Keav Ean reflects on life during the Cambodian Civil War and under the Khmer Rouge regime, discussing his experiences of fleeing from conflict, political repression, and having to endure starvation and illness.
71 year old Keav Ean was only a student when conflict broke out in his locality of Svay Rieng in 1970. In April 1975, Khmer Rouge troops had cleared the area of government forces, and installed a new regime. By then, Keav Ean had his own family, and struggled to protect his children in the chaos. He recalls that information was limited as they did not have an advanced telecommunications infrastructure, and, relying on word-of-mouth, they merely emulated what their peers did to survive. He simply walked aimlessly in the opposite direction of the troop’s movement to evade them. During the war, he experienced air raids by Vietnamese forces. Villagers also knew whether there were going to be military skirmishes that night, and tried to continue farming during the day while it was safer. However, they fled the village when Vietnamese forces arrived with tanks. Despite having endured these dangers, Keav Ean was somewhat relieved when the Khmer Rouge forces took over the capital, as it signaled the end of war. Yet, his struggles would continue until the regime toppled in 1979.
Under the Khmer Rouge, villages were reorganized into collectives, and civilians had to work together on collective infrastructure projects. From 1976, villagers had to eat together in a communal dining hall. They were usually given banana stem or morning glory stew, and could not request additional servings. The adults in his village were placed into teams and tasked with digging canals in the fields for the rainy season. Younger teams were sent to more distant worksites, while elderly workers were made to labor closer to their homes. Keav Ean worked relentlessly, as those who did not meet the daily work requirements would be accused of laziness or charged with disloyalty, which would get them killed. One of the canals he dug in a six month project still exists. At times, he was sent out to the fields to gather food for the canal builders, and he would catch fish.
However, workers were never given rest, and he recalls asking the leader for a toilet break just to get rest. They would also use the lunch break to forage for extra food such as rats or crabs in the fields. He also did not eat properly, and developed stomach issues. On some occasions, he had to stop working because of the unbearable pain, but would continue after it subsided. He would secretly retain part of the fish he caught to be used another day, when his catch was poor, to avoid being persecuted. The only treatment he received for his illness was ineffective acupuncture procedures, but he was grateful for the respite from work while being treated.
Workers who worked far away returned home during special occasions. As all monasteries were repurposed as prisons by the regime, there were no Buddhist rituals for New Year’s or ancestral worship events. Instead, on those days, workers were given rice to eat, and had more lavish meals at the communal kitchen. Keav Ean had to pretend to be happy even when he worried for his well-being so as to not be accused and killed.
He also shares how easily people could be persecuted by the authorities, such as how he was accused of calling a colleague lazy, just for asking him to accompany him on the walk home that night after work. On another occasion, his brother-in-law was killed because his conversation about the military superiority of Vietnam was overheard. Keav Ean also saw masses of people tied up to be transported elsewhere, but did not directly witness the Khmer Rouge regime’s killing of civilians.
As the war came to an end in 1979, the retreat of the Khmer Rouge forces also posed threats to the civilians, as they forced the people to follow them. He recalls one instance when his family and other fleeing civilians were trapped on a bridge, sandwiched between Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge forces on either end, and some civilians were killed or injured in the stampede. He eventually fled by foot to Neak Loeung, carrying his children. There he found Vietnamese troops, who instructed him to cook chicken and duck. He then knew the conflict had ended. As they did not have enough sustenance during the previous regime, he returned home that day with young mangoes and salt which he took from the Agricultural Centre, which had been used by Khmer Rouge troops as a storehouse. It reminded him of the deprivation of the preceding years.
After the war, he spent 3 decades as an educator, and returned to farming from 2009. In 2012, he was promoted to deputy village chief. Reflecting on the Lon Nol and Khmer Rouge regimes through the lens of Buddhist philosophy, he explains that while the perpetrators should be brought to justice by the state in courts of law, he bears no personal grudge. He no longer discriminates against the former village chiefs who collaborated with the regime, and merely prays that they and those who lost their lives find peace in death. In closing, he asks that future generations of Cambodians document and remember this dark history so as to never repeat it; and to be grateful for the growth, development, and stability they enjoy under the current administration.
Mr. Keav Ean in Svay Rieng province
Q: Good morning! How are you?
A: Good morning! I am just fine.
Q: What’s your name? A: I am Keav Ean
Q: How old are you?
A: I am 71 years old.
Q: How long have you been living here? A: I have been living in Trobek Prohong village of Tasous commune for over 50 years. I got married in 1971.
Q: What is your job?
A: These days, I am a farmer since my retirement.
Q: What did you do before your retirement?
A: When I first came to live in this village, I was a farmer in Lon Nol’s regime from 1971-75. From 1975-79, I was also a farmer. From 1979-2009, I was a teacher and a school principal at Prek Toup primary school. From 2009-2012, I just became a farmer again. Since 2012, I am a deputy village chief. I am getting old now. I just do the tasks assigned by the authority.
