Journey to the Killing Fields (April 17, 1975 – January 7, 1979)

The end of the Khmer Republic came just as the Cambodian people celebrated the New Year for a few days. The dream of peace came with the advent of liberation troops in the provinces and cities. On April 17, 1975, the “Khmer Rouge” Liberation Army occupied Phnom Penh and other provincial capitals. The Lon Nol soldiers put down their weapons. The people of Phnom Penh celebrated the Khmer Rouge’s victory with imaginations that the nation had been liberated. But their dreams were dashed. The Khmer Rouge troops forced all Phnom Penh residents to leave the city, and the people of other provinces and cities were also evacuated from one province to another. The Khmer Rouge subsequently implemented a strange policy to lead the country that had never existed in human history. The result of the regime led to the deaths of nearly two million Cambodians from diseases caused by lack of medicines and health services, starvation, killings and overwork.

From December 15 to 19, 1975, a constitution was written by a thousand members in Phnom Penh and was promulgated on January 5, 1976. Cambodia was officially renamed “Democratic Kampuchea.” The constitution did not guarantee human rights, limited a few government organizations, and abolished property, religious institutions and agricultural production for the family. The Constitution did not provide any precedent, but rejected alliances or foreign aid, and did not say anything about the Communist Party of Kampuchea or Marxist Leninist theory. Instead, the regime made it look like a pure Khmer without contact with the outside world.

Pol Pot embarked on a four-year project, in which Cambodia made its “great leap” policy toward socialism in 1979. Pol Pot’s goal is to triple his rice output to three tonnes per hectare, creating arable land in the malarial forests of northeastern Cambodia. Those who were forced out of the city were known as the New People because they were expected to give up all the pastures and were sent to these areas to dig up canals and explore new lands.

To purify the interior, the Khmer Rouge divided people into three major classes: the full rights, the majority, were the poorest locals in the old regime and the illiterate. The preparers were the local population, including a students or little-educated people, and farmers, artisans, and middle-class traders. The depositors were former bourgeois, civil servants, scholars, student and people of April 17 (residents of Phnom Penh, who were evacuated when the Khmer Rouge took control of the city on April 17, 1975). This last group was the target to be almost killed by the Khmer Rouge.

The Khmer Rouge claimed that only clean people were qualified to build a revolution. Immediately after the takeover, the Khmer Rouge arrested and executed thousands of Lon Nol’s Khmer Republic’s soldiers and officials, whom they considered “unclean”. Over the next three years, the Khmer Rouge regime killed hundreds of thousands of ethnic minority residents, including Cham, Vietnam and China. The Khmer Rouge also killed many of its military and party members, accusing them of treason and betrayal to revolution.

In the 1976 Communist Party’s four-year plan, Cambodians across the country were ordered to cultivate rice to get three tonnes per hectare. This means that people had to cultivate and harvest twelve months a year. In most areas, the Khmer Rouge forced people to work more than twelve hours a day without enough rest and food.

Confidentiality is a fundamental principle of Democratic Kampuchea. The Khmer Rouge had a slogan, “secrecy is a key victory factor” and “high secrecy prolongs survival”. Until the end of 1977, clashes with Vietnam broke out. Tens of thousands people were sent to the battlefield and thousands died. In December 1978, Vietnamese troops and forces of the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvations made inroad into Cambodia and captured Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979.

By Dr. Kin Phea, Director General, International Relations Institute of Cambodia, Royal Academy of Cambodia.

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