Map of CambodiaCambodia was once part of the great Khmer empire. The kingdom extended beyond its present day borders west to include a section of Thailand, north to encompass a major portion of Laos and south to Vietnam, incorporating part of the Mekong Delta, known to us as Khmer Krom (lower Cambodia). Angkor Wat was the capital. Over the centuries there were countless conflicts and border disputes between Cambodia and Thailand, and Cambodia and Vietnam. The people of Thailand insisted that Angkor Wat belonged to them. The Vietnamese laid claim over the Mekong Delta. In the long history of fighting between Cambodia and her neighbours, however, nothing caused as much trauma and destruction to my country as what it experienced at the hands of the revolutionaries who called themselves the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979.
The region of Southeast Asia, later known as Indochina, which included Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, had become a French protectorate in 1893. These three nations gained a brief independence from France when they were ruled by Japan during the Second World War, but once hostilities ceased French colonialism returned. By this time, however, a new ideology was brewing in Asia: communism. It came to the fore in China after Chairman Mao’s Communist Party defeated Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang (the Chinese Nationalist Party) and established the People’s Republic of China in Beijing on October 1, 1949. At around the same time, the Vietnamese Communist Party, (the Viet Minh), led by Ho Chi Minh, proclaimed the independence of Vietnam and had gained control of the northern half of the country by September 1945. France resisted the loss of her territories in the First Indochinese War until 1954. Because of fears Cambodia might ally itself with the Viet Minh to fight the colonial oppressor, Cambodian independence was granted on November 9, 1953. King Norodom Sihanouk initially assumed the dual roles of King and Prime Minister, but two years later in 1955, he abdicated the throne, although everyone in Cambodia still referred to him as the King Father.
As a result of the connection with France, a number of Cambodians were able to go and study in Paris. During this period, some embraced Marxism, and once they returned home in the mid-1950s, they began to organize their own political parties. Among them was a man who later became known as Pol Pot.
The Cold War was in full swing by this time. The USA and the USSR were at loggerheads, and the fear of all South East Asia falling to communism gripped America. As Prime Minister, Sihanouk pledged to keep Cambodia neutral during the 1954 Geneva Conference but refused to join SEATO – the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation. One intention of SEATO was to block communism making further inroads into Asia and to fight against the North Vietnamese. By the late sixties, the Vietnam War was well underway. Inevitably armies from both sides spilled over the border into Cambodia. America wanted Cambodian approval to follow the Vietcong (North Vietnamese troops) and eventually Sihanouk gave his consent. Although desperate to remain independent, Sihanouk knew that since the departure of the French the Cambodian economy was in real trouble, and was hoping for a generous injection of greenbacks. When American money failed to materialise, his thoughts turned north and he travelled to the USSR and China seeking economic support and military aid against the Vietnamese. Tensions were still running high along the Cambodian/Vietnamese border and in Phnom Penh anti-Vietnamese sentiment was on the rise and outbreaks of racial hatred between Cambodian and Vietnamese were soon common. As a child, I heard chilling stories of torture being undertaken by both sides. The Vietnamese buried three Cambodians alive in a small triangle with only their heads above ground. A fire was lit in the middle and the Vietnamese boiled a kettle on it. The Cambodians would bind the hands of Vietnamese prisoners with wire punched through their palms before throwing them into the Mekong River to ‘swim home’.
On March 11, 1970, student leaders organised anti-Vietnamese demonstrations which attacked both North and South Vietnamese embassies in Phnom Penh. A week later, on March 18 General Lon Nol, with the tacit support of the US, staged a coup d’Etat to depose Sihanouk who was in Paris for medical treatment. After he took over as President, Lon Nol demanded that the North Vietnamese Army leave Cambodia immediately.
Ironically, Cambodia was drowning with American influences and culture at this time, and the normally harmonious and relatively peaceful Khmer nation was experiencing corruption and crime at a previously unknown rate. Despite this, the government was turning a blind eye. Many elderly Cambodians who had grown up following their traditional way of life became victims. For the younger generation, this was a good time. Young men grew their hair long, wore flared shirts and bell-bottom trousers and everyone listened to the westernized Cambodian music which was the latest fashion. Now that the ‘Vietnamese had gone’, it was supposed to be a time of joy and freedom. People celebrated in the streets.
