Interview With Bou Nan

Bou Nan discusses her early life under the Lon Nol government, her experiences under the Khmer Rouge regime, and how Buddhism gave her the strength to forgive the regime’s atrocities.

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Born in 1955 in a village near Svay Rieng town, Cambodia, as the only child of bike mechanic parents, Mrs. Bou Nan began working to supplement her family’s income from her early teenage years. She bought candies at the market and sold them at the school within the Prey Chlak Pagoda. When Khmer Rouge soldiers entered her hometown, her family fled their native village for Svay Rieng town. She recalls that clashes between Lon Nol’s government forces and Khmer Rouge forces occurred largely at night. When the Khmer Rouge regime finally rose to power on 17 April 1975, they were forced to relocate twice by the authorities, first to Peul Prey, and then to Smor Pean.

    Uprooted from their hometown, they had little to survive on, and built a makeshift shelter under a tree to live in. They and the relatives they lived with were assigned tasks to work on by the regime. Bou Nan’s father was reassigned his former job as a bike mechanic, but Bou Nan and her mother were assigned to build dykes and dams as part of infrastructural development. She and her mother were also deployed to separate locations, where they used hoes to dig canals and carried soil on their shoulders. In rainy seasons, they planted crops in the fields. Laborers were assigned daily work targets, and would be punished for failing to achieve them. Youth were made to work a few extra hours at night during the planting season.

    Lunch and dinner was provided at the communal kitchen, and each person was served a single, meagre portion of porridge or stew. Requesting additional servings was prohibited. Bou Nan recalls leaving after each meal still feeling hungry. To combat chronic hunger, she resorted to looking for crabs, fish, or the leaves of luffa gourds to use as additional food. However, she had to cook secretly in a teapot at home, so as to avoid being detected by the regime, which enforced strict egalitarianism in all domains of life. She also stole salt from the communal kitchen during meals, which became a luxury. 

    The regime also arranged her marriage in a mass wedding ceremony, in which participants had to commit to their spouse in the presence of regime officials. Bou Nan also shares that the regime forced her to continue working in hard physical labor in the fields even when she became pregnant. The only break she received was when she fell ill and received treatment at the local healthcare center, which was converted from a pagoda. All citizens were required to wear the regime’s official black uniform, and clothes of other colors that they had used in earlier times were banned. She admits, however, to liking the regime’s uniform. Buddhism was also outlawed, and monks were removed from their religious positions. Citizens could not celebrate any religious festivals. However, some continued to worship in secret, in private spaces. Throughout the Khmer Rouge’s reign, Bou Nan did not witness any killings of civilians. However, she was aware that former soldiers who had served the Lon Nol government were taken away for “re-education” and never returned. Many educated and accomplished youth would hide their true backgrounds to avoid such persecution.

    When the regime was toppled, she and her husband walked back to their hometown, looking for food along the way. Many civilians harvested and pounded the rice in the fields they planted, and used lemongrass for cooking. Most had no money or property left. Buddhism also resurfaced in Cambodian society, and people returned to worship in pagodas. Bou Nan’s husband made it a practice to visit the stupa where the skulls of the regime’s victims were buried on Liberation Day. She too, shares her life experiences under the Khmer Rouge with her children, to remind them of the importance of upholding peace. However, as a staunch Buddhist, she abides by Buddhist teachings of forgiveness and building karmic merit, and does not desire revenge against the regime or its collaborators in her locality. She is open to receiving reparations, but is not willing to pursue it if she has to go through administrative hurdles to make her claim. Instead, she focuses on raising her grandchildren and contemplating on the teachings of the Buddha, hoping that younger generations will learn from their nation’s dark past and prevent such a history from repeating.

Mrs. Bou Nan, Svay Rieng province


Q: What’s your name? A: I am Bou Nan. Q: How old are you? A: I am 65. 

Q: What is your job? A: I am a farmer. I have enough food and never have a problem of lacking food.

Q: Do you remember any event related to Khmer Rouge? When did the Khmer Rouge come to your village? A: Actually, I don’t remember when they came. I just know that it was during Lon Nol’s regime and there were two factions: Lon Nol and Khmer Rouge soldiers. Lon Nol forces occupied Svay Rieng town while Khmer Rouge forces occupied some areas surrounding Svay Rieng town. Before Khmer Rouge soldiers arrived my village, I just lived somewhere close to my place. However, when the Khmer Rouge came to occupy my village, my family fled to Svay Rieng town for safety. At Samday village, there was military fortress. Therefore, there were Lon Nol and Khmer Rouge soldiers. Khmer Rouge soldier at O’Samdey fortress tried to attack Lon Nol soldiers in the town. 

