San Song discusses the experiences of political repression and deprivation he endured under the Khmer Rouge regime.
Born in 1959, San Song grew up in Prey Domlong Village, until his father moved them to O’samdey village where he owned a rice mill, and later to Svay Rieng town, to evade the civil war conflict. He was able to pursue high school education until the 1970s, before the Khmer Rouge regime rose to power in Cambodia. Towards the end of Lon Nol’s regime, his family was moved to a large refugee camp in Phnom Penh. However, as early as 1972-73, he and his peers, aged 14 at the time, were enlisted for military training. He was then deployed in the government forces to Preah Vihear, a major combat zone, but deserted and returned to the refugee camp. Upon his return, his father found him a new job as a clinical assistant and clerk in the refugee camp’s medical unit.
San Song explains that the Khmer Rouge had agents within the Lon Nol government, who were equipped to take Phnom Penh swiftly when conflict broke out. He recalls that they held a victory parade waving red flags from tanks in the morning, and ordered civilians to vacate the capital until it had been reorganized by the troops. His family was forced to relocate to Takeo Province, and again to his aunt’s place in Kampong Trabek. When interrogated by Khmer Rouge officials about his background, he concealed his military experience and lied that he was a noodle seller. His uncle, who was truthful about his military service, and another taxi driver who falsely claimed to be a soldier, were taken away never to return. He feels that food was not really an issue while he traveled, as the elderly villagers gave him rice.
When he returned to his hometown in Prey Domlong, he was put into a mobile work brigade, tasked to dig canals and do agriculture. Each team was given a daily objective, and would work from 7 in the morning to night, with a break from 11am to 2pm. Workers were given meagre portions of rice porridge. He was tasked to find firewood for cooking, and once fell into a hole with a loaded cart, requiring hospital care. Once, he and his colleagues privately cooked and consumed a dead buffalo calf, and were reprimanded by the authorities. This was not the usual practice, but the officer was willing to forgive their unknowing mistake just once. However, workers were given special meals on New Year’s Day and during the ancestral worship festival.
He also recalls seeing the authorities use violence on suspected enemies, beating a man almost to death in 1978. The victim was then brought to the interrogation office and then sent to a Buddhist monastery converted into a prison, where it was decided if he would be detained or killed. Religious expression was also curbed, and people had to pray in secret to avoid persecution. Soldiers and teachers were the most common victims of disappearances, including his uncle and grandfather. These experiences made San Song live in fear, as the authorities would often wrongfully accuse civilians of acting for the CIA. His marriage in 1976 too, was forcefully arranged by the regime, where couples had to pledge allegiance to the Communist party. However, he did not have much time to spend with his wife as they were assigned to work in different places.
Even after the regime was toppled in 1979, San Song continued to have nightmares about his life under the Khmer Rouge. However, as a Buddhist, he seeks no revenge against the perpetrators. Having visited the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, he feels that the perpetrators had a fair trial and gave testimony that would not have been discovered otherwise. He stresses the importance of education, arguing that it was uneducated lower-level officials of the regime who carried out the killings. He also suggests that many killings were done over personal issues in the name of the regime. Yet, he emphasizes that all remedial actions need to be carried out through law. He continues to pray for the peace of his relatives who lost their lives to the regime, and hopes that such a history would never repeat. In closing, he makes two suggestions to ensure this continued peace: That the state should continue to educate youth on this dark chapter of national history, and to pass a law banning any future leaders from ordering mass killings of their own citizens.
Mr. San Song in Svay Rieng
Q: How do you do? A: Yes, how do you do? Q: Thank you for allowing me to interview you today. A: My pleasure. Q: How old are you? A: I am 63 now. Q: What’s your full name? A: San Song.
Q: Before 1975, where did you live?
A: Before 1975, I lived in Prey Domlong village. It was when our country fell in civil war. Lon Nol’s forces’ barracks were located near O’Samdey market. Lon Nol’s forces and Liberation forces (Khmer Rouge troops) often exchanged fire. To survive, my father decided to move to South O’samdey village. He owned a rice mill there. There was military combat at South O’samdey village. Therefore, we decided to further move again to the outskirts of Svay Rieng town.
