. It was shown later that the food necessary to feed such numbers was not provided. The inevitable and predictable result was mass starvation and disease.
Old and new people
The peasants who had remained in the countryside throughout the war were known as the ‘old people’, in contrast to the ‘new people’ who were treated with suspicion by both the Khmer Rouge and the loyal peasants. To survive in the new world meant submitting to the rule of Angkar (literally means ‘the organisation’ in Khmer), as defined by the new authorities. For people already regarded with suspicion any misdemeanor, careless word, ‘malingering’ or complaining could mean being disappeared.
The Khmer Rouge declared that they had returned Kampuchea to “Year Zero” from which would emerge the new society. This would be funded by money from the export of rice, mainly to China, which was allied with the Pol Pot regime. Starving villagers watched as the rice they had grown and harvested and assumed would eat, was loaded up and taken away.
After 1976 food had to be eaten collectively rather than as a family. Anyone caught eating anything without permission was accused of stealing from the people, and punished. Becker writes “When a family ate together the father or mother could make something out of wild vegetables or small wild animals found around the area. But when hundreds of people ate together, how could such treasures be shared?....It was decided that foraging for food took up valuable time better spent in the fields.”3 For most of these years a thin watery gruel was all new people ever tasted.
From the late 1940's the communist resistance had divided the country into zones, which functioned as administrative districts. The Khmer Rouge now administered their new "Democratic Kampuchea" using these zones.4 Each zone implemented the orders that came from the Centre (Angkar), in reality a faceless clique led by Pol Pot and unknown to anyone except zone leaders.
The zones eventually became very powerful, particularly the Southwest Zone containing Kampot. This became the model zone and its notorious leader Ta Mok stayed loyal to Pol Pot until his death many years later.
When things went wrong in an area, blame was placed at the zone headquarters and the officials who administered the districts and villages within it. Tuol Sleng, the high school turned torture centre in Phnom Penh, filled with thousands of officials from zones that fell out of favour with the Centre, which could never be wrong.
The Eastern Zone came to be regarded with suspicion because it shared a long border with Vietnam. Some of the worst massacres of the period occurred in 1977-78 as entire villages were emptied and the occupants murdered. Tens of thousands of innocent Vietnamese-Cambodians died. The Centre also called for an unnecessary military campaign against Vietnam and when this was not successful the zone leader, a lifelong guerilla fighter, So Phim, and his allies became targets. Eastern Zone Khmer Rouge soldiers, like Hun Sen, Chea Sim and Heng Samrin could see they were next and fled to Vietnam. So Phim killed himself.
Survivors from the Pol Pot years trying to find food and begin life again5
The demise of the Pol Pot regime came in the last days of 1978 when Vietnam invaded Cambodia, timing the invasion to be able to harvest the rice crop. With no domestic support the Khmer Rouge regime fled to the mountainous western border with Thailand, and Cambodia, once again had a new ruling class.
1. Photo from http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/citys-fall
2. The banks in Phnom Penh were blown up and all currency was taken to the Olympic Stadium and burnt.
3. Elizabeth Becker, When the War was over. (Public Affairs, New York, 1998), p 248.
4. Upon victory the Southwest Zone was divided into two: the West Zone, taking in Koh Kong, much of Kompong Speu and Kompong Chnang and the Southwest Zone including the provinces of Kampot, Takeo and Kandal, west of the Mekong.
5. This photo is displayed at the Tuol Sleng museum