Modern History

Full Texts Multimedia Search Help

Selected Sources Sections Studying History Reformation Early Modern World Everyday Life Absolutism Constitutionalism Colonial North America Colonial Latin America Scientific Revolution Enlightenment Enlightened Despots American Independence French Revolution Industrial Revolution Romanticism Conservative Order Nationalism Liberalism 1848 Revolutions 19C Britain British Empire History 19C France 19C Germany 19C Italy 19C West Europe 19C East Europe Early US US Civil War US Immigration 19C US Culture Canada Australia & New Zealand 19C Latin America Socialism Imperialism Industrial Revolution II Darwin, Freud, Einstein 19C Religion World War I Russian Revolution Age of Anxiety Depression Fascism Nazism Holocaust World War II Bipolar World US Power US Society Western Europe Since 1945 Eastern Europe Since 1945 Decolonization Asia Since 1900 Africa Since 1945 Middle East Since 1945 20C Latin America Modern Social Movements Post War Western Thought Religion Since 1945 Modern Science Pop Culture 21st Century
IHSP Credits

Internet Modern History Sourcebook

François Ponchaud:

Cambodia: Year Zero, 1978

One of the most notable genocides since 1945 was visited on its own people by the Khmer Rouge, the guerrilla movement which successfully came to power using the destablization of Cambodia, following the US extension of the Vietnam war into that country. In April 1975, the Khmer Rouge took the capital city of Phnom Penh.

At this point the began an exercise in social control on a scale rarely seen. Under the direction of the Angkar (the "Higher Committee"), led by Pol Pot (who was arrested for this only in 1997), the government moved people out of the cities into the countryside for a massive re­education program. At the same time there began the systematic killing of those Cambodians associated with earlier governments. More, any Cambodian man, woman or child who was seen as a threat ,or who refused to obey orders was killed. The ability to speak a western language was sufficient grounds.

Between 1975 and 1979 over half a million Cambodians, out of a population of seven million, fell in the Khmer Rouge "killing fields".

François Ponchaud is French Roman Catholic priest who lived and worked in Cambodia for many years. (Cambodia was a former French colony). Although he had to leave Phnom Penh in 1975, along with all foreigners, he continued to work with Cambodian refugees. The following excerpts describe the experiences of a schoolteacher, court clerk, and physician during this period, as they were interviewed by Fr. Ponchaud.

A Schoolteacher's Story

At the beginning of January 1976, . . . twenty of us were sentenced to death for traveling without permission. We were taken away in a truck with our hands tied behind our backs. One Khmer Rouge sat behind with a gun and two more sat in front with the driver. One of us managed to free himself and secretly untied eleven others. Then one of us tried to kill the Khmer Rouge sitting in the back of the truck, but the guards in front saw him and turned around and started shooting. The twelve who had their hands free jumped down from the truck and dived into the Mongkol Borei River by the side on the road, then disappeared into the forest. The other eight were killed on the spot.

A Court Clerk's Account of an Execution

In October 1975, the Angkar chose us to cut bamboo at O Ta Tam, near Phnom Rodaong, for eighteen days. One afternoon we were in a group of thirty wagons carting bamboo to the national highway. We had loaded and were about to turn around when we saw a military truck enter the forest carrying about ten young men and girls. A moment later we heard shots, then the truck came back empty. We were very frightened, and harnessed up to go home. Then we heard moaning and somebody calling for help. One of our group, named Sambath, went over and saw a young man with bullet wounds in both arms and one thigh, and his arms still tied behind his back. Sambath untied him, gave him a little rice, and told him how to get to the road to the west. On the way home Sambath told us, "That young man told me that the people who had been shot hadn't done anything wrong, they had simply gone to look for food in the forest, so they weren't working with their group. That's why they were killed."

