Three Years, Eight Months and Twenty Days

Widener Cambodia

Three years, eight months and twenty days or the length of time that the Khmer Rouge occupied Phnom Penh.

This week I began combing the Harvard Library system for all the research I can find on Phnom Penh before I no longer have access. There is surprisingly little given the size of Harvard’s collection. The majority of books in Widener are on the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. The titles are striking, among them: First They Killed My Father, The Killing Fields, and Pol Pot The History of a Nightmare. There is no doubt that the years between 1975 and 1979 were the defining moments of contemporary Cambodian history – however, this time period also comprises the majority of writing available on Phnom Penh – which is treated as little more than a drop back for the devastation of Pol Pot and his revolutionaries.

The exodus began on April 18, 1975 – in three days an estimated 2 million people were marched out of the capital. Their slogan: “Let us transform the countryside so that it becomes the city.” Central to the revolutionary doctrine was the concept of transforming urban dwellers into tightly controlled agricultural laborers by “extricating them from the filth of imperialists and colonialist culture (in this case the French).”

From David Chandler’s Voices from S-21:

 After the Khmer Rouge had emptied the city in 1975, Phnom Penh had remained the country’s capital, but it never regained its status as an urban center. The bureaucrats, soldiers, and factory workers quartered there probably never numbered more than fifty thousand. During the DK era, the country had no stores, markets, schools, temples, or public facilities, except for a warehouse in the capital serving the diplomatic community. In Phnom Penh, barbed-wire fences enclosed factories, workshops, barracks, and government offices. Street signs were painted over, and barbed-wire entanglements blocked many streets to traffic. Banana trees were planted in vacant lots. Automobiles abandoned in 1975 were rusted in piles along with refrigerators, washing machines, television sets, and typewriters. Scraps of paper in the gutters included prerevolutionary currency, worthless under the Khmer Rouge. On 7 January 1979, no people or animals could be seen. As in 1975, the central government, such as it was, had disappeared. Once again, Cambodians were being made to start at zero.

Despite this codified hatred of the city, few landmarks or buildings were destroyed in totality. Most notably, the Catholic cathedral and the National Bank. Other symbols of urban modernity were destroyed:  car, shops, medical and university buildings. The roads from the airport were maintained and facades of the empty buildings painted  to give the few chaperoned visitors a sense that the city was still in working shape.

”They took Cambodia from a country in the process of development to a communal society without the slightest vestige of the modern or the urban,” Van Molyvann, Cambodia Architect.

On January 7, 1979 the Vietnamese liberated the city from the Khmer Rouge and began their occupation of Cambodia and its capital.

Widener Cambodia

Widener Cambodia


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