April 17, 2023

Cambodia Falls to the Khmer Rouge

Cambodia Falls to the Khmer Rouge

April 17, 1975. Cambodia falls to the Khmer Rouge after the radical communist insurgency captures the nation’s capital.


Cold Open

It’s April 17th, 1975 at the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.

As his car door flings open, Prime Minister Long Boret dashes out, rushing toward the stadium’s field where a helicopter waits for him. The chopper might be his last hope of escaping the Khmer Rouge.

Seven years ago, this violent communist insurgency began a takeover of Cambodia. Now, the capital’s fall is imminent, and the Prime Minister knows he will be one of the first executed if he doesn’t escape now. But leaving is tricky. Khmer Rouge have completely surrounded the city. Long Boret’s only way out is by air.

Breathless, the Prime Minister jumps into the waiting chopper. But he’s out of luck. When the pilot tries to start it, nothing happens. The pilot looks dumbfounded frantically flipping switches and checking dials but nothing he does can get the helicopter started. Long Boret curses and sprints back to his car. He had hoped for a speedy getaway, but temporary shelter is now the next best thing. There’s a government building nearby where he thinks he can hide from the Khmer Rouge for a little while longer.

As Long Boret begins the treacherous journey through town, the city’s chaos is revealed to him. All through the streets, the armed forces of the Khmer Rouge corral terrified residents at gunpoint, forcing them to evacuate the city, beginning the first step in their plan to transform Cambodia into a classless agrarian society. So Outside his vehicle, civilians wave white scraps of fabric and shout "peace", hoping that these sentiments will save them from the firing squads.

And those not on foot are in cars overloaded with people trying to drive frantically out of town. But, as he glances in his rearview mirror, Long Boret realizes the car behind him is different. It’s not driven by other fearful citizens. The driver is wearing the Khmer Rouge’s signature black pajamas and seems to be following him.

The Prime Minister has been spotted, and soon his car is surrounded by insurgents who shatter his windows, pull him from the seat, and toss him into the back of a waiting truck.

The vehicle takes him to Le Cercle Sportif, one of the city’s most exclusive sports clubs. But the Khmer Rouge have repurposed it. The site that was once a haven for the influential and wealthy has turned into an execution site, its Olympic-sized pool converted into a mass grave.

As the truck comes to a stop, Long Boret is pulled out and forced onto his knees before a Khmer Rouge soldier. Once the prime minister's identity is confirmed, the soldier levels his rifle... and fires.

From 1968 to 1975, the Khmer Rouge waged a takeover of Cambodia. Inspired by Mao Zedong’s communist rule over China, the Khmer Rouge sought to establish a rural society, free of money, religion, property, and foreign influence. Starting in the country’s rural provinces, the communist militant group spared no life in their bloody pursuit. But on top of their list of targets were the country’s reigning government officials.

In the days leading to capital city's fall, the government collapsed as its leaders fled the country and abandoned its defense. Staying in the capital any longer proves a death sentence for the country’s remaining leaders. And as Khmer Rouge forces overrun the city, Prime Minister Long Boret is one of the many government officials swiftly executed. With the city surrounded and the country’s former leadership gone, the Khmer Rouge’s takeover will be complete, leaving Cambodia and its people in the hands of a new deadly regime on April 17th, 1975.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is April 17th, 1975: Cambodia Falls to the Khmer Rouge.

Act One: Jumping Ship

It’s April 1st, 1975 at the Phnom Penh airport in Cambodia, sixteen days before Khmer Rouge forces overtake the capital.

On the tarmac, Cambodia’s president, Lon Nol, walks toward a waiting plane. The leader is only 62, but he looks much older; a stroke several years ago paralyzed the left side of his body. And he clutches a cane as he totters to the aircraft that will take him away from his war-torn country.

In spirit and body, Lon Nol is a shadow of the man he once was. Five years ago, he took over as Cambodia’s head of state after a US-backed coup ousted the country’s popular autocratic leader, Prince Norodom Sihanouk. At the time, Lon Nol hoped he would be the person who reunited Cambodians and pushed out the Khmer Rouge. But the coup had unintended consequences.

