Forgive me a moment of sentimentality masquerading as research:
I am completely infatuated with the Olympic Stadium. As an architect, Phnom Penh’s New Khmer Architecture embodies and makes tangible the profound cultural and intellectual loss perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge. The number of people murdered by the regime is staggering, heartbreaking, and as an abstraction, nearly impossible to comprehend.
These buildings echo with the ghosts of unrealized potential, of brilliant work cut short, abandoned, neglected or never built. They are a trace of a Phnom Penh that could have been (and still might be): monuments to the squandered talent which conceived them. As such, they make human and understandable the tragic loss. These were my counterparts, they were me, my friends, my teachers, and my colleagues. Their lives brutally and unjustly cut short.
The power of this absence brings to mind the work of my friend and fellow researcher Jenny French: Representation’s Ghost: Site Visits for Unbuilt Projects which examines the gap left by disciplinarily influential but physically absent architectural works.
Every so often there are rumblings that the Stadium will torn down and redeveloped as condos or a shopping mall or something equally terrible. I very much hope that day never comes.
From the Facebook Page:
The National Sports Complex designed to Olympic standards, was directly commissioned by then Head of State, Prince Norodom Sihanouk himself. Construction began on May 25, 1962 and was completed in some 18 months. It was inaugurated on November 12, 1964 with a crowd of one hundred thousand people. The complex was initially designed for the Southeast Asian Games of 1964. Instead Cambodia hosted the international GANEFO* Games in 1966 and used the stadium to receive international dignitaries visiting Cambodia during the Sangkum Reastr Niyum era (1953/1970).
The complex comprises of a 60,000 seat stadium with sports ground and athletic tracks; an external grandstand for 8000 official spectators, an indoor sports hall for 8,000; restaurants, changing rooms and reception area, 24 outdoor tennis, volley-ball and basketball courts, an Olympic standard swimming and diving-pool with seating for 8,000 and a podium for medal winners and the Olympic flame.
500,000m3 earth was excavated with manpower and ox carts that was heaped up to create the elliptic stadium. The water tanks created by these excavations were necessary to ensure drainage not only of the sports facilities but also for the whole of this low-lying district of Phnom Penh.
The sports complex was linked to housing for 2,000 athletes built on the Bassac riverfront (today Phnom Penh Centre) and to the Water Sport Complex / Yacht Club (turned into the Phnom Penh Casino in 1969, later totally destroyed).
The Sports Complex was lauded in the international architectural press of the 1960s and inaugurated to great acclaim in 1964 as a technical feat and a work of great beauty. It was designed by Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann, assisted by UN expert engineer Vladimir Bodiansky, UN expert urbanist Gérald Hanning, Cambodian architects Mean Kimly, Um Samouth and French architects Claude Duchemin and Jean-Claude Morin, who did all the working drawings and Civil Engineer Wladimir Kandouaroff, responsible for the gigantic earthworks.
* GANEFO = Games of the New Emerging Forces
DESIGN: NEW KHMER ARCHITECTURE
During the Sangkum Reastr Niyum regime (1955-1970) Prince Norodom Sihanouk enacted a development policy encompassing the whole kingdom with the construction of new towns, infrastructure and the highest standard of architecture. Vann Molyvann was the foremost of a generation of architects who contributed to the unique style of architecture that emerged during this era and that has been coined NEW KHMER ARCHITECTURE.
BIO VANN MOLYVANN
Vann Molyvann was born in 1926 in Ream, Kampot province. He trained at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France and returned in 1956 to Cambodia as the first fully qualified Cambodian architect and was appointed Head of Public Works and State Architect by Sihanouk. In 13 years he designed and built over hundreds works, including such famous landmarks as the Chaktomouk Conference Hall, the Council of Ministers, the Teachers Training College, the National Theatre Preah Suramarit, and the Exhibition Hall. In addition to his appointment as Minister of Education and founding Rector of the University of Fine Arts, he worked as a town planner and was also engaged in many social housing experiments. Furthermore he designed some of Cambodia’s embassies and exhibitions abroad. He left Cambodia in 1971 shortly after Lon Nol took power and worked until 1993 for the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements throughout the world. In 1993 he returned to Cambodia where, as President of the Council of Ministers, he obtained the classification of Angkor as a UNESCO World Heritage site and founded APSARA (Authority for the Protection Safeguard and Renovation of Angkor).
Still searching for the source data used to create the map.
