The Beginning

excerpted from the book


Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia

by William Shawcross

Simon and Schuster, 1979

The Beginning


When the first strange soldiers walked along Monivong Boulevard early on the morning of April 17, they waved as the townspeople cheered, embraced them and wept. Small children danced around, the government ordered all troops to cease fire. At last, it seemed to those who saw the scene, the fratricide was over, guns would be laid aside, the "gentle, smiling Khmers" would reunite.

It was a cruel deception, and a short one. This first contingent was a tiny group, mostly students from Phnom Penh acting, some say, under the influence of Lon Nol's brother Lon Non, who still apparently imagined that victory could be denied the Communists if only a new government seized power from Long Boret. In less than two hours, the Khmer Rouge themselves arrived.

They marched in from all sides of the city, those from the south arriving first. All in black, wearing checked scarves and Ho Chi Minh sandals, their most obvious qualities were their youth and their exhaustion. Hung around with bandoliers and shouldering their AK-47s, they strode through the town.

Within a few hours they had stationed themselves at strategic crossroads all over the city. They did not smile much, and the relief with which most people had begun the day began to dissipate; joy was replaced by concern, concern by trepidation, trepidation by fear.


Toward the end of the morning a platoon of the young victors marched into the grounds of the Preah Ket Melea hospital. Many of the doctors had already fled, and here, as in most other hospitals, patients lay untended in filth and agony. A mother had been sitting motionless with her children; she waved the flies off the bloated, patchy body of one dying baby. Wrapped in brown paper beside her, its feeding bottle by its head, lay the dead body of her other child. A soldier with a gaping, untreated stomach wound gasped for water he could not have swallowed. The corridors, on which bodies, alive and dead, were piled, were awash with blood and excrement.

The soldiers marched through the wards, and then they ordered all those patients who could walk to get off their beds and push out through the doors those who could not move. And so, in the heat of the day, a most dreadful parade began.

From hospitals all over the city crawled and hobbled the casualties of the war, the first victims of the "peace." Men with no legs bumped down stairs, and levered themselves on skinny arms along the street; blind boys laid their hands on the shoulders of crippled guides, soldiers with one foot and no crutches dragged themselves away, parents carried their wounded children in plastic bags that oozed blood. Beds were pushed slowly, jolting along, the blood and plasma bottles breaking. One father stumbled through the heat with his daughter tied in a sheet around his neck. A man with a foot hanging only by skin to the end of his leg begged Father Francois Ponchaud, a Jesuit priest, for refuge as he passed his house. The priest refused him, feeling as he did so that he had lost the last shred of human dignity. With thousands of others the man stumbled along toward the countryside.

This was only one stage in the purification of the city. At the same time soldiers ordered everyone out of the grounds of the Hotel Phnom, where the Red Cross had hoped to establish a neutral zone. Many Cambodians and almost all the foreigners who remained in Phnom Penh now made their way to the French embassy, which, despite Sihanouk's order to close, was still manned by the vice-consul. All together, about 800 foreigners and 600 or more Cambodians, among them Sirik Matak, now facing the consequences of his brave refusal of John Dean's escape offer, crowded into the compound.

It afforded no refuge. Within forty-eight hours, the vice-consul was informed by the Khmer Rouge that Cambodia was owned by its people and that the new government recognized no such concepts as territoriality or diplomatic privilege; if he did not expel all the Cambodians then the lives of the foreigners would also be forfeit. Cambodian women married to foreigners could remain; Cambodian men in the same situation could not. A few marriages were hastily arranged so that some women could acquire French citizenship. No resistance was offered. The foreigners stood and wept as their husbands, friends, lovers, servants, colleagues were hustled through the embassy gates.

Within a fortnight the foreigners were taken out of the country in trucks. Almost none of those Cambodians has ever reappeared. The new authorities later announced that Sirik Matak had been executed. So was Prime Minister Long Boret, who had surrendered to the victors with great dignity. So was Lon Nol's brother Lon Non.

When the hospitals had been emptied, it was the turn of the ordinary townspeople and the refugees. They were ordered to abandon their houses, their apartments, their shacks, their camps. They were told to take with them only the food they could carry. Those who were separated from their families were not allowed to seek them. No demurral was allowed. As the sun began to sink that afternoon, men, women and children all over Phnom Penh straggled bemused out of the side streets and onto the highways. The roads became clogged; people could shuffle forward only a few yards at a time. In the crush, hundreds of families were split, and as they moved on more and more people fell under the strain. The old and the very young were the first to go; within a few miles of the city center more and more bodies were to be seen Iying where their relatives had been forced to leave them.

