ANLONG VENG TOWN, Oddar Meanchey province – By the time the Khmer Rouge’s young army stormed Phnom Penh and seized power 40 years ago Friday, this remote town on the Thai-Cambodian border had already been under their fledgling administration for five years.
A sleepy backwoods on the periphery of government control, the town would play little role in the upheaval that followed the April 17, 1975 rise of Pol Pot until the ousted dictator settled here in 1993, bringing with him many of the battleworn soldiers who helped him seize power.
The town in Anlong Veng district is still mainly populated by those soldiers, who in the early 1970s joined the maquis—an antirepublican movement that consisted of several groups, including the Khmer Rouge—in provinces as far away as Kampot, Battambang and Kompong Cham. And it remains one of few places where the fall of Phnom Penh elicits fond memories.
“It was a day of happiness, victory and celebration, because we were happy to release the people who had been oppressed by the rich, and to help the poor,” said former foot soldier Khon, 61, who was injured in the stomach by a round fired from a tank while approaching Phnom Penh from Kampot.
Mr. Khon, who would not give his surname, said April 17 ushered in a period during which the class divisions that led him to grow up poor were forgotten for a brief period—even if that was achieved through killing.
“There were some good things and some bad things,” Mr. Khon said. “The mass killings were bad, but there was no rich and no poor, and everybody had equal rights.”
“We sacrificed our blood and skin, but in the end, we were not successful. We used to share common things together, but now people just do things in their small groups or families,” he said.
“I am not always happy with the present period,” he added, sipping coffee at a food stall near the town’s large roundabout donated by Prime Minister Hun Sen in 2000.
At Ta Mok’s old house, which the brutal Khmer Rouge military commander built on the shore of a scenic lake in the 1990s, another soldier injured while entering Phnom Penh said the day was a victory over foreign imperialism.
“April 17, 1975, was the day the Khmer Rouge liberated Phnom Penh from U.S. colonialism, as the U.S. supported Lon Nol and dropped 9 million tons of bombs from its B-52s over three years,” said San Roeung, 62, who today oversees Ta Mok’s house, now a tourist site.
“Pol Pot planned to unite the three groups of Cambodians together—the Upper Khmer, Lower Khmer and Middle Khmer,” Mr. Roeung said, referring to Cambodians living in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, respectively.
“However, there wasn’t enough time. In two or three years, we could not get it all done,” he said, dismissing the idea that Pol Pot was overthrown due to the killings and starvation believed to have left 1.7 million people dead.
“People returned to support the Khmer Rouge,” Mr. Roeung said. “The Khmer Rouge knew that the killing of Cambodians was not Pol Pot but was the Vietnamese. After , people saw that clearly, so they supported the Khmer Rouge.”
Mr. Roeung said he had no regrets about helping Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge come to power in April 1975.
“I am communist both in concept and in stance, and I sacrifice my life for the nation,” he said. “If Cambodia was still communist, it could have protected its territory when others invaded…as well as fighting the Vietnamese and Thais.”
Sitting in front of a small thatched hut that serves as his home on a plot of land about 10 minutes from town, Chhim Chea, 66, said he entered Phnom Penh from the north and then coordinated evacuations from near Wat Phnom.
After that, Mr. Chea continued serving as a soldier for the regime, and was sent to fight on the Vietnam border, where he says that he was unaware of killings that were taking place in the country’s interior.
“Due to the war, we needed to evacuate the people…and I did not know the local authorities were killing people,” he said. “I was sent to confront the enemy, but when I came back, they had killed my mother, my father, and all of my brothers and sisters over the three years.”
Yet Mr. Chea said he did not blame Pol Pot or other Khmer Rouge leaders—whom he followed to Anlong Veng—but believed that those who escaped to Vietnam and returned to overthrow Pol Pot were responsible for the deaths.
“The Khmer Rouge had two different parts: The Khmer-Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese-Khmer Rouge. The Khmer-Khmer Rouge protected the country, while the Vietnamese-Khmer Rouge killed the Cambodians,” he said.
The Vietnamese-Khmer Rouge, he said, were “the Cambodians leading the country today.”
“Hun Sen is Khmer Rouge. Heng Samrin is Khmer Rouge. Chea Sim is Khmer Rouge….
“Why doesn’t the [Khmer Rouge] tribunal arrest Hun Sen?”
Yet other former soldiers said they felt betrayed by a revolution that promised a better future to poor people like themselves but quickly descended into chaotic infighting when Pol Pot’s faction began asserting itself as leaders of the regime.
“After the celebrations of April 17, when the front came to power, the regime made it so there were no poor at all, and everything was good,” said Chok Chhoeun, 61, who joined the maquis in Kompong Chhnang province and remained there the day Phnom Penh fell.
“The day that the war ended, there was a party. The resistance forces and the Khmer Republic soldiers came together to be happy and to eat and drink together along with the people, thinking that the war was over,” Mr. Chhoeun said.
“Everything was equal, and we worked together in farming communes with all the results of planting rice and feeding animals being shared,” he said. “The front had saved Cambodia’s life, but then the Khmer Rouge came and named themselves our leaders.”
Toun Pheap, 63, a lanky former soldier who now owns a large concrete house on Anlong Veng town’s outskirts, said he was glad the battles that left him with a single functioning leg were over.
“I struggled for more than 30 years, but it was useless. The war left me one-legged—this was the result of joining the resistance for 30 years,” said Mr. Pheap, who refused to talk about the day Phnom Penh fell.
He said he joined the Khmer Rouge in 1970 after Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s ouster, when communists paraded through his hometown in Kompong Cham province calling for youth to reinstate the prince in order to save the country.
“I am not a deep thinker; I just followed others, and this cause was to save the country for the future generations,” Mr. Pheap said, adding that the 1975 victory brought very different results to what he was promised.
“After [April 17], I lost my mother, I lost my father, and I could not do anything about it. I was unhappy, but what could we do? We lived in [the Khmer Rouge leaders’] shadow, and if we went against them, we would be killed,” Mr. Pheap said.
“For me, I was just a slave for them to use,” he said. “Now I tell my children not to get involved in politics.”