It is commonly quoted that the US dropped more bombs on Cambodia and Laos from 1965-1975 than were dropped on Europe during the entirety of the World World II European Campaign. Still searching for corroborating sources. If true, then that’s a pretty horrific fact.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
From 1975 to 1978, Cambodia was ruled by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, which sought among other things to build a vast system of irrigation canals. These images show an area around Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh where such waterworks were built. Many areas east of the Mekong River, appearing tan in the 1973 image, show a half-kilometer gridwork in 1985.
(A note on terms: Phnom Penh is pronounced p-NOM PEN. Phnom means “hill” or “mountain” in Khmer; Penh is a woman’s name.1 More than 90% of Cambodians are ethnic Khmer, and Khmer is the national language.2 Cambodia has also been known as Kampuchea.)
The city at the rivers
Phnom Penh is just west of the four-way river intersection, which is called the Chattomukh (“Four Faces”). From the northwest and northeast, respectively, flow the Tonle Sab and Mekong Rivers. These waters merge and split into the Basak River and the Mekong, which flow southeast to the South China Sea.4
The Mekong River is the 12th longest in the world, flowing 2,600 mi from western China to the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam.5 Every autumn, monsoon rains are too great for the Mekong to carry, and it floods a large area of Cambodia. This flood even reverses the flow of the Tonle Sab River, northward to the Tonle Sap (“Great Lake”) which can expand to ten times its normal size.6
This area receives 152 to 203 cm of rain annually, most of which falls during the southeast monsoons from mid-May to early October. Landsat images are effective for quantifying changes in surface water. While the images were both acquired after the monsoon season, the 1985 imageclearly shows more surface water than the 1973 image.
Phnom Penh is the Mekong River’s largest city. Its population fluctuated wildly during the 1970s and 1980s; from an estimated 1.2 million in 1971 it swelled with war refugees to 2 million or more by 1975, when it was forcibly evacuated to almost nothing by the victorious Khmer Rouge communists.7 From 1978 (the last year of the Khmer Rouge regime) to 1987, Phnom Penh’s population grew from about 50,000 to 700,000. 8Because of the extreme instability in these decades, data on Cambodia are often fragmentary and contradictory.9
Khmer Rouge irrigation
From 1975 to 1978, Cambodia was governed by ideological pro-Chinese communists known as the Khmer Rouge (“Red Khmer”), who gained a reputation for extreme brutality. Even Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge ruler, claimed that 10% of the population died (800,000 of 7-8 million), and other estimates were higher.11 Many of these deaths were from hunger, disease, war, and forced work, but there were also mass executions.
In their desire to radically transform Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge emulated both contemporary Communist China and the Khmer “golden age” of the 11th-13th centuries– both of which utilized irrigation. Canals around China’s Yangtze River delta harnessed rainy-season floodwaters, carrying them out to the surrounding lowlands where in the dry season people lifted the water up into their rice fields.12 Historical and archeological documents also indicate a local irrigation system in the twelfth-century Khmer state, possibly storing and distributing water so that rice could be grown year-round, two or more crops per year.13
The Khmer Rouge set out to build a system of canals, ditches and dikes. Citizens, including the evacuated city-dwellers, were forced to work in the countryside growing rice and building these irrigation works, with rigid work quotas and hard, slavelike conditions.14
There is disagreement whether this sacrifice and coercion even succeeded in irrigating Cambodia.15 Many projects were headed by loyal party leaders with no technical skills.16 Teachers, technicians, and other skilled (usually urban) professionals were hated by the Khmer Rouge as corrupting urban influences, and many were executed.17 There were reports of many ditches collapsing when it rained.18 It is likely that by the end of the Khmer Rouge regime, expertise had improved, but the post-Khmer Rouge government had to devote considerable resources to repairing irrigation works. One official said 80% of the projects had been poorly constructed, though it varied by region.19
1. Sattaur, Omar, 1992, Raising rice in Cambodia’s ruins: New Scientist, v. 134, no. 1824, 6 June 1992, p. 36. Osborne, Milton Edgeworth, 1988, Southeast Asia; Kampuchea: The new encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 27, p. 800.
LM1135052007300390 (Landsat 1 MSS, 3 January 1973)
LM5126052008534890 (Landsat 5 MSS, 14 January 1985)
Defense Mapping Agency, 1973 (compiled 1968, revised 1973), Operational Navigation Chart K-10: edition 7, scale 1:1,000,000.
