Long discusses his experiences during the Khmer Rouge, and his efforts to commemorate those who lost their lives in the regime later in his life, as a Buddhist layman
Born in 1940, Long was a farmer cultivating rice and gathering palm juice from trees, until the Khmer Rouge took control of his village in April 1975. Even before the combat ceased, Long’s family moved from their home in Prey Tapok to Sdok Klat a year earlier to evade the conflict. When the Khmer Rouge took power, he was allowed to return to his village, but the rest of his family was dispersed and deployed into different units across various localities. He no longer had a home, and had to sleep in the open rice field, even in times of inclement weather.
He was tasked to perform many roles, ranging from rice planting, removing tree stumps, and operating the water wheel. Workers were only given two sets of black uniforms a year, and could not request for more. They were assigned strict work targets to hit by cadres, who did not participate in the projects themselves. Long was able to achieve the objectives, and avoided being punished. He did not witness any killings, but noted that colleagues would mysteriously disappear from his unit. The workday began at 6am and lasted until 6pm, with breaks for lunch and dinner. Laborers were only served meager portions of porridge, which left him hungry. To supplement his nourishment, Long foraged for morning glory and snails.
He was also not allowed to leave work to meet his wife when she fell ill, or his children, who had been put into a child unit learning revolutionary songs. Education was not conducted rigorously, and was limited to ideological content. Buddhism was outlawed, and all monks were defrocked. Pagodas were converted for pragmatic uses by the authorities as pig farms and hospitals, and some monasteries were destroyed. Marriages were arranged for citizens in mass weddings for up to 150 couples by the Party. While the regime no longer celebrated special occasions like religious festivals or New Year’s Day, workers were provided with more lavish meals with meat before commencing a new labor project. Despite all his frustrations towards the regime, he had to keep silent in order to survive.
Towards the end of the regime, Long was assigned to teams evacuating casualties and the corpses of defeated Khmer Rouge soldiers, for which they used ox carts. When the Khmer Rouge was toppled in 1979, Long returned to his village near Phnom Penh on foot with some food supplies, resting and eating as he needed. Along the way, he got sick due to his reliance on water from surrounding ponds and lakes, in which others had sometimes taken baths. He began extracting palm juice and selling palm sugar to make ends meet.
In 2005, he became a Buddhist layperson. As a practicing Buddhist, he strongly feels that there is no need for revenge against the Khmer Rouge, and does not seek reparations. He feels that it was his own Karma that led him to experience the regime, but that his past merit allowed him to survive while others perished. However, other Cambodians felt differently, and killed the former Khmer Rouge leaders who abused them. Long explains that some surviving Khmer Rouge leaders do still live in the community, but that they were the kinder leaders whom the public still have healthy relationships with. He also participates in ceremonies to commemorate the souls of those who lost their lives under the regime. In 2019, a group of people visited his community, searching for the remains of Vietnamese soldiers who had fought against the Khmer Rouge. Long encourages his grandchildren to watch documentaries on the regime, hoping that the younger generation continues to learn Khmer Rouge history so as to prevent such a regime from reoccurring.
Mr. Long, Phnom Penh (21 May 2020)
Q: Good morning, Granddad! How are you?
A: Yes, good morning! Oh, I am fine.
Q: Thank you so much for allowing me to interview you on your experience during Khmer Rouge times. A: No problem.
Q: How old are you now?
A: I am exactly 80 now.
Q: What’s your job? A: I am old now. I do nothing apart from being a layman, serving the community religiously.
Q: Talking about the Khmer Rouge, what was your job and where did you live before the regime started?
A: Before the Khmer Rouge regime, I was a farmer, cultivating rice and climbing palm trees to get juice. I lived in this village called Prey Tapok before the Khmer Rouge came.
Q: What happened to you during Khmer Rouge times? Can you tell me?
