Everything Normal, Pnompenh Radio Reports, but What Happened to Cambodia’s Urban Population?

Intercontinental Press – July 28, 1975
By Peter Green (John Percy)

Three months after the victorious liberation forces marched into Pnompenh, Cambodia remains cut off from the rest of the world. No foreign journalists were allowed to stay in the country. The only sources of news are the broadcasts of the official government radio station or the reports of refugees who have made their way across the border into Thailand or Vietnam.

Apparently even Peking is cut off. The only reports on Cambodia appearing in the Chinese news agency bulletin, Hsinhua, have been based on Cambodian radio broadcasts.

American ruling circles and their propagandists have had a field day. Henry Kissinger piously stated June 24 that “there has been a rather terrible toll of civilians inflicted.” A column by Jack Anderson and Les Whitten in the June 23 Washington Post talked about a Cambodian “death march.” In a June 26 editorial, the Christian Science Monitor appealed to the “conscience of the world” and compared the situation in Cambodia to that under the Nazis.

In view of the ban on foreign reporters, it is difficult to puncture these assessments. However, some additional information has trickled out since the first accounts of the evacuation of the cities appeared in the world press. Some of the new bits of information have been made public by various intelligence agencies on the basis of interviews with refugees. In general these accounts substantiate previous reports but must be considered with reservations until they can be verified from independent sources.

A case in point is the account given by David Andelman in the June 13 New York Times.

It is based on the stories of refugees who headed north along Route 5 out of Pnompenh. At the first checkpoint, those with motorized vehicles were forced to abandon them, Andelman said. “Tires were slashed and cars disabled. Some refugees saw the soldiers making sandals from the tires.

“Those forced to abandon their cars and take to the roads on foot were told that the Government wanted to eliminate private motorized transport to cut down on the consumption of petroleum and the reliance on foreign assistance that such consumption produced.”

Twenty miles north of Pnompenh at the Prek Kdam ferry crossing where Route 6 joins the road, the liberation forces had established a mammoth sorting center, assigning some of the refugees to continue north toward Pursat and others to go east to Kompong Cham. For the first leg of the march to Prek Kdam, “there was considerable evidence of Communist soldiers, all heavily armed, prodding the marchers along, keeping them from turning back,” said Andelman. But after this the strict control began to melt away.

The refugees who were interviewed said they had been well treated and had never seen evidence of brutality on the part of the Communist officers. Neither did they go without basic food, particularly rice, which had been stored at various points along the line of march.

However, in the areas where the marchers were to be resettled, it was a different matter. Several refugees reported seeing children with the swollen bellies that indicate malnutrition. There was also a severe shortage of drinking water. And in several of the heavily resettled areas, epidemics of cholera had broken out, they said.

A further problem was lack of farm tools and of dikes and irrigation networks in the previously uncultivated areas, where some of the refugees were assigned. According to Andelman, “with the rainy season started, most of the rice to be harvested in November and December must already be planted.”

“If it is not in yet, they are in big, big trouble,” said one Thai agricultural expert. “They may have stocked away enough to last them until the first harvest. Even that, I doubt. They will probably need help to get them through September and October. But if they don’t have the crop in now, next year could be very bad.”

It is on the basis of such accounts that some Western relief officials estimate that Cambodia is suffering from famine conditions and that more than one million Cambodians may die of starvation or hunger-related diseases in the next eighteen months.

Several things indicate that the evacuation of the cities had been planned by the liberation forces well before the final capture of Pnompenh. Andelman reported that at the Prek Kdam checkpoint, each refugee was given an identity card, clearly prepared in advance.

Another account is that of two French priests who were evacuated from Cambodia, which appeared in the May 30 issue of the Paris Catholic daily. La Croix:

“These evacuations were not the result of chance or improvisation,” said one of them, Father Destombes. “Since the beginning of the war the Khmer Rouge deported the population when they took control of a region.... Not just the towns, but the villages and the isolated houses in the countryside have been systematically emptied and burned....”

A quite detailed account of the evacuation of Pnompenh was given by Bernard Hazebrouck, a young French teacher married to a Cambodian woman. He told his story to the Paris weekly Le Nouvel Observateur.

When the liberation forces entered Pnompenh, he at first refused to seek refuge in the French embassy and set out on the trek to the countryside with his family, pushing before him his Peugeot 404 laden with supplies. All his neighborhood was being herded south. Progress was slow, and after five days they reached Takhmau, about ten miles from Pnompenh, where the liberation forces had established a sorting center and thousands of refugees were getting their instructions on where to go. Here he was told that he had to return to the capital, which he agreed to do as long as he could take his family with him. Still pushing his car, he arrived back in Pnompenh after another five days.

His experiences along the route backed up some of the reports from journalists who had remained in Pnompenh for a short period following the take-over. The evacuation was carried out indiscriminately, he said, with a good deal of suffering resulting. He saw hospital patients who had been dragged out of their beds, old people, and pregnant women. He gave a lift to one woman who couldn’t go any further, and fed her. After two days, however, she did not want to continue because she wanted to be reunited with her husband, who had left in the other direction. She remained by the side of the road.

Many families were separated, Hazebrouck said, because persons who were working in another suburb on the day the city was taken over were unable to return to their homes.

When he arrived back in Pnompenh, his Cambodian family was not allowed into the French embassy, so they all camped in the car in the street for a few days until the liberation forces allowed them to occupy a deserted villa in the area.

