Cambodia: Remembering the Killing Fields: Paul Bellamy Examines the Bloody Recent History of Cambodia and Warns That It Faces an Uncertain Future

By Bellamy, Paul | New Zealand International Review, March-April 2005 | Go to article overview

Cambodia: Remembering the Killing Fields: Paul Bellamy Examines the Bloody Recent History of Cambodia and Warns That It Faces an Uncertain Future


Bellamy, Paul, New Zealand International Review


On 17 April 2005 it will be 30 years since the Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia. With the 1975 fall of Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, one of modern history's most brutal and terrifying regimes, came to power. Its rule lasted only three years, eight months and 20 days. However, the regime would leave chilling reminders of its atrocities in the form of the killing fields, areas where mass executions of men, women, and children took place.

On coming to power, the Khmer Rouge implemented a radical and brutal policy aimed at restructuring society. Cambodia was renamed Democratic Kampuchea, and the advent of Khmer Rouge rule was proclaimed 'Year Zero'. City residents were evacuated and forced to undertake hard labour in the countryside, the population faced unrelenting and intense indoctrination, there was widespread hunger and poverty, and many atrocities were committed.

By the time the Khmer Rouge lost power in early 1979, up to 1.7 million lives had been lost through executions, malnutrition or disease. Overall, up to a quarter of the population is estimated to have died as a direct result of Khmer Rouge policies. (1)

This article outlines factors that contributed to the Khmer Rouge victory in 1975 before reviewing its disastrous impact on a country that had already experienced much bloodshed and violence. The continued plight of Cambodia after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge is then examined.

The successful Khmer Rouge offensive that started on 1 January 1975 brought a brutal and costly civil war to a conclusion. During this war United States and South Vietnamese forces had briefly invaded eastern Cambodia in 1970. A US bombing campaign started in March 1973. By the time it was halted five months later, more than a hundred thousand tons of bombs had been dropped. An estimated half a million people were killed during the civil war. (2)

As the regime of Lon Nol was collapsing the Khmer Rouge raced towards Phnom Penh. By early April 1975 living conditions in the capital for the population of 2.5 million were becoming unbearable as food and medicine supplies ran low. Conditions worsened as the Khmer Rouge prevented river convoys reaching the city and restricted air traffic through intense bombardments of the airport.

Inevitable fall

As the fall of Phnom Penh became inevitable those who could fled. In early April Lon Nol went into exile. Soon afterwards the US Ambassador John Gunther Dean, his staff, and foreigners who wanted to leave were evacuated by helicopter. The airlift had been delayed as the United States attempted to reach a deal with Norodom Sihanouk, who had lost power in 1970 and later allied himself with the Khmer Rouge. However, this attempt proved futile and in the confusion many people who had helped the Lon Nol government were left behind to face the Khmer Rouge onslaught.

On 17 April 1975 the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh. Residents witnessed wary and exhausted fighters dressed in dirty and in-fitting black uniforms with colourful headbands or peaked Mao caps silently marching into the city. Many of the soldiers were teenagers and had little knowledge of city life. Relieved that the civil war had ended, many residents initially welcomed the Khmer Rouge forces. However, unease and anxiety soon spread. One eyewitness wrote that 'I had a physical sensation that a slab of lead had suddenly fallen on to the city'. Another wrote that the fighters appeared to be from a 'different world' and 'never smiled at all.' (3)

The Khmer Rouge forces that entered Phnom Penh had little empathy for the residents, who they associated with moral decay and imperialism. Those linked with the Lon Nol administration were summarily executed, as were other perceived opponents. Buildings were ransacked and items such as cars and motorcycles stolen. However, money was not taken and soon littered the streets as it became worthless under the new regime. …

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