Q: So the outskirts of Svay Rieng town was not taken over by Khmer Rouge troops yet? A: Not yet. Q: How old were you at the time? A: I was around 16.
Q: Did you go to school? A: I studied at Svay Rieng high school.
Q: So before 1975, you went to school when you were around 16. In Svay Rieng, did Khmer Rouge troops take over the town before Phnom Penh in 17 April, 1975?
A: Actually, I was in Phnom Penh before Khmer Rouge troops entered the city. I lived in Obek Khom Refugee Camp near Steung Mean Chey in Phnom Penh. My whole family lived there.
Q: When was that? A: It was around 1972-73. I am not sure. It was under Lon Nol’s reign. I lived with my parents.
Q: When the Khmer Rouge troops came, did you evacuate to other places? A: After Khmer Rouge troops had taken over other parts of the country, they began to fight for the Phnom Penh city. My whole family lived in Phnom Penh, except for my younger brother who lived at Kla Hos monastery, west of Svay Rieng town. I lived in Obek Khom refugee camp. It housed hundreds of thousands of people. At the time, I went to school as well, but I was forced to take part in a military training with my friends. We took a Short C-23- a military transport aircraft-to Kampong Som where the training took place for over a month.
Q: Was it before Khmer Rouge’s regime? A: Yes, it was. It was Lon Nol’s regime. You know, the military combat was very intense at Preah Vihear province where I was commissioned as a soldier. Then, I fled Preah Vihear for Obek Khom Refugee Camp. My father blamed me, but then he tried to find me a job at the camp. At the time, general Yong Houng, Lon Nol’s son in law was in charge of leading the camp.
Q: Were you allowed to serve as military despite being barely over 10 years old? A: Yes, I was 14-15 years old.
Q: Where you were sent?
A: I was sent to Kampong Som and then Preah Vihea. I realized that the situation was not convenient, so I fled to Obek Khom, taking a machine boat with others. My father introduced me to a job at the refugee camp health unit. I was responsible for taking care of civilian patients. I was in charge of sending patients from refugee camp to Calmet and Preah Kosomaek hospitals. Either night or day time, patients were sent to these hospitals. At day time, I worked with foreign medics to give medical care to patients. They were French, Belgians, and Americans. I worked on administrative documents and giving medicine to the patients.
Q: Do you remember how the situation was like when Khmer Rouge forces entered Phnom Penh? A: It was an internal issue. Q: What do you mean by “internal issue”. A: It means that Khmer Rouge troops were working in the other side. They were officials in many different sectors. It means that the Khmer Rouge already secretly worked in the incumbent government. When their troops attacked the city strongly, their comrades were in Phnom Penh already and equipped with weapons. Khmer Rouge troops took over Phnom Penh easily. They entered the city and repeatedly shouted out the slogan “Bravo!”. Red flags were attached to their tanks. They waved red flags, using mega phones to advertise “Bravo!”. I saw huge piles of guns and rifles on the asphalt street and troops were dispersed and scarpered.
Q: Do you remember what time it was?
A: It was in the morning around 8-9. Khmer Rouge troops launched rockets from Pochentong and moved toward Obek Khom. They were entering the city. All forces were in the city and completely took over. They waved flags and shouted the slogan. The national radio broadcast the victory because they took control of its station. They took over the broadcasting, announcing that all people needed to leave the capital city immediately. “Please, go to other provinces. Once the city is well-organized, you all can come back. The US aircraft is going to bombard the city”, declared Khmer Rouge. All people left the city except Khmer Rouge troops.
Q: Where were you going at the time? A: I was forced to go to Takeo province. I shoulder carried things.