Q: So before the Khmer Rouge regime, you were a farmer, right? A: Yes, exactly, I was a farmer. There was a civil war.
Q: Do you know when Khmer Rouge troops completely took over the town in Svay Rieng province? Was it before 17 April 1975?
A: Well, there is a connection with previous historical events, that Khmer Rouge troops fought against Lon Nol forces at the outskirts of Svay Rieng town when our country had a civil war. Viet Cong troops supported Khmer Rouge forces in fighting against Lon Nol’s forces that ruled the country at the time. The fighting kept going on. Finally, Khmer Rouge forces got victory over Lon Nol forces, and then they led the country. Q: When did the war happen?
A: March 18, 1970; when I was just a student.
Q: In 1970, Lon Nol staged a coup d’état against King Norodom Sihanouk, right?
A: Yes, that’s right. Q: Under Lon Nol reign, was there a civil war? A: Yes, of course, a civil war had already started. King Norodom Sihanouk went abroad at the time and asked people to fight against enemy in the forest (Prey Maki). Youth went to the forest to fight against Viet Cong troops. The war continued until April 17, 1975. And Phnom Penh city was overtaken by a new regime and Lon Nol’s regime came to an end.
Q: How about Svay Rieng town? A: If I’m not mistaken, Svay Rieng town was taken over on 15 or 16 April 1975 because the militia combat started from Svay Rieng. It was one day before Phnom Penh was taken over. It was very fast. Khmer Rouge troops fought very strongly and took over the city while Lon Nol troops just retreated and abandoned their loyalty to King Norodom Sihanouk.
Q: What happened when Khmer Rouge troops started entering your village?
A: At the time the information was very limited. I had neither a TV nor a radio to get any news. We got the information from word of mouth. We just did what other people did. We just did what we had been told to do. We had liberators and we felt happy because the war was over. We suffered a lot.
Q: So, Khmer Rouge declared that they liberated people from Lon Nol’s regime? A: Yes, they did. We have had enough war. I had to cuddle my children. I rarely had good sleep. We slept at other people’s houses in a big group. My children slept on the bed, and I would just lay myself against the stilt.
Q: So, before the Khmer Rouge regime there was a civil war, right?
A: Yes, there was a civil war. There were air bombings by Vietnam and grenade attacks as well. We had a very hard time. Back then, we were growing rice, and in the mornings, we were very cautious of air bombings or grenade attacks. At around 2 PM, air bombings or grenade attack operations halted, so we could plough rice fields, shoulder-carry sheaves of rice, and plant rice. At 4-5, night military combat started again, so we had to move to other faraway places to escape from the combat for our own safety. In the mornings, I cooked rice for breakfast while being highly cautious for air bombing or bomb attack. My life was unbelievably desperate. When South Vietnamese troops (called Teav Khi during Lon Nol’s regime) came to our villages with tanks, we just ran away.
Q: Is Teav Khi Vietnamese language?
A: Yes, it is. There were tanks and I ran away for safety. We could cultivate rice as long as the military combat was over each day. Whenever the situation became calm, I went out to plant rice again. Afterwards, I just waited until the evening military combat was over. Sometimes, I received news from the outsiders that “tonight there will be military combat”. I hid in the trench. I had no idea whether the combat occurred at daytime or nighttime. It was very hard. Experiencing a civil war was a great suffering. I could hardly survive. At the time, I relentlessly worked to feed my children. I did not have any business at all. Whenever I heard the airplane sound, I was just filled with shock and fear, staring at the coming airplane. At certain points of time, at a lake located at the Southern part of this place, when I was planting rice, I saw airstrikes at the South of Mr. Cho’s house. I wondered at which specific location the airstrike happened. Immediately, there were two loud airplanes bombing Eastern Takor village. Many people tried to escape the bomb. Consequently, Mr. Cho’s son lost his leg because of the bomb while herding his cows in the rice field. The air bomb attack also occurred at the western part of Mr. Cho’s house. The air bomb attack was carried out both from the east and the west, blocking my way. The air bomb attack was aimed at us who were blocked. Hundreds of villagers got wounded while some were killed right away at the scene. We couldn’t help one another. Those who were killed were buried and those who were injured were taken away to other places to avoid danger.
Q: When Khmer Rouge troops arrived at your village, were you happy? A: Yes, I thought the war was over. I genuinely felt excited. Q: What happened afterwards? Were you evacuated to somewhere else?
A: During Lon Nol’s war, I kept walking aimlessly. When I saw the troops from the east, I went in another direction to escape them. When I saw the troops from the east, I went to the west. I kept going north to Krol Kor and Sambok Thleng. It was very far.
Q: What happened when Khmer Rouge troops came in?
A: The troops were a mixture of both sides and neither side gained victory yet. When Khmer Rouge troops came in, I felt very excited. There was no more air bomb attacks. I was a farmer. There was a collective and groups. We ate cooked rice individually with our family members, but after 1 year, we were forced to eat in a communal dining hall. I had to bring cooking ports and plates to the communal dining hall.
