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1975 - Evacuation of Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is the Mekong River's largest city. Its population fluctuated wildly during the 1970s and 1980s; from an estimated 1.2 million in 1971 it swelled with war refugees to 2 million or more by 1975, when it was forcibly evacuated to almost nothing by the victorious Khmer Rouge communists. From 1978 (the last year of the Khmer Rouge regime) to 1987, Phnom Penh's population grew from about 50,000 to 700,000. Because of the extreme instability in these decades, data on Cambodia are often fragmentary and contradictory.

Just a few weeks after taking power, the radical Khmer Rouge forced the whole population of the capital city and provincial towns to leave at gunpoint for the countryside. During this movement, almost 20,000 people died. Once in the countryside, everyone was forced into mobile teams and worked as slaves in the fields from 12 to 15 hours a day. Work in the fields began at 4 a.m. and ended at 10 p.m.

Just a few weeks after taking power, the radical Khmer Rouge forced the whole population of the capital city and provincial towns to leave at gunpoint for the countryside. Mid-April is the beginning of the Cambodian new year, the year's most festive celebration. For many Cambodians, the fall of Phnom Penh promised both a new year and a new era of peace. The people of Phnom Penh and of other cities waited in anticipation for the appearance of their new rulers. The troops who entered the capital on April 17 were mostly grim-faced youths clad in black with the checkered scarves that had become the uniform of the movement. Their unsmiling demeanor quickly dispelled popular enthusiasm. People began to realize that, in the eyes of the victors, the war was not over; it was just beginning, and the people were the new enemy. According to Father Ponchaud, as the sense of consternation and dread grew, it seemed that "a slab of lead had fallen on the city."

Evacuation of Phnom Penh began immediately.The black-clad troops told the residents that they would move only about "two or three kilometers" outside the city and would return in "two or three days." Other witnesses report being told that the evacuation was because of the threat of an American bombing and that they did not have to lock their houses since the Khmer Rouge would "take care of everything" until they returned. The roads out of the city were clogged with evacuees. Phnom Penh--the population of which, numbering 2.5 million people, included as many as 1.5 million wartime refugees living with relatives or in shantytowns around the urban center--was soon emptied. Similar evacuations occurred at Batdambang, Kampong Cham, Siemreab, Kampong Thum, and the country's other towns and cities.

There were no exceptions to the evacuation. Even Phnom Penh's hospitals were emptied of their patients. The Khmer Rouge provided transportation for some of the aged and the disabled, and they set up stockpiles of food outside the city for the refugees; however, the supplies were inadequate to sustain the hundreds of thousands of people on the road. Even seriously injured hospital patients, many without any means of conveyance, were summarily forced to leave regardless of their condition.

According to Khieu Samphan, the evacuation of Phnom Penh's famished and disease-racked population resulted in 2,000 to 3,000 deaths, which is probably an understatement. The foreign community, about 800 persons, was quarantined in the French embassy compound, and by the end of the month the foreigners were taken by truck to the Thai border. Khmer women who were married to foreigners were allowed to accompany their husbands, but Khmer men were not permitted to leave with their foreign wives.

Promises that urban residents forced into the countryside would be allowed to return home were never kept. Instead, the town dwellers, regarded as politically unreliable "new people," were put to work in forced labor battalions throughout the country. One refugee, for example, recalled that her family was sent to the region around Moung Roessei in Batdambang Province to clear land and grow rice.

Aside from the alleged threat of United States air strikes, the Khmer Rouge justified the evacuations in terms of the impossibility of transporting sufficient food to feed an urban population of between 2 and 3 million people. Lack of adequate transportation meant that, instead of bringing food to the people (tons of it lay in storehouses in the port city of Kampong Saom, according to Father Ponchaud), the people had to be brought to (and had to grow) the food. But there were other, more basic motivations.

The Khmer Rouge was determined to turn the country into a nation of peasants in which the corruption and parasitism of city life would be completely uprooted. In addition, Pol Pot wanted to break up the "enemy spy organizations" that allegedly were based in the urban areas. Finally, it seems that Pol Pot and his hard-line associates on the KCP Political Bureau used the forced evacuations to gain control of the city's population and to weaken the position of their factional rivals within the communist party. Had Phnom Penh been controlled by one of the more moderate communist leaders, the exodus might not have taken place when it did.

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Page last modified: 29-05-2012 18:40:57 ZULU