Q: Did you go with your father? A: I went with my parents. At Takeo, I had to carry soil and Khmer Rouge asked me about my background. I told them that I was a Chinese noodle soup seller. If I had told them that I was as a soldier, I would have been killed. Q: So you did not tell your real background? A: No, I didn’t. In Takeo for a short while, I was evacuated again. I arrived at Kampong Trabek in Prey Veng province, and I stayed at Aunt Yorn’s house. At her house, my uncle in-law a soldier of Mortar Unit in Phnom Penh came along with me as well. I remembered that there was a meeting, including motorbike taxi drivers. It was said that those who used to work as soldiers will be reinstated as the same job in a new regime. Then, my uncle in-law Khoun Vibol told Khmer Rouge that “I was a soldier in Mortar Unit”. Then, he was taken away and never returned. Another man said that he was a soldier while he was just a motor taxi driver in fact. He was also taken away and never returned. He said so because he wanted to get a good job.
Q: How was your stay at Kampong Trabek?
A: In term of staying, I was given rice by villagers there (old people). They gave me rice. They called me 17 April people or new people. So people were divided into two categories: old people and new people.
Q: How about food? A: It was not a big issue when I travelled. I arrived at Prey Domlong just near here. I did the assigned tasks and there was rice porridge for us. Svay Chrum district office was there. Afterwards, someone told me that I was spied on. Someone wanted to know my background. Then, my father contacted my uncle who was a village chief and then my uncle reported to small Production Team who allowed me to stay at Prey Domlong. I was put in a mobile work brigade.
Q: What did you do in a mobile work brigade? A: Mobile work brigade engaged with teenagers. I was assigned to dig a canal, build dikes, plant rice and do other necessary work. For children groups, they collected cow dung and studied. They also did other small task. For adults, they are tasked according to their knowhow like making plow, cart and other agriculture instruments.
Q: As you were in youth mobile work brigade, what time did you start working?
A: In the morning, I started working at around 7.
Q: How about the afternoon? A: At 11AM, it was break time. Then, I had lunch. After work started at 2PM. The bell rang as a sign that working time is started.
Q: Were you tired? A: Yes, I was tired. All of us worked very hard. We planted rice the whole year, but we did not expect a good harvest. We knew that we will not get enough food for months. Rice porridge was our usual meal.
Q: Did you eat enough food? A: Not at all. Only a ladle of rice porridge was given for each meal. For few months, a small bowl of cooked rice was provided for each meal. Khmer Rouge told us that we needed to eat rice porridge because we did not have enough rice.
Q: How often meals were provided?
A: Only two meals were provided: lunch and dinner.
Q: No breakfast? A: No. In the morning at 7, work started.
Q: Was there any work target assigned? A: Yes, task was assigned to each group like group 1, group 2, group 2 etc.
Q: How many people were there in a group?
A: There were 10 people per group. In one work brigade, there were around 30 people.
Q: How about the accommodation? Did you sleep in your own house or collective house?
A: I was allowed to stay at my own house. However, whenever I was assigned to build dikes at faraway places, I slept in a temporary shelter. All of us slept in the shelter together. We did not return home in the evening, sleeping under the temporary shelter. When getting sick, I got traditional medicine. I was put on intravenous drip made from steamed herbal medicine and B12 vitamin.
Q: Have you ever got sick? A: I was tasked to find firewood for cooking food and I got sick. Vietnamese and liberation front forces were pushing the Khmer Rouge forces, so I had to move to Rokar village. It was when the liberation day neared. I rode an ox cart loaded with firewood and immediately my cart fell into the hole. I got injured and I was sent to a district hospital. I was given traditional medicine, intravenous drip and injection.
Q: How did the hospital looks like? A: There are beds for patients, and intravenous drip stand. Doctor and physicians wore their uniform properly but in the uniform was in black.
Q: Did you witness any torture or killing?
A: Yes, I witnessed a man whose hands were tied behind his back, running along the road while the security forces armed with a rifle and a bat rode a bicycle just behind him. There was a well beside the road and villagers’ houses along the road. Immediately, the man jumped into the well.
Q: What time was that? A: It is in the afternoon. The security forces dragged the man from the well and beat him up. He was almost dead. Then he was brought to an interrogation office at the junction. That interrogation office is now Thlork Commune office.
Q: So Thlok commune office was an interrogation office during Khmer Rouge’s regime? Q: Yes, it was. Mr. Oang was the head of the interrogation office. After the interrogation, the suspects were usually sent to Thlok monastery which was converted into prison at the time. At that prison, they decided to either imprison or to kill people.