Q: What happened when Khmer Rouge soldier came? A:  I lived in Svay Rieng town near the market. My father’s job was repairing bikes. He had a small work hut and I sold candies at Prey Chlak pagoda. In the pagoda, there was a school. In the past, my parents were bike mechanics. They had a hut under a treenear Sala Srok. I did not know what had happened. I just knew that Khmer Rouge soldiers tried to come to the town. Both soldiers attacked each other at night. 

Q: So at the time, the area around the District Office was crowded? A: Yes, you are right. There was a street market there and it was crowded, while big market was at Veal Yun. So, I sold candies and snacks there. I bought them from a shop at Koy Trobek. My sales were good. I earned enough money to support my family. I sold only in the morning. 

Q: So, at the time there was no war? A: Yes, there was. Khmer Rouge soldiers were almost around Svay Rieng town. They were at Svay Chrum, from the south. They were at Bayab. At the Northen part they were at O’somdey. You know, at O Samdey, there was a military base exactly where the current market is. 

Q: Which faction held that military base? A: It was the military base of Lon Nol.

Q: How old were you at the time? A: I was a teen. I could ride a bike and help make money for the family. I am an only child. 

Q: Do you remember the situation when the Khmer Rouge entered the town? A: I do not remember the exact date. However, I recall, on 17 April Khmer Rouge yelled as soldiers attacked Svay Rieng at night and successfully took over Svay Rieng town. Actually, I was told to leave Svay Rieng town and stayed at this village for some time. Then, I was forced to move to another place called Peul Prey at Snay Preang. There, I had no house to stay, and I was called an evacuee from Svay Rieng or new people. My family stayed with my mother’s relative. We did the same work as my relative did. After few months, we were forced to leave for Smor Pean, in the eastern part of Thmor Sor. There, we slept under the Krosaing tree. We built a very poor makeshift roof on its branches to protect us from rain. And then we moved to stay in cow sheds. We did hard work in the field. There was collective kitchen and collective dinning tent. When we heard the bell ringing, it was lunch time. Most of the time, we had only porridge for meals. Occasionally, the Khmer Rouge provided us with cooked rice. In the collective dining hall, we were allowed eat porridge from a big pot. We couldn’t get enough to eat. It might only be a spoonful. After finishing this small portion, we returned home hungrily. 

Q: How many times were meals provided? A: Twice. Lunch and dinner. Breakfast was not provided at all. We were forced to work hard. I was tasked to carry soil to build dams and dikes at Don Sor. You know, at the time I was pregnant and got sick due to pregnancy. I did it with other girls. We could only wear the black uniform given by Khmer Rouge. We had no clothes of different color except black. We worked so hard until around 11 when the bell was rung to signal that it is time for lunch. You know, lunch was delivered to our working site. If the work site was in the village we stayed, we had lunch in the village. But if our work site was very far, porridge was delivered for lunch. After lunch, we had very short break and then it was time to work again. Q: You were pregnant. Aren’t you allowed to have pre-natal break? A: Not at all. I was few months pregnant, and my belly was not noticeably big yet. I had to work. I told them that I was pregnant, but they still forced me to do work. I shoulder-carried soil from the bottom of the lake. I was tasked to do so to build dyke system at Krol Kor with other teens, while my mother was tasked to dig and carry soil to build dykes at nearby place like Samdey, Tiyear and Phoum Thom villages. In every village there was a dyke. After finishing the dyke, they had to collect fertile soil from the bottom of the lake to be used as fertilizer. It was a work in dry season. Q: What about work in rainy seasons? A: In rainy season, they forced us to do different work, planting rice. They gave us targets to meet. We cannot underperform. We had to finish our given task and hit targets. I had to work at night as well. Especially during full moon season, we had to do extra work after dinner. It was a few hours of nightly work before going to bed. Q: So you worked until nearly midnight? A: Yes, until around 9 or 10 at night. We had evening break at 5 or 6 and we had dinner. After dinner, young people, especially teenagers needed to do extra nightly work, especially to harvest rice and take it to the collective by oxcart at night. The harvested rice then was kept at a determined collective where different people further processed the rice like rice the pounding team, rice filtering team, etc that were specially tasked to do different things. There was a different group tasked to cook. 