Out on the roads the evacuees found that the Communists had accumulated stocks of food in places. But these and supplies of water were not adequate for more than two and a half million people. When the townspeople asked how they were to eat, where they could find drugs, where they were to go, the response was one with which they were soon to become familiar. "Angka" or "Angka Loeu"-''The Organization" or "Supreme Organization''-would provide. Angka would instruct them. The nature of Angka was not clear to the evacuees at first, but within hours millions of Cambodians had realized that its orders, transmitted through the fierce young soldiers who supervised their trek, were to be obeyed instantly, and that complaints were often met by immediate execution. As they walked into that first night of April 17, 1975, they were told that from now on only Angka ruled and that Cambodia was beginning again. This was "Year Zero."

... Cambodia was almost completely cut off from the outside world, and for three years it hardly opened its frontiers, except to Chinese technicians and advisers. Throughout that time it was in a state of siege; the new regime was engaged in wars against the country's past and against its external enemies.

The principal sources of news were refugees who fled to Thailand, and Radio Phnom Penh, the official voice of Democratic Kampuchea, and then refugees in Vietnam and the Vietnamese media. When the refugees first arrived in Thailand in the summer of 1975, they brought such terrible tales that there was a tendency among Western journalists and experts to dismiss them; they seemed to fit too neatly with the predictions of blood bath that American officials had been making for years in Vietnam and that had not, in the event, proved accurate there. Refugees, it was argued, inevitably decry the land they have fled. But refugees' descriptions have often proved accurate enough; those from Stalin's Russia and Hitler's Germany in the 1930s provide two contemporary examples. Moreover, people who fled from different parts of Cambodia over a three-year period to either Thailand or Vietnam spoke of Khmer Rouge conduct in similar terms. Their accounts were indirectly underwritten by Radio Phnom Penh's explanations of government policies and then, in 1978, by the commmentaries that the Vietnamese media made on Democratic Kampuchea. When the bias of all these sources was discounted they tended to complement rather than contradict one another and provided a consistent, if not necessarily complete, account of life in Democratic Kampuchea.

It seemed a vast and somber work camp where toil was unending, where respite and rewards were nonexistent, where families were abolished and where murder was used as a tool of social discipline. The refugees claimed that after that terrible march out of Phnom Penh and other towns the "new people" had to write biographies of themselves. Anyone, they claimed, associated with the Lon Nol government-officers in the army, civil servants, teachers, policemen-risked death. So, I they said, did those who were educated, those who questioned the Angka or complained, those who made love outside of marriage, and those who could in any way be associated with Vietnam. The wives and families of these "traitors" faced execution too. The manner of execution was often brutal. Babies were torn apart limb from limb, pregnant women were disemboweled. Men and women were buried up to their necks in sand and left to die slowly. A common form of execution was by axe handles to the back of the neck. That saved ammunition.

During 1977 and 1978 the purges extended into the Angka itself, and so an increasing number of Khmer Rouge officials themselves began to flee to Thailand. They confirmed the stories that earlier refugees, their victims, related.

In 1978, under pressure of a new war with Vietnam, the country began to open slightly. Relations with other Southeast Asia nations were strengthened, and trade was increased. A group of Yugoslav journalists were invited to visit. They produced articles and a film in which they made only a thin attempt to disguise their dislike of the regime. Scandinavian ambassadors on a visit from Peking were dismayed by what they saw.

Three years after its fall, Phnom Penh was still an almost empty city. Some quarters were carefully tended. In others, wrecked cars lay where they had been abandoned in April 1975, and grass grew through the cobblestones. Some parks and gardens were now vegetable gardens; shops, hotels and kiosks were all closed. None of the apparatus of modern government existed; almost every office in the various ministries was deserted. About ten thousand workers were trucked in daily to run the few services essential to the Angka's leadership. There was no postal system, no currency, no telephone...

Refugees have constantly spoken of the starvation as well as the terror they have endured since April 1975. The government's determination to carry the Maoist principle of self-reliance to lengths of which Mao himself had never dreamed, made this inevitable. But any government would have been confronted with almost insurmountable problems of food and agriculture in April 1975. Their scale was well described in the draft Termination Report prepared by the U.S. AID team. It was written just after John Gunther Dean and his- staff fled Phnom Penh, and it reflects to some extent the anguish of junior officials forced to implement policies they felt were destructive.

The report noted that "Cambodia slipped in less than five years from a significant exporter of rice to large-scale imports, and when these ended in April 1975, to the brink of starvation." The country faced famine. "To avert a major food disaster Cambodia needs from 175,000 to 250,000 metric tons of milled rice to cover the period July 7 to mid-February 1976." Yet the vast bulk of Cambodia's rice would not be harvested until December. "Even with completely favorable natural conditions, the prospects for a harvest this year good enough to move Cambodia very far back toward rice self-sufficiency are not good...." Too much damage had been done. The report noted that the land would be seriously overgrown, seed and fuel would be short, and that up to 75 percent of draft animals had been destroyed by the war. Moreover, most of the planting would have to be done "by the hard labor of seriously malnourished people.... Without substantial foreign aid the task will be brutally difficult and the food-supply crisis can be expected to extend over the next two or three years...."

