Bopha (pseudonym) discusses her experiences as a nurse under the Khmer Rouge regime.
Trained as a military nurse, Bopha served in Lon Nol’s army medical corp from 1970-1972. She then left the military to join the public healthcare sector, after her marriage. From 1972 onwards, she treated both civilian and military patients, some of whom were uncooperative towards her and the treatment plan. When Khmer Rouge forces entered her locality, she was at work caring for patients, when the hospital came under hostile rocket fire. However, they were asked to remain calm within the building and not evacuate.
When the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, she was not immediately assigned to hard physical labor. The regime allowed her to remain in her nursing role, but she could not leave the hospital or meet her family for the entire duration of its governance. The hospital pharmacy operated two sections, each focusing on traditional herbal medicine and allopathic pharmaceuticals respectively. Only the most severe cases were treated with the latter. She primarily saw cases of dysentery and herpes from members of work brigades, and occasionally fatalities from measles.
By 1976, food had become so scarce that she only received meager portions of porridge. Better performers received more food, which they shared with their peers. As she had just delivered a baby, she was not required to work outside the hospital. The authorities monitored the nurses’ work performance, warning that those who failed to meet standards would be removed from clinical duties. They did not allow her to rest even during pregnancies, threatening that she would not be given food otherwise. Three of her colleagues were taken away by the regime. On one occasion, she was put into a trench with her son to be executed, but survived. Medical personnel did not receive as much ideological indoctrination as citizens in other roles. Eventually, she was required to resume rice planting duties outside the hospital, which she did in shifts with other nursing staff.
In 1979, she was moved to Neak Lounge by car with patients, and overheard regime officials saying that the car would be pushed into a ditch. She was able to escape the car and evade the projectiles launched at her by the authorities, running for safety to the river, despite being pregnant. She moved to Prey Kmeng with her husband on foot, but there he was bitten by a snake and brought away for medical attention. Left alone by a chicken coop, she went into labor, and used her medical specialty as an obstetric nurse to deliver her own baby without assistance. She describes this as the peak of her suffering during the Khmer Rouge era. Carrying her son and their supplies and belongings, she walked back to her hometown. Along the way, she encountered both Cambodian and Vietnamese troops, but the former did not help her, while a Vietnamese soldier gave her a blanket for her son.
After the regime was toppled, she embraced Buddhism as a means to release her anger towards her former oppressors, accepting her suffering as the fruits of her karma. She now dedicates her merit to those she lost during the regime. Many former Khmer Rouge leaders remained in the community, but lived humbly as everyone knew of their past actions. The more senior leaders became Buddhist laypersons. Bopha herself did the same in 1985, was appointed as a member of the National Association of Laywomen by the now Queen Mother. As part of this role, she conducted training sessions for junior laywomen under state auspices in various provinces. She continues to perform this duty, serving as an instructor on social issues, while her colleagues instruct trainees on theology.
While very few former Khmer Rouge leaders still remain in her community, she cautions that many many not tell the full truth of their regrettable past actions. However, she still hopes for younger generations to learn about the regime, and does what she can to support this effort by sharing her stories with her grandchildren when Khmer Rouge documentaries are aired on television.
Bopha in Svay Rieng
Q: Good morning, Grandma! A: Good morning!
Q: What is the name of this village?
A: This village is Toutea of Chek commune. Now, Chek commune is part of Svay Rieng town. In the past, it was part of Svay Chrum district.
Q: How long have you been living here?
A: I have been living here since 1979. Before 1979, I lived in a different village. I am talking about my life in 1970. In 1970, I studied nursing at the C8 regiment at Meanchey district northern part of Svay Rieng. Actually, it is now Svay Chrum district, while at the time it was called Meanchey district.
Q: Oh, I see. So, in 1970 Svay Chrum district was originally called Meanchey.
A: I studied nursing, and in 1972 I got married. After marriage, I was a nurse in the healthcare sector, not military anymore. I was responsible for caring for patients both civilians and militiamen. In 1975, the regime was toppled. My task was to receive the soldiers who fled Svay Rieng town, giving them courage.