A: Actually, before Khmer Rouge forces took over the capital Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, there had been a civil war between Lon Nol’s army and Khmer Rouge forces. Around 1974, my family and I moved from Prey Tapok to Sdok Klat due to the intense fighting between both sides. The civil war occurred even before the Khmer Rouge regime. During Khmer Rouge times, I was allowed to live in the same village, Prey Tapok. However, my family members were not allowed to live together like before. My wife was sent to another place while my two sons were placed into a child camp with elderly female nannies assigned to take care of them. I was forced to work at Kampong Os, which is located at the other side of Kandal province.
Q: What were you assigned to do at Kampong Os?
A: Khmer Rouge cadres gave me a lot of work. I had to do multiple tasks, such as cultivating dry season rice, paddling the water wheel, and removing tree stumps etc. It was the hardest work I have ever done in my life. In the early morning at 6:00, we started work, until 5 PM or 6 PM. We had a two-hour break during lunchtime. Q: Was there a target you had to achieve for your work?
A: Yes, we had to reach the target set by our cadre.
Q: Were you tired? A: I was extremely exhausted. We ate only twice per day: lunch and dinner. Porridge was our daily usual food. I was given only a small bowl of porridge for meals. It was not enough at all. It was like my stomach remained empty, so I secretly ate snails with uncooked morning glory. We dared not cook and eat food openly. If the cadres realized that we cooked and ate, they would have brought us for re-education (killing).
Q: Oh...very terrible. Have you been hurt or tortured?
A: Not at all. I just followed the instructions and commands. If I had not followed their commandments, they would have accused me of laziness and disloyalty. Q: How old were you at the time? A: I was in my late 30s if I am not wrong. I think I was physically energetic and healthy.
Q: How about your accommodation? Where did you sleep at night?
A: There was no house for us to stay at. I slept in the rice field under a small bush or tree.
Q: What if it rained?
A: No choice. I slept in the rain. Actually, there was a temporary shelter for us to sleep at night, but it was too crowded. You can imagine a small temporary shelter housing hundreds of people. Therefore, some people decided to sleep outside in the rice field. If it rained, I slept in the rain.
Q: How about your family members? Could you visit them?
A: Hardly ever were we allowed to visit our family members.
A: The cadres did not allow us to visit our family members. They said that “It’s not necessary for you to visit your family. You have always lived with them. You are too ownership oriented”.
Q: Did you miss your wife and children? A: Yes, of course. I really missed them, but I was not brave enough to ask for permission. I never asked for permission to visit my family because I clearly knew that they would reject my request. There were people who asked for permission to do so, but their requests were rejected.
Q: Have you ever seen people getting tortured/killed?
A: No, never. The Khmer Rouge had specific places for killing people although I don’t know them. People gradually went missing. Like in my group, a few people were missing over time and the leader said that those people were moved to other groups. Since then, I never met them again. I believe they were killed. Maybe, they committed some wrongdoing which was detected by the secret spies. So, moving people to other groups means to kill them. I told myself that they had been killed.
Q: How about your children? What happened to them?
A: They were very young and small. Vuth was very small and needed to be cuddled while the other could just walk slowly. At the time, I had only two children, Vuth and his older brother Vorn. The remaining children were born after the Khmer Rouge came. Vorn passed away after Pol Pot’s regime. I do not remember everything. Vuth was around 10 years old, and was put into a children’s group, learning Chhai Yam (Khmer traditional dancing). My son Voun was born in Kraing Kdeb, and Sat my daughter was born during Pol Pot’s regime too; while Siem my youngest daughter was born after the regime.
Q: How was schooling at the time?
A: My children Vuth and Vorn went to school, but the schooling was very different. The school was just near this village. Q: What did they study? A: Actually, students were taught to sing revolutionary songs in a group, and forced to collect animal fertilizer. All children, both girls and boys, learnt to sing the revolutionary songs.
Q: Regarding food, were there any parties?
A: There was a party celebrated at Po Bak District Hall before we were sent to labor, like building dams at other different places.
Q: What foods were prepared for the party? Roasted chicken?
A: Yes, they cooked chicken and beef.
Q: How frequent were the parties? A: Not often. It was only celebrated when we were forced to labor in the fields, such as cultivating dry-season rice. After eating, we set off to work.
Q: How about New Year Day celebrations?