Q: When was it? A: In 1975, we eat separately. In 1976, we were forced to eat collectively.
Q: Did you live in the same house?
A: Yes, I did. People disassembled their big houses and used the materials to build small ones which were very close to one another. I stayed in the same place with others as a group. There was a kitchen. We were forced to live together as groups because it was easy for Khmer Rouge officials to manage us and check our work. Talking about work, it was extreme suffering.
Q: Which group were you a member of?
A: I worked as a farmer, but I must do assigned task with the collective. I had to start working after the belt hit in the early morning. I had to work almost without any free time. When assigned to do any task, I was happy. Do you know why? It is because it meant I was still alive. If I had not carried out the assigned task, I would have been charged with disloyalty. I was overseen all the time, working relentlessly. I did not eat enough food, but I did not get sick.
Q: So in the early morning, you started doing your assigned task. Was the place far?
A: It depends. Sometimes, I just planted rice near here. Sometimes, I had to go to Beng Andeng while sometimes I had to go to Srok Phouk. It depends on group task. For new group, it was sent to faraway places. No one was jobless. Weak people did tasks just nearby while healthy ones were assigned to do tassk at faraway places. They ate and slept there. Therefore, it depends on the arrangement.
Q: Were you forced to dig a canal?
A: I cultivated rice in a rainy season where it is usually the time to dig a canal. There were elderly groups and younger groups tasked to dig canals. We built our individual temporary house and all houses were close to one another. In the villages, there were several canals which were dug by elderly people including grannies.
Q: Was there any work target? A: Yes, there was work target. We were told to do work at different places according to the instruction and commandment. There was a work target by (meters of soil to be dug). We needed to have Bangki (a kind of flat two handled basket. Its shape is like a scoop and is used to carry soil) and a hoe. At the time, if we did not have any tools, it is as though we did not do any task. So we have to make Bangki on our own. If we had not made it by our own, we would have been killed. I worked with other three men, using hoe and Bangki to dig and carry soil respectively. Q: How many members were there in a group? A: It was a small group with 3 people. A person dug the soil while the others carried it. Other groups were also assigned to dig a canal like that. For instance, a group was assigned to dig 2 meters of soil. We had to finish the task assigned. I once was sent to a faraway place to dig a canal for rice cultivation. There, it was not so difficult. But it was very difficult to dig a canal from Svay Rieng of O’smach to Kampong Chrey. The canal exists until these days. I dug it by my own hands and energy. I dug it from harvesting season (December), starting from Kbal Hong at Samrong to Kampong Chrey monastery, currently named Svay Thom monastery toward the dam.
Q: How long did it take? A: I am not sure, but it was finished in around May or June. So we dug the canal since December until the rainy season. We used human labor to dig it. I worked with other two men as a small team and there were other teams who worked next to mine. We had to dig 3m-deep canals and the soil from the dug canal was used as damp just along the canal. It was not easy at all to dig a canal because there were laterite and stone in the soil underground. There were many people working in a very big group. For one day or two days, we together were able to dig 1-km long canal, 3m deep. I carried out the work with fear. I had to work hard to reach target. If I had been unable to finish it, I would have had problems. I would have been accused of laziness and in consequence I would have been killed. We had to work hard. We both extremely tired and a bit lazy because of too much work. I was not allowed to take a break, so I asked the person for a toilet break. I used this opportunity to secretly take a brief break. There was not enough water and food, so I did not poop regularly. I told him lies that I wanted to go to the toilet, but in fact I instead took a rest. The place at which I took a rest was around 100 m from working site. When I could go far distance, I could rest a bit longer. When digging the canal, if I had not been able to finish the task, I would have been accused of making a mistake. I was proud that I could finish the entire assigned task. At the time, I was more than 25 years old because in 1979 I was in my early 30s. Q: Have you ever been sick? A: I got sick.
Q: Did you go to a hospital?
A: I was sent to Koh Moin, southern part of Svay Rieng town, to plough rice fields, using a plow. In a village, my group received 10 plows. I rode a buffalo to the rice fields. My group consisted of 11 people but we had only 10 plows. No, actually we are a group of 15, but we had only 20 buffaloes. I was ready for ploughing the rice field, but immediately I was assigned to find fish for meals. One of my colleagues and I went to find fish in a lake near Svay Rieng town. I had to find fish for meals while 1 of my colleagues was assigned to cook rice. At the time, there were many fish. I caught many fish in a shallow pond. There were many fish as not many people catch them. There was another group catching fish nearby us. Talking about sickness, I had stomach issues. I just walked, taping on my stomach. I had stomach issues since after I got married. I live with this ailment.
Q: Did you tell any person-in charge that you got sick?