A Physician's Description of His Prison Camp

When we got out of the train at the station in Sisophon a reception committee was waiting for us. Loudspeakers welcomed us and asked all "specialists" to step forward: doctors, architects, schoolteachers, students, technicians, and skilled workers of all kinds. The Angkar was going to need them. I didn't move, but a man who had been a nurse under me and was now a Khmer Rouge cadre recognized me and strongly advised me to tell them my true identity or risk punishment. Then all the "specialists" were taken to Preah Neth Preah, where we had to work the land as before. One day we were taken to Chup, a village on the road between Siem Reap and Sisophon. There the Khmer Rouge received us with open arms and gave us three meals a day! That was a real treat! At one big meeting, attended by 397 "specialists," a Khmer Rouge asked us to write our biographies and set down our desiderata. He even invited us to come up to the platform and offer our suggestions as to bow the country could be better run. Teachers and students went up and began criticizing the Angkar for not giving people anything to eat, and for treating the sick with medicine that was more like rabbit dung than real pills; they asked for the bonzes to be reinstated and the pagodas reopened, and the high schools and universities, and for everyone to be allowed to visit his family, et cetera.

The Khmer Rouge said nothing, but we could see plainly enough that they didn't like it. After we had written our autobiographies they called out die names of twenty young people who had been most outspoken in their criticism, tied their hands behind their backs the way you tie a parrot's wings, and took them to Sisophon, where they were put in prison.

The rest of us went back to the village of Preah Neth Preah. A month later, on January 6, the Khmer Rouge came to get some of us and took us to dle Battambang prison. There were forty­five of us, and we were the first Zguests" of the prison since the new regime began. We had to write out our autobiographies several more times. Each time the cadres became more insistent: "You've made good progress since the last time but we know that some of you are still not telling the whole truth! We know what that truth is, why hide it? The Angkar doesn't want to kill you, don't be afraid! By acting the way you are, you show that you have not been converted." After three sessions, one of my friends revealed that he had been an army doctor. A week later he disappeared.

We had been there two weeks when the group of twenty young people interned at Sisophon were brought in; their arms were still tied at all times, even during meals, and the ropes had cut deep furrows. We also saw a former lieutenant colonel of the government army brought in, and about twenty [republican] MPs. After a few days they were taken away one at a time and we didn't see them again.

Now and then one of us was summoned for a "meeting," and sometimes the person did not come back. At the end of two and one­half months in prison fifteen of us were taken to the Van Kandal pagoda, which had also been made into a prison. There were three buildings in the pagoda: The doors and windows of one were kept permanently shut-that was where the prisoners were beaten, and some people had been in it for seven months. The windows of the second building were opened from time to time. The third building, where I was put, was for prisoners who stayed only a short time, usually two or three weeks. Its doors and windows were always open until 6:00 P.M. We had reeducation sessions, study meetings, we were subjected to constant interrogations. Those of us who were European­trained doctors and engineers were questioned even more than the others, because we were suspected of having worked with the imperialists or been engaged in secret activities.

In the evening, when we were taking our bath in the Stung Sangker, we saw other prisoners bathing, for although the houses on the other bank were always shut up, there were prisoners in them too. After ten days we were given a black garment and a gray and red krama [scarf] and put in a truck. Half the group was let out at Poy Saman and the other half at Kauk Khmwn to go on working in the field. That was April 6, 1976.

From François Ponchaud, Cambodia: Year Zero, translated by Nancy Amphoux (New York: Holts Rinehart and Winston, 1978), pp. 67, 69­70.

This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history. Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use of the Sourcebook. (c)Paul Halsall Aug 1997

The Internet History Sourcebooks Project is located at the History Department of  Fordham University, New York. The Internet Medieval Sourcebook, and other medieval components of the project, are located at the Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies.The IHSP recognizes the contribution of Fordham University, the Fordham University History Department, and the Fordham Center for Medieval Studies in providing web space and server support for the project. The IHSP is a project independent of Fordham University.  Although the IHSP seeks to follow all applicable copyright law, Fordham University is not the institutional owner, and is not liable as the result of any legal action.

© Site Concept and Design: Paul Halsall created 26 Jan 1996: latest revision 5 June 2023 [CV]