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'Vanished' marks fate of 'new people'

'Vanished' marks fate of 'new people'

Reviewed by Allen MyersWhen the Khmer Rouge emptied Cambodia's cities in April 1975,

former city dwellers sent to the countryside were stigmatized as "new people"-

of a much lower status than village "base people" - who had never been

corrupted by life in the city.

The social status or political background of the former city residents didn't matter.

Sao Yorn, the wife of a truck driver sent to rural Kompong Chhnang, was told "Those

who used to live so comfortably with luxuries like cars and motorbikes do not know

how to work, but only how to eat."

Sar Son, a cameraman in the Ministry of Propaganda, was in secret contact with the

Khmer Rouge and was jailed in that year for his political opposition to the Lon Nol

regime. Released from prison when the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh on April 17,

Son was arrested on May 28, 1975, and eventually sent to Tuol Sleng, where he was

murdered at the end of 1976 or beginning of 1977. His wife was also arrested and

murdered there.

This is a very valuable and moving account of the experiences of 60 or so of those

"new people." The authors have categorized them by their pre-1975 status,

but it is striking how often this status seemed to have little or no bearing on a

person's fate. We can only wonder at the survival of a bank executive officer, for

example, while a former cyclo driver's wife tells of his murder in a forest of Siem

Reap province for having annoyed the chief of his farming unit.

All of the stories are told by the person concerned if they survived, or by a close

relative if they did not. Their lack of emotional rhetoric, their matter-of-factness,

makes them all the more compelling. The reproduction of ageing pre-1975 black-and-white

photographs reinforces what the words tell us: that these were perfectly ordinary

people, no different from the people visible today anywhere in Cambodia, overwhelmed

by one of the century's most grotesque and pointless crimes.

This is a book that will stay in your memory a long time.

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