When the prince was ousted, the Khmer Rouge took him under their wing. In return, he encouraged the masses to join the insurgents in the fight against Lon Nol’s government. Many listened. The Khmer Rouge began to defeat Lon Nol’s forces on the battlefields. And by early 1973, around 85 percent of Cambodia was in the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

With US support, Lon Nol’s government dropped almost half a million tons of bombs on Cambodia over the next eight months, killing as many as 300,000 people. The idea was to hit Khmer Rouge forces in the countryside, where they were most present. But thinking about it now, Lon Nol winces. The human toll of these military actions is too much to bear. An estimated 150,000 civilians were killed in these bombings, adding to the staggering hundreds of thousands who already died since the Khmer Rouge began its takeover.

These casualties weigh heavily on Lon Nol who must face the harsh reality that he might be his own government’s biggest obstacle to victory. Recently, relations between Lon Nol and the US have soured. The United States initially supported his government as part of a Cold War strategy to contain the spread of communism. But America has grown unhappy with Lon Nol’s leadership. The government’s defeat seems certain, and the US is ready to allocate resources elsewhere.

Without American assistance, Lon Nol recognizes that his government has no chance of victory. Too many Cambodians view him as an illegitimate ruler and the Khmer Rouge is already closing in on the government's stronghold in Phnom Penh. Though he wished to be the one to reunify Cambodia, Lon Nol knows it’s time to lay that dream to rest.

So slowly, he takes to the plane’s stairs, following in the footsteps of the many Cambodians who have already fled their broken country.

As the plane grumbles to a start, the American Ambassador to Cambodia, standing on the tarmac below breathes a sigh of relief. American officials and pro-government Cambodians are desperate for the US Congress to approve additional aid to the country. To get it, they need to prove that Cambodia is not a lost cause. Lon Nol’s resignation and departure is the first step in making the case. The Americans are excited about Lon Nol’s replacement, Saukam Khoy, a three-star general who an American official tells the press is a “man of the people” who will finally unify the country.

But this proves to be wishful thinking. Over the next two weeks, Cambodia’s future only grows more bleak. The Khmer Rouge inches ever closer to the capital city, but the American government refuses to release more aid to the country. And then, on April 12th, 1975, Saukam Khoy’s government learns that the US is severing diplomatic ties altogether. In just a matter of hours, American forces will exit the country.

The news is a hard blow to the new president. Without American support, he knows that this is the beginning of the end and his regime is doomed. But Saukam Khoy at least has a way out. The American ambassador offers him a proposal: the US government is evacuating all American nationals, and if he wants, Saukam Khoy and his family can evacuate too. 

When a similar proposal is presented to the president's cabinet members, they dismiss it on principle. None of them are ready to abandon their country and people. Individually, they each decline to evacuate, including Saukam Khoy. They’re unanimous in their decision to stay in Cambodia. Or, at least, they appear to be.

Unbeknownst to his cabinet, Saukham Khoy has plans to leave the country with the Americans the same morning. No one, not his Prime Minister, or even his closest friends, will know that their acting president has abandoned the country for several hours. And as word of his departure finally circulates, the remaining government leaders will scramble to fill the leadership vacuum left behind, but any lingering hopes of victory will soon die.

Act Two: The Capital Falls

It’s the morning of April 16th, 1975 in Phnom Penh, one day before the Khmer Rouge will capture the capital.

Prime Minister Long Boret sits in a room with a handful of other Cambodian leaders. Some are political figures, others military. But all wear the same somber expression as they discuss how to handle the enemy forces besieging the city.

It’s only been 5 days since Saukham Khoy abandoned the country, but it feels like an eternity. After news broke of the president’s departure, Long Boret and the other political leaders and military officials formed a committee to lead Cambodia in the fight against Khmer Rouge. They called it the Supreme Committee. And at its head is Sak Sutsakhan, Saukam Khoy’s replacement as head of state.

For the general Cambodian public, the change of government feels unremarkable. This is the third regime in less than a month and it has failed to inspire much hope in the Cambodian people. At this point, many consider that, despite the known brutality of the Khmer Rouge, life under them could be better than it is now. At the very least, the civil war will be over.

Still, the Supreme Committee has resisted calls to give up the fight. Just three days ago, they vowed not to surrender under any circumstance. But they’ve failed to make headway against the enemy forces and, every day, the situation in Phnom Penh grows more dire.

Six months ago, the idea of making a deal with the Khmer Rouge might have seemed grotesque; now though, it seems like the only choice. With defeat seemingly imminent, the committee knows they should cut their losses and save whatever lives they can. What they need most is a ceasefire. Maybe even just for a day. That could be enough to get some civilians safely out of the city before the Khmer Rouge takes over.

Long Boret leads the men in drafting a letter, begging the Khmer Rouge for an immediate ceasefire and enough time to negotiate.