Answer to the question above
The ditches and canals are in straight lines, regularly spaced, at right angles. One might expect gravity-dependent canals to curve, like the creeks visible in the 1973 image. The Khmer Rouge built irrigation works along the 1-km gridlines of their military maps, ignoring hills, villages, and other topography. It is claimed that some canals actually did more harm than good, disrupting natural water supplies and encouraging erosion.20
It appears that each district had to dig a certain amount of ditches, whether needed or not.21 Workers had rigid daily quotas, so that some finished early and some could never finish.22 There were rigid decisions about which varieties of rice were acceptable, diminishing the diversity of varieties which had adapted to local conditions.23
Finally, the Khmer Rouge have been criticized for applying inappropriate models from the beginning. In emulating the Chinese system, for example, they ignored the amount of human labor needed to lift the water up to the fields. Where one square kilometer of Yangtze River lowlands may support 1500 laborers, the Mekong uplands may support only 300.24
How to cite this article
Campbell, Robert Wellman, ed. 1998. “Phnom Penh, Cambodia: 1973, 1985.” Earthshots: Satellite Images of Environmental Change. U.S. Geological Survey. http://earthshots.usgs.gov. This article was released 1 January 1998.
NEW: CGEO Mapping Database: A large interactive political, environmental and geographic map of the Cambodian war and genocide, 1965-2000.
Democratic Kampuchea Administrative Zones (official Khmer Rouge map, in Khmer) with description
Environmental Impact of Khmer Rouge Irrigation Projects (USGS satellite images)
Can’t get my hands on this book…
Between 1975 and 1978, the Khmer Rouge carried out genocide in Cambodia unparalleled in modern history. Approximately 2 million died – almost one quarter of the population. Taking an explicitly geographical approach, this book argues whether the Khmer Rouge’s activities not only led to genocide, but also terracide – the erasure of space.
In the Cambodia of 1975, the landscape would reveal vestiges of an indigenous pre-colonial Khmer society, a French colonialism and American intervention. The Khmer Rouge, however, were not content with retaining the past inscriptions of previous modes of production and spatial practices. Instead, they attempted to erase time and space to create their own utopian vision of a communal society. The Khmer Rouge’s erasing and reshaping of space was thus part of a consistent sacrifice of Cambodia and its people – a brutal justification for the killing of a country and the birth of a new place, Democratic Kampuchea.
While focusing on Cambodia, the book provides a clearer geographic understanding to genocide in general and insights into the importance of spatial factors in geopolitical conflict.
Contents: Imagining genocide; Irruptions and disruptions; The improbable revolution; The un-making of space; The placelessness of democratic Kampuchea; The political and the subject; A political understanding of genocide and justice; Bibliography; Index.
About the Author: James Tyner is Professor of Geography at Kent State University, USA.
Reviews: ‘In The Killing of Cambodia, James Tyner takes a uniquely geographic perspective on the complex topic of genocide. He demonstrates why it is not so much the “making of history” that tells the story of genocide but the “erasure of space” that will lead us to consider important and difficult questions about genocide.’ Shannon O’Lear, University of Kansas, USA
‘Tyner correctly views the Cambodian genocide through the lens of competing geographical imaginations. In re-telling the genocide as a geographical history, he helps to remind readers of why social space is fundamental for our intellectual efforts to answer difficult questions about the horror of political violence.’ Carl Dahlman, Miami University Ohio, USA
‘…Tyner’s book demonstrates the incredible complexities involved in understanding the Khmer Rouge tragedy, and offers up several additional insights such as the erasure of space to help comprehend this tragedy. I would highly recommend it for anyone working in Cambodia, or those working on issues of genocide or development in post-conflict or post-socialist situations.’ Asia Pacific Viewpoint
‘…a powerful postmortem of Cambodia’s death…’ Envrionment and Planning C: Government and Policy
“The seventeenth of April 1975, a glorious date in the history of Kampuchea, has ushered in an era more remarkable than the age of the Angkors.”
“The city is bad, for there is money in the city. People can be reformed, but not cities By sweating to clear the land, sowing and harvesting crops, men will learn the real value of things. Man has to know that he is born from a grain of rice!”
