Leaving Cambodia title graphic
  LEAVING CAMBODIA  :stories of Sydney's Pol Pot survivors


9th – 15th century
Khmer Angkor Empire dominates region.

16th – mid 19th century
Treaty of protectorate signed with France.

Cambodia becomes a colony. The French now administer the country.

Japanese occupation during World War Two.

Independent nation (Kingdom of Cambodia).

1955 – 1970
Sihanouk regime

1955: King Norodom Sihanouk abdicates and becomes Prime Minister. His father becomes king.

1960: The king dies. Sihanouk becomes head of state.

1965-1970: Despite the declaration of neutrality, Sihanouk becomes suspicious of American interests and supports North Vietnamese Communists. US/South Vietnamese commence their ‘secret’ bombing program of suspected Communist bases in Cambodia.

Sovan GoldstrawRaised in a rural province, SOVAN GOLDSTRAW completes teacher training in the capital city, Phnom Penh.

Watch Sovan’s story on video and see her Cambodian dictionary and English certificate.

Lon Nol regime (Khmer Republic)

Pro-US General Lon Nol deposes Sihanouk in coup. North Vietnamese and Viet Cong camps continue to be ‘carpet-bombed’ by US military. In 1973, US Congress halts this program.

In China, Sihanouk’s government-in-exile legitimises Khmer Rouge, a radical Cambodian Communist guerrilla movement.

The Lon Nol regime is attacked by both Khmer Rouge and Viet Cong forces.

Lina TjoengAs Phnom Penh becomes increasingly unstable, LINA TJOENG’s parents insist the 15 year old depart Cambodia without them. Her flight is days before the Khmer Rouge capture the city and close the airport.

Watch Lina’s story on video and see the family heirlooms she brought with her to Australia.

Pol Pot regime (Democratic Kampuchea)

April 1975: Khmer Rouge takeover the capital, Phnom Penh, a city of three million people. In three days, its population has been forcibly relocated to rural areas. Similar evacuations take place for urban dwellers across the country.

As ‘Brother Number One’, Pol Pot becomes the most powerful leader. The government organisation Angkar administers a Communist inspired ideology of subsistence living.

People are compelled to live in communes and perform basic agricultural tasks. Private market and basic rights are abolished: finance, property, books, hospitals, religion and free movement are banned.

January 1979: Vietnamese forces invade Phnom Penh.

Deaths during the Pol Pot period are estimated at 1.5-2.5 million (about 20-35% of the population) through execution, purges, torture, hard labour, disease and starvation. Hundreds of thousands went missing, never to be seen again.

Buntha Nhem10 year old BUNTHA NHEM is imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge for ‘stealing’ rice.

Watch Buntha’s story on video and see photos of where he was jailed as a child.

Vietnamese occupation led by Khmer Rouge defectors (People’s Republic of Kampuchea)

UN recognises the Chinese-backed resistance coalition led by Sihanouk with strong Khmer Rouge participation. Coalition receives aid and military support from US and British governments.

Unwilling to live under another Communist regime and with travel restrictions reduced, Cambodian refugees flee to the Thai border despite the region being a Khmer Rouge stronghold.

Theau YorthThreatened by both Vietnamese forces and the resistance army, THEAU YORTH and his family decide to leave Cambodia.

Watch Theau’s story on video and see the blanket given by a Thai villager for his baby son.

Around half of Australia’s Cambodian-born population arrive in this era.

Many come direct from refugee camps in Thailand. Close to the Cambodian border, Khao-I-Dang camp was one of the most common sources.

Governments across Australia increase their intake of Cambodian refugees and resettlement support. The plight of Pol Pot survivors who have lost family members and spend years waiting in unsafe camps becomes more evident though relatives and activists in Australia.

A Buddhist monk practises from an old house in south-west Sydney. Land is leased by the New South Wales Government for a community centre and new Cambodian Buddhist temple.

Phiny Ung Upon arrival in Australia, PHINY UNG and her husband produce 90 drawings to depict their experiences of the brutal Pol Pot regime.

Watch Phiny’s story on video and see their illustrations of the Khmer Rouge era.

Thin EmFleeing Cambodia on his own at the age of 12 and after staying at Villawood migrant hostel, an Australian temple becomes home for THIN EM.

Watch Thin’s story on video and see his photos with the Buddhist monks, his new family, in south-west Sydney.

UN declares a ceasefire. Sihanouk re-emerges as head of state. (State of Cambodia)

UN sponsored elections. Monarchy is restored. Sihanouk is reinstated as king. (Kingdom of Cambodia)

Khmer Rouge sentence Pol Pot to life imprisonment. He dies the following year.

The newly built Cambodian Buddhist temple, Wat Khemarangsaram, opens in south-west Sydney. Construction costs are funded by community donations.

A Khmer language program is aired one hour per week in Sydney on Radio 2GLF 89.3FM.

Census figures state around 25,000 Australian residents were born in Cambodia. Fairfield City is the heartland for Sydney residents of Cambodian background.

The vast majority of Cambodian-born Australians are split between New South Wales and Victoria (80%) and follow Buddhism (80%).

Nearly all speak a language other than English at home. Just under half said they did not speak English well or not at all.

Around one-third have Chinese ethnicity, a group that were also targeted by the Pol Pot regime.

Altogether, around 35,000 residents have Khmer or Chinese-Cambodian ancestry. More than 60% of those living in Sydney are residents of Fairfield City local government area. Many Cambodian-specific settlement, welfare and cultural services are located in the outer south-west Sydney region. This includes the migrant accommodation many Cambodians would have first stayed in.

2007 – current (2011)
UN sanctioned war crime and genocide tribunals trial surviving Khmer Rouge leaders from the Pol Pot era. The trials trigger the past for Australians of Cambodian background.

© NSW Migration Heritage Centre 2011