Q: Could you talk about your marriage? A: Yes, I was working in the field and then someone called upon me and told me that Angkar wanted to meet me. You know, at that moment, I was so shocked. My soul was not in myself because I was too scared. I much wondered why Angkar called upon me. I was extremely concerned that I will be killed. I did not know what mistake I made. I was a “new people” (17 April people). Someone in the village called upon me and told me to go upstairs into a small house. There, I was told that “a man named San Song had proposed to marry you. Do you accept his marriage proposal? Now, you can decide later on whether you accept his proposal or not”. I personally feel so scared, you know. I then told them that “It’s up to Angkar. If Angkar decides that I need to marry him, I will do so. I just follow Angkar”. The man told me to go back to work. Sometime later, I was told of wedding plan and specific schedule. The wedding was held at Phum Thom pagoda where there were ancient big Khmer houses. It was a collective marriage of 65 couples. During the wedding reception, cow and buffalo meats were cooked for reception. 

Q: When was your wedding? What year? A: I actually don’t remember it. But it had been years after Khmer Rouge occupied the country. On wedding day, nothing much. We just sat as a couple in line and a couple was picked to declare commitment before Angkar that “we as spouses will keep forever love”. After that, we were told to go back home. Q: Who was the couple that declared the commitment? A: Angkar was the one to read out the commitment declaration, not the couple. They picked the couple to be symbol but one person as representative of Angkar spoke out the declaration. After listening to the commitment declaration, we were allowed to disperse and return home. It was a huge collective marriage. 

Q: Was there any reception?    

A: Yes, there was reception in which foods were served. The wedding finished around 10 or 11. It was crowded, and we just listened to their advice and declaration, nothing else. The advice was a lot, but I don’t remember all. They told us not to break the commitment after marriage, meaning that if we decided to marry, after the marriage, we cannot change our mind. After that, we return home and go to work as usual. Angkar arranged this for us. Some worked in a village they lived while some were tasked at faraway places. 

Q: Because you were pregnant, weren’t you allowed to have prenatal break?

A: No, I wasn’t at all. I worked until I delivered my baby, you know. I was assigned to a different village at Thmor Pean, shouldering and pounding newly harvested rice. Actually, I was not able to deliver my baby. Because of hard work, my twin infants were miscarried. You know before the liberation day, Khmer Rouge forced us to move to Boeung Rai near Krol Kor. We were forced to stay in medical warehouse. It was crowded. Khmer Rouge tried to bring us with them, but from that place all of us did not move any more. It was a full moon night; we could see people walking. That night, liberation soldiers had arrived at our place already. I overheard people saying that “We do not need to move westward anymore. Liberation army is coming to save us. We should go eastward rather than westward. After a short while, people started moving around in groups. Some kept moving westward while other moved back to the eastern part. 

Q: Were there any Khmer Rouge soldiers around? A: Not at all. They were scared and ran off for safety. My group decided to go eastward, and we saw a medical warehouse where we found medicine scattered messily. We took some home for our use. 

Q: Was your husband with you at the time? A: Yes, we were together. We kept walking back and it took us around 3 days to arrive home. At night, we slept in the rice field like the others. It was a dry season. In the morning, we started walking. Finally, I arrived at my previous home. It was completely destroyed and there were many bushes in my village. There were not any Khmer Rouge soldiers at all.

Q: How about when people got sick? A: When I got sick, I requested for medicine. At Phum Thom pagoda, there was a healthcare center. One day, I got fever and I told the nurse that “Doctor, I am sick now. May I have medicine?” They gave me medicine to take. However, the medicine was not like what we used to take. It was made from tree skin. You know, some of us were tasked to make that medicine. It was a black tablet which called rabbit waste tablet. After I took it, it worked. I got better. 