A: Yes, I told a person –in charge, and I was not forced to do as much work as before. Even though I told him I was sick, I still had to work. I feared that I would be accused of laziness or hypocrisy if I did not work. So I worked despite stomach. I scrubbed my abdomen. It was painful to the extent that I could not hold the pain any more. Finally, I decided to tell the man that I could no longer hold my deep pain. Then, the man asked me “Can you go home by yourself?”. I said “I can”. It was too painful. There was no medicine or painkiller at all. After the pain gradually disappeared, I went find fish again. After I got enough fish, I kept them in a water container carefully for future use. If I could not catch any fish in the future, I could use the reserve fish. There was a time that I felt a deep pain in my stomach again, and I told the man. He asked me whether I was able to go back home by myself because no one could accompany me. I responded “Yes, I can”. I went home with foods, taking a shortcut. I kept walking from Koh Moin Southern part of Svay Rieng town to my house even though my stomach was very painful.
Q: How far is it? A: It was roughly 15km from Svay Rieng town to this house. So it was more than 15km from Koh Moin to here. While I was on my way home, no one asked me questions. Usually, people who are new to the areas were stopped and asked questions. One upon a time, I was almost killed due to a conversation when I was sent to dig a canal.
Q: What’s happened?
A: I dig a canal until late evening at 5-6 PM. I talked to a man that I wanted to go home with him as companions. We did not have dinner after hard work. We just went back home right away, so that I can arrive home early to see my son. But when I arrived home, he had already fallen asleep. At the time, I had only a son who was around 5-6. I missed him so much. After arriving home, I had nothing to eat except salt and small young mangoes. In the early morning, I must arrive at the canal at 4 AM, working until 6PM. Usually, after 6 PM, people had dinner together, so I can’t back home. At the time, I was physically strong, but I got sick. I spent only 1 hour walking home through the rice fields full of paddy. It was faster than riding a bicycle. It was painful but I had to arrive home quickly. We did not have a watch. Only the leader had it. I see the stars and I can guess the time. I had to be at canal at 4 AM. I look at the stars to check time. Our ancestor did that. I didn’t have a watch. I also listen to the rooster crowing to check the time. The first crowing means it is 10-11PM. The second one means it is 2 AM. The third one means 3AM and the forth crying means 4 AM.
Q: When you got sick, did you receive any medication?
A: There was a hospital in the village. I had asked for medicine (it is called rabbit-poop medicine). Despite getting sick, I kept working. When I seriously fell sick at the canal work site, I got medicine. The man used acupuncture treatment, inserting needles right into my stomach.
Q: Did it work? A: The treatment did not work, but I felt the pain in my stomach. However, at least I can have a break while receiving the treatment. The next day came and I felt less pain. So I had to work. I can’t stop working because of this sickness. If I dared to stop working for long period of time, I would be killed. Let me tell you the story that was related to my conversation with the other coworker. I told you that I used to ask the other coworker to go home with him as a companion because I was not brave enough to go back home alone. You know? Because of this conversation, I was reported, that I accused someone of going home without finishing work. As a result, I was questioned. I told the person who questioned me that “No, I did not say that. I just wanted to go back home with him as a companion because I was not brave to go home alone. I asked him, “If you can go home, please let me go home with you”. I think that my life is invaluable. If I did not have reasonable explanation, I would have been killed. They accepted my reasons. It was just a conversation. You can imagine how cruel they are. My life was extremely tough.
Q: What about food? How did it look like?
A: We ate in groups. I was given a small bowl of porridge or rice and a small bowl of stew. There is nothing else.
Q: Were you given meal for breakfast? A: Not at all. I got food for lunch but I did not have break time at all. Actually, I was given a two-hour break in the afternoon from 11 to 1. However, I along other few people use this break time to look for food, crabs and rat at nearby rice field. Sometimes, we luckily found either crab or rat.
Q: I heard that during Khmer Rouge, people ate porridge most of the time, right?
A: Exactly, we most of time ate porridge with a small bowl of stew.
Q: What kind of stew? A: Banana stalk stew and morning glory stew amongst others.
Q: Could you have additional portion if you wanted? A: Not at all. We were not allowed to eat additional portions. That is why I and other people needed to go find other additional foods in the field. This time it was rainy season when young mango fruits fall down from the trees. For me, young mango fruits were very delicious. We ate them with salt. You know. In 1979, right after the collapse of Khmer Rouge, I returned home from faraway places. I saw salt and took two baskets of it, shoulder-carrying it home. It reminded me of starvation under the Khmer Rouge. We were impoverished and had not enough foods to eat. We can eat only given foods. Sometimes, we asked for some cooked rice from others and secretly hid it. We eat the hidden cooked rice with young mango. We shared a small grain of salt with few people. I recall when my stomach pain got acute. One villager was sent to Neak Loeung on a mission. When he came back home, he gave me some black peppers and told me “Chew 7 grains of these black peppers with water and drink them. Your pain would be relieved”. I followed what he told me. He gave me a fistful of black peppers and I kept them safely even after we were liberated. He really felt pity on me, telling me to drink half liter of water for one serving. Water did save my life. I keep drinking much water. I have a lot of experiences drinking much water to save my life. It relieved the pain. To these days, I keep drinking boiled warm water. I drink half liter for one serving. I look a bit fat just from the last 5 years. Before that, I was not fat. Before, I was thin. This is one of my life experiences.
