Pro-Sihanouk demonstrations in Phnom Penh following the coup

VPA SR 2919-2920. François Ponchaud: Premiere.
I had been in Kampong Cham for three years where I was in charge of parish works. After the toppling of Sihanouk - I don't remember the exact date, it must have been March 29 - there was a huge demonstration in which the peasants from Eastern Cambodia flooded, literally flooded, Kampong Cham. Tens of thousand of persons – there was a mention of 50,000 persons – came armed with their hatchets.
Waving their hatchets in one hand, and the portrait of Sihanouk in the other, they had come to try and put the Prince back on the throne of Cambodia. The morning went relatively well. The mood was easy-going. Toward noon, the Phnom Penh government became somewhat agitated. It sent two representatives from the Kampong Cham area to calm down the atmosphere.
When these representatives arrived at a point about seven or eight kilometers from Kampong Cham, they were stopped by the crowd who overturned their Volkswagen. They walked a few steps with the crowd. One of the representatives must have tried, probably, to reach for his revolver. He was simply executed with the hatchets. His head was cut off...That, I did not see but I learned of it.
Subsequently, with my own eyes, I saw the livers of those two representatives being taken from the church I was in charge of. Then, a little later, around 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon, the livers of those representatives were skewered and grilled in the market place of Kampong Cham. In this, one can understand a little the brutality of the Khmers who are a people of warriors, that trait should not be forgotten.
In the evening, I was with a friend, a French teacher, who was also in Kampong Cham. Toward 5:00, I told him, "Let's go now. There is going to be a massacre." I felt such a mood of excitement. I felt that the people had been outraged that Lon Nol had toppled Sihanouk.
At that time, the armed forces were not doing anything. But one could feel the tension rise. In the end, nothing happened. But through out the night, buses coming from Eastern Cambodia went past my house shouting pro-Sihanouk slogans, in the direction of Phnom Penh. In Phnom Penh, as you know, they were received with artillery fire, by General Lon Nol's army.
The following day, the demonstration resumed at 7:00, shortly after day break. There were some children in my house. They were pupils in the school I was in charge of. I told them, "Go now. And don't go downtown. There is going to be a massacre." And, in fact, about half an hour after my warning, we heard the sound of automatic gun fire. And about 80 persons were killed near the Kampong Cham ferry.
During this day of demonstration, the demonstrators or men with hatchets broke the doors and windows of the houses which had not put up the portrait of Sihanouk on their front door. Several of my friends, French people, who had not put up Sihanouk's picture, had their houses wrecked.
The following day, the demonstration began again at 7:00. One could feel the nervousness of the soldiers. They had a small post in Kampong Cham. Toward 8:00, I heard bursts of machine-gun, heavy machine-gun. That was the commander of the post was, was shooting at the crowd. There were about 80 people killed. They were all from the area.
They had come from about thirty kilometers away to show their support for Sihanouk. They were all peasants. Not one of them was armed. From that moment, a deep fear blew over the region. People locked themselves in their homes. The city seemed empty. The people, the peasants who had come from the country-side, took refuge temporarily with their friends, then gradually went home.
A few days later, the people who had gone to Phnom Penh, 100 kilometers away, were seen coming back, on foot, to their provinces, to their villages. And there is no doubt that these people became the best propagandists in the anti-Lon Nol, pro-Sihanouk struggle after what they had seen both in Kampong Cham and in Phnom Penh where artillery was used against the buses bringing demonstrators.

Police raids on the Khmer Rouge

In the following days, another thing occurred which could help explain why the Khmer Rouges were given so much sympathy in the beginning. That was the police raids. Near my house, across the street, there was the police headquarters. Every day, several hundred persons were arrested and locked up I do not know where. At any rate, they were taken away. In trucks, to an unknown destination.
There were many rumors about this. It was said that those people were being shot. In my opinion, I don't think that was true. But anyway, that was the rumor. And it could explain why the people in the country-side overwhelmingly swung to the side of the Khmer Rouges even though, ideologically, the country-side did not support them. Ideologically, the peasants were for Sihanouk.

Impact of Sihanouk's fall on agrarian beliefs

There was something else, too, on the day following the demonstration. On the day following the toppling of Sihanouk on March 19, 1970, I went to the country-side. I saw a peasant who was totally seized with panic and who told me, "How are we going to work the rice fields, this year, since the Prince is no longer here to make it rain." With my Western approach, I tried to explain to him that it was not the Prince who made rain fall. But this fact is symbolic of the deep-seated attachment of the peasants to Prince Sihanouk.
Even now, the Prince is the one who makes rain fall, who is the intermediate between Heaven and Earth. Even in the present period, two years ago in April, to be exact on April 30, 1980, I went to the Thai-Khmer border, saw a peasant working on his bicycle under a tree and said to him, "This year, it's very hot. The rains are late." He very simply answered, without my having said anything else, "My dear sir, since the time the Prince had been toppled, the Heavens have been completely unbalanced." This could help me understand the deep-seated attachment of the Khmer peasants to Prince Sihanouk who may still have a political role to play because of that attachment.

