The Khmer Rouge History Of Siem Reap

The Khmer Rouge History of Siem Reap

In January 1970 as Cambodia greeted the new decade, there was little to indicate the horror that this decade would visit on the country.  Although the USA had been bombing neutral Cambodia in their “Secret War”, politically, it appeared that Prince Sihanouk was firmly in control and life in the major cities went on as normal. 

On the 18th March 1970 everything changed when a coup displaced Prince Sihanouk for one of his most loyal deputies, Lon Nol. Soon after the Khmer Rouge would control much of the country, including part of Siem Reap Province, but not the city.

Initially the Khmer Rouge was a small communist party founded by Cambodian intellectuals who had been educated in France. There they learned the Marxist-Leninist policies and made their international connections with communist leaders. Prince Sihanouk did his best to suppress the Communists in Cambodia and this forced them into the jungle.

As the Vietnamese-American War raged and spilled over into Cambodia and Laos, the USA began bombing both countries. The Americans were ostensibly going after the North Vietnamese forces using Cambodian border areas as transit along the Ho Chi Minh Trials, but the bombing maps and newly released data bring this into question. The displaced and terrified villagers in the areas bombed became ripe recruits (or they were essentially press-ganged) for the Khmer Rouge.  Most were young and uneducated, many barely teenagers.

Operation Chenla I was the new Government’s attempt to drive the North Vietnamese forces[1] out of Cambodia. It was a disaster for the newly created Khmer Republican Army.  The North Vietnamese had been held somewhat in check on the Western border of Cambodia while the Prince was in power. As soon as he was deposed, they broke out and began to take territory, with them was the Khmer Rouge. 

On the 5th June 1970 during Operation Chenla I the temples north of Siem Reap fell to the North Vietnamese/Khmer Rouge alliance.  The soldiers were wearing a badge depicting Prince Sihanouk who had turned to them to help remove the new government and re-establish his power.  Another military mobilization, Operation Chenla II, was just as disastrous and showed how badly equipped and trained the Government forces were, emboldening the Khmer Rouge. 

Initially, the Khmer Rouge were not too harsh on the people in the areas they had taken, relatively speaking. These people were mostly rural and village dwellers, the Khmer Rouge’s “Old or Base People”. The Khmer Rouge’s aim was to turn Cambodia into an agrarian utopia, and the Old People were those who had the skills in agriculture and were not contaminated by the modern world. 

However, people were disappearing and in 1971 François Bizet, a young French anthropologist living in Siem Reap, and his two Cambodia colleagues were captured by the Khmer Rouge. He is the only westerner and one of the very few to survive capture by the Khmer Rouge, but his colleagues did not. A feat more remarkable as the jungle camp where he was taken, the Khmer Rouge Camp M.13 at Anlong Veng, was commanded by Comrade Duch. This was the man who would become the director of the infamous torture and execution center of S21 Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh, one of over 150 such places run by the Khmer Rouge throughout Cambodia from 1975-79.  There were at least four Khmer Rouge prisons in Siem Reap.

In 1973 things began to really change for the people in the villages.  The Khmer Rouge began collectivizing farming and introducing communal living.  The Khmer Rouge were heartened by the Paris Peace conference in which the USA began to withdraw troops from South Vietnam and ceased bombing Cambodia. For the Khmer Rouge, this signaled that the USA would not intervene in Cambodia.   By June 1973 the Khmer Rouge was strong enough to dispense with their North Vietnamese allies. In later years they would become bitter enemies.

For the village people who had little to begin with, they were stripped of all their possessions and left with basically the clothes on their backs.  Their land was taken for communal farms and many villages completely destroyed only to be rebuilt nearby to the Khmer Rouge’s direction.  However, the archaeologists and conservationists working on the Temples were allowed to continue.

From 1970 the front line of the war in the city was a kilometer north of the where the former Raffles Hotel (now the Grand Hotel d’Angkor) still stands.  The hotel was used as the HQ for the Government troops until that fateful day on the 17th April 1975 when the genocide began.

One resident of Siem Reap remembers the 17th April 1975 as the day the sound of war ceased and the city became silent[2]. However, unlike Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge did not immediately evacuate the city, they had three days of victory celebrations at Angkor Wat first.  These celebrations including local monks who held ceremonies, soon the majority of the monks would be murdered after they all had been derobed. Their Wats would be vandalized, anything valuable taken away and then these sacred spaces were used as weapons of war and terror.  

The wats became pig sties and military storage areas at best, and others torturous prisons where no one survived.  Wat Thmey became a killing field and today hosts a memorial and a stupa filled with the bones of some of those executed. 