Q: During Khmer Rouge time, have you ever witnessed any killings or torture?
A: No, I have never ever witnessed any killings, but I witnessed a group of 50-60 people whose hands were tied together with small string. They were taken away. If the string was broken, they would be killed. In 1978, my older brother-in-law was killed. He told me that “We cannot defeat Vietnamese troops because they were experienced troops in the battlefield. They also used to come to Cambodia to train our Cambodian troops. Under Lon Nol’s reign, our Cambodian troops were trained in Vietnam”. Our brief talk was overheard. At that same day around 6 PM in the evening he was taken away and killed at the Southern part of the village. I really felt pity on him as I thought he got killed because of our conversation being heard. He was regarded as an enemy. I was very shocked and scared. It was not a big offence, but he was killed. I was very fearful of civil war. My life experience of those hard, bitter times is indescribable. I can’t put into words how difficult my life was. My physical hardship because of tough labor was enough. Yet I also mentally suffered, worried all the time. I was always suspicious that I would be killed someday, but I kept working hard. I am energetic. I even asked for more tasks upon completing the assigned task. If we finished our task and did not ask for more task, we would be accused of laziness. We would be killed as well. There is a saying that goes “prison without walls”. We worked in great fear.
Q: How was Buddhism practiced?
A: There was no Buddhism practiced at all. All monasteries were transformed into prisons.
Q: Was there New Year and Pchum Ben celebrations?
A: There was no religious celebration on New Year and Pchum Ben days at all. On New Year Day, there was a feast which we enjoyed good foods in the kitchen, dancing and singing. Usually, porridge was our daily meal. On this occasion, we were given enough cooked rice. I enjoyed cooked rice that day because usually I ate rice porridge. It was a good time enjoyed once per year. People used paot (square metal container used for holding water) as drums to make music. I was happy, out of sadness and worries. If it was noticed that I was sad, I would be killed. I pretended to be happy.
Q: Who led the feast? A: Village chief who was the communal leader led the feast. He told the chef to prepare foods to celebrate new year day for a few days. The chef could cook whatever foods they liked.
Q: Can you visit your family on that day?
A: Yes, we were allowed to visit our family, but we did not have much time.
Q: How about Pchum Ben day?
A: I was given cooked rice. For few days, we enjoyed the meal. Q: Any good foods? A: Nothing special. People danced and sang songs, hitting paot. It was on holiday days when we enjoy cooked rice. We could not be unhappy.
Q: How was the food? A: We ate normal foods like morning glory sour soup or vegetable stew.
Q: It was special enough that I can eat enough foods. People used paot as drums accompanied by dancing and singings. I forced myself to enjoy the moment. If I had not enjoyed myself, I would have been killed.
Q: Did your life keep going like this until 1979?
A: Yes, it did. In 1979, I was very scared to be killed. I was very afraid of death. Sometimes, I had to pretend to be happy with the others or I would be killed. Or I had to be silent if not happy. I often thought of death. I always remember a Khmer slogan my teacher taught “Follow obedient egret’s good deeds! Don’t follow manners of white egret and blue snake. Their movements risk their lives”. White egrets are easily noticed because of their white feathers. We should follow the acts of the obedient egret, meaning that we just turn blind and be flexible. Just follow what we are told to do. I remember this Khmer slogan. I was not highly educated. However, I have learned so many things. Under Khmer Rouge, I had to pretend that I was an ignorant person who knew nothing. It is like the egret that keeps its wings closed. When there comes right time, it just stretches its wings wide and flies away. I always keep this slogan in my mind. I learn it from my classes at Svay Chrum high school.
Q: Recalling the past, do you feel hurt emotionally?
A: Personally, I could not forget this past event. It is deeply engraved in my brain. It cannot disappear from my history. I often tell my children about the bitter and painful time. They are very young. They do not know anything. Those who were born after 1979 do not know anything either. Some believe us. Some do not believe us because they do not experience this painful past on their own. I often tell my children how tragic our lives were. I deeply keep it in my head and my heart. I lived in a war. I survived. I know what has happened. I do not want to forget about it and I do not want it to happen again in our country. I really want to see our country the way it is right now. I am glad and strongly encouraging the younger generation to keep researching to gain further knowledge although I am illiterate. When I was young, I was very poor. I did not have even 1 Riel to go to school. I had only 2 sets of school uniform, so I have to wash it on Thursdays and Sundays. The war is over and now we have many things. During Lon Nol reign and Sangkum Reasniyum regime, there was only 1 motorbike or 1 radio in a village. As you said, there was nothing in terms of information. There was no TV. We must know ourselves and keep ourselves safe. Now, we can live our lives in the current regime. We are fortunate. We started from nothing from 1979. From 1979 up to now, there are many cars and motorbikes. The traffic turns very busy. I tell my children that these days we have many things. I don’t know what others think of the current regime. Personally speaking, it is enough for us. I am an illiterate person. I just could ride a motorbike. I do not like to use other’s motorbike. Before, I rode my bicycle to school. But now I can use my motorbike to go to school. I can’t use smart phone well. I can use only a phone which has buttons to press to answer phone calls. I really appreciate the younger generation. They are educated. I am very glad. For me, I am illiterate. Please, take care your health and help develop our country. Work hard and do further research, please! I am very happy and appreciative. Today, I am very concerned with misbehaved youngsters. They should think of studying or earning money not being gangsters. I dislike this.