Q: When you got sick, were you allowed to have a break? A: Yes, I was allowed to have a break for medical treatment actually. They allowed me to get an injection at the healthcare center. They gave me a homemade injection. The half-liter medical liquid for the injection was made by the Khmer Rouge. They made it themselves. Q: Really? Not French made? A: Khmer Rouge made that herbal medicine actually. If you are severely sick, you can get medication at the district level where they had better medicine.  There was no good medicine for us at all. All nurses and doctors wore completely black clothes like us. All the time including at meetings, they are in black. Other color clothes were not allowed. I had clothes from the previous regime and I like them so much. However, I dared not to put on them at all. I just keep them. 

Q: How is your house like? A: I lived in a house separately. Actually, it was a small, hut not house. We used bamboo to build it on our own. 

Q: Did you celebrate New Year Day or Pchum Ben? A: Not at all. There was no Buddhist monk at all under Khmer Rouge. 

Q: Were those Buddhist monks killed? A: I have no ideas on whether Buddhist monks were killed. However, the reality is that there was no Buddhist monk. They may have been defrocked. You know, there was no holy day, New Year Day or Pchum Ben Day at all. The Khmer Rouge did not like to make merit at all. 

Q: How about pagodas? A: Phum Thom pagoda was converted into healthcare center for light ailments. Minor complaints can be treated there. There were beds for patients to sleep on. 

Q: What was your feeling when you could celebrate New Year Day or Pchum Ben Day? A: I really wanted to celebrate it, but it is not possible. Therefore, I just took the situation the way it is. It’s always in my mind, but we were very fearful. There was no Buddhist monk, so we definitely cannot hold any ceremony while the pagoda was used for other purposes. 

Q: How do you feel when you think of Khmer Rouge regime? A: Actually, when talking or thinking about Khmer Rouge, I always remember that I lived with constant fear. I was very concerned that Khmer Rouge would have killed me. You know, Khmer Rouge ask us about our work and education in the previous regime. If we told them the truth that we have high education background, we will be recorded in their list. Someday, we will be called upon for further education which means being killed. So, if we were university students, we had to hide our identity and background. Just tell them that we were uneducated. 

Q: So, did they ask you such a question? A: Yes, they did. They ask me “What was your job? Tell me the truth. I am registering your information for good”. You know, if you used to serve as police officer or soldier, then you told them the truth. Someday, you will be sent for further education. That means being killed. People will never return. In case, we did not see our sibling returning home, we dared not to ask the Khmer Rouge where our sibling was. If we did not see them coming back, we just forget about it. We just kept quiet. At night, we dared not discuss or talk about any issues during bedtime. We were afraid that some people might spy on us at night. It was scary. 

Q: Did you lose any sibling or relative? A: No, I did not. I do not have any sibling because I am the only child. We were a family of 3, my parents and I. My father’s relatives were in their communities when my father moved to Svay Rieng town.

Q: Did you witness any killing or torture? A: No. I have never witnessed the killing. People were killed at different places. I heard that many people were killed at Thlok pagoda, where pitches were ready for their corpse to be buried. And I noticed that in my collective, people gradually disappeared. I also heard that many people were killed at Boeung Rai and other places. 

Q: Have you ever had nightmare about Khmer Rouge times? A: I have never had a nightmare about the Khmer Rouge. However, I remember my sufferings like it is right now. I remembered I needed to walk for a long distance, difficult times etc. Even after the liberation which enabled us to go home, I still remember those painful memories and hard work. I have never had a nightmare. It was a very painful life-experience that I cannot forget. Life under Khmer Rouge was definitely difficult. Now, we live our good life. I don’t want to see such regimes return. Just keep the current situation well. I am very happy to see peace like this. 

Q: Do you want to forget about your bitter times during the Khmer Rouge? A: If possible, I want to forget about all those sufferings. I don’t want to have it in my mind. Now, I just enjoy my better life. There is no point in thinking of those painful past. I am joyful to see my children’s success, and that they had not experienced the regime. I just anticipate the future to come. Q: Do you want the younger generation to learn about Khmer Rouge history? A: Yes, of course. I want them to know how hard our lives were under Khmer Rouge. We were struggling with difficult lives which were not the same as now. 

Q: Have you ever told your children Khmer Rouge story? A: Yes, I have. I told them that my life was extremely desperate. I ate only meagre porridge. I stayed hungry all the time. They said that now people don’t talk about Khmer Rouge experience anymore. People eat good food. You know, at the time, the stews were tasteless, no MSG at all. We just ate it. I was starving at the time. We prayed to God to get us out of those hard times. I really wanted to eat rice with salt. I imagined how tasty it was. I prayed to any God to save us. I really wanted to eat rice. It had been tastier than pork and beef.