Q: Were they Lon Nol’s troops? A: Yes, they were. The hospital was located in Prey Banteay village, Svay Year commune.
Q: Was it a district hospital? A: Yes, you are right.
Q: In 1975, the Khmer Rouge came to power, and you changed jobs from a military nurse to a civilian nurse, right?
A: Yes, I was a nurse at a district hospital. I had a son.
Q: Do you remember what had happened the day the Khmer Rouge took over Svay Rieng province? A: Yes, I am telling you what happened to me. I was in the hospital with many patients, and I heard the sound of gunfire. Suddenly, a rocket fell at the hospital. At the time, there was a military battle at Toul Kork. However, we were calm. We were not allowed to go out yet. In 1976, my life was very desperate. I ate only small portions of rice porridge. I was tasked to do farming as far away as Svay Chrum district. I was given a small bowl of rice porridge. I was not able to do farming as hard as the others since I had just delivered a baby. I wasn’t forced to work outside the hospital, nursing patients.
Q: So, under the Khmer Rouge you were still working as a nurse, right?
A: Yes, I was still a nurse at a district hospital.
Q: Why were you sent to do farming at different places?
A: Actually, the Khmer Rouge monitored our work performance. I performed my worked well, so the Khmer Rouge kept me. Three of my fellow nurses’ hands were tied behind their backs, and they were taken away by a car.
Q: Did you know where the car was headed to?
A: I did not know.
Q: How about you? A: The Khmer Rouge took me nowhere. They said that I performed my work well, so they allowed me to keep nursing patients in the hospital. However, they used to warn me that I might be taken away from the hospital someday. I worked in the hospital until 1979. In early 1979, I was forced to move to Neak Loeung. At Neak Loeung, while boarding a car with many patients, I overheard that our cars would be pushed into a river. Therefore, I decided to escape from the car, running for safety while rockets were launched aimed at me. But I was safe. I kept running and finally reached the river. Unable to cross the river, I turned back, walking through a shallow lake and a flooded field the whole day without food. I could only eat was raing (tree leaves). I was pregnant. My husband knew that I was extremely exhausted, so he gave me raing several times and told me to chew them and drink their juice, because we had no rice to eat. When we arrived at the asphalt road, we were told that the Khmer Rouge was approaching. Then, we went back. For the whole day, we ate no rice, during my pregnancy. We kept walking and then we saw a chicken coop at Prey Kmeng. I’m talking about events in 1979. I felt a pain in my tummy; I was about to deliver a baby. At the same time, snakes bit my husband’s leg, so he was taken away for a treatment. I was with no one, delivering a baby. I used to be a labor and delivery nurse. Delivering my own baby by myself was indescribably painful. I went to get water by myself for cleansing. I used a roof tile made of palm tree leaves to cut my baby’s umbilical cord after the delivery (interviewee shed tears). That day, I walked 15 km immediately after the delivery. I held my baby while carrying a sack of rice and cooking pots. I crossed a lake, passing Steung Katplok. I couldn’t swim at all. I prayed to my parents, asking them to keep me safe. I prayed for the lake I was crossing to be shallow, so that I could carry my baby through it. When I was crossing the lake, it was shallow. When I reached the other end of it, I heard people asking if there were pregnant or women with newborns. I told them that I was a new mother. Then, I was given 2kg of beef to cook to give myself energy. Then, we continued our journey. It rained. My son was unconscious because he was soaked in rain. It was too cold for him. He fell unconscious three times. I had nothing to blanket him with except the kroma (Khmer scarf). I talked to him “Son, don’t ever leave me. I have kept you safe from many dangers”. At one place, I saw many Vietnamese troops surrounding a few Cambodian troops. They saw me carrying my son. We were soaked in the rain. The Vietnamese troops came to help me stand on my feet. Our Cambodian troops just walked pass by. They did not help me. The Vietnamese used body language. We did not understand each other. He gave me a hammock, so I used it to blanket my son. They used body language which I interpreted as “where is your husband?” I told him that “My husband was bit by a snake. Then, he was brought away for treatment”. Since then, we were separated until we met at our home village. I carried my son home on foot.
