The Final Hours of the Khmer Republic

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Part of a flood of 2 million people out of Phnom Penh, Cambodians walk with their belongings on a road out of capital shortly after the Khmer Rouge ordered a total evacuation of the city. Photo: AFP/AKP

Forty years ago today, on April 17, 1975, Cambodia’s Khmer Republic government collapsed in Phnom Penh. Chhang Song, was President Lon Nol’s last Minister of Information. After years of research and interviews, he writes this never before published account of the final hours before the Khmer Rouge curtain dropped over Cambodia.
 
PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – In early April, 1975, when I was with Prime Minister Long Boret and President Lon Nol in Bali, we discussed what should be done in the event of the fall of Phnom Penh.

We agreed the best plan would be to move government headquarters to the deep water seaport of Kampong Som (now Sihanoukville). From there, we would  resistance against the communist Khmer Rouge. 

The direction would be southwest along National Road 4, to Kampong Som. Evacuation would take place by road, jungle and airlift. The port city  offered the point of greatest accessibility for supplies and a continuation of the struggle. A sea evacuation from Kampong Som would represent a final line of safety. Airfields at Kampong Som and on one of the nearby islands had been specially built for the purpose. There were even plans to relocate foreign embassies to the port city.

Oddar Meanchey, Cambodia’s northermost province, was added to the plan as another point of resistance and a rallying point for retreating government forces. Its location close to the Thai border offered advantages. 

With no longer any assurance of outside assistance, journeys to these resistance sites appeared extremely hazardous on the evening of April 16, one day before the end. 

The only remaining option was to fly the entire cabinet and the top military commander to Oddar Meanchey province. An ultra-secret plan was prepared. 

Secret Plan: Flight to Oddar Meanchey 

At 4 am on April 17, helicopters would pick up cabinet ministers and military commanders in front of Wat Botum, in an empty field south of the Royal Palace. Ministers and military commanders who had been in session all through the night, left military headquarters in the early hours of the morning for their final rendezvous at the pagoda, before leaving Phnom Penh.

At the pagoda, it was quiet. It was a quiet that was foreboding and threatening. For these men, accustomed to years of violent war, the quiet seemed abnormal. Thirty of the republic’s top civil and military leaders, their wives and children, were there.The men wore their khaki uniforms. The prime minister and Gen. Sutsakhan and their families were there.
 
Where Are the Helicopters?

The chimes at the pagoda struck four, then four and one-half, then five. The day began to break. No helicopters landed. Helicopters and airplanes flying high in the clouds, on support missions to the front line, were the only ones to be seen. The cabinet was left on the ground, to ponder its next step. Somebody had gotten his signals crossed.

Hope of evacuating the cabinet of the republic to Oddar Meanchey to continue the resistance was fading. “They are not coming,” somebody in the group said in a tired, resigned voice. 

In the last days before the fall, some ministers spent their nights at military headquarters, the Etat-Major Général on Norodom Blvd, which now was used for cabinet meetings. They slept on sofas, desks, and even on the floor. Some kept a small amount of luggage with them, clothes and toiletries wrapped in linen sheets. There were, in effect, refugees.

After the aborted helicopter evacuation in front of Wat Botum, Prime Minister Boret and the cabinet returned to the military headquarters just before 6 am.

Deep anxiety, agony and intrigue were all present on that morning of April 17, 1975. After an evening of steady rocket fire, in the morning there was a death-like silence. Not a rocket, not a shot, nor an artillery shell could be heard.

Last Hope: Prince Sihanouk

At 6 am, Ung Bun Huor, president of the National Assembly, walked through the gate to the military headquarters. He looked cheerful enough considering the circumstances.

“Peace is at hand,” he said mimicking Henry Kissinger. “I believe we have been successful,” he added. He referred to a peace proposal the government offered the communist side just three days earlier. 

At Kissinger’s urging, a message was sent to Prince Norodom Sihanouk in Beijing, via the Red Cross, officially inviting him to return to Cambodia and head a government of national reconciliation. The message stated that the republican army would surrender to him and welcome him back as head of state.

In Phnom Penh, at dawn on April 17, it was widely assumed that the lull in fighting must be the consequence of Prince Sihanouk’s acceptance of the offer and his orders to his men to cease fighting. Pacing up and down, Bun Hour related what he had seen that morning. Beginning at 5 am, he had driven around the city’s defense perimeter, feeling out the front lines. Before, they had been closing in dramatically on the capital. Now, all was quiet.

