Evacuation of Phnom Penh Hatched in Jungle

On his second day of questioning at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, an ethnic Jarai man, who acted as a messenger and bodyguard to high-ranking officials before eventually working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, gave insight into meetings held in the lead-up to the fall of Phnom Penh.

While some former Khmer Rouge messengers and bodyguards brought in as witnesses over the past few months have testified that they knew nothing of the content of meetings despite their proximity to them, Roch­oeum Ton, 65, appeared to have been a particularly observant cadre.

“I knew about meetings, be­cause I was on duty to give protection,” said Mr. Ton.

“I was tasked with catering, of­fering people food during meetings. I shared conversations with people who were catering. I also noted diagrams on the boards; the topics discussed. I really observed what the senior Angkar were do­ing, because I wanted to follow them; they were role models. I wanted to grasp the updates.”

The updates in 1974 were that Khmer Rouge leaders were making elaborate plans at meetings chaired by Pol Pot in Office B-5, which the witness described as the “command center to attack and liberate Phnom Penh.”

“Uncles came to discuss the evacuation of Phnom Penh. Pol Pot raised this concern. Vorn Vet, Koy Thuon, So Phim, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan would at­tend,” he said.

The “nerve center,” however, was nothing more than a patch of ground under the shade of some palm leaves, which the witness was tasked with guarding when meetings were held.

“The map of Cambodia was laid there,” Mr. Ton said.

It was at a meeting held at B-5 in April 1975, just prior to the fall of Phnom Penh, that plans for evacuation ratcheted up.

“[People] had to be evacuated so we could conquer the city…. We had to remove them all. Then the revolutionaries could move in. The idea was plausible,” he said, ad­ding that both Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan agreed with the plan. “The whole meeting applauded and approved the idea.”

Mr. Ton did not witness the fall of the city, nor the emptying out of its people.

Upon his arrival with North­eastern Zone chief Son Sen on April 19, 1975, two days after Khmer Rouge forces took over, all that was left were a few stragglers and “many” bodies.

“People had left the city already. I saw a handful of people, but many of them were on the road out. I saw dead bodies—many dead bodies along the road. Some of the corpses were already decomposed.

“Those who resisted, we had to put them down…. The bodies were mainly soldiers, because I noted the helmets,” he said.

Mr. Ton began catering at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was established in May 1975 and for which he recruited staff, and was eventually promoted to head administration jobs at the B-1 office.

“When it comes to class pedigree it refers to people from the poor peasant class, people who had never been affiliated with any groups, who had been farming on difficult land,” he said of ideal ministry candidates.

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