On April 17, 1975, thousands of Phnom Penh residents celebrated in the streets as victorious Khmer Rouge troops entered the capitol. This joyous celebration, however, was not because the people of Phnom Penh were supporters of the Khmer Rouge; instead, they felt great relief that the five-year civil war had now come to an end. For the first several hours of that sunny morning it didn’t matter which side you were on – Cambodia was finally at peace.
This morning revealed a moment of hope. But hope quickly turned to fear as residents noticed that the Khmer Rouge troops weren’t celebrating with them. Embittered and toughened after years of brutal civil war and American bombing, the Khmer Rouge marched the boulevards of Phnom Penh with icy stares carved into their faces.
The troops soon began to order people to abandon their homes and leave Phnom Penh. By mid-afternoon hundreds of thousands of people were on the move. “The Americans are going to bomb the city!” was the answer given to residents if they asked why they had to leave Phnom Penh. No exceptions were made – all residents, young and old, had to evacuate as quickly as possible.
As the Khmer Rouge knew well, there were no American plans to attack the city. The deception was a ploy to get people into the countryside, away from the urban confines of the city.
The Khmer Rouge believed that cities were living and breathing tools of capitalism in their own right – KR cadres referred to Phnom Penh as “the great prostitute of the Mekong.” In order to create the ideal communist society, all people would have to live and work in the countryside as peasants. Peasants, in fact, were the Khmer Rouge communist ideal, not unlike the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Aryan of Nazi Germany.
Peasants were seen as simple, uneducated, hard-working and not prone to exploiting others. Their way of life had not changed for centuries, yet they always managed to survive. It was this perception that caused the Khmer Rouge to view peasants – old people, to use their political jargon – as the ideal communists for the new Cambodian state.
The city dwellers of Phnom Penh and other Cambodian cities, on the other hand, were seen as new people (or “April 17 people”). New people were the root of all capitalist evil in the eyes of the Khmer Rouge. It didn’t matter if you were a teacher, a tailor, a civil servant or a monk: new people were the embodiment of capitalism and the enemy of communism, their personal political ideologies irrelevant.
The Khmer Rouge felt that new people had made an active choice to live in the cities and thus declared their allegiance to capitalism. All city dwellers became enemies of the new communist state, a status that would cost hundreds of thousands of them their lives.
Evacuation of the cities was the first of many radical steps taken by the Khmer Rouge. As new people were forced out of the urban centers they soon learned of the new rules that were being imposed by the Angka (“The Organization”), the secretive team of Khmer Rouge leaders who dictated the lives of every Cambodian citizen.
Among these new rules, religion, money and private ownership were all banned; communications with the outside world eliminated; family relationships dismantled. All previous rights and responsibilities were thrown out the window. As was often said by the Khmer Rouge, 2001 years of Cambodian history had now come to an end; April 17 was the beginning of Year Zero for the new Cambodia: Democratic Kampuchea (DK).
Images courtesy Dr. Lewis of CSULB.