Evidence of the vandalism and destruction can still be seen in the Wat Damnak library with the bullet holes in the mural.  Interestingly, none of the shooters aimed for anything religious or scared depicted in the mural.  Perhaps the Khmer Rouge brainwashing did not quite take fully in the young minds of the soldiers and they wouldn’t risk damaging scared icons? 

Siem Reap province had a large Vietnamese community, many living on the Tonle Sap lake in floating villages. They and the Muslim community were massacred, very few survived. The Khmer Rouge also executed former government employees, including the military and police, all those with an education and those who were loyal to Sihanouk. One group who were “protected” was the staff and their families of the temple conservation teams. They were rounded up and taken to a village near the Tonle Sap were they were treated as “base, or old” people[3].

The Khmer Rouge made a distinction between those who came from urban areas and those from the villages in the countryside.  Urban dwellers were classed as “New People” and were automatically suspected of disloyalty to the Khmer Rouge and their revolution. They came under the harshest treatment and were the majority of those murdered, starved and forced to work themselves to death. Although in some areas there was little distinction between the New and Old People, in other areas, the division was stark and New People suffered horrendously. The New People of Siem Reap city were among those who came in for the harshest treatment.

In 1976, the Khmer Rouge made invited delegates from China, Sweden, North Korea, Vietnam, and a range of other countries to witness bombing damage in Siem Reap city. They claimed the USA dropped the bombs which killed scores of people including school children, but the USA denied it. Another opinion was that the damage the Khmer Rouge displayed was from the bombing prior to 1973. To this day the mystery of that bombing remains and no country or organization has ever admitted responsibility for it.

The Khmer Rouge turned on their former allies, the North Vietnamese, and began invading border areas. The battle hardened and well equipped and trained North Vietnamese Army eventually retaliated in late December 1978.  By the 7th January 1979 the Khmer Rouge had been defeated and the Vietnamese began ten long years of occupation.

The Khmer have seen Vietnam as their hereditary enemy since the days of the Khmer Empire, more than 600 years before. Although they were liberators from the Khmer Rouge and welcomed initially, soon the old hatred returned and the country rankled under their occupation.  The battles did not stop, but now Cambodia also had new humanitarian emergencies; famine and displacement as the population fled to refugee camps on the Thai border or took to the roads trying to find the family members who survived.  The world continued to recognize the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Cambodia and this held up relief efforts. In 1989 after the Soviet Union could no longer support Vietnam, they withdrew, leaving Cambodia to the puppet government they set up.

The UN sent a contingent to Cambodia in 1993 to disband the fighting forces, resettle refugees, rebuild infrastructure and hold the first free and fair elections.  It failed in most of its mandate, but the elections were held. In Siem Reap, Australians and New Zealanders were stationed and built themselves the Minesweeper Bar along the River. The UN in Siem Reap were engaged in combat at least once against the Khmer Rouge and 8 UNTAC personnel were causalities, including two killed.  

Whilst they did build much needed infrastructure the UN contingent also unwittingly introduced HIV and prostitution became rampant, as it will in any area with a large number of soldiers.  Very young girls were forced into prostitution as it was believed sex with a virgin would cure HIV.   The Khmer people also suffered from the inflated cost of living caused by a huge influx of money to support the UN personnel.  However, for Siem Reap, it provided the infrastructure necessary to restart the tourist industry; the brothels and bars were ready to go.

Even after the UN sent its peacekeeping mission, the Khmer Rouge were not disbanded and continued to fight.  In 1994 they attacked a village in Siem Reap Province killing many. They would not lay down their arms until 1997 when Pol Pot finally died in mysterious circumstances.

Today in Siem Reap the former Khmer Rouge cadre and their victims’ families live side by side. Those who lived through it are loath to talk about the “Pol Pot” times. The province still contains landmines, an area outside the Siem Reap airport remains signposted and fenced off and UXO occasionally is still found in Siem Reap city.  However, as a tourist it is relatively easy to not notice the recent dark history. Rather a few tourists are surprised to learn that Kampuchea where Pol Pot murdered his people, is today’s Kingdom of Wonder, Cambodia.

[1] The North Vietnamese forces include the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong, which at this time (1970) was training Cambodia guerrillas, they would form the nucleus of the Khmer Rouge Army. 

[2] Henri Locard, Siem Reap-Angkor During the War (1970-1975) and Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979): From Violence to Totalitarianism. Journal of Cambodia Research, No 10 (2008)

[3] Henri Locard, Siem Reap-Angkor During the War (1970-1975) and Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979): From Violence to Totalitarianism. Journal of Cambodia Research, No 10 (2008)

Comments are closed.