Q: Back to Khmer Rouge times, you were not evacuated to any other places. Right?
A: No, I was not. I was put in atrenchwith my son for execution.
Q: Is he your first son? A: No, my second son. I delivered him on 13th of month 4 (Buddhist calendar) in the forest. Q: Were your relatives/siblings killed during Khmer Rouge? A: My older brother, my older brother in-law and my niece were killed.
Q: What crime was your older brother accused of?
A: I don’t know the accusation. I just saw him being taken away by Khmer Rouge officials.
Q: Have you been tortured?
A: Yes, they forced me to work while I was pregnant. They said if I did not work, I would not be provided with any food.
Q: What kind of work?
A: I dug soil, built dikes in the rice field.
Q: Where was that?
A: In Phnom Srang of Kampong Speu province.
Q: When was that? A: In 1979
Q: In 1979, before the liberation day? A: No, it was after liberation day.
A: They said that I lived with them, so I had to work. In Svay Rieng province, I was just a labor and delivery nurse. I was not forced to do any extreme work. After I was evacuated to Kampong Speu, then I was forced to do tough labor.
Q: Oh, I see. Were you evacuated?
A: Yes, I was. The Khmer Rouge said, “Don’t stay here (Svay Rieng) or the Vietnamese troops will slit your throat”.
Q: Which part of Kampong Speu did you stay in? A: Phnom Srang (Srang Mountain). I delivered my son at Kat Plork.
Q: Where is Kat Plork? A: Do you know “dong steung kat plork srok roka thom (part of oldie song)”?
Q: It is a Khmer song, right?
A: Exactly, yes. The Khmer Rouge put me in a trench. I saw many fresh corpses in the trench. Children and old people were put in different trenches. They killed children by hitting them against tree stumps. I saw many corpses in the trenches. They hit them against the tree stumps and threw them into trenches. A few people in the trenches had not died yet. I was very shocked and frightened. They killed people and threw them into the trench. I was extremely shocked. A female comrade told me not to think too much. She told me to take herbal traditional medicine to make my son healthy. I was separated from my husband and other son. I did miss my son a lot. I thought of them and of myself too. I felt very hurt (shedding tears).
Q: Were you forced to walk to other places on foot? A: Yes, we were forced to move to other places on foot. I walked through a seasonally flooded freshwater swamp forest. I remember climbing Srang Mountain. I made it to the top of the mountain and went down. Climbing the mountain was not so hard. However, descending from the mountain was so hard, and we needed to hold the trees in order to keep balance. I had just delivered my son. You can imagine how hard it was.
Q: How many people were evacuated along with you? A: I did not have any idea. It was just a big group of people. When there were rocket launches, we were very scared. We called upon our parents’ good deeds and merit making to protect us from danger, based on our beliefs. If the rocket had hit our trench, we all would have died. There was a rocket falling near our trench, but to the edge of it. Amongst us, there were many people from Svay Rieng province. I overheard that all people from the country’s east would be killed.
Q: How about food? A: It was suffering. The food we ate was not sufficient. Sometimes, we shared food with each other. Those who worked hard and got more rice porridge shared food with others. We ate rice porridge because we had not much rice. Sometimes, we ate rice with prahok sauce.
Q: Was that in Phnom Srang? A: Yes, it was in Phnom Srang. I could go back to my hometown when the liberation front and Vietnamese troops arrived. We walked in line with 7 people and the man in the middle was carrying a big walky-talky. I wondered if he was Vietnamese. Then, we were called to move to the National Road. That was when we were liberated. Later on, I saw a helicopter. A man onboard it told us to go to Phnom Penh.
Q: How about the Khmer Rouge? A: I did not care much about the Khmer Rouge. I was just so happy to be liberated. We did hard labor, but sufficient food was not guaranteed at all. At our hometown, we at least had food to eat. Everyone returned to their respective hometowns. On the way, there was a checkpoint. The troops checked my husband to surely make sure he wasn’t a Khmer Rouge militant.