Q: When witnessing such a horrible occurrence, what did you feel? A: I felt scared. I was afraid that I was accused of being CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), spying for Vietnamese or liberation front forces. At the time, they took over most parts of Svay Rieng. Khmer Rouge liked to accuse people of surveillance. Consequently, those accused were killed. They did not let those people live their lives. All were killed at Thlok monastery.
Q: In what year did you witnessed the man jumping into the well? A: It was in 1973. Q: 1973 was before Khmer Rouge’s regime. Was it 1978 instead?
A: Yes, it was 1978 when liberation day was around the corner.
Q: Recalling your past life story about Khmer Rouge, how do you feel? Do you feel hurt? A: Yes, I do tragically feel hurt. The leaders shouldn’t have led our country toward war for 3 years, 8 months and 20 days. I am afraid that our country has war like genocide again and many lives will be lost. The government and all political parties competing in the elections must not put people in suffering. They must respect the election result. Some political parties are oppositional against the government. Gradually, this could bring about war and we are the normal people who suffer the most.
Q: Your life in the past was very terrible. After 1979, have you ever had a nightmare related to Khmer Rouge’s regime? A: Yes, I sometimes have a nightmare. In my dream, I was told to do an assigned task. I remembered the time that I was chopping firewood in the kitchen at Svay Tayean village. A newly born buffalo calf died and the people nearby asked if they can cook it. I said that “you guys ate rats. Calf buffalo is much bigger than a rat, so why don’t you eat? It is a waste if it is buried”. Then, they cleaned and cooked it. They eat it together. In the late evening, the security forces came to our place while we were having meal. He pointed to my comrades while counting1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. He told those 10 people to go meet him at a rice bank in that same late evening. He asked me to tell them to do so as well. Around 6 or 6:30PM, I along with other 9 comrades went to the rice bank. Q: So you were amongst those 10 people?
A: Yes, you are right. I was with them during dinner but I did not eat. I just watched them eating. We met with the man at the rice bank. He said “Comrades, I am meeting you guys because I want to know why you ate a newly born buffalo calf? It should have been buried. You made a mistake. I am not going to send you to Thlok monastery but I educate you here. I tolerate your mistake and keep your lives. In Svay Tayea collective, I personally know the truth. Chicken eggs, palm sugar, uncooked rice and corn were looted. You guys are not. You committed internal enemy act. This is your first mistake I have found out and I give you no punishment. However, never do it again in the future. Otherwise, I am going to send you to Thlok monastery”.
Q: Oh, I see. So you received no punishment.
A: No punishment. He said that he forgave us this time. You see, it was just a dead buffalo calf.
Q: What did you feel? A: I was shaking with fear. We were shaking with fear as though we had fever. After the meeting, the man told us that he forgave us. But if we dared to do such a thing again in the future, we would be killed. He told us to go back to our work.
Q: Did you go to a monastery? A: At the time, all rights were absent. Traveling from a village to another village was either spied on or banned.
Q: How about holy days?
A: Buddhist practice was completely eliminated. Currency was not in use. There was not any market.
Q: So how did you pray? A: We can secretly pray as long as we were not seen. At the time, praying was not allowed either. If praying is spotted, there would be problems. Buddha statutes in the monastery were demolished. Monastery was converted to prison for the accused. They put them there.
Q: How about Pchum Ben and New Year days? A: On Pchum Ben and new year day, some foods were cooked for us. There was chopped steamed prohok with fresh vegetable. We had enough foods for those days.
Q: There was not kan ben?
A: No, there was not. There was any ritual or religious ceremonies allowed. It was completely absent. There were no foreign relations except China who was the mastermind of this communist regime.
Q: Being through bitter and tragic times, do you think Buddhism can bring you peace and happiness? A: Yes, it can. After the liberation day, Samdach Hun Sen government allowed to use currency, schools were opened, hospitals were opened, teachers were recruited in order to provide education everywhere. All public institutions started their operations. Monasteries were filled with Buddhist monks. Marketplaces were opened. He helped many things. We can travel to any places now. Back in Khmer Rouge times, traveling was not allowed.