“In Phnom Penh you eat rice but you don’t grow it. You should go to the country, where you eat the rice you have grown.“
-Khmer Rouge Slogans, Radio Phnom Penh
From Cambodia: Year Zero a description of the evacuation of Phnom Penh:
“By dawn, April 17, the (International Red Cross) team was submerged by a title waver of refugees and could take no more. Suddenly, around 7:30 A.M., the streams of people dried up and gave way to an eerie silence. The armored tanks standing in firing position near the French embassy moved toward the city center and assembled in front of the cathedral and the Descartes lycee with their guns pointing north…”
“Soon small groups of young Khmers, hardly into their teens, began moving silently into town from all sides. They were dressed all in black, wearing black Chinese caps and Ho Chi Minh sandals – soles cut out of old tires fastened to the feet with rubber thongs. Hung about them were Chines grenades; B-40s (anti-tank explosives); AK-47s, the famous Chinese assault guns, and strange clips and loaders dangled from their chests. They looked bewildered, on the verge of collapse, utterly remote from the people’s jubilation…”
“An almost physical sense of relief led to general rejoicing. No more rockets to fear; no more blind slaughter; no more compulsory military service; no more of this rotten, loathed regime that didn’t even pay its soldiers; no more food rationing because of the blockade. At last, the peasants could go back and cultivate their rice paddies. The thousands of refugees who had poured into town during the preceding days delightedly turned back to the homes they had fled for fear of the flighting…”
“A few moments later a hallucinatory spectacle began. Thousands of teh sick and wondered were abandoning the city. The strongest dragged pitifully along, other were carried by friends, and some were lying on beds pushed by their families with their plasma and IVs bumping alongside. I shall never forget one cripple who had neither hands nor feet, writhing along the ground like a severed worm, or a weeping father carrying his ten-year-old daughter wrapped in a sheet tied round his neck like a sling, or the man with his foot dangling at the end of a leg to which it was attached by nothing but the skin. “Can I spend the evening and the night here with you?” he asked. “No, you know it’s not possible, you must leave as quickly as you can.” Refusing shelter to the sick and injured makes one feel one has lost one’s last shred of human dignity. That is how the first evacuees left, about twenty-thousand of them.”
“Then after the sick and wounded, we witnessed the departure of the entire population of Phnom Penh. Before noon, the little men in black were going to every door in the district: “You must leave quickly. The Americans are going to bomb the city. Go ten or twelve miles aways, don’t take much with you, don’t bother to lock up, we’ll take care of everything until you get back You’ll return in two or three days, as soon as we’ve cleaned up the city.”
“The water mains were turned off and the electricity cut to make sure that no on could survive.”
“If you think of the accumulated artisitic and cultural wealth, the capital in buildings and furnishings of a city with a population of six hundred thousand, (which was that of Phnom Penh before the 1970 war), you will have no trouble imagining the waste and spoilage entailed by such an exodus. To that wealth should be added the complete technical infrastructure, no useless, required to operate a modern capital city.”
“The good of the people was not the goal of the evacuation of Phnom Penh: its aim was to prove a theory that had been worked out in abstract without the slightest regard for human factors.”
Francois Ponchaud was a French Roman Catholic priest and missionary to Cambodia where he worked for over ten years. He was among the last foreigners forced to leave Phnom Penh. He continued his work recording the stories of refugees who made it to the camps in Thailand and Vietnam. His book was published while the Khmer Rouge were still in power.
“On March 31, 1977 The New York Review of Books published my account of my book under the signature of Jean Lacouture, which provoked considerable reaction in all circles concerned about Asia and the future of socialism. With the responsible attitude and precision of thought that are so characteristic of him, Noam Chomsky then embarked a polemical exchange with Rober Silvers, Editor of the NYR, and with Jean Lacouture, leading to the publication by the latter of a rectification of his initial account. Mr. Chomsky was of the opinion that Jean Lacouture had substantially distorted the evidence I had offered, and considering my book to be “serious and worth reading, as distinct from much of the commentary it has elicited,” he wrote me a personal letter on October 19, 1977, in which he drew my attention to the way it was being misused by anti-revolutionary propagandists. He had made it my duty to “stem the flood of lies” about Cambodia – particularly, according to him, those propagated by Anthony Paul and John Barron in “Murder of a Gentle Land.”
“The term Year Zero, applied to the takeover of Cambodia in 1975 by Pol Pot, is an analogy to the Year One of the French Revolutionary Calendar. During the French Revolution, after the abolition of the Frenchmonarchy (September 20, 1792), the National Convention instituted a new calendar and declared the beginning of the Year I. The Pol Pot takeover of Phnom Penh was rapidly followed by a series of drastic revolutionary agrarian socialism policies vastly exceeding those of the French Reign of Terror and culminating in the Cambodian Genocide.
The idea behind Year Zero is that all culture and traditions within a society must be completely destroyed or discarded and a new revolutionary culture must replace it, starting from scratch. All history of a nation or people before Year Zero is deemed largely irrelevant, as it will (as an ideal) be purged and replaced from the ground up.”