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New Left Review I/205, May-June 1994

David Chandler

Epitaph for the Khmer Rouge?

Nineteen years ago last month, on 17 April 1975, Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, fell to the Cambodian guerrilla armies known as the Khmer Rouge. The city had been besieged for months. Since 1970, when the civil war began, at least half a million Cambodians, or one in sixteen, had been killed. By April 1975, Phnom Penh was running out of food. The government had ceased to function. Its American allies, reduced to a handful of embassy personnel, had been evacuated by helicopter a few days before, leaving the Cambodians to their fate. City-dwellers cheered as the silent, heavily armed young soldiers began filtering into the city on the morning of April 17th. After five years of fighting, the inhabitants of Phnom Penh were on their last legs, but guardedly optimistic. Surely, they thought, peace would be better than war. Any regime would be better than the one in power. They felt certain that the Khmer Rouge, about whom they knew almost nothing, would work with them as fellow-Cambodians to reconstruct the country. [*] I am grateful to Robin Blackburn, Susan Chandler and Jay Tolson for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

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