A: Never ever.
Q: So, on New Year Days, you worked as usual?
A: Yes, we worked as usual. How to celebrate New Year without monks? There were no monks at all. Normally, Buddhist monks stayed in the monastery. But at the time, there was no monk at all; the monasteries were completely destroyed. There was neither monk nor monasteries. The troops bombed the monasteries.
Q: How about Ph’Or monastery? A: It was turned into a pig farm, and its school was used as the main District hospital.
Q: So you could not celebrate any ceremony to commemorate your ancestors?
A: Not at all.
Q: How did you feel then?
A: I really wanted to celebrate ceremony. I really wanted to go to monastery, but I was not allowed to. Q: Your life was very hard at the time. A: Yes, exactly. We had nothing.
Q: What happened after the Khmer Rouge collapsed? Was there any revenge?
A: Yes, there were cases that people took revenge against former Khmer Rouge leaders. Q: What did you witness?
A: People felt hatred and took revenge. Under Pol Pot’s reign, the leaders were extremely vicious. They hurt people. Therefore, when the regime was over, people took revenge. They killed those former leaders. Their anger was very strong because they suffered so much under the Khmer Rouge.
Q: After the Khmer Rouge regime, most people had nothing except bare hands. What kept you going?
A: I had nothing. To make ends meet, I returned to this village and climbed palm trees to get juice and make sugar.
Q: Had you become a layman yet at the time? A: Not yet.
Q: Why did you decide to become a layman?
A: I followed our ancestors’ footsteps. When they got old, they became laymen. I kept this Khmer tradition. I make merit and do good deeds. Being a layman makes merit for me and others.
Q: Back to Khmer Rouge cruelty, do you feel any hatred or anger against them?
A: No, I don’t. Q: Don’t you want to take revenge?
A: No. I am just okay.
Q: Why? A: I don’t feel angry at all. At the time, I just did the tasks they gave to me. I didn’t complain or get angry.
Q: How come? Is it because of Buddhist teachings?
A: I felt deeply that taking revenge was not necessary. People did bad things and unavoidably they would reap bad things. What goes around comes around. I don’t take revenge, and I can live my life with peace and happiness. When the Khmer Rouge military was struggling with PRK, I was forced to live near my aunt’s house at Krang Kdeb, where there were strong bombardments, but I was safe. Bombs were almost everywhere. I was tasked to carry the bodies of the injured and dead militants. Along Kobsrov dam, there were many injured and dead soldiers. I carried them to other places. I carried them the whole night to Doun Roth village, from where while other teams carried them to Pong Ror village.
Q: Were there many bodies? A: Almost a thousand. We used an ox cart to carry them sometimes. We spent around 5 days doing this task. Bodies swelled and started rotting. They looked disgusting. Because of the fighting, we waited for 5 days to take the bodies from the battlefield at Kobsrov dam.
A: When reminded of this history, are you sacred? Q: Now, I don’t feel scared. At the time, I was not scared either. I carried the swollen and rotten bodies with very bad smells.
Q: You are a Buddhist, right? A: Yes, I am. Q: What do you think about “Bad deeds can be repaid by good deeds” in relation to Khmer Rouge cruelty?
A: I believe that it is Karma that the Khmer Rouge did bad things to me. I worked so hard both day and night, almost without enough sleep and breaks. I remembered carrying corpses of Khmer Rouge militia who died in the battlefield. I took the corpses from the battlefield and there were some bodies which I could not take.
Q: Were you forced to carry the bodies by the Khmer Rouge? A: Yes, they were Khmer Rouge militants. They forced me to carry the corpses. I didn’t know where the bodies were buried because there was a different group responsible for that.
Q: When did you a become layperson?
A: A long time ago. Maybe, more than 15 years ago. I assist the monks and the villagers a lot, making sure the ceremonies are going well and follow the Buddha’s teachings and Buddhist tradition in our communities.
Q: Did the Khmer Rouge kill your relatives or family members?
A: No, they did not. None of my relatives or family members were executed by the Khmer Rouge.
