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Cambodia - an historical sketch

Nixon’s Dilemna

When Nixon became America’s 37th President in 1968, he inherited a war in Vietnam with nearly 500,000 American troops in the country. Part of his campaign platform was an exit of American troops in a graduated fashion, requiring the South Vietnamese forces could stand-alone against the Communists of the North.

While the Communists bullied their way into Laos and Cambodia to evade American firepower, all the while denying it to the World, the Americans began the covert warfare that was to continue in both Laos and Cambodia until they were both abandoned in the 1970s.

Nixon’s eventual impeachment revolved around the Watergate break-ins AND the covert bombing of Cambodia.

By 1975 and America’s exit from the region, the last thing the American politic and public wanted was another war in Asia. All the pieces were in place to allow the dominance of the Khmer Rouge and the genocide of their own people.

With American withdrawal from Saigon in 1975 the North Vietnamese realize their goal of a unified, communist Vietnam.

Increasing hostility between Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese was apparent, but the Khmer Rouge offensives, which placed mounting pressure on the Lon Nol regime, served the Vietnamese tactical plan well.

After the coup of 1970, Sihanouk, who was in exile in China, forms an uneasy alliance with the Khmer Rouge. Both dislike each other, but both are willing to form this ostensible alliance to topple Lon Nol, and be in a position to take advantage should they succeed. One must think that Sihanouk hoped that his former popularity with the people would re-surface. The Khmer Rouge probably found it expedient to be associated with Sihanouk.

Both Lon Nol and KR forces suffered huge losses in their battle for control of the country. Large numbers of farmers were up-rooted by the fighting, often forced from their homes by the Khmer Rouge. A steady stream of refugees swelled the population of Phnom Penh to over a million people.

In March 1975 Lon Nol leaves the country.

On April 12th 1975 American Ambassador Dean offers seats on the last American planes and helicopters evacuating American embassy and military staff to selected members of the Cambodian government. To his surprise, only one high level Government Official takes him up on this offer, Saukham Khoy, acting President.

By 10am the evacuation was complete; 82 Americans, 159 Cambodians (most of whom worked for the Americans) and 35 –third country nationals were taken by helicopter to US ships waiting in the gulf of Thailand. Others, many of whom were on the public Khmer Rouge death lists, refused the offer.

In a harbinger of things to come, the Khmer Rouge had captured the city of Odongk, north of Phnom Penh in 1974. They promptly destroy the city, force its inhabitants into the countryside, and kill teachers and public servants.

By the time of the American evacuation the Khmer Rouge surround Phnom Penh. They enter the city in captured tanks. The residents of Phnom Penh, thinking that the fighting is now over, greet the Khmer Rouge troops with cheers and smiles.

Within days the city is forcibly emptied. Anyone questioning the order to leave was summarily executed. An estimated 2 million people are forced into the countryside.


Forced labour camps in Kampong Cham, Cambodia.  (copyright AFP/Getty Images)

Pol Pot declares a new beginning, and Year Zero is proclaimed. Foreigners are expelled, embassies closed, the currency is abolished, markets, schools, the press, religion and privately held property are all abolished.

Phnom Penh, whose population had swelled to approximately one million residents and refugees is emptied virtually overnight. Days after entering the city as heros the Khmer Rouge order everyone out of the city. Many do not take the order seriously. The KR then sends squads into neighborhoods across the city, randomly selecting a family per street and kill the males.

News spreads quickly that people are being executed. The purge of government employees, Lon Nol military officers, police, teachers, ethnic Vietnamese, Christian and Muslim leaders, members of the ‘bourgeois middle class’ and 'intellectuals' are separated from the hordes leaving the city and executed. It is estimated that one hundred thousand people are killed in the early weeks of Khmer Rouge rule.


Phnom Penh, January 1st, 1975 (copyright Christine Spengler / Sygma / Corbis)

The people, who have been forced into the countryside are separated into different camps; men and boys in some, women and girls in others. With the destruction of the family unit Pol Pot's radical movement to return the country to it's earlier glory of the Angkor era has begun. The people are forced to plant and harvest rice, but are not given sufficient food to eat. They are forced into labour around the country, many die of malnutrition, many are killed by the KR, whose 'soldiers' are often barely in their teens.

There are many 'killing fields' across the country. Within the now empty Phnom Penh a school is converted into a 'prison'. S-21 'Tuol Sleng' becomes a torture center. It is estimated that 10 to 15 thousand people are sent to S-21 - only a handful survive.


A prisoner has her mug shot taken.  (copyright GAMMA / Eyedea Presse)

What most do not know is that many of the victims of S-21 are Khmer Rouge members that are being purged. Family members and friends of accused are included in this planned genocide.

Extremely paranoid Pol Pot, who everyone knows as 'Brother #1' and other senior leaders turn on their own accusing those targeted of being CIA or Vietnamese spies.

For four long years this pattern continues until the Vietnamese enter the country due to KR incursions into their country resulting in the killing of Vietnamese in several towns.

Within days the Vietnamese push the KR out of Phnom Penh and force them North and West towards the Thai border.


Pol Pot leads the Khmer Rouge into the jungle near the Thai border (copyright Kyodo News / AP)

Incredibly, the West has recognized the KR as the new government, and in an effort to contain Vietnamese movement towards Thailand supply and arm the KR. The United Nations only reversed this policy in 1998, several months before the death of Pol Pot.

A nation is left decimated, with a population that has had everything taken from it. The re-building has begun.


An exhumed mass grave in 1981.  (copyright David A. Harvey / National Geographic / Getty Images)

When Janne first arrived in Phnom Penh to start Tabitha, she slept in her cast iron bathtub every night. This was due to the fact that after 4pm KR took over the streets and would shoot anyone foolhardy enough to be outside. Cambodia was still a place in 1994 that was considered too dangerous to visit. It was in this atmosphere that Janne and her first Cambodian staffer Nary began their work.

© R.J. Carver 2010

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The opinions and information expressed  in "Surviving Angkar" are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tabitha Foundation.