The Khmer Rouge, a militant political faction, rode a tide of opposition to US bombings around the Ho Chi Minh trail. Presenting themselves as a peace-oriented party that could stand up to western imperialists, they took the capital Phnom Penh in April 1975. They initially claimed loyalty to King Norodom Sihanouk, who had supported them against General Lon Nol.
One of the Khmer Rouge’s first acts was to move most of the urban population into the countryside. They 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 Penhthe 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 centerwas soon nearly empty. Similar evacuations occurred at Battambang, Kampong Cham, Siemreap, Kampong Thom, and throughout the country’s other towns and cities.
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 removal of Phnom Penh’s population resulted in 2,000 to 3,000 deaths. 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.
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. Western historians claim that the motives were political, based on deep-rooted resentment of the cities. 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.
The regime seized and executed as many Khmer Republic civil servants, police, and military officers as it could find. Evacuees who had been associated with the Lon Nol government had to feign peasant or working-class backgrounds to avoid execution. One refugee wrote that she and her family, who came from the middle or upper middle class, dyed their city clothes black (like those of peasants) to help them escape detection. In one incident, soon after the fall of Phnom Penh, more than 300 former military officers were told to put on their dress uniforms in order to “meet Sihanouk.” Instead, they were taken to a jungle clearing in Battambang Province and were machine-gunned or clubbed to death. The wives and the children of people with government backgrounds were also killed, apparently to eliminate people who might harbor feelings of revenge toward the regime.
According to refugee accounts, the rate of killing had decreased by the summer of 1975. Some civil servants and educated people were sent to “re-education centers” and, if they showed “genuine” contrition, were put in forced labor battalions. There were new killings, however, in late 1975 and in early 1976. Many of the victims were educated people, such as schoolteachers. The peasants overseeing the evacuees in the countryside also employed harsh measures. In order to save ammunition, they used simple weapons like pickaxes and ax handles to carry out sentences. People were executed for not working hard enough, complaining about living conditions, collecting or stealing food for their own use, wearing jewelry, having sexual relations, grieving over the loss of relatives or friends, or expressing religious sentiments. Sick people were often eliminated. The killings often occurred without any kind of trial, and they continued, uninterrupted, until the 1979 Vietnamese invasion. People who displeased the Angkar Loeu (higher committee), or its local representatives, customarily received a kosang (formal warning) to mend their ways. More than two warnings resulted in being given an “invitation,” which meant certain death. In 1977 and 1978 the violence reached a climax as the revolutionaries turned against each other in bloody purges.
Estimates of the number of people who perished under the Khmer Rouge vary tremendously, even within the present Cambodian government. A figure of three million deaths between 1975 and 1979 was given by the Vietnamese-sponsored Phnom Penh regime, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK). Father Ponchaud suggested 2.3 million; the Yale Cambodian Genocide Project estimated 1.7 million; Amnesty International estimated 1.4 million ; and the United States Department of State, 1.2 million. Khieu Samphan and Pol Pot cited figures of 1 million and 800,000, respectively. In 1962 the year of the last census taken before Cambodia was engulfed by war, the population of the country was cited at 5.7 million. Ten years later, in 1972, the population was estimated to have reached 7.1 million. Using Pol Pot’s rather modest figure of 800,000 deaths, about 11 percent of the population would have died from unnatural causes between 1975 and 1978. By contrast, Amnesty International’s figure would yield a death rate of almost 20 percent of the population; Father Ponchaud’s, of approximately 32 percent. The revolution was easily, in proportion to the size of the country’s population, the bloodiest in modern Asian history.
As is evident from the accounts of refugees, the greatest causes of death were hunger, disease, and exposure. Many city people could not survive the rigors of life in the countryside, the forced marches, and the hard physical labor. Many fell victim to malaria. Others died in the fighting between Vietnam and Cambodia in 1978 and in 1979. Nonetheless, executions accounted for hundreds of thousands of victims and perhaps for as many as 1 million. Western journalists have been shown “killing fields” containing as many as 16,000 bodies.