17 April 1975: The Fall of Phnom Penh

By April 1975, the Khmer Republic was in chaos and the capital of Phnom Penh was surrounded by the Khmer Rouge. The Cambodian Civil War had gutted the economy, reducing the country’s transportation network to tatters, the rice harvest by a quarter and the supply of freshwater fish. The cost of food had become 20 times greater than pre-war levels. Unemployment was no longer measured.

Phnom Penh was inundated with refugees fleeing the collapsing defence perimeter, raising the pre-war population in the city of 600,000 to two million. As the Khmer Rouge approached Phnom Penh and gained control of the banks of the Mekong River in February, relief supplies of food, fuel and ammunition from the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) ended entirely, effectively starving the city. After the roads and waterways were controlled by the Khmer Rouge, US aid came in the form of airdrops at Pochentong Airport, which also ended due to the risk of flying over the city.

Despite a last-ditch attempt by the remaining Khmer National Armed Forces (FANK) to stage a final defence, by the last week of March approximately 40,000 communist troops had surrounded the capital and prepared to deliver the coup de grace.

General Lon Nol resigned and left the country on 1 April and was succeeded by General “Peter” Saukam Khoy.

On 12 April, concluding that all was lost, the US evacuated its embassy personnel by helicopter during Operation Eagle Pull. The 276 evacuees included US Ambassador John Gunther Dean, other American diplomatic personnel, Acting-President Saukam Khoy, senior Khmer Republic government officials and their families, and members of the news media.

Of those Khmer Republic government officials that declined the offer of evacuation, General Sak Sutsakhan took leadership of the newly formed Supreme Committee, which assumed authority over the collapsing Republic. By 15 April, the last solid defenses of the city were overcome by communist forces.

In the morning hours of 17 April, General Mey Si Chan of the FANK general staff gave the order for all FANK troops to cease firing in light of spurious future negotiations.

In the newly proclaimed Democratic Kampuchea, ex-government officials of the Khmer Republic were imprisoned to await execution. Captured FANK officers were taken to the Monoram Hotel to write their biographies and then taken to the Olympic Stadium where they were executed. Khmer Rouge troops immediately began to forcibly empty the capital city, driving the population into the countryside and killing tens of thousands in the process. Year Zero had begun.

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