Q: What kind of salt? A: Crystalized salt. No one gave me the salt. Truth be told, I stole the salt from dining hall when we had meals. At home, when I cook strew, like with leaves of luffa gourds, I used that salt. However, we had to do so very secretly. I used a teapot to cook stew so that the Khmer Rouge could not discover that I was cooking food. I cooked strew in the guise of boiling water for tea. The only ingredients I had was salt and leaves of luffa gourds. There was neither MSG nor fish. Sometimes, we saw fish in the pond, we also caught it secretly. We hid it in our pocket and then we baked it. We had to do that because a spoon of porridge can’t really fill our stomachs. We needed to cook edible tree leaves as supplementary food. You know, we ate porridge at thw collective dining hall, and came home to eat homemade stew. Occasionally, I went to the rice field to look for crabs. I got few and baked them to fill my stomach. I ate them with salt. My life was extremely bitter. 

Q: How did you feel when the liberation day came? A: On liberation day, I was pregnant. In my village, there was rice fields where rice was ripe enough. On the way back home, we encountered a rice bank of Angkar. We took some rice home, using a tyreless old bike. Some used ox carts to transport rice. Actually, it was rice that the people had produced but Khmer Rouge managed it. I took around 10 sacks of it. At the village, we distributed those rice to our villagers. We pounded it with wooden mortar and pestle. There was no money at all, so we could not buy any things. I have only life, no money, no property at all except clothes we brought along and the clothes we were putting on every day. That was the only property we had. We sometimes went to search for foods at the abandoned houses of others where I found rice or lemon grass for cooking. I always brought a cooking pot. Then we moved again. When we stop by to relax, we search for food. We shared foods like porridge together. My husband went to get a wooden mortar to pound rice and a mortar to pound food ingredients like lemon grass. We just cook the foods available to fill our stomach. 

Q: Have you been interviewed about Khmer Rouge? A: Never ever at all. I just have told my children this story. 

Q: How do you feel when you describe your life story to me? A: I feel a bit relieved. I don’t want to go back to the past anymore. I want to move forward. I recalled my hard time. I had no proper house to stay and had to stay under the tree. (She teared up)

Q: Have you ever visited stupas that contain the skulls and bones of those killed under Khmer Rouge? A: I used to go to the crossroad where the stupa is located, but for several years, I have not visited it. Exactly, the stupa contains skulls and bone of those killed under Khmer Rouge. My husband often visits the stupa, especially on 7 January, Liberation Day. People invited 2 Buddhist monks to celebrate a memorial ceremony there. I am very busy taking care of my children and grandchildren. 

Q: What is your religion? A: I am a Buddhist. My parents believe in Buddhism. Q: How was the situation of Buddhism after Khmer Rouge collapsed? A: Gradually, there were monks and pagodas, and we as Buddhist go to the pagoda, especially on New Year Day and Pchum Ben. Unfortunately, we cannot go to the pagoda as before due to COVID-19 and we have to wear masks. I often go to pagoda since my father passed away. I saw him in my dream. He told me that he stays at the pagoda. I still go to pagoda and keep social distance. 

Q: Do you think that the suffering and hardship you experienced under Khmer Rouge was your karma? A: I am not sure. Maybe, it is part of my karma. It could be my destiny to be born in the regime with other Cambodians. 

Q: How do you feel about the Khmer Rouge who made your life real suffering? A: In the past, after the liberation, I felt so much anger, but now I am fine with that. I get angry with no one. I am getting older as well. I focus on making merit and focusing on Buddha’s teachings of dharma. On Buddhist holy days, I go to Phum Thom pagoda to contemplate Buddha’s teaching. My mind is calm and peaceful. I am not angry. It is just the past. Not only did I experience that, but also other Cambodians did suffer. 

