A number of senior government officials have publicly expressed views regarding their “painful” memories of events that took place 47 years ago on April 17, 1975, when the Khmer Rouge guerrillas defeated Lon Nol’s regime and marched their forces into Phnom Penh.
April 17, 1975 was also the day when the black-clad Khmer Rouge soldiers began their “evacuation” of Phnom Penh’s entire population, which is considered by some to be the event that marks the beginning of the Cambodian genocide.
“47 years ago, at 7am, the news reached us that the Khmer Rouge were in Russey Keo at the gas station. Back then, I always slept at the house of a close friend, Danh Savang, across the street from the old stadium,” said Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith in a Facebook post.
“We decided to go to the house of another acquaintance on Kampuchea Krom Road, next to the Dumex company, because the city centre was overcrowded due to the uncertainty of the military situation and the fog of war.
“But in our hearts, we were happy to see that the war was over. There was no more shelling going on every day. We did not know it that day but we were all standing at the gates of hell,” the minister recalled in his post.
Interior ministry secretary of state Huy Vannak recalled April 17, 1975 as the day that the “Khmer Rouge ultra-nationalists” came to power and began their atrocities with revenge killings.
“When the water is high, the fish eat the ants. When the water is low, the ants eat the fish. They pulled the grass out by the roots and led the country through a period of devastation and pain for more than three years.
“Twenty years ago, I researched, wrote and published two history books that detail the root causes of the atrocities and sorrows of the Cambodian people [in that era].
“One cause that was identified was political extremism, which was the fault of the leadership of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. They took advantage of class divisions in a poor society. When people no longer spoke the truth and when ignorance dominated then all laws were ignored,” he said.
Huy Vannak said that one of the biggest failures of the Pol Pot regime was how the leadership separated themselves from the people they ruled over.
“Politicians are like fish, but the people are their water,” he said.
Khmer Rouge tribunal spokesman Neth Pheaktra said that today – 47 years after the Khmer Rouge first came to power – former senior leaders of that regime such as Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan have been found guilty of several crimes against humanity.
They were convicted for the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh in Case 002/01 and again found guilty in Case 002/02 for the crimes against humanity that took place in the cooperatives and workplaces and through the persecution of Buddhists as well as forced marriages and other regime policies.
He further stated that they were guilty of war crimes related to the conduct of the security department, internal purges of the regime’s own members, the persecution of former republican civil servants and engaging in unlawful warfare.
Finally, Pheaktra noted, they were convicted of the crime of genocide against the Cham and ethnic Vietnamese minorities of Cambodia.
“The only remaining case is 002/02 – that of the 90-year-old former head of state of the Democratic Kampuchea regime, Khieu Samphan. We expect that a final verdict will be handed out in late 2022 regarding Samphan’s appeal of his life sentence,” he said.
Lai Ly, a resident of Banteay Meanchey province, said that what he could never forget about life under the regime was the “prison without walls” that everyone lived in due to fear of the Khmer Rouge’s surveillance and their constant scrutiny of everyone’s conduct.
“Of course, I survived until today, but we lost everything. Especially difficult was the loss of my father – who was a teacher at that time – and my uncle, who was a medical doctor. We were living in hardship under that regime for three years, eight months and 20 days,” he said.
Some of Cambodia’s political parties marked the anniversary as well. The Candlelight Party held an event at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, but no official event or ceremony was conducted by the government.