Works of Joseph Hansen

The Forced Evacuation of Cambodia’s Cities

oseph Hansen

May 19, 1975

Published as a fraternal courtesy to the United Secretariat of the Fourth International.

Written: 1975
Source: Intercontinental Press 19 May 1975 (no 19)
Transcription\HTML Markup: Martin Falhgren

The Forced Evacuation of Cambodia’s Cities

Pnompenh fell to the People’s National Liberation Armed Forces of Cambodia on April 17, but accounts of what happened did not become available in the world press until May 8. The journalists who witnessed the take-over were barred from sending out dispatches. After reaching Thailand in a convoy of refugees May 3, they agreed to hold up their reports until several hundred additional refugees had crossed the border.

The accounts of the more responsible journalists must be taken as generally accurate, particularly in view of the fact that neither the new Cambodian authorities nor the governments in Hanoi and Peking have issued specific denials.

First of all — and this strengthens their credibility — the reporters deny that any “bloodbath” occurred. They also deny finding any evidence, or being able to locate any eyewitnesses, of the “executions” that the Ford administration claims to have learned about through “hard intelligence,” i.e., the CIA.

A sensationalistic account of atrocities presumably witnessed by Bernard Piquart, who was chief surgeon at the French-run Calmette Hospital in Pnompenh, was denied within a day by the doctor.

There were two take-overs on April 17. The first was carried out early in the morning by a small force led by one Hem Keth Dara. For a few hours he ruled the city as Lon Nol’s troops laid down their arms, and the populace, at first fearful, poured into the streets to celebrate the victory.

The holiday mood evaporated when the main forces arrived about noon. They disarmed Hem Keth Dara. In the May 9 issue of the New York Times, Sydney H. Schanberg offers a vivid eyewitness account of what happened next:

“Using loudspeakers, or simply shouting and brandishing weapons, they swept through the streets, ordering people out of their houses. At first we thought the order applied only to the rich in villas, but we quickly saw that it was for everyone as the streets became clogged with a sorrowful exodus.”

“In Phnom Penh two million people suddenly moved out of the city en masse in stunned silence — walking, bicycling, pushing cars that had run out of fuel, covering the roads like a human carpet, bent under sacks of belongings hastily thrown together when the heavily armed peasant soldiers came and told them to leave immediately, everyone dispirited and frightened by the unknown that awaited them and many plainly terrified because they were soft city people and were sure the trip would kill them.

“Hospitals jammed with wounded were emptied, right down to the last patient. They went —limping, crawling, on crutches, carried on relatives’ backs, wheeled on their hospital beds... .

“A once-throbbing city became an echo chamber of silent streets lined with abandoned cars and gaping, empty shops. Streetlights burned eerily for a population that was no longer there.”

Traveling across the country on the way to Thailand, Schanberg noted that other cities and towns had been similarly evacuated. He came to the following conclusion:

“The victorious Cambodian Communists ... are carrying out a peasant revolution that has thrown the entire country into upheaval.

“Perhaps as many as three or four million people [out of a population of seven million] ... have been forced out of the cities and sent on a mammoth and grueling exodus into areas deep in the countryside where, the Communists say, they will have to become peasants and till the soil... .

“The old economy of the cities has been abandoned, and for the moment money means nothing and cannot be spent. Barter has replaced it.”

For the Washington propagandists, Cambodia’s “peasant revolution” was a windfall. They pounced on it. The reactionary columnist William Safire, for instance, said ... “this is no Cambodian aberration, but the path always taken by new Communist parties as they take power.” Calling it the “decapitation of a capital city,” he averred that “Communism is by its nature anti-city, anti-civilization, anti-freedom.”

And what precipitated the process that led to these results? It was Nixon’s incursion in 1970. B-52s carpet bombed Cambodia. The countryside was cratered. About 600,000 Cambodians were killed. Another 600,000 were wounded. This was the “civilizing mission” directed from Washington, the capital city of the United States.