Q: Even though your relatives and family members were not killed, almost 2 million were killed, have you ever remembered and religiously dedicated to them during Pchum Ben or New Year Days, as a layperson? A: Yes, I always dedicate my merit-making and good deeds to them in general. I call on their names to accept my merit-making and good deeds.
Q: Have you ever had nightmares of the Khmer Rouge regime?
A: No, I have never dreamt of it at all.
Q: Have you ever told stories of the Khmer Rouge and your experiences during the regime to your children/grandchildren?
A: I used to tell them about my experiences during the Khmer Rouge and I also used to ask them to watch TV programs about the regime. I told them how much I suffered during those times. The kids never experienced this regime. They don’t believe it.
Q: What did they say?
A: They said that “How come people were cruel like this! I don’t believe it”. They never experienced it, so they just do not believe. When I tell them to watch TV, they come to realize what I said is true. I tell them “You can see what was happening on TV and it is what truly happened during Khmer Rouge times. On the show, the leaders forced the people to cultivate rice. They kicked and beat the people.
Q: After the Khmer Rouge regime was toppled, have you ever joined any religious/ritual ceremonies to commemorate those who passed away under the Khmer Rouge?
A: I joined several religious ceremonies/ rituals in the villages. On Pchum Ben and Khmer New Year days, I join in at the monasteries. The purpose is to commemorate those who passed away in the past, including Khmer Rouge times. I also join ceremonies in the village when people hold it at their homes, due to their parents’ remains being placed at home; and I join ceremonies at the monastery when their parents’ remains are placed at the monastery’s big stupa.
Q: How about commemorating those killed during the Khmer Rouge? A: I have never joined such a commemoration ceremony. However, every ceremony I joined, I always remember those who were killed and recall the names I know, and dedicate food and offerings to their souls, according to our beliefs.
Q: Do you want the younger generation to learn about Khmer Rouge history?
A: Yes, I do.
Q: Talking about the Khmer Rouge, do you want justice?
A: I have never thought of justice.
Q: You have been through very tragic, hard times during the Khmer Rouge. Do you want any reparations?
A: No, I have never thought about that either.
Q: Are you sure? A: Actually, I want justice, but I don’t know how to get it.
Q: Do want to the key perpetrators to be tried in court? A: No, I don’t.
Q: Do you want the Khmer Rouge regime to happen again?
A: Absolutely not. I suffered too much. It was more than enough. I don’t want to think about it. I don’t want to imagine it. I don’t even want to see the shadow of that regime.
Q: In case, now you meet the former Khmer Rouge leaders who used to hurt people in the past in your village, would you hate him/her?
A: In this village, there is a man named Ho, who was a former Khmer Rouge leader. He was the village chief at the time.
Q: Do you have a good friendship with him? A: Yes, we have a good friendship as normal.
Q: Are you angry with him? A: No, I am not. He is a nice person. Under the Khmer Rouge, he was a leader in the village. He was in charge of the whole village.
Q: So, there is no discrimination against him? A: No. The villagers have good relationships with him. The bad former Khmer Rouge leaders were killed; and Ho is a nice man. Therefore, he survived to this day. If we hated him, he would have been killed long ago. Those who were hated by the people were all killed. Now, Ho and Linh are living in this village. During the Khmer Rouge, they controlled us.
Q: So far, have you ever thought about the Khmer Rouge? A: No.
Q: Have you ever dreamt of the Khmer Rouge?
Q: Are you afraid of the Khmer Rouge? A: No. I completely forgot about it.
Q: Is it because Buddha’s teachings make you calm and peaceful? A: I have never thought of the regime.
Q: So you have never thought of the hunger and suffering you endured, right?
Q: Do you think the Khmer Rouge regime occurred because of Karma?
A: Yes, I believe it is because of Karma. The Khmer Rouge wanted to kill everyone, but some people survived the regime. You know, we were forced to work hard both day and night. We ate very little food, which didn’t contain any protein. There were people who died at the hospital during hospitalization.