Behind the joie de vivre, however, Cambodia was being inexorably dragged into the Vietnam War. A month after the coup, President Nixon began carpet bombing along the Cambodian border in an effort to oust the Vietcong who had taken up position there. By August 1973, American B-52s had dropped more than two hundred thousand tons of bombs onto the region. Many Cambodian peasants and farmers were victims of the bombings. Lives were lost and a large proportion of those who survived saw their homes and livelihoods destroyed. They fled the countryside to the capital, Phnom Penh, becoming refugees in their own country.
The relatively unknown Khmer Grahorm (Red Khmers renamed by Sihanouk as the Khmer Rouge) was a group of revolutionists including students from Paris who had become its leaders. They began to wage a guerrilla war against the government and by the end of 1974, they had gained control of Siem Reap in the northwest as well as central region provinces such as Kampong Thom and upper Kampong Cham. One of the main bridges north of Phnom Penh, the Chroy Changvar Bridge (now called the Cambodia-Japan Friendship Bridge) was blown up and Highway 6 was cut off.
Anger with the Americans, the coup and corruption contributed toward their popularity, particularly among peasants and farmers who they claimed to represent. Young people, in particular, embraced their ideology.
The Khmer Rouge had the support of China. Like Sihanouk, Pol Pot had also spent time there and was an enthusiastic admirer of Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ although to what level he had read about it is unknown. One thing is apparent, however, and that is that he wanted to condense Mao’s five-year plan into only four. The Khmer Rouge ultimately came to power on April 17, 1975, a day when a cloud of darkness swept across Cambodia.
Pol Pot announced that the arrival of the Khmer Rouge set the clocks back to Year Zero, the beginning of a new authoritarian regime, the start of a fresh new future. The new leadership referred to themselves as Angkar Padevat (the revolutionary organisation). Under Pol Pot ‘Brother Number One’, Cambodia’s Angkar Padevat was going to abolish all wealth, debts, markets, religions, and possessions including relationships in order to build a new era. This was a revolution – ‘agrarian socialism’ – against just about everything including capitalism, the residents of Phnom Penh and anything that could be considered bourgeois. The Khmer Rouge implemented a policy of genocide. So much pain, so much suffering was inflicted upon the people of Cambodia and millions died under the regime.
Somehow I survived, although I nearly didn’t. After that, I, along with tens of thousands of my compatriots, became a refugee, and I lived through that experience as well, although it, too, was fraught with danger. I finally arrived in Australia in 1981. Since then I have tried to share my experiences with my friends and other interested Australians. Some laughed at my story, but others encouraged me to write it down. Over the years, I made many attempts to record my childhood experiences, my life in a labour camp and my eventual escape across the border, but I was not able to continue beyond a few lines. Every time I sat down in front of a keyboard I would become very tired. Sadness would choke my words and tears would fill my eyes because my memories were just too painful.
Many people around the world finally learnt about the Cambodian genocide from ‘The Killing Fields’. Like many survivors of this time I tried to move on with my life. It was easier to ignore my memories. Eventually, I stopped trying to write. I locked my papers and letters away in a shoe box along with some old photos. It wasn’t until 2014, with some time on my hands, when I was throwing away some unwanted books and folders that I came across the box again. I sat on the bed and gently took off the lid. The box held so much. Was it time to re-visit my past after all this time? Slowly I began to read.
As I flipped through the pages, an old friend of mine in London who had been asking me for my story for almost a decade, asked me again. “When are you going to start writing? When are you going to put your story together?” He had often pestered me over the years. He said, “Not long from now future historians won’t have the resources to fully examine this vital chapter of history. Only the survivors can give a first-hand account, but too many can’t retell their story because they are too damaged and too traumatised”. His words resonated within me. “Writing down your memories will allow future generations to read and learn from history,” he reminded me.
I remembered, too, that amongst the pain and grief, the sadness and horror of my story were many good things: courage, strength, power over evil and hope. I want this story to serve as a lesson for the world, and both present and future leaders. This story tells what happens when power falls into the wrong hands. It shows what happens when the misguided intention is allowed full reign without consequence; when freedom and knowledge are used to mislead and slaughtered the innocence. This is my story.

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