Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Report from Kampuchea: Why Phnom Penh was evacuated

First Published: The Call, Vol. 7, No. 26, July 3, 1978.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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This is the fifth in a series of articles by Call journalists who visited Democratic Kampuchea (Cambodia) in April. They were the first Americans to visit that country since its liberation in 1975.

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In the spring of 1975, Phnom Penh was a city swollen, choked and starved by war. Among its 3.1 million inhabitants were 2.5 million people who had crowded into the city between 1970 and 1975. They were refugees from the U.S. war of aggression that had left their villages bombed out and their ricefields defoliated.

This article is the story of how and why Phnom Penh was evacuated after the victorious Revolutionary Army entered its streets on April 17, 1975. The story was told to us by many people we met in Kampuchea, including Deputy Premier Ieng Sary as well as workers and peasants who participated in the evacuation.

In January of 1975, the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) had given the directive to all units of the Revolutionary Army to launch the Mekong River offensive. By February, it had become clear that it was only a matter of time before the U.S.-Lon Nol forces would be completely isolated and victory in the liberation war would belong to the Kampuchean people.

It was at this time that the CPK Central Committee first turned its attention to what the liberation forces would do once they entered Phnom Penh. They knew that even if the Lon Nol puppet troops surrendered, many dangers to the revolution would still exist.

During the five years of war, both the CIA and the KGB had developed extensive counter-revolutionary networks of agents and spies in Phnom Penh. The Lon Nol clique had built all sorts of secret communications systems and underground arms depots. Various other foreign powers, including all of Kampuchea’s neighbors, had their agents in place in the Kampuchean capital.

These reactionary forces were dead-set against the revolution and would do their best to sabotage it from within once it achieved victory. Knowing this, the CPK leadership began to make plans. Figuring prominently in these plans was the idea of a total evacuation of Phnom Penh.

By removing the whole population to the countryside–including the thousands of spies and agents–the counterrevolutionary networks would be destroyed. Their plans for using Phnom Penh to stage a coup d’etat would be foiled. As for the counter-revolutionaries themselves, they could be given a chance to mend their ways in the countryside under close supervision of the peasants.

At first, the need for the evacuation may sound far-fetched. But actually, it was a brilliant tactic that enabled the new-born revolution to survive.

Consider this: Sirik Matak and Long Boret, two of Lon Nol’s inner circle, were waiting for the Revolutionary Army at the Foreign Ministry in Phnom Penh on April 17.

They were instructed by their U.S. masters to remain behind to direct counter-revolutionary activities after liberation. Sirik Matak and Long Boret figured that the Revolutionary Army would be so overwhelmed by the tasks of administering Phnom Penh, that the CPK would be forced to establish a coalition government with them.

Buying time in this way, Sirik Matak and Long Boret would put their reactionary agents to work and eventually stage a counter-revolution.

We were told that captured documents detailed concrete plans for how this would be brought about.

These documents indicated that while the U.S. nominally abandoned Kampuchea on April 12, the real thinking of the imperialists was to withdraw only temporarily. CIA intelligence estimated that the Revolutionary Army–most of whose troops had never been inside Phnom Penh in their lives–would not be able to hold power in the city.

Although the security question was clearly one of the main factors in the evacuation decision, it wasn’t the only one.

Inside Phnom Penh at the time of liberation, starvation was already rampant. Three hundred people, in fact, starved to death each day.

The entire rice supply of the city had been depleted. The fields immediately around Phnom Penh had all been defoliated. The roads leading into the countryside were bombed out and impassable. By April, it was only the U.S. airlift that was keeping the regime alive.

The CPK knew that the people would turn against the revolution if it couldn’t feed them, and they also knew that the U.S. was counting heavily on exactly that.

Again, the evacuation of the city held the key to the problem. In the countryside, a thriving cooperative agricultural system existed, having been established in the liberated zones in 1973. If the people of Phnom Penh were dispersed to these cooperatives, the peasants would be able to share their food with them. If this wasn’t done, famine would spread like wildfire in the capital city.

On top of the security issue and the food problem, the CPK leaders also recognized that there would be some important political benefits from the evacuation. It would serve to break down class distinctions and the sharp divisions that existed between the peasants and the city dwellers. It would also enable the whole population to be mobilized for the vast tasks of national reconstruction that lay in the countryside.

For all these reasons, the decision to evacuate Phnom Penh was implemented. Party cadres went block-to-block informing the people about the evacuation, and within 10 days the city was almost entirely empty.

As part of the U.S. imperialists’ propaganda war against Kampuchea, the evacuation of Phnom Penh has been portrayed in the American press as a “forced march,” where the whole population of the city was sent to the countryside at gunpoint, and the old sick were left to die.

But this is a lie. One Party cadre who helped organize the evacuation told us, “If we used force to carry out the evacuation, then the people would have rebelled against us. In fact, the masses supported the evacuation, because they saw that without it, the revolution would not survive. Many people just went on their own, back to their native places.”

“The task of the Party cadres along the route,” he continued, “was not to point guns at anyone, but to make sure that food was distributed, that the old and sick could ride in whatever cars were available, and that the cooperatives in the countryside were as well-prepared as possible to take in the city dwellers.”

Of course, there was some scattered opposition to the evacuation, mainly by the reactionaries and the agents of foreign powers. We were told of CIA and KGB agents who hid in the basements of various buildings for up to a month after the evacuation, finally surrendering when they ran out of food. In many cases, the liberation forces found that these reactionaries had stockpiles of arms and equipment in their hiding places.

With elements like this involved, it’s not hard to imagine that some measure of force had to be used by the new government to carry out the evacuation. But in the main, the people were won to support it through political persuasion. For whatever hardships the evacuation entailed– and there is no doubt that it entailed food shortages, lack of medical facilities, and physical exhaustion in some cases–the revolution triumphed as a result.

Now, three years later, the shanties, shacks and general filth of Phnom Penh have been cleaned up. Slowly but surely the city is being repopulated in accordance with the plan for industrial development.

Looking back on the evacuation of Phnom Penh, we can see that under the concrete conditions of the Kampuchean revolution, it proved to be the correct solution to the problems faced by the new government. It was much more than a march of three million people into the countryside. It was actually a vast political movement that enabled socialism to succeed in Kampuchea.