Q: Oh, really? Why? A: Yes. It happened at Ph’or monastery, which was transformed into a commune hospital at the time. No one took care of the patients. Their siblings and relatives were not allowed to visit the patients at all. When we asked for permission from the leaders to visit patients, they said “There are doctors who are taking care of the patient”. My wife got sick, and I was tasked to cultivate dry-season rice. I really wanted to visit her and asked for permission to do so, but my request was rejected. I kept working and was unable to visit my sick wife.
Q: Were you frustrated? A: Yes, I was very frustrated and disappointed, but I couldn’t do anything. If our parents got sick, we were not allowed to visit them as well. They said, “There are people who are taking care of the patient”. Q: Have you been interviewed about the Khmer Rouge before? A: No. You are the first person to interview me about the Khmer Rouge.
Q: How do you feel when telling me your life story?
A: In the past, there was a team who searched for the remains of Vietnamese soldiers in this village.
Q: When was that? A: It was last year if I am not wrong. The team asked me if I knew the place where the Vietnamese soldiers were buried. At the time, there were Vietnamese forces who fought against the Khmer Rouge at Toul Leap. Some Vietnamese troops got injured and died here, but they were taken away from this area. The team asked me whether I knew the burial site of the Vietnamese soldiers. I told them that I did not know.
Q: When you talk about the Khmer Rouge, do you feel scared or shocked? A: Do you mean my feelings right now? Q: Yes. A: Right now, I feel good. I am not scared. I am not shocked. I just tell you what I remember, and I cannot tell you the parts I forgot.
Q: Do you think the Khmer Rouge regime was extremely cruel?
A: Yes, the regime was extremely cruel. They did not know right from wrong.
Q: Do you have any suggestions regarding the trial of Khmer Rouge militia?
A: No, I don’t.
Q: Are there any other older people who know a lot about Khmer Rouge history like you?
A: Here, I think Ho remembers a lot about his past experiences during the Khmer Rouge.
Q: It is said that when the Khmer Rouge killed victims, they played revolutionary music with megaphone to distract the people around. Was that true?
A: I have never witnessed victims being tortured or killed.
Q: Are there any mass graves around this area? A: There are very few, and the remains were collected by the relatives of the deceased for religious ceremonies. Q: Usually, the group leaders were young. Is that true?
A: Yes, they were very young. They were 7 or 8 years old. They were not tall enough to carry a rifle. Some were around 10 years old. They hardly can carry the rifle.
Q: But you were afraid of them? A: Yes, of course. They were very powerful. Q: Did they monitor you when you labored? A: They stood near us and constantly kept their eyes on us.
Q: Speaking of head cadres, did they come from the same village or from other areas? A: Both. Some were locals, and some were from other areas. It was a mixture. Q: Did head cadres do work like planting rice?
A: Not at all. They just controlled us and gave us tasks. They set work targets for us. If they set a target, we had to follow and reach it. In a day, we had to plant around 360 kilograms of seedlings. They did not work like us. They just gave orders and did nothing.
Q: How many people were in your group?
A: There were around 30 people. It was called a working brigade.
Q: Where did you get your black uniform? A: The head cadre told the group leader that members could go get the black uniform. It was distributed at Toul Leap.
Q: How many sets of clothes were given? A: Only 1 set per year. The maximum was 2 sets.
Q: How about shoes? A: Yes, I also received 1 pair of shoes.
Q: Working in the rice field could make the clothes dirty, right? A: Yes, it was dirty and got stained. I washed it and put on my other set interchangeably. When one became dry enough, I put that on and washed the other. Only 2 sets of clothes were distributed for each of us.
Q: Can you request for more sets of black uniform?
A: Absolutely not. The group leader told members that the black uniform was distributed equally.
Q: When you watch TV shows on the Khmer Rouge, do you know how long they air?
A: When I have free time, I turn on the TV which broadcasts Khmer Rouge history. I told my grandchildren to watch that TV program.
Q: Do you think the TV broadcast is important? A: I had personally gone through too much suffering, so this broadcast is not important for me. However, it is important for the younger generation. They don’t know about it. I experienced it myself. I know all about it.
