Southeast Asia Blog Post: The Khmer Rouge

The textbook uses almost a full page to describe the rise and fall of the Cambodian communist regime called the Khmer Rouge, which took power in the country in 1975 after success in a civil war (Brunn et al., 2012).  However, given the amount of space that the book uses on this subject, I believe that this horrific period of Cambodian history and its effects on urban life deserve a closer examination.  Such historical times of extreme violence must be studied and analyzed so that they can be better prevented in the future elsewhere.

This webpage from the Cambodia Tribunal Monitor offers a more detailed look at the history of the Khmer Rouge regime.  The textbook mentions that the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh in 1975 and immediately began to remove people from it and other Cambodian cities (Brunn et al., 2012), but it neglected to mention that this process in itself cost the lives of thousands of Cambodians, according the Cambodia Tribunal Monitor.  The reason for this removal was the party’s desire for a state based on “Marxist-Leninist” and “radical Maoist” ideology, which would involve almost everyone living in the countryside doing agriculture-related work (Cambodia Tribunal Monitor).  But the Khmer Rouge did not stop at this massive urban to rural forced migration, since they decided to remove all currency, the liberal economic market, non-revolutionary education, private ownership, non-Cambodian clothing, practices associated with religion, and the Khmer culture in general.  These changes together constitute a massive shift in what little was left of Cambodian urban life because they meant that “Public schools, pagodas, mosques, churches, universities, shops and government buildings were shut or turned into prisons, stables, reeducation camps and granaries” (Cambodia Tribunal Monitor). In addition, the page goes on to say that “There was no public or private transportation, no private property, and no non-revolutionary entertainment” (Cambodia Tribunal Monitor).

In all, these changes appear to have completely and fundamentally transformed urban life in Cambodia, and this webpage from History Today offers a glimpse of what life in the capital city of Phnom Penh was like when the Vietnamese finally invaded the country and liberated the city from the Khmer Rouge.  At that time it is estimated that about 40,000 residents still lived in Phnom Penh, but they subsisted without any government services.  A particularly telling quotation from that article states that “There were no cars and no traffic and only the buzzing of flies and mosquitoes broke the eerie silence of what has been compared to a movie set without actors” (Cavendish, 2009).  Furthermore, a horrid smell wafted through the air because Phnom Penh’s water system was malfunctioning (Cavendish, 2009).

Today, Phnom Penh is moving forward from the destruction of this era and it has not long ago unveiled a new municipal plan for future development, which should “expand the city and build major new infrastructures by 2020 to accommodate Phnom Penh’s growing economic activities and population” (People’s Daily Online).  The plan also includes stipulations for dealing with the significant impoverished community within Phnom Penh and the city’s ailing transportation infrastructure.  Nevertheless, the fact that this city, which had already re-grown to a population of about 1.3 million in 2005, is progressing in terms of planning and development is a great sign, and it shines light on the hope that Cambodia is ready to move beyond its darkest era (People’s Daily Online).





About rejcgeog204

I am a junior Urban Planning major and Geography minor at UIUC. I grew up in Grayslake, Illinois and attended Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein, Illinois. Go Cubs and Go Illini!
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