The year is 1945 and Cambodian men are packed into traditional longboats, ready to race each other in an event that “has been going on for more than 1,000 years” at the annual Water Festival in Phnom Penh.
The decision to evacuate people from cities and towns around Cambodia was “political suicide” and meant certain death for those who were relocated, according to a witness who took the stand Wednesday at the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
Nou Mao, 78, joined the revolution in the regime’s Southwest Zone in 1971, prior to which he had been a farmer in Kampot province. Recounting his memories of the regime on Wednesday, he recalled Ta Mok—widely known for his ruthless brutality—who was one of the highest-ranking members of the Khmer Rouge.
“Ta Mok was more senior, so he was tasked with discussing things with monks. He lured monks to join the army. So at that time, he convened a meeting of monks to lure them to defrock. I don’t remember the year, but at that time, all the monks were defrocked and were supposed to join the army,” he said.
Later in his testimony, Mr. Mao told the court that “after 1975, there were no more monks to be defrocked because they’d been defrocked at the start of the fighting.
“This was a large campaign by the Khmer Rouge. People had no choice in being defrocked. This was the idea of Ta Mok, who was in charge of the cults section.”
In the Southwest Zone, where Mr. Mao attended study sessions, it was also Ta Mok who fully supported plans to evacuate urban centers across Cambodia. But Western Zone chief Chou Chet, who before 1975 had been Ta Mok’s deputy, was vehemently against the idea, the witness said.
“Ta Mok talked about the evacuation of people in Phnom Penh. Chou Chet said people should not be evacuated,” Mr. Mao said. “Some people didn’t agree with the evacuation—they said that city dwellers wouldn’t know about farming, and that they’d be allowed to stay wherever they wanted.
“People with opposing ideas to the evacuation would be reprimanded by Ta Mok on several occasions. He said the plan involved the whole country, not zones. Everyone had to be evacuated from cities.”
Mr. Mao testified that co-defendant Khieu Samphan was also in favor of evacuation, while his cohorts, Hu Nim and Hu Youn, were not. “So when these people [Hun Nim and Hu Youn] came to Phnom Penh, they died at Tuol Sleng prison,” he said.
Ultimately, Mr. Mao said, “the evacuation was to disconnect communication between old and new people,” he said referring to communities living in rural and urban areas.
“In practice, they evacuated the base people in Kompong Chhnang to Kompong Speu and the base people from Kompong Speu to Kompong Chhnang. People at the base also died as a consequence of the evacuation policy and the new people from Phnom Penh also died in the course of this evacuation.
“So this was actually political suicide by the Khmer Rouge themselves…. Food rations were not enough. Evacuation was meant for death, that’s what I knew.”
During the regime, Mr. Mao was stationed as a handicraft worker in a commune in Kompong Speu province. He told the court that members of his family were evacuated in a second wave of forced movement and sent to Battambang and Kompong Chhnang provinces, where many died.
He also recalled having seen a group of about 100 Lon Nol soldiers taken to Kompong Speu from Phnom Penh. “Groups of them were taken away, but we thought they must have been killed,” he said, adding that he held no authority at the time, despite having been a commune councilor.
“[The Khmer Rouge] killed people indiscriminately,” he said.
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