Modern History Sourcebook:
Cambodia: Year Zero, 1978
One of the most notable genocides since 1945 was visited on
its own people by the Khmer Rouge, the guerrilla movement
which successfully came to power using the destablization of Cambodia,
following the US extension of the Vietnam war into that country.
In April 1975, the Khmer Rouge took the capital city of Phnom
Penh. At this point the began an exercise in social control on a
scale rarely seen. Under the direction of the Angkar (the "Higher
Committee"), led by Pol Pot (who was arrested for this only
in 1997), the government moved people out of the cities into the
countryside for a massive reeducation program. At the same
time there began the systematic killing of those Cambodians associated
with earlier governments. More, any Cambodian man, woman or child
who was seen as a threat ,or who refused to obey orders was killed.
The ability to speak a western language was sufficient grounds. Between 1975 and 1979 over half a million Cambodians, out of
a population of seven million, fell in the Khmer Rouge "killing
fields". François Ponchaud is French Roman Catholic priest who
lived and worked in Cambodia for many years. (Cambodia was a former
French colony). Although he had to leave Phnom Penh in 1975,
along with all foreigners, he continued to work with Cambodian
refugees. The following excerpts describe the experiences of a
schoolteacher, court clerk, and physician during this period,
as they were interviewed by Fr. Ponchaud.
A Schoolteacher's Story At the beginning of January 1976, . . . twenty of us were sentenced
to death for traveling without permission. We were taken away
in a truck with our hands tied behind our backs. One Khmer Rouge
sat behind with a gun and two more sat in front with the driver.
One of us managed to free himself and secretly untied eleven others.
Then one of us tried to kill the Khmer Rouge sitting in the back
of the truck, but the guards in front saw him and turned around
and started shooting. The twelve who had their hands free jumped
down from the truck and dived into the Mongkol Borei River by
the side on the road, then disappeared into the forest. The other
eight were killed on the spot.
A Court Clerk's Account of an Execution In October 1975, the Angkar chose us to cut bamboo at O Ta Tam,
near Phnom Rodaong, for eighteen days. One afternoon we were in
a group of thirty wagons carting bamboo to the national highway.
We had loaded and were about to turn around when we saw a military
truck enter the forest carrying about ten young men and girls.
A moment later we heard shots, then the truck came back empty.
We were very frightened, and harnessed up to go home. Then we
heard moaning and somebody calling for help. One of our group,
named Sambath, went over and saw a young man with bullet wounds
in both arms and one thigh, and his arms still tied behind his
back. Sambath untied him, gave him a little rice, and told him
how to get to the road to the west. On the way home Sambath told
us, "That young man told me that the people who had been
shot hadn't done anything wrong, they had simply gone to look
for food in the forest, so they weren't working with their group.
That's why they were killed."
A Physician's Description of His Prison Camp When we got out of the train at the station in Sisophon a reception
committee was waiting for us. Loudspeakers welcomed us and asked
all "specialists" to step forward: doctors, architects,
schoolteachers, students, technicians, and skilled workers of
all kinds. The Angkar was going to need them. I didn't move, but
a man who had been a nurse under me and was now a Khmer Rouge
cadre recognized me and strongly advised me to tell them my true
identity or risk punishment. Then all the "specialists"
were taken to Preah Neth Preah, where we had to work the land
as before. One day we were taken to Chup, a village on the road
between Siem Reap and Sisophon. There the Khmer Rouge received
us with open arms and gave us three meals a day! That was a real
treat! At one big meeting, attended by 397 "specialists,"
a Khmer Rouge asked us to write our biographies and set down our
desiderata. He even invited us to come up to the platform and
offer our suggestions as to bow the country could be better run.
Teachers and students went up and began criticizing the Angkar
for not giving people anything to eat, and for treating the sick
with medicine that was more like rabbit dung than real pills;
they asked for the bonzes to be reinstated and the pagodas reopened,
and the high schools and universities, and for everyone to be
allowed to visit his family, et cetera.
The Khmer Rouge said nothing, but we could see plainly enough
that they didn't like it. After we had written our autobiographies
they called out die names of twenty young people who had been
most outspoken in their criticism, tied their hands behind their
backs the way you tie a parrot's wings, and took them to Sisophon,
where they were put in prison.
The rest of us went back to the village of Preah Neth Preah. A
month later, on January 6, the Khmer Rouge came to get some of
us and took us to dle Battambang prison. There were fortyfive
of us, and we were the first Zguests" of the prison since
the new regime began. We had to write out our autobiographies
several more times. Each time the cadres became more insistent:
"You've made good progress since the last time but we know
that some of you are still not telling the whole truth! We know
what that truth is, why hide it? The Angkar doesn't want to kill
you, don't be afraid! By acting the way you are, you show that
you have not been converted." After three sessions, one of
my friends revealed that he had been an army doctor. A week later
We had been there two weeks when the group of twenty young people
interned at Sisophon were brought in; their arms were still tied
at all times, even during meals, and the ropes had cut deep furrows.
We also saw a former lieutenant colonel of the government army
brought in, and about twenty [republican] MPs. After a few days
they were taken away one at a time and we didn't see them again.
Now and then one of us was summoned for a "meeting,"
and sometimes the person did not come back. At the end of two
and onehalf months in prison fifteen of us were taken to
the Van Kandal pagoda, which had also been made into a prison.
There were three buildings in the pagoda: The doors and windows
of one were kept permanently shut-that was where the prisoners
were beaten, and some people had been in it for seven months.
The windows of the second building were opened from time to time.
The third building, where I was put, was for prisoners who stayed
only a short time, usually two or three weeks. Its doors and windows
were always open until 6:00 P.M. We had reeducation sessions,
study meetings, we were subjected to constant interrogations.
Those of us who were Europeantrained doctors and engineers
were questioned even more than the others, because we were suspected
of having worked with the imperialists or been engaged in secret
In the evening, when we were taking our bath in the Stung Sangker,
we saw other prisoners bathing, for although the houses on the
other bank were always shut up, there were prisoners in them too.
After ten days we were given a black garment and a gray and red
krama [scarf] and put in a truck. Half the group was let out at
Poy Saman and the other half at Kauk Khmwn to go on working in
the field. That was April 6, 1976.
From François Ponchaud, Cambodia: Year Zero, translated
by Nancy Amphoux (New York: Holts Rinehart and Winston, 1978),
pp. 67, 6970.
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(c)Paul Halsall Aug 1997