Q: How about your husband? Where did he work? A: He was also a medic actually. We were separated at that time.
Q: Before 1979, did you work at Meanchey district hospital?
A: Yes, you are right.
Q: Were there nurses taking care of patients?
A: Yes, there were nurses taking care of patients as normal. The patients were sent from the collectives.
Q: How about medications?
A: There were tablets and injection. The fluids injected were stored in containers as big as a Fanta bottle.
Q: Was it donated?
A: No, it was produced. In the hospital, there was a laboratory producing medicine like vitamin C and vitamin B1, which were packed into bottles. The injection was tested before usage
Q: Really? A: Yes, it was packed in a Fanta bottle. That was before 1979.
Q: How many medical personnel were there in the hospital?
A: There were around 30 medical personnel. They were medical doctors and nurses. My husband was a pharmacist who received his medical education in Kampong Cham province.
Q: How about uniforms? A: We wore black uniforms.
Q: I heard that the Khmer Rouge used herbal medicine called rabbit poop for medical treatment, right? A: Yes, correct. In the laboratory, there were two sectors producing medication. They were the traditional herbal medicine sector and allopathic medicine sector. Under the Khmer Rouge regime, I was a nurse at Ang Kbas hospital. After 1979, I left Ang Kbas hospital.
Q: So, your life under the Khmer Rouge was not so desperate?
A: No, it wasn’t. However, I suffered so much in late 1979. In the hospital, sometimes the military patients kicked me when I gave them injections. I did not get angry to uphold professional ethics. Ethics are very important for medical personnel. It’s like a generous mother taking care of children. I was trained to think that way. I spoon-fed rice porridge to them and when they did not want to eat, they just pushed me away.
Q: Which regiment did those patients belong to?
A: They were soldiers who fought against Viet Cong troops. Under the Khmer Rouge, the patients did not kick me. So, that happened before the Khmer Rouge came to power. At the time, Viet Cong troops fought against Lon Nol’s troops. In Khmer Rouge times, patients behaved well.
Q: Oh! So it happened prior to the Khmer Rouge regime. At the time, Viet Cong troops fought alongside Cambodian troops against Lon Nol’s troops. Were you taught anything about the Khmer Rouge? A: No. As medical personnel we were not indoctrinated because we were neutral.
Q: Did you eat sufficient food?
A: Sometimes, we did not eat sufficient food. I cultivated rice despite my nursing job. We switched our work actually. I cared for patients while my colleagues planted rice. When I planted rice, they look after the patients.
Q: Was planting rice a choice?
A: No, we were forced to plant rice. It was compulsory. We planted rice in the flooded rice field.
Q: Did you have superiors?
A: Yes, there were superiors who oversaw my work. In the morning, doctors examined patients. Afterward, the nurses checked on them as well. The work environment was similar to these days.
Q: Did you live in your own house? A: No, we stayed in the hospital actually. At a glance, my life was not that hard. However, when you look deeply, it was very hard. I had neither rights nor freedom at all. I was completely occupied.
Q: Were there many patients, particularly children?
A: Most of the patients were adults from mobile work brigades. They had dysentery and herpes simplex. Q: What is Apes? A: Apes is a kind of disease that make the back of patient become brown. We also saw Measles cases. People died of measles.
Q: Was it possible to visit your parents during Khmer Rouge times?
A: I wasn’t allowed to visit my parents at all. I was confined to the hospital, while my parents stayed and worked in the collective.
Q: So for 3 years, 8 months and 20 days, you did not meet your parents, right?
A: No, I did not have chances to meet them at all. After the liberation, I returned from other places and then met my parents.
Q: So you did not know what had happened to them? A: No. I didn’t know how their lives were. And I did not ask other people about how my parents’ lives were. Family relationships were disconnected.