Peninsula Invaded Overnight

While this news was being received with a mixture of feelings, the telephone rang. Admiral Vong Sarendy, chief of the Cambodian Navy, answered the call. It was from his headquarters located on the tip of the Chroy Changvar Peninsula. There were suspicious movements directed toward the naval base, the caller reported. Boats could be seen coming from the opposite shore. Sarendy immediately requested permission to return to his headquarters to meet the enemy threat.

Thirty minutes passed. The lull in fighting was suddenly broken by the deafening noise of chattering machinegun fire in the distance. Once again the phone rang at the military headquarters. This time it was Admiral Sarendy himself. He had reached his own headquarters now and was reporting a ferocious attack launched by enemy forces against the naval base. They had crossed the river during the night and now occupied much of Chroy Changvar Peninsula.

Adm. Sarendy’s voice betrayed little emotion as he talked to his chief. But he was aware that the end was in sight. In the background, the sounds of machinegun fire and the explosion of rockets could be heard.

“They are all around us now,” he said simply. “They talked to me through our radio, directly. They demanded that we surrender and raise the white flag at once.”

Gen. Sutsakhan said: “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.”

Gen. Sutsakhan spoke in a resigned tone. He wished his Chief of Naval Forces good luck and signed off. Prime Minister Boret listened to the grim report without saying a word. He left and jumped into a Land Rover and drove to the river’s edge.

Anarchy on Norodom

Along Norodom Blvd, in front of the prime minister’s house, soldiers and civilians, young and old, marched northward. They were cheering, jostling one another. Soldiers and sailors and airmen tore off their insignia and threw hats and scarves into the air. Jeeps loaded with civilians and students drove to and fro in a mad pace. Armored personnel cars paraded from Independence Monument to Wat Phnom. Soldiers tore the magazines from their tommy guns, shouting, “Peace! Peace!”

Prime Minister Boret returned to military headquarters and confirmed the communists’ final push against the Chroy Changvar naval base. He also told of his own tense moments earlier in the day. 

“I just drove to the Royal Palace, then along the quay as far as the Lotus d’Or floating house. I was alone except for the very small escort,” he said. “Suddenly, men in black swarmed around my car. They stopped us, disarmed my guards and myself. Fortunately, they did not know who I was and they released me.” 

Those present realized the significance of the incident: Khmer Rouge elements had swam across the river and were already in Phnom Penh.

Defense Minister Gen. Sutsakhan, who now acted as chairman of Cambodia’s supreme committee, the highest executive body of the republic, and Prime Minister Boret, both had the same question in their minds: “What happened to the message sent to Prince Sihanouk in Beijing offering a direct surrender to him?”

Sihanouk: Death to Cabinet Members

At that moment, acting Information Minister Thong Lim Huong walked into the room and handed Prime Minister Boret a cable. The prime minister read the cable. His lips tightened. He said nothing and handed it to Gen. Sak Sutsakhan. When the latter had read it, the prime minister turned to the others.

“Prince Sihanouk has refused our offer,” he said. “He states only that those still heading the government of the republic must be condemned to death.”

Prince Sihanouk had already condemned to death President Nol and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak, his cousin. These were the two principal architects of the 1970 coup which toppled him.

There was a profound mood of despair in the room. The other cabinet members were gripped by exasperation, confusion and frustration. They had not expected this reaction from Prince Sihanouk. One by one they departed, leaving the prime minister and his defense minister speechless. The prince’s reply was a devastating blow.

Naval Base Falls

At the Chroy Changvar naval base, the fight was virtually over. White flags were showing everywhere and resistance was crumbling. The black pajama-clad Khmer Rouge attackers entered the barracks.

“Put down your arms,” they ordered the remaining defenders. The attackers roamed through the base now at will. They entered every room, opened doors and examined the defenders’ foxholes.

The insurgents approached a door of a small office. It did not look imposing, but it belonged to Admiral Sarendy, the Chief of Naval Forces. As the insurgents entered his office, the admiral placed his pistol against his right temple, amd pulled the trigger.
 
Escape Helicopters at the Stadium

Two helicopters were waiting at Olympic Stadium, a five-minute ride from the prime minister’s house. Gen. Sutsakhan suggested the prime minister pack a few things and prepare to leave. He dispatched a guard to pick up his wife and children and drive them to the stadium and the waiting helicopters. Both then separated. 

