Scholar Sheds Light on the Lead-Up to 1975

Scholar Stephen Heder continued to testify before the Khmer Rouge tribunal Monday, touching upon Khieu Samphan’s role as the chairman of Pol Pot’s Office 870 and the days leading up to the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975.

Questioned by Senior Assistant Prosecutor Keith Raynor, Mr. Heder told the court that Khieu Samphan would appear at Standing Committee meetings as a “note-taker,” despite having never been a member of it.

“There was a party congress in January 1976 at which, to my knowledge, he was elevated to permanent member of the central committee,” Mr. Heder said.

In an interview that the late war crimes defendant Ieng Sary gave to Mr. Heder, Khieu Samphan was described as the chairman of Office 870, where “transfers and removals of cadre would cross his desk.”

Mr. Heder also described the increasingly desperate situation Lon Nol forces found themselves in as the realization dawned that U.S. diplomatic staff were being evacuated ahead of a victory by the Khmer Rouge.

“I would tour the shrinking defense perimeter around Phnom Penh,” he said.

“In early April, I toured that perimeter and had discussions with [Lon Nol] troops and they were horrified that the U.S. Embassy was withdrawing.

“They concluded that if the U.S. thought it was militarily hopeless, they thought their situation was therefore militarily hopeless.

“It became increasingly chaotic, it was fraught politically,” Mr. Heder added.

He said that he also discussed with people what a future under the Khmer Rouge would mean for those left behind. One revolutionary, a student leader, told Mr. Heder on April 9, 1975: “‘You don’t need to worry about that, we’ll all be out farming the fields.’”

“I didn’t get it,” Mr. Heder said. “I didn’t realize what I was being told. It was only af­ter Phnom Penh was evacuated that I realized I made an enormous journalistic error by not reporting a scoop. They were aware this plan [to evacuate the cities and send evacuees to work in rice production] was in place.”

On April 17, the Khmer Rouge took the city and began evacuation the population, just as the student leader predicted.

After Mr. Heder was excused for the day, parties were given the opportunity to respond to a Thursday motion put forward by the defense team for Nuon Chea.

According to a copy of the motion, the team wants the Trial Chamber to admit an email written by Rob Lemkin, co-producer of the documentary ‘One Day at Po Chrey,’ into evidence. It also asks for Mr. Lemkin to be summonsed and an investigation into his claims ordered.

Mr. Lemkin asserts in the email that he has evidence that late Khmer Rouge official Ruos Nhim orchestrated the massacre of Lon Nol soldiers at Tuol Po Chrey in the days after the fall of Phnom Penh.

Senior Assistant Prosecutor Tarik Abdulhak refuted the claims, insisting that Mr. Lemkin “has neither expertise nor factual knowledge to have him being called to describe what people had to say.”

The Trial Chamber will rule in due course.

Related Stories

Latest News

The Weekly DispatchA new weekly newsletter from The Cambodia Daily delivering news, analysis and opinion to your inbox. Published every Friday at 11:30am. Sign up today.