Q: Do you want Khmer Rouge history to be taught in schools?
A: You mean in the past or now? Q: I mean now. A: Yes, I want Khmer Rouge history to be taught at schools in the villages. I am concerned that the younger generation will not know the history while the older people die off with time. Then, no one will learn of this history.
Q: Thank you so much for the interview
A: I do not remember everything that happened during Khmer Rouge’s regime. I am telling you what I remember. There are too many events to remember. There were too many wars.
Q: Yes, I understand that. Anyway, you were not evacuated to faraway places, right?
A: You are right.
Q: Where were you on liberation day in 1979? A: On liberation day in 1979, I was forced to carry bodies of Khmer Rouge forces from the battlefield to other places and there were other people who carried those bodies to another place. Afterwards, because the situation was not stable yet, I moved to stay with my relative at Ma Haeng. I stayed at Mr Hong’s house. Mr. Hong is an older brother of your grandma. People in this village were forced to leave their houses too. After Ma Haeng, we were forced to go to other places. At the time, I often moved to different places because of the war. I would stay at a particular place for a short period of time, and then I further was forced to move to other places. When I realized that the situation had improved, I returned home. I started to live my own life, catching fish, and selling them, to get money to buy uncooked rice. Later, I was forced to move to other places. It was tiring. I did not have a permanent house.
Q: At the time, did people have to walk to places? Were there cars? A: Yes, I went to some places on foot. I had no other means of transportation.
Q: No means of transportation? Q: Exactly. You can imagine. I walked from Ang Sdok to Klaing Sbek. It took me almost 1 day. I started walking in the early morning and at this time (around 11AM) I almost reached Klaing Sbek, carrying cooking pots and plates. Now, if I walked like that, it would take me more than a day.
Q: Were you able to take a rest? A: I could take a rest when I was tired. I would put the bags of rice, cooking pots and plates down and relax. The utensils were used by my team.
Q: How about drinking water? A: I drank normal water. Q: What do you mean by normal water? Water in lakes and/or pond? A: Yes, that is right. I drank water from lakes or ponds as long as it looked transparent, regardless of how dirty it looked.
Q: Had you ever gotten stomach issues because you drank such water? A: Yes, sometimes I had stomach aches. People took baths in the lake, and I drank water from the same lake. So, the water was dirty. There was no clean water like today. Today, we have well pumps water and bottled drinking water.
Q: How did marriage look like? A: The couple had to recite their revolutionary commitment to Angkar during the wedding.
Q: I learnt that you were married since before the Khmer Rouge took power, right? A: Yes, I got married in Lon Nol’s regime.
Q: I learnt that under the Khmer Rouge regime, marriages were arranged in collective wedding ceremonies. How did that happen?
A: There were 150 couples whose marriages were arranged and celebrated in the same wedding. There were at least 50 couples in one collective wedding celebration. They sat in 3 or 4 lines in the collective dining hall and recited their revolutionary commitment. In each village, there were few married couples, so there were many couples from one commune. They held each other’s hands and just recited the commitment. During the Khmer Rouge regime, no one dared to speak out.
Q: How about the phrase “Planting a mute tree (forced to be silenced)”? A: Yes, we were forced to plant a mute tree. It means we are not allowed to talk. Q: Could you complain about being overworked at night? A: No, I could not complain. I just kept quiet, no matter how hard my life was. Suppose I complained and it got disclosed, I would have been killed right away, despite it being nighttime. The Khmer Rouge’s men would accuse us of being revolutionists, and kill us. We hid our emotions deep in our hearts. We were completely controlled.
Q: Thank you so much for the interview. A: No problem.
Interviewer: Soeung Bunly
How does Long’s testimony illustrate the presence of regional and local variations in Cambodian civilians’ experiences of exploitation by the Khmer Rouge regime? What are its implications for the study of the Cold War in Cambodia and Asia more broadly?
Consider how the experience of forced relocations and separation from family shaped Long’s experiences of the Cold War.
Assess the role of religion in Cambodian society during and after the Cold War, and how it shapes survivors’ memories of the civil war.