Given how the Khmer Rouge actually behaved, U.S. AID's conclusion was significant:

"If ever a country needed to beat its swords into plowshares in a race to save itself from hunger, it is Cambodia. The prospects that it can or will do so are poor.... Therefore, without large-scale external food and equipment assistance there will be widespread starvation between now and next February.... Slave labor and starvation rations for half the nation's people (probably heaviest among those who supported the republic) will be a cruel necessity for this year, and general deprivation and suffering will stretch over the next two or three years before Cambodia can get back to rice self-sufficiency."

That is very nearly how refugees and, by implication, the Phnom Penh Radio described what has happened in Cambodia since April 1975.

Throughout 1975 the population (particularly the "new people" from the towns) suffered terribly from lack of food; hundreds of thousands may well have died of starvation and of disease. Western medicine was discarded, and there were almost no drugs in the country; at one stage the Prime Minister himself admitted that traditional herbal remedies had been ineffective and that 80 percent of the people were suffering from malaria. In 1976 slightly more food was available and Chinese quinine was imported. The 1977 harvest was poor, but by the summer of 1978 Radio Phnom Penh was claiming that every Cambodian received 900 grams of rice a day. Refugees asserted that daily rations were usually much less, but certainly rice supplies should by then have been adequate. Immense efforts had been made to rebuild the country's agricultural system, and the eleventh century rather than the 1960s was the model.

At first the Angka was everything-the source of all power, of all influence, of all decisions. As Francois Ponchaud has pointed out, the radio spoke of it in terms of almost religious respect. The Angka was "believed in," it was "loved," its "blessings" were "remembered," it was the source of all happiness and inspiration. This "happiness" of the Cambodian people, now that the inequalities and the exploitations of the past were renounced, was constantly acclaimed by the radio. For the first time, the people were told, they were free of all corrupt and thieving outsiders. Until now they had been oppressed and wretched, in particular under the yoke of the fascist Lon Nol and his imperialist supporters. Now, at last, Kampucheans had mastered their soil and were free to live joyously and independently. "The imperialists, the capitalists and the feudalists utterly destroyed our national soul for hundreds of years. Now our soul has risen again, thanks to our revolutionary Angka." "For thousands of years the colonialists, imperialists and reactionary feudalists have dragged us through the mud. Now we have regained our honor, our dignity; now we smell good again."

The radio constantly declared that Kampucheans reflected the revolutionary spirit, the spirit of Angka, ''a spirit of combative struggle, economy, inventiveness and a very high level of renunciation." "Renunciation," said the refugees, had three components: "renunciation of personal attitudes," "renunciation of material goods," and "renunciation of personal behavior." The individual must find complete joy in working for the Angka, must forswear personal property, family relationships and such attitudes as pride, contempt, envy.

As during the war, special attention was paid to the development of children. They were often brought up communally; if they still lived with their parents, they were taught to have no regard for the concept of family and to treat their relations simply as anyone else in the group. Parents, on the other hand, were taught to honor their "comrade children," whose spirits are uncorrupted by the past. Children were often used as spies within villages; the radio has said that many of them "have held aloft their spirit of vigilance and creativity [and] . . . have become engaged in patrolling their villages and communes with the highest revolutionary spirit."

The precise makeup of the government that succeeded Sihanouk was at first unclear. Refugees spoke much more of Angka than of individual leaders. Names like Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary and Pol Pot did not readily come from their lips, nor did the Radio at first make much mention of them. Despite the obvious emphasis on collective measures, it was not until 1977 that the leading role of the Communist Party was acknowledged.

What happened among those few men and women who came out of the fields and the forests into the capital they had emptied in April 1975 is not yet known. But it is certain that the struggle among them was intense. Their disputes were influenced, above all, by the fighting that broke out immediately with their former Vietnamese allies and, to a lesser extent, by the upheavals in Chinese politics that followed the death of Chou Enlai and then that of Mao Tse-tung. It was not until the second half of 1977, by which time the struggle with the Vietnamese had intensified to the point of war, that the composition of the government began to become clear.

