In his home fronting the Mekong River on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Long Botta keeps a framed photo taken in early 1974 of Cambodia’s then cabinet.
The U.S.-sponsored government pictured was at the time fighting an increasingly desperate war against the communist Khmer Rouge, who were drawing closer to the Cambodian capital.
Botta, the high commissioner for youth and sports, stands at the end of a row of suited men, arms behind his back, staring defiantly into the camera. Lon Nol, the mystic “Marshal” that led the ill-fated and highly corrupt republic, stands in the middle, leaning on his cane but still towering over the rest.
“Most of them were killed by the Khmer Rouge,” Botta, now 72 and an opposition MP, says.
It has been exactly forty years since the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975.
The arrival of the communist troops, mostly young and dour peasant boys hardened by years of guerrilla war, marked the end of a traumatic civil war and the beginning of a nearly four-year long nightmare of ultra-Maoist rule.
Rumor has it that the cabinet ministers and generals of the defeated government were summoned to the Ministry of Information before being murdered at the elite Cercle Sportif recreation club, between the tennis courts and the swimming pool.
The city’s residents were forced to walk out into the provinces during the country’s hottest season, before being placed in agricultural cooperatives as part of what has been described as a “slave state,” where one in four would perish until Vietnam toppled the regime in January 1979.
The series of events that led to a small and previously non-aligned country being dragged onto the American side of the Vietnam War before eventually coming under a radical communist rule so brutal that it has no pair, are complex. Opinion remains divided on whether the U.S. could have done more to protect its anti-communist ally.
As those who were involved in these events reflect on them 40 years on, emotions are mixed.
Botta says he still feels guilt for having survived a period that saw most of his friends, family and colleagues killed.
As defeat loomed, and aware that the Khmer Rouge would likely kill him and other senior government officials – American lackeys in their eyes – Botta was one of just a handful of cabinet members who escaped the country.
He flew out with his wife and two young children on a U.S. Navy helicopter on April 12 during the helicopter evacuation known as Operation Eagle Pull, five days before Phnom Penh fell. He wouldn’t return to Cambodia for almost 20 years.
But his colleagues in the photo didn’t have to die. Evacuation was offered to the entire cabinet. Only Botta, who thought the Americans were going to set up a government-in-exile on the Thai border, and General Saukam Koy, the acting head of state, took up the offer.
The inept Lon Nol, who headed the U.S.-backed Khmer Republic following the 1970 overthrow of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, had already left on April 1, first to Indonesia and then on to Hawaii. The rest decided to stay in Cambodia until the bitter end.
“I felt very guilty at that time, during the stay in Bangkok [after evacuation],” Botta says.
“But with the years now…[I have realized they stayed behind] for nothing. The sacrifice would have been for nothing.”
In a wrenching letter to then American Ambassador John Gunther Dean on April 12, Prince Sirik Matak, a republican leader favored by the U.S., refused evacuation, saying he could not leave “in such a cowardly fashion.”
“I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection, and we can do nothing about it,” he wrote.
“I have only committed this mistake of believing in you, the Americans.”
Dean, now 89, recently lamented the fact that the U.S., after having carpet bombed communist bases in the countryside – a policy believed to have killed thousands of civilians and bolstered support for the Khmer Rouge – “abandoned Cambodia and handed it over to the butcher.”
The German-born American, who grew up as a Jew in Nazi Germany, has previously described how he took down the embassy’s stars and stripes with “tears rolling” down his cheeks, before boarding the helicopters.
But Tim Carney, who served as the embassy’s political officer and was one of the key organizers of Eagle Pull, said in an interview last week that no one really knew just how bad the Khmer Rouge were going to be.
“[I] had no idea what the KR would do,” he said.
“I believed they’d execute a few hundred and institute a leftist government, but did not conceive anything like the regime they established.”
Carney adds, however, that he can not confirm that Dean and other higher-ups didn’t know more.
“I know Ambassador Dean at one point wondered whether my [Cambodian] wife’s family was going to leave. He didn’t say more than that. But I wondered and I will [continue to] wonder if I could have done more to urge my in-laws to leave than I did,” he said.
Carney says that while embassy officers like him were busy planning the evacuation in the final months of the war, Dean was attempting last-ditch efforts for negotiations.
Cambodia’s mercurial Prince Norodom Sihanouk had fled to Beijing after being overthrown in 1970 and thereafter allied himself with the pro-Chinese Khmer Rouge.
Dean’s solution would have involved Sihanouk returning to Cambodia and forming some sort of coalition government with the involvement of both warring parties.
In a September 1974 memorandum to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the ambassador warned that if no “controlled solution” was found to the Cambodian conflict, and U.S. military and economic support ran out, as ended up happening, “a bloodbath cannot be ruled out.”
Despite Dean’s gloomy prognosis, Carney says that Phnom Penh’s war-weary population was largely hopeful that a Khmer Rouge victory would see a return to a normal life.
The fact that only 159 Cambodians chose to be evacuated during Eagle Pull when there was room for many more, in comparison to nearly six thousand Vietnamese in a similar operation in Saigon weeks later, is testament to this idea.
“There was a hope that it would end and Cambodians would all get back to being Cambodians without the bloodshed and the fighting,” Carney said.
Chhang Song, who served as Information Minister for the republican regime, was with Lon Nol in Hawaii when they were informed that the U.S. was pulling out.
Looking back now, he says he can’t see how Cambodia could have found a way out in the preceding years.
“It’s very fatalistic. I look at it that way. Because all these actors – the Americans, the Khmer Rouge, the Chinese, the Vietnamese, Sihanouk – all these actors played their games to the end.
“There was nothing the Cambodians could do. You [can] say we shouldn’t have overthrown Sihanouk [but] somebody would have overthrown him anyway.”
Carney, however, says that while “the Khmer Republic was too incompetent and ineffective to win the war,” it did not have to lose it.
“[The] problem with Kissinger is that he did not embark on efforts to negotiate a solution early enough.”
Song, who says it remains “overwhelming” to think about his own survival, stoically recounts the death of the government spokesman that replaced him on the day Phnom Penh fell.
“He went to Radio Phnom Penh, he said the war is over, [he told people] to lay down the arms, [he said] we are negotiating,
“And then the Khmer Rouge came on and said this is a victory, not through negotiations, and they shot him right there, [and it] could be heard on the radio.”
While Botta agrees that Cambodia was a “sideshow” for the U.S. to achieve its goals in Vietnam, he also sees the naivety of the government in which he and Song served.
“They thought because they were anti-communist the Americans would stay forever.”
Kevin Ponniah is an Australian journalist based in Cambodia. His work has been published or aired by The Guardian, the BBC World Service, Channel News Asia, The Straits Times, Bangkok Post, the Sydney Morning Herald and others.