Q: Have you ever told your children or grandchildren your life experience?
A: Yes, I have told my children my tragic life experience. As I mentioned earlier, I carried my children in the rain while I had to carry firewood and walked the cows, and buffaloes. They slept under the other’s house. At night, I was very sleepy but I decided to catch fish for my children outside. When my son was sleeping, I went to catch fish, using oil lamp lantern for lighting. At the time, there were many fish. I caught fish somewhere nearby my neighbor’s house. Sometimes, I caught a kilo of fish which is enough for our meals for a day. I also used clever means to get fish. Q: What you mentioned happened during Khmer Rouge time, right?
A: Yes, it happened in times of war both in Lon Nol and Khmer Rouge reigns. I had an ang rut.
At night time, I use it to catch fish in the pond while I was supposed to sleep. I cannot catch the fish openly. Otherwise, I would be accused of violating private ownership and the consequence is death. I had to remember the pond that I saw at day time, so that at night time I can go there to catch fish.
Q: After Khmer Rouge time, have you ever had a nightmare of past events? A: Well, after Khmer Rouge regime was toppled down, I remember everything I have gone through. It remained in my head. However, I feel mentally relieved so much despite poverty. I feel the freedom. No one controlled us anymore. I remember a saying which goes “As long as there is life, everything will come naturally”. After the liberation in 1979, I had nothing except empty hands. I fled to Neak Loeung because of troops before the liberation.
Q: Were you evacuated to Neak Loeung?
A: I fled to Neak Loeung because of the military fighting. I am telling you the evacuation before the troops came. I was evacuated to Boeng Andeng with a group of people. I learnt that our group was to be killed but luckily Khmer Rouge high ranking officials were arrested. I was sent back to my previous place. Finally, I was fine.
Q: When was it? In 1979?
A: It was around in late 1978 or early 1979. I am not sure. I was evacuated to Ta Nou at Boeng Andeng for being executed, but the situation changed swiftly. Khmer Rouge high ranking officials were arrested and I was sent back. Then, in late 1978, I fled to the western part of the province. I kept going westwards. Khmer Rouge troops were retreating and scarpering westwards while Vietnamese kept fighting from the east. I was in the middle of Vietnamese troops and Khmer Rouge troops and I kept following the latter. Finally, I arrived at Neak Loeung and I did not see any Khmer Rouge troop. I had no idea where they went. I had nothing. I left behind what I had carried along from Svay Rieng. I just wandered aimlessly and adventurously. Along the way, I could see tanks and troops. We went in the same direction. I saw some Khmer Rouge troops taking off their uniform and putting on plain clothes whereas some kept retreating with their weapons due to the attack from Vietnamese troops. The troops and civilians were mixed together.
Q: Did Khmer Rouge troops force you to go with them when retreating? A: Yes, Khmer Rouge troops riding motorbike told us not to stop but keep moving along with them. I was fearfully shocked, so I just followed them. There were many people but we were afraid of a soldier who rode motorbike. He said “You must go along with us. Don’t stay here. Vietnamese troops are coming”. Out of fear and shock, I kept going accordingly. At Steung Slot Bridge, there were several people stuck on the bridge. In front of us, there were Khmer Rouge troops who were retreating at the front end of the bridge. Behind us, there were Vietnamese troops who were advancing to attack the former. We were stuck in the bridge because there were too many people on this small bridge. A handful of people who were weak fell on the bridge and were stampeded. There were two tanks from Vietnamese troops behind us. They wanted to cross the bridge, running over us, but fortunately they decided to cross the lake directly because Khmer Rouge troops from the front end of bridge turned their anti-tank rifle to Vietnamese troops. We were very fortunate that the tanks decided to drive through the lake. If they cross the bridge, all of us would be killed. On the bridge, we were packed like sardine. I was safe in that moment. Some people and young kids died near the bridge. I kept walking until I arrived at Neak Loeung. At Neak Loeung, I noticed that Vietnamese troops’ presence there. I felt thirsty and tried to find water, but I couldn’t get it. I then slept in a concrete house near the street to keep myself safe from bullets. I heard rooster crowing and sound of B52 artillery. I talked to myself “Oh, what is going on?” I slept on a concrete house to prevent myself from firing. Immediately, I heard sound of people talking. Then, I realized that they were Vietnamese troops. I was standing in front of the house and they tapped on my shoulder. They told me to go back and to cook chicken and duck for meals. There were Cambodian and Vietnamese troops together. I noticed the language they spoke. They spoke Khmer language. They told us to cook chicken and ducks for meal. They knew that under Pol Pot reign we were not allowed to eat enough food. It was at night around 11 and 1. I heard the rooster crow. I heard their Khmer speech, so I assumed that they were Cambodians.