The villa soon became a gathering place for the liberation forces soldiers, he said. At first they came to ask the women of the family if they could sew trousers. “The young Khmers stayed there,” he said, “talking about their lives in the country, discussing the price of pigs and how they all worked in the fields.”

At the villa he met one of his former pupils, who had been one of the leaders of the revolutionary movement in Pnompenh and who had disappeared some months before the fall of the city.

“I reproached him strongly for the conduct of the revolutionaries, particularly the brutal evacuation of the cities,” Hazebrouck said. “He explained that he also was sad, because his parents had to take to the road and he had no news of them. But, according to him, it was indispensable for the success of the revolution: ‘Afterwards, everything will be much better.’

“What would the city of Pnompenh be converted into? He explained that it would be an administrative and military center, whose population would work in light industry. Little by little it would be repopulated with technicians to get the main services functioning again and to do specialized work. All those living in the city who were ‘unproductive’ from now on would work in the fields, in the countryside. In fact in the days that followed we saw the return of small groups of technicians, electricians, sanitation employees, railway workers, all with the obvious intention of putting the main services of the city back in order.”

Reconstruction is certainly getting under way, but there have been no reports of how much progress has been made, even from Pnompenh Radio itself. The radio has broadcast frequent reports of a population working hard to produce more rice, catch more fish, breed more livestock and poultry, increase production of rubber and salt, and produce more food of every kind. The emphasis is on exhortations and statements of intent, however, and the radio does not say what results have been obtained.

A June 18 broadcast reported by Hsinhua said: “... the Cambodian people and their revolutionary army will adopt the slogan: ‘Holding the gun in one hand and the hoe in the other.’ To restore economy and build their country, they are making full use of the time to do the following things: grow crops in the rainy season, and promote the campaign for irrigation works to tackle completely the water problem; reopen all transportation lines to rehabilitate economy; reorganize life in the cities and turn them into productive cities, especially for industrial production; reorganize life in the rural areas, promote the unity-to-increase- production campaign, change the outlook of the countryside and raise the people’s living standard.”

The broadcast said that the people and the army are giving priority to the restoration of industry and transportation. “They are sure to bring about a leap forward in agricultural production and are determined to turn Cambodia, which is backward in agriculture, into a country with a modern agriculture and then a country with modern industry and agriculture.”

The leadership of the liberation forces evacuated the cities not merely to carry out an economic plan or to ensure the rapid restoration of agricultural production. They portrayed it as a “purification” process, a cultural revolution of an extreme variety.

“The Cambodians have all left for the forests to clear away and rebuild a new Cambodia,” said the priest quoted by La Croix. “It is necessary to wipe out all traces of the capitalism that built these towns and organized these villages. The new man must tear himself loose from his whole past to be born again through working on the land: ‘Man must relearn that he is born from a grain of rice,’ a Khmer Rouge told us. ‘Cambodians had forgotten that fact under the former regime.’

“It is also necessary to forget the old culture completely. For example, after taking the capital, the Khmer Rouge carried out book burnings. The ten thousand volumes on Cambodia in the magnificent French library of the Far East were burned.”

Reeducation centers for officers and officials of the Lon Nol regime have reportedly been set up. Travel has been severely restricted; to travel outside even the smallest administrative district a permit is needed.

Foreigners were ordered out of the country shortly after the liberation of Pnompenh on April 17. A large number of ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese residents – most of whom held Cambodian citizenship – still remain, but many have reportedly fled to South Vietnam. According to Allan Dawson of United Press International in Saigon, only one other known foreigner is still in Cambodia – the French wife of a Cambodian man.

Pnompenh Radio announced June 8 that the use of all foreign languages was banned. It said Cambodia had to struggle to preserve its customs and traditional way of life, and Khmer folk music and crafts such as weaving were to be promoted.

The revolutionary government has been stressing the need to be self-sufficient in everything. The radio reported that the Pnompenh units of the armed forces had launched a campaign to achieve selfsufficiency in grain and vegetables by the end of the rainy season.

Border fighting with both Thailand and South Vietnam has been reported. According to the June 29 issue of Le Monde, Vietnamese troops have occupied the Wai Islands, claimed by both Cambodia and Vietnam. These incidents might have prompted the following broadcast from Radio Pnompenh June 27, also reported in the June 29 Le Monde:

“In all circumstances, our people will defend their honor, their sovereignty, their territorial integrity against imperialists and others. The Cambodian people have a sense of honor when it comes to defending their independence. They don’t beg for aid, either from the American imperialists, or from other imperialists.... We want to have friendly relations with neighboring countries.... We want to resolve our problems with them in a spirit of solidarity and mutual understanding.”

Le Monde commented that tension appears high between Pnompenh and Hanoi. “The radio editorial clearly indicates that the difference is not only territorial but ideological. The Khmer ‘model’ hardly seems to be to the taste of the PRG [Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam] or Hanoi, and Pnompenh condemned rather explicitly the appeal by the Vietnamese for Western assistance.

“The unity of the Indochinese peoples, pledged at the Canton conference in 1970, experienced some difficulties during the war,” Le Monde continued. “It has not withstood the outbreak of peace.”

Source: https://www.themilitant.com/Intercontinental_Press/1975/IP1329.pdf#page=18&view=FitV,3