But as they wait for a response, the situation worsens. To the north, the Khmer Rouge sets an oil depot on fire, sending thick black clouds into the air. Meanwhile, another fire sets the southern part of the city completely ablaze. The flames only exacerbate the struggles already plaguing an overcrowded capital. For months, civilians from around the country have fled to Phnom Penh for safety from the Khmer Rouge, swelling the city’s population from 500,000 to 2 million. But the Khmer Rouge have been effective in cutting off critical river and highway systems, sparking serious gas and food shortages. While the Khmer Rouge tightens their ring around the city, these shortages only intensify.

The insurgency shows no signs of letting up. Hours tick by and the committee still receives no response to their plea for peace. And as day turns to night, they are forced to accept that Khmer Rouge has no desire to negotiate. Without a resolution in sight, many committee members come to believe their only option now is evacuation.

For weeks, these men have refused to abandon their country. But now, it feels like their presence in the capital is useless. Victory seems impossible, and if they’re caught by the Khmer Rouge, there’s no question what will happen to them. The insurgency has a publicized death list, and their names are on it. The only question now is if they want to die for their country or save themselves and their families while they still can.

When the Supreme Committee reconvenes early the following morning of April 17th, Sak Sutsakhan issues a solemn proclamation to his men: “We are in deep trouble. We are besieged. I am no longer in a position to give you orders. Do whatever you judge best. You are on your own.” 

As the morning progresses, the Khmer Rouge launch their final assault on Phnom Penh. Together, Sak Suksatkhan and Prime Minister Long Boret form a new evacuation plan to escape the chaos using helicopters at the Olympic Stadium. Sak Suksatkhan makes an effective last-minute escape. But Long Boret’s future is far more bleak.

After the only remaining choppers end up being inoperable, Long Boret's captured by the Khmer Rouge and executed. Other committee members will meet a similar fate. And as the morning unfolds, more and more government officials will be captured and executed, while the Khmer Rouge claims the capital, and the country, as their own.

Act Three: The Cambodian Genocide Begins

It’s later in the day on April 17th, 1975.

In the streets of Phnom Penh, Khmer Rouge soldiers create mass chaos.

For the past seven years, Cambodia’s capital has been the insurgents’ biggest target. The city is the antithesis of the country the Khmer Rouge envisions. They want to reject modernism and push radically traditionalist values. They demand a return to agrarianism and a rejection of education, religion, and intellectualism. 

And after years of war, their vision is finally coming to fruition. Early this morning, Khmer Rouge forces closed in on the capital, entering the city from all sides. With barely any government resistance, the insurgency was quickly able to take control. 

Now, all around the capital, the Khmer Rouge carry out their radical agenda. They force urban residents to evacuate their homes and direct them to the countryside. They break into schools and apartments, holding people at gunpoint and forcing them out into the streets. Even hospital patients are plucked from their beds and forced to evacuate with the rest of the city.

The fall of Phnom Penh marks the beginning of the Khmer Rouge's brutal reign of terror, which will last four years and result in the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people — almost a quarter of Cambodia’s population. These deaths will be the product of widespread starvation, disease, overwork, torture, and executions. Under the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia's religious and ethnic minorities will face particular persecution, as will anyone who could possibly be deemed an intellectual. Their killings will amount to genocide and continue until 1979 when the regime collapses after a Vietnamese invasion.

Many of the Khmer Rouge’s officers, however, will go on to evade serious punishment. Its most prominent leader, Pol Pot, will die in 1998 without ever facing trial for his crimes. Others will be put on trial by the United Nations-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, or the ECCC. But it will take decades before any Khmer Rouge officers are convicted and sentenced. By the court’s last hearing in 2022, only three leaders will be convicted for their role in the Cambodian Genocide.

Many former Khmer Rouge officers will manage to hold on to power, including the country’s current Prime Minister, Hun Sen. After defecting to Vietnam in 1977, Hun Sen will go on to become the leader of the communist Cambodian People’s Party and is now the longest-serving prime minister in the world. For many Cambodians, the lack of punishment against the perpetrators of one of the worst genocides in history will remain a shameful injustice, and make it even more difficult for the nation to confront and heal from the bloodshed that followed the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power on April 17th, 1975.


Next on History Daily. April 18th, 1906. San Francisco begins a rapid rebuild after an earthquake and fire destroys over 80% of the city’s buildings.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.

Sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Amber Von Schassen.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.