Download April 17 marked a tragic turning point in Cambodian history.
37 years ago, Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh, known as the Pearl of Asia, fell to the Khmer Rouge.
Khmer Rouge renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea, and turned it into a purely agrarian-based Communist society.
One third of the population died from execution, starvation, disease and overwork under the four-year regime of Khmer Rouge with Pol Pot as the key leader.
At present, the Khmer Rouge Tribunals are taking place, with charges accusing the four top leaders of genocide and crimes against humanity.
Borin Noun revives the history.
That’s a Khmer Rouge song – calling on Cambodia’s farmers to struggle for the revolution.
The country’s still dealing with that revolution’s legacy.
The Khmer Rouge forced around two million people out of cities to the fields, to create an agrarian Communist society.
Everything they said was against communism was forbidden: markets, schools, newspapers, religious practices, and private property.
Intellectuals, businessmen, and foreigners were driven out or killed.
That was April 17, 37 years ago – the Khmer Rouge ‘Year Zero’.
A Buddhist ceremony at Choeung Ek, on the outskirts of the capital Phnom Penh.
For four years this was one of the ‘killing fields’ – 17 thousand people were executed here.
There are 129 mass graves on the site, but only 43 have been excavated.
Today Choeung Ek is a memorial. with a Buddhist stupa holding more than 5 thousand human skulls. Many are shattered or smashed in.
Inside an audio tour guides visitors through this violent history.
This is the day the Khmer Rouge took power – recorded on a documentary film. Children cry as people are taken from their houses and marched out to the countryside.
61-year old Kim Sann still clearly remembers the last day she saw her family.
“It was early morning when I heard lots of shooting and then Khmer Rouge fighters invaded the capital. I was so scared when I saw them. They ordered us, the residents of the capital, to leave the city for three days. But then my family along with many others were forced into a military vehicle and taken to the countryside. I’ve never seen them since. I missed my home so much.”
At a ceremony commemorating this anniversary at Choeung Ek, victims gather to share their bitter experiences under the brutal regime.
70-year old Men Sithol lost four family members.
“The 17th of April marks the blackest event in Cambodia’s history. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were brutal, it’s something that we can’t forget. We hold this event today to remember the tragedy and for the souls of the victims killed by the regime.”
The Khmer Rouge believed that parents were tainted with capitalism – so they took the children away to indoctrinate them with their version of communism.
They called these children ‘the newcomers’. Ly Monisak was one of them.
He’s 43 years old now – 21 members of his family were killed by the regime.
“The Khmer Rouge hated my family so much that even though my mother had a three-month old baby, they forced her to work in the fields. Then they killed her and my youngest brother. Today I live alone. I need justice for my family.”
The Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia for just under four years.
In 1979, Vietnamese troops invaded and took over Phnom Penh, and established the People’s Republic of Kampuchea.
But fighting continued until a peace process established a constitutional monarchy in 1993 – the country’s name changed to the Kingdom of Cambodia.
Decades later, the nation still needs to deal with its past – including justice for brutal crimes.
The Khmer Rouge Tribunal is a national court that includes Cambodian and international judges.
It was set up six years ago to bring the perpetrators of crimes committed under Pol Pot’s regime to trial.
Justice is not quick. Two years ago, former Khmer Rouge prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, or Comrade Duch, was found guilty of crimes against humanity.
In February his appeal was overturned and he was sentenced to life imprisonment – the maximum sentence under Cambodian law.
In June last year, three surviving Khmer Rouge leaders went to trial on similar charges.
They include Pol Pot’s right-hand man, Nuon Chea, known as “Brother Number Two”.
He has admitted to forcefully evicting people from the cities on April 17, 37 years ago.
But he claims he had reasons.
“From1972, the capital of Phnom Penh residents had been facing famine. There was no food to feed the people. In 1975, demonstrations, strikes and riots took place everywhere. People had no jobs, there were many beggars on the streets, and army soldiers didn’t get their salaries. The government couldn’t control the situation. That’s why we took over the capital and moved residents to live in rural areas and work as farmers.”
Survivors remember how it happened – the excuses don’t work.
And now young people learn about the regime’s atrocities in school.
But nearly four decades later, the Khmer Rouge legacy remains a deeply damaged nation, still struggling to recover from its wounds.
Borin Noun is also a survivor. His parents and four brothers were killed by the Khmer Rouge regime.