Sat, Apr 18, 2015 - Page 6 News List

Cambodia marks 40 years since evacuation of capital

AFP, PHNOM PENH

A woman cries during a Buddhist ceremony at Choeung Ek near Phnom Penh yesterday in front of the skulls and bones of people killed by the Khmer Rouge regime.

Photo: Reuters

Tearful survivors yesterday marked 40 years to the day since the Khmer Rouge marched on Phnom Penh, ending a civil war, but heralding a terror that would kill a quarter of Cambodians and leave the capital a ghost town.

A few hundred people, including monks and elderly regime survivors, gathered early yesterday at Choeung Ek — the most notorious of the regime’s “Killing Fields” — on the capital’s outskirts, burning incense and saying Buddhist prayers at a memorial stupa housing the skulls and bones of victims.

The event commemorated the April 17, 1975, triumph of the Khmer Rouge over the US-backed republican army of Lon Nol and with it the start of four years of a genocidal communist revolution.

Initially, the Khmer Rouge were given a cautious welcome by Phnom Penh’s war-weary residents as they entered the city astride tanks, their distinctive red-checkered scarves fluttering behind them.

However, soon enough, cadres began to evacuate the city of 2 million people at gunpoint, in one of the largest forced migrations in recent history.

Sick, elderly and very young people perished, their bodies littering the roadsides, as bourgeois city dwellers were marched into the countryside to scratch a living from the parched soil.

By the time the tyrannical rule of Pol Pot was ousted four years later, an estimated 2 million Cambodians had been killed by execution, starvation or overwork as the Khmer Rouge drove the country back to “Year Zero” through an agrarian peasant revolution.

“Forty years ago, Pol Pot turned Cambodia into a hell — a ghost land,” Huot Huorn, 67, told reporters with tears in her eyes after lighting incense for the 36 relatives she lost to the regime.

“I still hate that regime ... their sins are vivid in my eyes now,” she said. “They starved us, jailed people with no food and water until they died... I saw them smash children’s heads against a tree trunk.”

Only after the regime was forced out by Vietnamese soldiers in 1979 did the scale of its atrocities emerge, with the bones of thousands of people — including children — uncovered at mass graves across the country, including at Choeung Ek.

Many had first suffered at Phnom Penh’s notorious torture house — Tuol Sleng, or S21 — as perceived enemies of the revolution.

The former school has also been preserved as a grisly testament to the horrors of the era, which ended when the Khmer Rouge were forced to retreat to jungle hideouts.

In 2010, a UN-backed war crimes court sentenced former Tuol Sleng prison head 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.

Cambodians remain divided over how to move forward, with those clamoring for justice countered by others urging reconciliation in a nation where both perpetrators and victims of the regime are still alive.

In March, the court charged three more former Khmer Rouge members with crimes against humanity, ignoring warnings by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen — a mid-ranking regime cadre before he defected — that further prosecutions risked reigniting conflict.

Speaking at yesterday’s memorial, opposition leader Sam Rainsy repeated a call for further trials, saying that only the guilty “fear the truth.”

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