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Experiencing Forced Displacement: Cambodia

The Khmer Rouge assume control of Phnom Penh and begin forcing its residents into the countryside. —Documentation Center of Cambodia

By Maya González

“When we live somewhere, we have a connection with the place, with the people. This attachment is detached when people are forced to move. Their sense of security is diminished. If someone is forced to leave, they lose everything.”
— Dr. Chhim Sotheara, expert witness at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts in Cambodia

Millions of Ukrainians are fleeing Russian attacks in what has already become the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. In this two-part blog, we explore the role of mass forced displacement in two past instances of mass atrocities. In this post, we will examine the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh, Cambodia on April 17, 1975. In Part II, we will discuss the mass forced displacement that occurred in Burma in 2017 and unpack the similarities of human experience. Although the two cases occurred under different conditions, by studying the stories of evacuees and refugees we compose a more complete understanding of the impact of forced displacement on civilians and the support that survivors need.

How Does Forced Displacement Relate to Atrocity Crimes?

Throughout history and today, the practice of forcibly displacing people from their homes is often a mechanism for committing mass atrocities. Forced displacement often takes place during the early stages of genocide, sometimes pushing it to the periphery in narratives of persecution.

Since the 1990s, ethnic cleansing has become an oft-used but misunderstood phrase in popular descriptions of forced displacement. As laid out by a United Nations Commission of Experts studying the former Yugoslavia, ethnic cleansing is defined as “rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area.” While ethnic cleansing is not legally codified as a standalone crime, it can almost always amount to a crime against humanity. If the movement of persons is enforced deliberately “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group” it can constitute genocide

The Evacuation of Phnom Penh

As celebrations for the Buddhist New Year concluded on April 17, 1975, the people of Phnom Penh witnessed the beginning of a new era.

“A cadre with a bullhorn was saying, ‘The war is over, the war is over.’ Everything was okay at that point. People were not panicking, they were happy: the soldiers, the civilians. About an hour later, the mood changed.”
— American photojournalist Al Rockoff

After five years of war on Cambodian soil, the relief of peace was more than welcome. Cambodians longed for a return to the slow-paced life of the decade prior. Unable to predict what would happen over the next four years, Cambodians were ready to support any new government that would rebuild their beloved country. On April 17, the Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh with such promises.1

In what some researchers now call “urbicide,” the Khmer Rouge deliberately targeted and expelled almost 80 percent of the 3 million urban-dwellers of Phnom Penh. Half of the city’s population at the time were refugees who had already fled their rural homes due to American bombing during the civil war.2

Experiencing Displacement

The city’s atmosphere was still clouded by the chaos of war as tanks rolled down the streets and loudspeakers ordered police and republican authorities to surrender. Many families hearing the instructions to evacuate their homes did so immediately. Those who delayed their evacuation received unwelcome visits from armed Khmer Rouge soldiers who used the threat of American bombers to lure people out of their homes, or simply threatened to shoot.3 Once a family had packed their things away—a haphazard affair without a clear expectation for what was coming next—they joined the crowded streets and began their exodus from Phnom Penh. 

The geography of one’s path determined what they would experience. Of the three main highways funneling people out of the city, the northern route saw the worst conditions and most deaths.4 Places where people were heavily concentrated, without shelter, and unable to move forward—such as bridges and checkpoints—produced more casualties.5 At the intersection of two major highways, Routes 5 and 6, Khmer Rouge soldiers stopped evacuees to record statements on their class origins—such stifling practices created choke-points for the massive crowds who lacked the resources to simply sit and wait before moving on.6

Along city roads, people could initially buy small amounts of food. As the journey continued, it was common to search empty homes for resources or shelter from the sun. Dead bodies often lay behind closed doors—the smell was enough to awaken one from sleep and force them to move to a new location.7 

The threat of death was omnipresent. Many died of heat stroke or exhaustion. Black-clad Khmer Rouge soldiers forced evacuees to walk on as they witnessed friends and neighbors’ deaths by gunshot or beheading. Cambodians had no choice but to leave dead bodies behind as they traveled to unknown destinations. 

After three days, the homes, schools, and hospitals of Phnom Penh had been emptied. The expelled, now known as “April 17 People,” would face further persecution as the Khmer Rouge committed mass atrocities against the Cambodian people.  

Maya González is a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and an intern with the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide.

1 Tyner, James A., Andrew Curtis, Sokvisal Kimsroy, and Chhay, Chhunly. "The Evacuation of Phnom Penh during the Cambodian Genocide: Applying Spatial Video Geonarratives to the Study of Genocide," Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal 12, no. 3 (2018), 163. 2 Tyner, et al., 163-165. 3 Dith Pran, Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors, edited by Kim DePaul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 20, 57. 4 David P. Chandler, The Tragedy of Cambodian History: Politics, War, and Revolution since 1945 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 253. 5 Tyner, et al., 172. 6 Chandler, 253. 7 Tyner, et al., 170.