Q: So, you often go to pagoda on Buddhist holy day? A: Yes, you are right. I often go to Phum Thom pagoda on Buddhist holy day. My father was a member of the pagoda committee at that pagoda. He very often went to that pagoda until he was severely sick and could not physically go there anymore. Sadly, he’s passed away. In my dream, he told me that “I am now staying at the pagoda. Only holy day, just come to the pagoda. Every Buddhist holy day, I go to pagoda. My daughter also dreams of him in the way that I dreamt of him. At the time, he was severely sick for around a month, and he did not put on his shirt at all. He felt hot and needed the fan all the time. He wore kroma to his shoulder and just sleep. I brought him meals as usually. After he passed away, he came in my daughter’s dream. He said that “Nhanh, now I passed away and I had no shirt to put on.  I have only a scarf on my neck”. You know it is true he put on only scarf on his shoulder. I took care of him until he passed away. He passed without wearing shirt at all. I bought layman clothes and scarf as dedication for my father. Since then, I did not dream of him. Maybe, the dedication reached him. I was not scared of anything after my father passed away. You know, when my mother passed away, I felt a bit scared. In the evening, I stayed upstairs. But now at 4 am, I get up and prepare food for my daughter who will take it to her workplace at the garment factory. He passed away last month before the wide spread of COVID-19. 

Q: Coming back to Khmer Rouge, what do you feel about this through Buddhism teachings? A: We stop revenging. If someone hurt us, do not hurt them back. There is no point in doing so. We should forget about revenge. Don’t get angry with them. I am not angry nowadays and look forward. I don’t think about the past. I focus on moving. I don’t think of the past where people hurt me. I forget about it at all. 

Q: Have you ever thought of reparations? A: Not at all. If the reparation is provided, I will take it. If I need to claim it, I will never do that. If there is a decision by the court to give reparations, I will accept it. I am just an ordinary person and know nothing about legal issues. To get reparations, there must be a local court to work on that. If I need to go through the court, I really don’t want to do that. I think if the reparation is provided, it would be for everyone in the whole country, especially the older generation who personally experienced the regime. The younger generation were not born in that regime. 

Q: After 1979, was there any revenge killings in your locality? A: No, there was not. During the liberation, they just left. I did not know what happened. In my commune, those who led us came from another place. During liberation, they just left the place. 

Q: It said that some unit chiefs were commanded to kill people. What do you think? A: Yes, I agree on that. They received orders from their higher officers. I have never ever experienced that, but heard of it. Like me, I was ordered to do intensive labor work. They used us to do whatever work they wanted. I dared not to say anything and accepted the task assigned. I just do the work. If I ask them questions, I will be in trouble. Under Khmer Rouge, people made great efforts to live on. I dared not to shout and complain, and I was safe. 

Q: Do you think the sharing of power was done from senior officials to the administrative institution? If they did not do so, they will be killed. Therefore, they just followed the commands. 

Q: In your village, are there any former Khmer Rouge officials? How do people react to them?

A: Yes, there are those who worked for Khmer Rouge in my village. We just live together in the community. I am not angry with them. We have good relations. When there is a wedding ceremony, they are invited to join. Under Khmer Rouge, they controlled us and after liberation some senior officials left. We lived together. Q: If there was a unit chief in your village, are you angry with him? A: No, I am not. I have never thought of taking revenge against them at all. I just focus on my living. 

Q: Do you want to have dialogue between former Khmer Rouge officials and the victims to share their real-life stories? A: Yes, I do. It needs NGOs to work on that. So far, there is not any dialogue. If we leave it up to what it is right now, there will be no dialogue. We will almost forget about that. 

Q: Do you have any suggestion? A: I suggest the government to protect your country, bring happiness and peace. Protect our country well. Don’t let others occupy us like before. I don’t want anything except the current situation of Cambodia. I am already so happy to see our country like this. I am getting older now and I don’t want to earn any money. I need only happiness and peace.

Q: Do you see any essence of Buddhism in calming your mind, ending your vengeful feelings? A: Yes, I always contemplate about Buddhist teachings and dharma. It makes me calm and peaceful. I don’t want to think about the past. I focus on the future. I’m getting old now and dhamma talks are always in my heart. Don’t be vicious as young person. I’m now over 60s. I would not live long anymore, so I embrace dharma. In the past, I worked so hard to feed my children well. Now, they have grown up. I do not work hard anymore, but I make merit as much as I can for the future. When we die, we cannot take any possessions with us at all. A Buddhist monk gave a Dhamma talk saying that “When we die, we can take nothing except our soul. Over the years, I did not earn any money and my children support my living. Nowadays, I do not think a lot like before. 

Q: Anyway, was any of your relatives killed under Khmer Rouge? A: No. However, all of my relatives were forced to do hard work. All of us were not government employees (before Khmer Rouge), but ordinary citizen. We were not killed and just did hard work. 