Evacuation of Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge

On April 17, 1975, I was in Phnom Penh. All night long we were being hit by the Khmer Rouge's rockets and artillery shells. The next morning, from 6:00, the inhabitants of the outskirts of the city began to swarm toward the center of the city to take refuge in their fear of the Khmer Rouge. They all screamed, "They are coming! They are coming! We are afraid. They kill people."
At about 8:00, this wave of people coming from the out-skirts of the city stopped. Then we saw arrive these little men, dressed in black, obviously exhausted, one unclear word, very skinny, tired, with Ho Chi Minh caps, uh, uh, with Ho Chi Minh sandals and wearing the caps, and obviously wondering at finding themselves here.
At the beginning, everyone was afraid. People looked at them. And then, since they did not look, apparently, as though they had killed anyone, there was a general jubilation: The war had ended. And I saw tanks in front of me, in front of the cathedral to be exact, the crew of several M-113, these American tanks, these American troop-transport vehicles driven by Khmers, the crew came down and went to applaud the Khmer Rouge.
In the midst of this general jubilation, the only ones who were not smiling were the Khmer Rouges. I said to some friends, "There is not going to be any laughter with them. There is certainly not going to be any laughter."
Toward 11:00, 10:30 to be exact, after this hour and a half of popular rejoicing, one felt a leaden pall covering the city. The Khmer Rouges had taken position at all the intersections and systematically controlled every one. They made people raise their hands, searched the vehicles and the people, looking for weapons.
Toward 11:00, we saw a pretty upsetting sight: we saw passing in front of us wounded people, sick people, hospital beds, some of them with serum bottles still dripping above them, on the road. The first measure taken by the Khmer Rouge was the evacuation of all the hospitals. And to see people on the road, some with only one leg left, others without arms, that is a rather upsetting scene.
At that time, we could not take in anyone. Some wounded had come and asked me to give them refuge. I did not take them in, telling them they had to go, there was no guarantee I could offer them.
Toward noon, the rumor spread around that the Khmer Rouge had asked people to leave. It was effective. In my neighborhood at any rate, toward 1:00, people were seen leaving with their bundles. It was quite simple. The Khmer Rouge fired a few shots and shouted, "Leave! Leave quickly! The Americans are going to bomb the city."
And after having known what the bombings were like – you should be in Phnom Penh in order to hear the sound of the bombing. It was something terrifying, the B-52 bombing. One could see the sky redden at the horizon. Then, one could feel the air burst. Then, one could hear the noise – the people of Phnom Penh had reasons to be afraid of bombing. So one understands why the population left without, in my neighborhood, without any violence exercised by the Khmer Rouge.
Every one took his bundle and left. These people, of course, were in a state of shock from the victory of the Khmer Rouge, from all the rockets and artillery shells fired upon us during the night, but also from the American bombing. Thus, from about 1:00 until 7:00 in the evening, the majority of the population of Phnom Penh left. Truly, it was a scene that's impossible to describe. People walking, people in cars, people on bicycles. Everybody left and left.
As for me, groups of Khmer Rouges came to tell me to leave. I told them, "You have given such a slap to the Americans that they won't bomb the city. Don't worry. At any rate, I am staying." I could feel a certain rivalry among the different groups of the Khmer Rouge. Some groups told me to leave. Others told me to stay. One could feel some wavering in their policy, a lack of firmness, of direction that one could not understand.
That evening, in an empty city, a small group of Khmer Rouges came to stay in the bishop's residence – at that time all the French priests had gathered at the bishop's residence – about ten Khmer Rouge moved in. After some coldness, we became friendly. We even discussed all night about politics, ideology, the country.
And the next morning, they asked us to take them to the train station which was about 100 yards away. A friend and I winked at each other and took them to the train station, but the long way, through the city, to weigh the situation. I noticed that the city was empty. There was practically no one left.
Khmer Rouges with their weapons the word is not quite clear had begun to break down the doors of Chinese stores and thrown into the streets all objects, utensils, things for sale. We saw a multitude of Khmer Rouges, tens of thousands of Khmer Rouges. And I, the Frenchman, was acting as their guide in the city of Phnom Penh, showing them the Queen's Residence here, Long Boret's residence there, the Royal Palace, etc. at the request of the Khmer Rouges themselves.
Twice, we were shot at by some Lon Nol soldiers who still held at least a couple of positions. There were still a few nuclei of resistance. Then we went back. The Khmer Rouge who had been riding our cars were severely trawled by their superiors.
We went back to the bishop's residence. At this time some extremely peremptory Khmer Rouges ordered us to leave. So at that point we went to the Embassy.
I must say that at that time I did not see any dead bodies, any act of brutality during the evacuation of Phnom Penh. The event itself was outrageous. But I must say that there was not many executions, at any rate none that I personally witnessed. But with my own eyes I saw the evacuation of the sick and wounded people who must have died the following days. Then afterwards, we were in the French Embassy...
VPA 111. SR 2921-2922.