Q: So, did you come back home right away at that night? A: Yes, of course. I went back at that night. I cuddled my son- now the chubby man.
Q: How old was your son? A: He was born in 1972. So he was 7 years old. I also have a daughter. She was 2-3 years old at the time. I cuddled the son and my wife cuddled the daughter. I walked home and passed by the weapon warehouse at Prek Ksay. It was on fire. Khmer Rouge troops fired from the western end of the river. I kept walking until morning at Kampong Soeng. I kept going until night at Kampong Trobek where I saw many Vietnamese troops on their trucks. While walking along the way, I saw Vietnamese troops handing bread to my son. My son dared not to take it, so I stretch my hand to take the bread. I kept going step by step, seeing many military trucks and troops. They were on their truck while the troops I saw at Neak Loeung were frontline pedestrian troops. I kept walking while the military truck kept moving at the opposite direction. Q: Along national road number 1, right? A: Yes, along national road number 1. I cuddled my children in my arms. I reached Ko’Andeuk and slept beside the road there overnight. It was almost midnight, leaving from Trabek at late evening. It was 5km long and took us hours. My family and other people just slept there without sleeping mats at all. In early, dark morning, noticing shining star, I woke up my children and continued our journey. I made it to Krol Kor and then kept moving. At around 9, I arrived at the agricultural center and thought of taking salt stored in the center. I took some salt along with me.
Q: What was the place you mentioned? A: The agricultural center was a warehouse for Khmer Rouge at the time. I saw only salt there while other things were taken by other people who came before me. I wanted salt for a long time, so I took some salt. I did not have rice and I went around to ask for rice from the neighbor. Finally, I got somericebut I had no meat to cook. My life was desperately hard.
Q: Svay Rieng was liberated from Khmer Rouge few days before Phnom Penh, right?
A: Svay Rieng was liberated one day before Phnom Penh. The main goal to liberate is Phnom Penh. When it was liberated, I was at Neak Loeung and then I came back. It means the day I came back home was the second day of liberation in Svay Rieng. It could be the 5th or 6th January. I thought it was on 5th January. I did not have a diary at the time. I just remembered it.
Living your life in current situation, have you ever thought of your past under Khmer Rouge?
A: The tragic, bitter experience is always in my thought, but I don’t want the regime to happen again. I want to see our country stable and developed. Please, younger generations with high knowledge, protect and develop our country step by step as mentioned by premier Hun Sen. Personally, my plan always follow a step-by-step strategy. I am not greedy. This year I get a bed. Next year, I get two tables. And the year after, I want to buy a motorbike. I use a step-by-step plan. If not developed fast, at least I am still. I am illiterate. I can’t drive a car.
Q: Do you hate Khmer Rouge regime? A: Of course, I hate the regime so much. I hate it more than I can say. My life was too much suffering, and painful. I absolutely cannot forget that experience. It is frightening and evil.
Q: Are you frightened when talking about Khmer Rouge? A: Yes, I feel scared and shocked when recalling the past. I talk to my children about this past story. I tell them that “You are very lucky now because there is social stability”. In the past, my father lived in war under Lon Nol reign. Under French colonization, people lived in fear, hiding in the forest to avoid arrest by the French administration. After French colonization and the following regimes, my life was much harder than my grandparents.
Q: Have you thought of your older brother in –law who was killed during Khmer Rouge?
A: I was very shocked and scared. I hardly can believe that he was killed just because of his talks. He was accused as an enemy. That should not have happened to him. When a person was accused as an enemy, s/he definitely was killed. During Khmer Rouge time, I have shirt but I did not put it on. I had a krama (Cambodian scarf). I use the shirt to tie my waist and just worked hard.
Q: How about black uniform?
A: I was given a set of black uniform, but I did not put on that black shirt. I tied it around my waist to show that I was committed to hard work. It is symbol of being hardworking and adaptability to the working environment. As I mentioned earlier, I was adapting myself to the society.
Q: Did you have only 1 set of black uniform?
A: Yes, exactly I had only 1 set of black uniform. When I got that black uniform, I just put it on. I had T-shirt and short trousers.
Q: After the Khmer Rouge collapsed, have you ever religiously commemorated those who passed away during Khmer Rouge time? A: Well, every day, I always make merit, doing good deeds. Those who were killed are very miserable. They departed without taking Dhamma and religious ceremony. I pray that the spirits of my relatives be at peace. What has happened has passed already. I pray for the happiness of the next generation.
Q: Do you want Khmer Rouge leaders on trial?
A: Yes, they must be sent to court. They must be responsible for what they did. Those who commit wrongdoing must be responsible for their wrongdoing. Relevant laws are implemented against him. They cannot escape from law implementation.