Q: So, it means that under Khmer Rouge, people who used to serve as government employees in Lon Nol’s regime were killed, right? A: Yes, this is right. People who hide their work experience, they can survive. The Khmer Rouge asked us about our previous work experience in the Lon Nol regime. If we told them that we used to work as government employees, they told us that they will give us the same job we used to do. If you said that you used to work as solider or general, your name is written in the report. Next day, you will be taken away for further education which means you are killed and never come back. If we told them that we were just ordinary people, that we do not have any business, we were safe from being killed. I personally told them that I sold candy near the school. I was just a farmer. 

Q: Who asked you that question? A: The unit chief asked me. I was a new member. They ask about members of my family. We just tell them the truth. Sometime, people forgot about hiding their work background. Then some time later, they were taken away for further education. Those who said that they used to serve as soldiers were taken away and killed. 

Q: Did you parents stay together with you? A: Yes, I stayed with my parents under the Khmer Rouge regime. And after the liberation, I also stayed with them. I am the only child, and I did not leave them uncared for. 

Q: Under Khmer Rouge regime, were your parents forced to do labor work?

A: Yes, they were. You know, my mother was in a soil carrying unit with other grandmothers. I was separated and stayed at a different place. My father was tasked to repair bikes for the Khmer Rouge. He got no money from that task. Everyone is tasked to do work based on their age. No one was jobless.  You know, I was pregnant, and I was forced to do laborious work. We do not have free time. They always tasked us with different task after task. 

Q: How about the black pyjama uniform? A: Khmer Rouge gave us those uniforms. Usually, I got two sets of black uniform. I used one for everyday work and another is kept for particular events like meetings. We wore it every day and it wore out. We just sewed and patched it. We just wore it because we did not have other clothes. It was not on sale and there was no currency as well. I took care of it as if it was a traditional silk costume. I liked it so much. 

For our clothes that we used before the Khmer Rouge, we just kept it. We were not allowed to put them on. We were given car tire sandals. It was very heavy, but I kept wearing it even though I did not want to. 

Q: What about education at the time? A: As far as I remember, there was no school. After the liberation, education restarted. My husband taught small kids at our house. Under the Khmer Rouge, we were moved from place to place. Kids got no education. 

Q: What is the most outstanding thing you remember under the Khmer Rouge? A: I remember that I was always hungry because we were not provided enough food. I used afternoon break time to look for crab in the paddy fields. I got few and baked them secretly. If we were found baking them, we would have been charged with felony and face punishment. We cannot do that openly, but secretly with fear. 

Q: What does the unit chief or group leader do? A: The group leader observed us. They also did labor with us. The thing is that they managed us. The security forces are different. They sometimes come to observe us while group leader worked with us every day. I had a female group leader. Q: Did you have meals in a group? A: There is a long dinner table for meals. Many people just come and have meal. We are given a china of porridge only. The cook gave accurate portions of meals for each of us. No one can eat 2 servings of porridge at all. If we eat two sets, it means we ate one of the others’. It was very terrible. We had no sweet to eat after meal. Sometimes, we had to walk to have meal in the village. After meals, we went back to the paddy field to continue work. We had no holiday at all. Q: How about instruments to do that work? A: There was a group of elderly men tasked to make soil-carrying baskets, hoe, etc. We did not have to worry about instruments. That group made hoe and cleavers for farming. The place where your mother-in-law lives used to be a place where elderly men made those kinds of things. They made rice plates as well.

Q: Was there any funeral ceremony when people died? A: Not at all. No funeral at all. When people died or were killed, their bodies were created or buried. That’s it. 

Interviewer: Soeung Bunly

Interviewee: Bou Nan

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Transcript Notes


  1. What was Cambodia’s Cold War, in light of Bou Nan’s reflections?

  2. Assess the role of religion in Cambodian society during and after the Cold War, and how it shapes Bou Nan’s retrospective views of the civil war.

  3. Consider the degree of the Khmer Rouge’s regime’s control over civil liberties. How did Cambodian civilians like Bou Nan resist such oppression? 

  4. What does your answer to Q3 suggest about the extent of the public’s commitment to the regime’s ideology? How does that enhance our understanding of the Cold War in Cambodia and Asia more broadly?