PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Cambodia on Friday, April 17, will mark 40 years since the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh, ending a civil war but heralding a terror that left a quarter of the population dead and turned the capital into a ghost town.
A memorial service for regime survivors at the most notorious of the of so-called “Killing Fields” on the capital’s outskirts – Cheung Ek – will begin commemorations of the April 17, 1975 triumph of the communist hardliners over the US-backed republican army of Lon Nol.
By the time Pol Pot’s tyrannical rule was ousted four years later, an estimated two million Cambodians had been killed by execution, starvation or overwork as the Khmer Rouge drove the country back to “Year Zero” in a madcap agrarian peasant revolution.
But initially, as they entered Phnom Penh astride tanks, the black-clad Khmer Rouge soldiers, many just teenagers, were given a cautious welcome for ending the civil war.
That warmth swiftly turned to horror as the cadres evacuated the city of two million people at gunpoint, in one of the largest forced migrations in recent history.
The sick, elderly and very young perished, their bodies littering the roadsides, as the “bourgeois” city dwellers were marched into the countryside to scratch a living from the parched, over-used soil.
Only after the regime was forced out by Vietnamese soldiers did the scale of the its atrocities emerge, with the bones of thousands of victims uncovered at several mass graves.
“Pol Pot entered Phnom Penh 40 years ago and destroyed everything – schools, hospitals and pagodas,” 85-year-old torture survivor Chum Mey told the Agence France-Presse ahead of the anniversary.
“Now we are at peace, happy, but I will never forget the suffering. We had nothing to eat, we had no freedom during the regime: three years, eight months and 20 days,” he said.
Chum Mey survived the notorious torture centre of Tuol Sleng – or S21 – in the heart of the capital, where supposed class enemies were denounced and tortured.
Many of those who were not killed there were sent to Cheung Ek for execution.
In 2010, a UN-backed war crimes court sentenced former Tuol Sleng prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, to 30 years in prison — later increased on appeal to life — for overseeing the deaths of 15,000 people.
He was the first person to be held accountable for the regime’s crimes.
Last August the two most senior surviving Khmer Rouge leaders – Nuon Chea, 88, known as “Brother Number Two”, and former head of state Khieu Samphan, 83 – were given life sentences for crimes against humanity. Both have appealed.
Their two-year trial focused on the forced evacuation of Cambodians from Phnom Penh into rural labour camps as well as murders at one execution site. – Rappler.com
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