Is it any wonder that the peasants of Cambodia came to view cities as evil incarnate? Behind those untouchable pilots in the giant bombers who showered their country with fiendishly destructive devices, they saw the city of Washington. And within closer reach they saw the cities and towns where dirty puppets did everything they could to help Washington destroy them and their families.

Despite this completely justifiable hatred of the foreign power that sought to bomb them back to the Stone Age, one of the leaders in the new Information Ministry told Schanberg: “We would like you to give our thanks to the American people who have helped us and supported us from the beginning, and to all people of the world who love peace and justice. Please give this message to the world.”

Evidently the liberation forces are able to distinguish between the White House and the antiwar movement that played such a key role in bringing the imperialist aggression to an end.

The Cambodian people have a right to determine their own fate. This applies just as much after their victory over the foreign imperialist invaders as before. Everyone who has fought for this right must continue to uphold it. We must be particularly alert to any new imperialist attempt to intervene in the internal affairs of the Cambodian people. The slogan remains, “Hands off Cambodia!”

Nonetheless revolutionary Marxists are duty bound to voice their concern over the program that is being followed by the national liberation forces in Cambodia. It is not a communist program.

Consider the class composition of the cities and towns. The very thin layer of capitalists, or would-be capitalists, left Cambodia before the collapse of Lon Nol. About 5,000 or 6,000 persons were involved. While a few individual traitors decided to remain and take their chances, they no longer constitute a serious danger. The fact is that the bulk of the city population in Cambodia consists of workers and artisans and their families.

To view them as potential, if not actual, class enemies is not Marxist. And to drive them into the countryside for “reeducation” does grave injury to the Cambodian revolution. The same layers, in alliance with the peasants, constitute the key force required to move toward a socialist society.

It cannot be excluded, of course, that the new authorities had good reasons for deciding that the first major action following the victory should be the evacuation of the cities. Perhaps they will eventually say that a forced march was required to plant crops, or that transport was not available to feed the cities. But this would not explain why the evacuation was ordered in such a summary way on the very day of the victory, or why it was undertaken at such high cost in human suffering. Why wasn’t it explained to the populace? Why weren’t they given more time? Why weren’t they consulted and brought into the planning? Why were they handled like enemies?

The answers are tied in with the pattern of the Cambodian revolution. As in China, the most massive force is composed of rebel peasants. Again as in China, this force created an army in the countryside. The peasant army, in turn, created a command structure. Here we find the key element.

In former times, the commanders led similar peasant armies against a corrupt, decayed regime. Toppling the old regime and carrying out a number of progressive measures permitting a new expansion of agriculture, the army command would mark the beginning of a new dynasty.

This ancient Asian pattern helped shape the revolutionary process that brought Mao to power.

In modern times, of course, the command structure of a peasant army created in this way is subject to international influences that block the old pattern from being merely repeated. In the case of China, it placed in power a Chinese variant of Stalinist bureaucratism. What the outcome will be in Cambodia remains to be seen.

The degree of influence Hanoi and Peking may have with the new authorities in Cambodia is not clear. Moscow’s standing is very low. A rocket was fired through the Soviet embassy in Pnompenh, the building was looted, and the seven Russians there were ordered to leave the country with the final convoys of foreigners.

On May 11 the Pnompenh radio said: “The victory of the Cambodian people is the same as the victory of the Chinese. The strategic unity between Cambodia and China, which is the base of our friendship, will last forever. We warmly respect each other’s cause both internally and internationally.”

The decision of the Cambodians to evacuate the cities may have been done in emulation of the Maoists, who have sent hundreds of thousands of dissidents or potential dissidents, particularly among the youth, into the countryside for “reeducation.” Does Peking consider the Cambodians to have been overzealous? So far the writers for Hsinhua have maintained a discreet silence.

The lineaments of the Cambodian revolution are beginning to emerge. It should not take long until a more concrete assessment can be made. However, it is still too early to accurately forecast its coming stages.

May 19, 1975