The 1975 evacuation of Phnom Penh was not a historical aberration, but a well-established military tactic that had its origins in pre-colonial Southeast Asian warfare, historian David Chandler told the Khmer Rouge tribunal yesterday.
In 1767, Burmese military forces sacked the Thai capital and forcibly relocated as many as 100,000 people from the urban center. In 1833, when a Thai army invaded Phnom Penh, they likewise proceeded to clear out the entire population from the capital, a mass exodus that was referred to as a tragedy in the poetry of the era.
“It was a pre-colonial policy…. [The Thais] didn’t bring the Phnom Penh population into the Thai army, they just cleared the place out so there would be nothing to support any kind of military response,” explained Mr. Chandler, who is testifying as an expert witness this week.
Thus, Mr. Chandler said that the Khmer Rouge’s decision to evacuate Phnom Penh in April 1975 should be seen as a military maneuver in the context of centuries of slave-gathering warfare in the region, rather than a humanitarian gesture or an effort to recruit more farmers, as Khmer Rouge leaders have subsequently claimed.
The Khmer Rouge themselves conducted multiple forced evacuations from smaller urban centers they captured before seizing power nationwide on April 17, 1975. When their troops overran Oudong in March 1974, tens of thousands of people were brought to the countryside, where the “class enemies” were executed and everyone else was set to work in the fields, Mr. Chandler said. Chillingly, the Khmer Rouge called this policy “the line of drying up the people from the enemy.”
“In 1975 it seemed to us, observers of Cambodia, that [the evacuation of Phnom Penh] was an unprecedented move,” Mr. Chandler said. “We now find, due to things that came to light after 1975, that this had been predicted in Takeo, Oudong, and in Kratie and Stung Treng to the north. It was a repetitive pattern that then reached its climax in the evacuation of Phnom Penh.”
The Khmer Rouge felt they were fighting to liberate the country from feudalism and imperialism, both of which the Communists associated with Phnom Penh. Thus, by definition, those living in the cities were their natural enemies—otherwise they would have already joined the revolution and fled to the maquis, Mr. Chandler explained.
Following their evacuation, these urbanites were branded “new people” or “April 17 people,” enemies of the revolution who would have to redeem themselves through backbreaking manual labor or be killed. The terms were used to “separate the clean Cambodians from the dirty Cambodians,” Mr. Chandler said.
“The dirty ones are the ones who have been sent out [of the city], pnher, like you send a letter, it’s the same verb.”
The famous Khmer Rouge slogan “to keep you is no gain, to lose you is no loss” was primarily directed toward these “dirty” Cambodians, Mr. Chandler said. “It was quoted so often early on, it was so widespread, it was almost a slogan for what do we tell the new people…. It was all over the country. It rang in people’s ears: ‘You are worthless. If you want to survive, work extremely hard and we’ll decide day by day whether to keep you.’”
Forced evacuations are the topic of the first “mini-trial” in Case 002, which has been split into a series of smaller trials examining separate crimes.
Under questioning from prosecutors, Mr. Chandler also discussed a number of other regime policies and practices, including the establishment of S-21 prison, the murderously unrealistic policy of extracting 3 tons of rice per hectare, and the purge of Hanoi-trained Cambodian Communists.
Late in the day, prosecutors asked Mr. Chandler to contrast propaganda created by the Khmer Rouge for overseas consumption—which stressed the regime’s respect for the electoral process and its superlative treatment of former head of state Norodom Sihanouk—with documents intended for internal use. One such document warned high-level cadres not to “speak playfully about the National Assembly in front of the people.”
“This is a tremendous Democratic Kampuchea document,” he said. “‘Don’t speak playfully.’ In other words, don’t tell the people that this whole thing is a facade and a joke. Just keep quiet about it even though it is a facade and a joke. But it will please people overseas, make us look orderly, and let us proceed in the way we want to proceed.”
The National Assembly, which was headed by chief ideologue Nuon Chea, only convened once during the entire Khmer Rouge regime.