The dying peace initiative of the republic, the overture to Prince Sihanouk, was a last-ditch effort in the minds of the republic’s leaders to avert a bloodbath following the communist take-over. With Prince Sihanouk at the helm, there was hope for an orderly transfer of power. But now that the hope had been crushed, any hope for a peaceful settlement to the five-year Cambodian conflict had vanished.

Morale Plummeted after American Pullout

The rural population continued to pour into the cities, especially Phnom Penh, for protection. All major highways were cut and the Mekong River, once the lifeline for 80 percent of Phnom Penh’s vital foodstuffs, ammunition and petroleum products, had been cut since late January. Moreover, accessibility to the supplies was becoming more difficult in the face of the tightening enemy noose.

The morale of government troops had been hard hit by the American evacuation five days earlier. Frontline soldiers now were submitted to intense enemy propaganda, conducted with loudspeakers, two-way radio, leaflets and, of course, rumor. Weary, bloodied government soldiers fought both the enemy’s bullets and blandishments in the dying hours of the long struggle.

On April 14, at 10:30 am, a disgruntled pilot dropped four, 500-pound bombs on our military headquarters. They missed the main building where the cabinet was in full session. There was only minor damage. But, it demonstrated how low the morale of the troops had sunk. 

Last Chance to Escape

The blades of the helicopter had been turning for what seemed to the anxious passengers an eternity. Gen. Sutsakhan was becoming more and more impatient. Where was the prime minister? It had required three, breath-taking trials for the pilots and mechanics, together with an exchange of batteries, to start the big bird’s engine. The passengers were crowded on the floor. The co-pilot’s seat was still empty – reserved for Long Boret, the last prime minister of the Government of the Khmer Republic.

Gen. Sak Sutsakhan’s trip to the stadium had been an ordeal. The once powerful military commander, in a chauffeur-driven limousine, made his way through the packed streets with difficulty. Every house, every office, was emptying its occupants into the streets. Soldiers were throwing down their weapons on the sidewalks. Students shouted: “Peace! Peace!”

It was now 8:30 am. The general had been on the helicopter waiting for Prime Minister Boret for 12 minutes. At that moment a black Mercedes came in sight. It was the Prime Minister. He was driving alone, still wearing his khaki uniform and a felt cap. As he reached the helicopter, he was helped up to the co-pilot’s seat. 

The young prime minister appeared apologetic for the delay he had caused. His eyes met those of Madame Sutsakhan. He turned pale and his jaw went slack. He asked: “Where is my wife?” The General asked: “Didn’t you all leave together?”

Finally, a station wagon approached. Madame Long Boret, followed by her children and some 10 members of the family and their friends, all carrying heavy luggage, descended.

“I said to take only a few things, Mr. Prime Minister,” the general said softly, explaining the precarious situation. “It’s impossible for us to carry all these people and their luggage with us.”

The pilot of the escort gunship hovering overhead was now calling repeatedly to the pilot of the helicopter to take off at once.

“Alright, please go ahead,” the prime minister said, indicating he would take another helicopter with this wife and family. It was a fatal decision.

Security was breaking down. Crowds of people were attempting to break into the stadium. Columns of black pajama-clad insurgents could be seen moving towards them. The pilot of the evacuation helicopter lifted off quickly, then disappeared behind the stadium wall. No other plane or chopper would leave Phnom Penh that day. 

Prime Minister Captured

The Prime Minister drove back to the Ministry of Information under escort. It was a different kind of escort this time. His Mercedes followed a Land Rover. Soon, a convoy of soldiers in black cotton pajamas surrounded them.

In the Land Rover sat a wiry man with gray hair. He was dressed in black pajamas and wore a checkered scarf about his neck. It was Cheng Sayum Born, a former colonel of the government forces who had broken out of military jail in 1970, where he was serving time for losing the government garrison of Kratie. He joined the Khmer Rouge and evolved into one of their most competent commanders, leading operations in the northwest sector.

Later that day, according to the most reliable available information, the Khmer Rouge victors placed Prime Minister Boret on a garbage truck and sent him to the Cité Sportif. There a Khmer Rouge soldier fired a single bullet through his kidney and left him to die a slow, agonizing death. His wife and children were executed by machine gun fire the same day. 
 

From the lobby of his modern apart-hotel on Chroy Changvar peninsula, Chhang Song reflects how, 40 years ago, Khmer Rouge soldiers stormed a Khmer naval base at the southern tip of the peninsula, now the site of the new Sokha Hotel and Residence. KT Photo: Jonathan Pannetier

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