A War Waged Against the City: Brother Number One

Source: David Chandler, Brother Number One A Political Biography of Pol Pot

“On April 17, Cambodian Communist troops, heavily armed, silent and many of them alarmingly young – appeared on the boulevards of Phnom Penh and converged on the center of the city…. Within twenty-four hours the young combatants ordered everyone in Phnom Penh to evacuate the city… the forced evacuation of the cities was the most far-reaching decision any modern Cambodian government ever took. To the leaders of the Red Khmer, it was not such much a cruel and thoughtless tactic as a demonstration of an extension of their victorious campaign. From that moment on, no foreign aid to feed the people would be allowed into the country. Those who suffered had refused to be on the winning side. A new Cambodia therefore would start from zero in an empty city.”

“Saloth Sar reached Phnom Penh in secrecy on April 23. For the past twelve years he had waged war against the city and all it stood for. The victory of what the Communists came to call the “glorious 17th of April: had obliterated the authority of Phnom Penh. As we was driven around the capital, with it smoldering garbage, burnt out cars, abandoned shops, deserted houses and empty streets, Sar’s excitement must have been difficult to restrain. He had stopped imperialism in its tracks.”

Source: The City He Built, New York Times

It is hard to imagine a crueler fate for an urban planner than seeing his country taken over by a regime with a murderous hatred of cities. As Cambodia’s pre-eminent architect and chief urban planner during the 1960’s, Vann Molyvann laid out significant portions of Phnom Penh and designed dozens of landmark structures fusing High Modernist design with classical Khmer elements, including the Corbusier-influenced Independence Monument, the stacked-block minimalist Front du Bassac housing development and the National Sports Complex. Then, in 1975, the Khmer Rouge marched into the capital and evacuated its entire population. They used the stadium for political meetings and mass rallies. In the southern port of Sihanoukville, they tried to blow up Vann’s National Bank of Cambodia building (having abolished money) but gave up when the vaults proved too strong.

”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,” says Vann”

Source: Brother Number One Film

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