Q: After 1979, have you ever remembered your past under the Khmer Rouge? A: Yes, I remember it sometimes. When it comes to the Khmer Rouge, I remember my hardship when I gave birth to my son. I could not put into words how hard it was. I felt broken-hearted and hurt. The situation at the time was terrible. It was not the same as today’s situation. These days, new mothers can eat sufficient food and relax. Under the Khmer Rouge, we had to work hard. Q: Did you receive salary as an obstetric nurse? A: No, I received no salary. I received only two sets of uniform per year. There was no financial support.
Q: Could you ask permission to visit your family? A: No, I definitely couldn’t. Neither could the others.
Q: Nowadays, do you ever remember your family or relatives who passed away when you visit the monastery? A: Yes, I always remember them when I celebrate religious ceremonies. I dedicated my good deeds and merit making to them. My life was so hard in the past, and now I devote myself to Buddhism. Because of my active involvement in Buddhism, I was appointed as a member of the National Laywomen Association for 5 years, led by the Queen Mother Norodom Monineath. She gave me this position. Q: When was that? A: It was in 1985. I experienced a lot of things.
Q: How did you call your colleagues? A: I called them comrade. For those who were older than me, I called them senior comrades. For those who were younger than me, I called them junior comrades.
Q: How did the working environment look like? Did the senior comrades use violence? A: We performed our work based on a hierarchy. The head of hospital has a deputy who allocated work to all the medical personnel. Sometimes, top Khmer Rouge officials oversaw regional officials, and then the regional officials came to our district hospital to assign tasks to us. This happened in the public healthcare sector, which I was in. I have no idea about other sectors.
Q: Now, how do you feel when remembering your past? As you mentioned earlier, you feel very hurt when talking about the Khmer Rouge because you lost your family, relatives etc. So you don’t think of taking revenge against former Khmer Rouge members? You accept that what had happened was the consequence of karma. You practice Buddhism to let go off your anger and vengeance. Is this true?
A: Yes, you are right. Q: Have you ever been interviewed on Khmer Rouge-related topics? A: No. This is my very first time being interviewed about Khmer Rouge history.
Q: Have you ever told your story to your children and grandchildren?
A: Yes, I told them stories of the Khmer Rouge. When there were Khmer Rouge history programs on TV, I commented on them to my children.
Q: Were they interested in listening?
A: Before, they did not believe me. They did not believe what I just told you about my hard times, such as eating insufficient food in the collective. Later on, there were documentaries aired on TV they were watching. Immediately, I asked them “Now, you are watching the history of the Khmer Rouge. Do you believe me now?” They then said that people’s lives were desperate at the time. I told them that they are very fortunate. They eat sufficient food. They have enough sleep. They can go anywhere. For me, I was not allowed to go anywhere. I had no money to spend on anything. I just cooked rice and ate insufficient food. They asked how people lived without eating enough food. I told them to ask other old people for clarification.
Q: Are there any former Khmer Rouge officials in your village or community?
A: There was a man who was a former head of collective. His name is Ta Khoy but he passed away. I think former Khmer Rouge leaders don’t tell the truth, because they were the perpetrators while those who worked for the collective supervised by Ta Khoy can tell the truth. Khmer Rouge officials will not talk because they hurt people. They only talk about their good deeds.
Q: How about those lower-level officials? A: Yes, in our village there was an old man who was a former Khmer Rouge official, but he passed away. I know another old man named Rin, who was chief of a collective. He is a layman. Most former Khmer Rouge officials who were powerful became laymen.
Q: How was the relationship between you and those former Khmer Rouge officials after 1979?
A: After 1979, we lived in the same community. Former Khmer Rouge officials were very humble. Most people knew their past actions. Sometimes, people spoke about their past, and they responded with were complete silence.
Q: Are you personally angry with them? A: No, I am not angry with them at all. Actually, previously I was angry with them, but later on my anger disappeared. Buddha teaches that hatred cannot be ceased by hatred. If I keep hatred in my mind, it will continue endlessly. It is not only me but many others who were also under their control. They cannot tell the truth.
