Today 47 years ago, the Khmer Rouge radical communists took over Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Initially, the Cambodian communists had been closely linked with and relied on the communist movement in Vietnam to fight French colonialism. The Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP) was founded in 1951. A Cambodian scholar, Sok Udom Deth, argued that the Vietnamese and the Khmer communists were supposed to work together equally, but in practice, all decisions were made by the Vietnamese communists, who viewed their Cambodian counterparts as incompetent. The Cambodians resented it. France relinquished sovereignty over Cambodia on November 7, 1953, and two days later, King Norodom Sihanouk declared Cambodian independence on November 9, 1953.
In the mid-1950s, several Cambodian students returned from France. Different from their Vietnamese-trained counterparts, these fresh returnees had a strong sense of nationalism, and they were very much dissatisfied with the Vietnamese guidance of Cambodian communists. One of the returnees was Saloth Sar, better known as Pol Pot, who later became the Democratic Kampuchea (DK) leader. Upon their return, many of these intellectually French-educated students worked as teachers and carefully planned for their revolution.
In my research, I learned that Pol Pot and his comrades gained populations in the 1960s when Sihanouk tried to balance the weight of the Vietnam war, trying to remain neutralized. When the growth of the US bombing increased, Sihanouk pushed all the Khmer communists into the jungle, where the KR army gained more local support and became fiercer. In 1970, General Lon Nol ousted Prince Norodom Sihanouk in a U.S – backed coup; Sihanouk formed a tactical alliance with the Khmer Rouge, believing that they would bring him back to power. While residing in China, Prince Sihanouk took the radio wave and called for the Cambodian people to join the Khmer Rouge, hoping that if the KR army won, they would support him to retune to power. As the US was losing the Vietnam War, the Khmer Republic led by Lon Nol eventually collapsed when the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. At first, the Phnom Penhers greeted KR soldiers with joy, believing that peace had finally arrived. But their joyful hope became a tragic nightmare as Pol Pot had envisioned a new, classless, and self-independent nation, in which the peasants were regarded as the backbone to build this new society. Pol Pot reputedly claimed that if the Khmers could build Angkor, they could do anything. Cambodia was to be started anew at Year Zero.
My mother’s memory of April 17, 1975
When my mom was alive, I interviewed her for a memoir writing assignment. On April 17, 1975, the last day of the Khmer New Year, she was allowed to go out with her friends. She was 18, young, energetic, in love, and full of hope. Her secret boyfriend at the time was the son of a senior government official. He took her on his Vespa to his parents’ villa, where many of her friends were singing and dancing in their best outfits. My mom and her friends were celebrating the New Year and enjoying their teenage lives without knowing that it would be the last day of their freedom. While they were having fun, hundreds and maybe thousands of the KR soldiers marched into Phnom Penh.
My mom’s boyfriend’s father called off the party and ordered everyone to go home. Loud noises were getting closer, and they were scared and confused. After everyone else left, my mom’s boyfriend begged her to escape the country with him as his family was getting ready for a flight to France. But my mother refused and insisted to return home to her family in Ta Kmoa. So, mom got a ride home from her boyfriend’s chauffeur. On her way home, she saw bodies lying on the streets of Phnom Penh, stores were burning down, and many of the KR soldiers had occupied the city. She arrived home to find everyone packing their bags in silence. My mom recalled her father asked if she had fun and then told his children they would leave the city for only three days.
That day was April 17th, 1975, when the KR took over Phnom Penh. The KR soldiers warned that the Americans would bomb the city. Therefore, everyone must leave immediately.
“We would be returning home in three days, only three days, they said.”
The KR regime lasted for almost four years (April 1975 – January 1979).
In loving memory of my mother, Chenda Kong. Prayers for my grandparents, uncles, and all the victims of the KR regime.