In some ways the new rulers of Phnom Penh conformed to Cambodian tradition; they were drawn from a tiny, inbred and self-perpetuating oligarchy. Lon Nol had replaced Sihanouk's scheming court with an equally scheming and much more corrupt military-bourgeois clique. The new elite was equally unrepresentative of Cambodian society. By 1978 the government appears to have been in the hands of about ten people related not only by intellectual training and shared revolutionary experience but also by marriage. The government was led by Pol Pot, the Secretary of the Cambodian Communist Party since 1963. Now he was Prime Minister as well. In charge of foreign affairs was Ieng Sary; defense was in the hands of Son Sen. The important post of Minister of Education, Culture and Information was held by Yun Yat, Son Sen's wife. The Minister of Social Action was Khieu Thirith, the wife of Ieng Sary. Her sister, Khieu Ponnary, was married to Pol Pot and ran the Association of Democratic Women of Kampuchea. The Vietnamese referred to them as either "the Pol Pot-Ieng Sary clique" or as "The Gang of Six." "All power is in the hands of Pol Pot and Ieng Sary and their wives who, to crown it, are sisters," commented Nhan Dan, the Vietnamese party paper in September 1978. ''This kind of regime is cynically termed a 'democratic' regime. "

The Vietnamese army paper published a profile of Pol Pot, noting accurately that "those who watched the Yugoslav television film on Democratic Cambodia could see that Pol Pot was the only smiling Cambodian in the film. 'When did you first come to know about Pol Pot?' I asked a Cambodian. He said, 'When I came home from the rice field one day I saw my two-year-old child Iying dead in a heap of ashes with a half-finished piece of pumpkin soaked in blood in his mouth and my wife dying of a head wound. She was panting and whispering to me-"Try to find the murderer of our son and revenge me and our son." Then, I found out about Pol Pot.'

"Pol Pot," the paper continued, "became famous following the bloody purges involving not only hundreds of thousands of civilians killed and dealt with like rubbish and the disappearance in a way that is hard to understand of basic and middle-level cadres in the ruling machinery, but also of some of the well-known Cambodian leaders.... It seems that the Cultural Revolution has been copied by Phnom Penh in a hasty, but no less horrible manner.

"Pol Pot is a quiet man. We know of only a small number of talks he has delivered over the radio and some guiding documents he has written. . . . In commending a new group of cadres who assumed their duties in August 1977, Pol Pot told them about the Party-building task: 'Although a million lives have been wasted, our Party does not feel sorry. Our party needs to be strong.' '

By the middle of 1978 Hanoi was openly inciting the Cambodian people to rise and overthrow "the clique . .~. the most disgusting murderers in the latter half of this century." The Vietnamese organized a resistance movement in the eastern provinces, said to be under the control of So Phim, who was formerly in the Khmer Communist leadership.

Each side asserted that the border disputes were only a minor part of the struggle. Hanoi declared that the rulers of Phnom Penh wished to distract their own and other people's attention from the suffering they [of Phnom Penh] had imposed upon Cambodia. Phnom Penh continued to claim that the war was caused by the Vietnamese Communists' old ambition of imposing a federation dominated by Hanoi on all Indochina. Hanoi's intention was "to annex Cambodian territory within a fixed period of time and eliminate the Cambodian race by Vietnamizing it." Radio Phnom Penh described how this threat could best be met: every Cambodian should kill thirty Vietnamese. This would eliminate the disparity in the sizes of the two nations.

The war between the two countries was slowed by unusually severe flooding during the 1978 rainy season, but at the end of the year, when the waters receded, the Vietnamese embarked on a new invasion of Cambodia's northeast. Pol Pot admitted in an interview that "some of our places may fall into their hands but since they will meet many difficulties, the longer they fight the more they will be worn down." Hanoi certainly appeared to hope that international distaste for the Khmer Rouge government would mute criticism of its offensive. But it must have been daunted not only by the courage with which the Cambodians had fought even for this government against Vietnam and by the prospects of administering a l hostile conquered country, but also by the attitude of the Khmer Rouge's l only sponsor, Peking.

... in Democratic Kampuchea hope was a scarce commodity by 1978.

By then the war in Cambodia had lasted eight and a half years. No one knew how many Khmers had died. Casualties during 1970-75 were not counted; one figure that has often been cited is 500,000, but this could be an exaggeration. By the beginning of 1975, about five hundred people were thought to be dying on each side every week. It is even harder to assess the number of deaths over the natural rate since April 1975. Estimates have ranged from several hundred thousand to two million. Father Ponchaud, who had by then interviewed over a thousand refugees, himself believed that the higher figure was more accurate by spring 1978, and that, as a result of starvation, disease and execution, around a quarter of the population had died. This was what the Vietnamese claimed. Comparable figures for the United States would be fifty million deaths; for Britain, fourteen million. Such a massacre is hard to imagine, and the figure could not be verified. But, in a sense, this was not critical. What was important was to establish whether an atrocity had taken place. Given the burden of evidence, it was impossible not to agree with Hanoi's assertions that "In Cambodia, a former island of peace . . . no one smiles today. Now the land is soaked with blood and tears . . . Cambodia is hell on earth."


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