Q: Have you ever had nightmares about the Khmer Rouge? A: No, I have never had nightmares about the Khmer Rouge. I just recall the Khmer Rouge as you ask me questions. I want to forget about those hard times. I do not want to think about it anymore, while focusing on learning Dhamma and educating people about kindness and making merit. In fact, I once got angry but after I embraced Buddhism I forgot about anger, hatred and revenge. There is no point in talking about horrific pasts. I was emotionally hurt. I do not forget about my hard times, but I do not want to recall it.
Q: Do you want the younger generation to learn about Khmer Rouge history? A: Yes, I do want them to learn about it. Never let the history repeat! I often tell my children and grandchildren not to do bad deeds. Not only do I educate my children and grandchildren, but I also educate older laywomen through training.
Q: Do you mean you organize trainings?
A: The trainings are organized by the Laywomen Association.
Q: Is this association located at the monastery you are engaged in as a laywoman? A: At our monastery, currently there are a few laywomen. When the trainings are organized in other provinces, there are sometimes around 100 laywomen joining the training from just one monastery. The training themes cover both secular and religious issues. I give talks on social issues such as illegal drug and household business. Other trainers give talks on Dhamma.
Q: So you go to other provinces to provide training to other laywomen? A: Yes, exactly.
Q: Are you still doing this job? A: Yes, I am. Q: How many provinces have you been to? A: I have been to many provinces including Pursat, Battambang and Siem Reap.
Q: You organize the training in the monastery complex? A: Yes, you are right. For each session, we train around 100 laywomen. Q: Do you go with other laywomen? A: Yes, I go with other laywomen. There are both social issue and Dhamma trainers. Provincial or District heads of Buddhist monks are invited to join the training with us.
Q: Who funds this? A: Queen Mother Norodom Monineath.
Q: So you have been involved in this since 1985? A: Yes, that is right.
Q: Have you been to many districts in Svay Rieng for organizing trainings? A: I have been to Romeas Haek and Tropaing Trach monasteries. I also have been to Ta nou and Krosaing Chrum monasteries.
Q: Usually, how long do the trainings last? A: It is a 3-day training that includes mediation class. Q: Do participants receive certificate after completing the training? A: No, there are no certificates given. We just checked attendance of participants and sent the provincial Department of Cults and Religious Affairs the attendance list and report. Then when I join meetings in Phnom Penh, I bring these documents to be submitted to the National Laywomen Association.
Q: So you have a lot of knowledge in Dhamma and social issues. How is your nursing knowledge? Did you forget it? A: I didn’t forget it, but I am retired. Q: How old are you? A: I am 67.
Q: You retired, so you do not have chances to use your knowledge anymore.
A: Yes, my expertise was in obstetric nursing.
Q: This is my last question. Do you think the government should actively promote Khmer Rouge history education? A: Yes, the government should further promote Khmer Rouge history education so that the younger generations know what happened in the past and what the current, real situation is. I want the government to work on this. For me, I have long been willing to cooperate if somebody comes to interview me. You are the first to interview me. I know that Bunrani Hun Sen’s biography was published and disseminated, especially that she delivered a baby with help from others. Her life was not as desperate as mine, but her life story is well-known to some extent. My life at the time was as hard as Padacha’s (a female character in a Cambodia legend). The government should educate the public on Khmer Rouge, so that this history is not repeated. I do want to see our younger generation experiencing what I did. Now, we are prosperous. May the government bring us more prosperity.
Interviewer: Soeung Bunly
Prahok is a crushed, salted and fermented fish paste used as a seasoning or a condiment in Cambodian cuisine.
Consider how Bopha’s experience of the Khmer Rouge regime was shaped by her experience of motherhood.
How does Bopha’s testimony destabilize notions of an undifferentiated egalitarianism in Cambodian society under the Khmer Rouge regime? What are its implications for the study of the Cold War in Cambodia and Asia more broadly?
Assess the role of religion in Cambodian society during and after the Cold War, and how it shapes survivors’ memories of the civil war.