Q: Do you know about the Khmer Rouge tribunal?
A: I ever heard of this and read the information as well. I learnt of it and I do not know about the hearings. I would be excited if Khmer Rouge leaders were put on trial.
Q: Talking about Buddhism, do you believe in “hatred could not be ceased by hatred”?
A: There was no religion at all. Yes, I think “hatred could not be ceased by hatred” is very true. If we keep hatred and revenge, the killings one another repeatedly occurs endlessly. When we can stop from ourselves, the killings would end. According to Buddhist teaching, it teaches us about “hatred could not be ceased by hatred”
Q: So you think this teaching “hatred could not be ceased by hatred” is critically important?
A: Yes, it is important in building inner peace, no more revenge and no more killings. I remember a teaching of Buddha. I don’t fully remember it. The teaching goes “All human beings want peace and happiness. Hurt no one. May happiness, prosperity and good health be with you. Take care of yourself”. I think this teaching is very good and I apply it to myself. For instance, I am very careful with foods I consume. I am not angry with anyone.
Q: Have you ever been interviewed about Khmer Rouge life story? A: Before, I was interviewed.
Q: Who is s/he? A: A Svay Rieng university student interviewed me about Khmer Rouge. However, their interview was not as detailed as yours. I very much enjoy your interview. I still remember a lot.
Q: When was that? A: Maybe last year. They were a group of 3. I asked where they are from. They told me they are from Svay Rieng University. I like educated persons. I am happy to see the younger generation doing research and documenting it. It is very important. It tells the truth without exaggeration. Some people said that it is exaggeration. They don’t believe there were killings. For me, I truly lived my life through this fact.
Q: How do you feel when telling me your life story? A: Yes, I feel relieved. It is like someone who gets angry. After scolding, s/he feels better. After telling the story of my real life, I feel relieved. The truth is revealed: what is right and what is wrong.
Q: Well, it might be part of psychological therapy that telling real-life story makes us relieved.
A: Yes, I think so. Buddhism teaches us 3 right mindfulness, 4 right speech and 3 right actions. These make us peaceful. We hurt no one. We do not steal. We must be fair and good. Right speech means saying the truth. I mentally feel relieved. I do not exaggerate. I think I have the right views.
Q: In your village, are there any former lower ranking Khmer Rouge officials (kitchen chief, village chief)?
A: Those former officials do not stay at their villages after the collapse of the regime. In some cases, there are. They might have passed away now.
Q: They do not stay at their village. Is it because they are scared to return to their village?
A: They were outsiders from other different villages and communes coming to this village. They were in charge of controlling us. After liberation day, they left us. For instance, this district was led by a person from the west and after the liberation s/he just left. Like an agriculture center, it was managed by a person from west and after the liberation s/he just left too. I have no ideas where they have been. I have no idea whom I to revenge against. I was angry with no one. They are gone.
Q: Talking about Khmer Rouge history, do you have any suggestions for the government?
A: Regarding Khmer Rouge, for the government, we talk about the trial of top Khmer Rouge leaders. It is the right thing to do which prevents the regime from repeating. Now, I want peace only. Everything is progressing well as long as we are not lazy. We study hard and we are educated. Keep focused on studying and earning money. Khmer Rouge trial is fine and let us leave it to the government. Keep learning and researching. We have peace now. No one controls us. I am grateful for the peace. Q: For example, there are former Khmer Rouge officials (kitchen chief or village chief) in your village. Do you hate him? Discriminate him?
A: Based on my analysis? Those people were managed by the regime. Nowadays, I do not discriminate them. It is about education and discussion. For me, I used to be a teacher. I have been involved in the education sector. I get angry with no one. As an educator, I cannot get angered. If I cannot educate people this time, I will educate them next time. The tragic time has passed. Now, I follow the government policy.
Q: Even though their past deed was evil, you do not discriminate them, right?
A: No, I don’t discriminate them. Referring to Lord Buddha’s teaching “Bad deeds cannot be repaid by bad deeds”, I have neither hatred nor revenge.
Q: Because you went through the regime, do you want justice?
A: As I mentioned earlier, now we have peace and nothing better than peace. Let bygones be bygones. Let’s think about today. It is great we have peace and freedom. Hurt no one. Just do right things. Don’t make trouble in your study, business and work. I don’t want anything beyond peace. Peace is everything.
Interviewer: Soeung Bunly
Interviewee: Keav Ean
Ang Rut is a fish trap in the shape of a basket with a hole at the small end. The wide end is dropped over a school of fish to trap them while the fisherman reaches through the small end to catch them.
What was Cambodia’s Cold War, in light of Keav Ean’s reflections?
Consider how Keav Ean’s experiences of the Cold War under the Khmer Rouge was shaped by his parental duties at the time.
Assess the role of religion in Cambodian society during and after the Cold War, and how it shapes Keav Ean’s retrospective views of the civil war.