Q: Lord Buddha said “Hatred could not be ceased by hatred”. What do you think about this in relation to Khmer Rouge genocide?
A: In my view, time has passed. There is no point in taking revenge at all. We would rather pay attention to new day, new month, new time. We should think about new days. The most important thing is education. It is not about killing or jailing someone. Good education can turn a bad person into nice a person. Religiously speaking, a bad person who can transform him/herself is a nice person. Surrounding oneself with bad people would make them bad people. Surrounding oneself with wise people makes them nice people.
Q: Was your relative/sibling killed during Khmer Rouge’s regime? A: My uncle in-law was killed. He was a deputy village chief. Then, he was once sent to fight against Vietnamese troops in Vietnam, but then he was disarmed and return to live in the village. Later on, he was sent to fight at Dong Rek Mountain. As of now, we have not seen him at all. We lost him. My grandfather named Sam Khin was a teacher. He was taken to Thlok monastery and never returned. Soldiers and teachers were mostly killed.
Q: These days, have you ever commemorated their death?
A: Every time, I celebrate religious ceremony I always dedicate to my uncle, auntie and relatives. I send them my prayers: With the merit and good deeds I have done, may your soul rest in peace. If your souls are kept in hell, may you be released and go to heaven. I always remember and pray for them.
Q: What do you feel when you do so? A: I feel relieved actually. I feel relaxed.
Q: Have you ever been interviewed about history related to Khmer Rouge? A: Never ever.
Q: So I am the first one to interview you about Khmer Rouge history.
Q: Have you ever participated in any events related to Khmer Rouge history like May 20 Remembrance Day?
A: I joined 7 January Liberation Day. Village chiefs and village security guards were invited to join this celebration. I bring some foods and money to a remembrance site which contains skulls and bones of the victims who were killed during Khmer Rouge. Those skulls and bones were taken from the Thlok monastery mass grave.
Q: Is the remembrance site located near the administration police office? A: Yes, that is right.
Q: We celebrate it for the souls of those who were killed during Khmer Rouge’s regime. Is it May 20 Remembrance Day? A: Yes, it is. But it is more celebrated on Liberation Day of 7th January.
Q: You have been through bitter life full of terror. Do you want justice?
A: Seriously speaking, I am suggesting the government or a humanitarian organization to organize a tribunal and make documents about Khmer Rouge history for younger generations to learn about it. I also request all national top leaders never repeat the history. Leading your own people to death is not good at all.
Q: Don’t you want any reparation?
A: No, I don’t. What I want is no more killings. Never kill people to lead the country.
Q: Any suggestions?
A: No. I personally think what I was suggesting earlier is justice for me. Please, find justice for other people too. Never ever kill people again.
Q: Have you ever heard of Khmer Rouge tribunal? A: Yes, I know it. I have ever visited it once.
Q: How did you visit it? A: The Khmer Rouge tribunal invited me. It arranged the trip for us. The trips were arranged for people from certain villages, communes and districts in Svay Rieng. I saw how the process of the trial is organized; with a place for the public, audiences, trial room, judge places etc.
Q: When was that? A: It was long time ago. I forget when.
Q: Do you think the trial is fair?
A: In my eyes, the trial is fair. Before the trial, there are interrogation and testimonies. The defendants have confessed their wrongdoings, according to the document I read. For instance, Duch has confessed, telling what and where he was responsible for and many things that we had never known. He gave further information.
Q: Suppose, now you met a former Khmer Rouge official. What is your reaction? Will you get angry with him? A: No, I don’t want revenge at all. Q: It is just an example not a real situation. A: Under Khmer Rouge’s regime, the heads of cadres who did not hurt people and report to the superiors, no killing etc. faced no revenge. For example, a grandpa Phann. He was a former cadre during Khmer Rouge’s regime, faced no revenge after the liberation day and later on he worked in a commune office. He’s just retired. He was in a former small work brigade. Small production work brigade is responsible for few villages and at village level it is called a collective. Head of small work brigade was a chief of collective. For instance, Samdey and Tayea villages were under the management of small work brigade. Each village chief oversaw all people in his/her village.
Q: Going back to your suggestions that the government should educate young people about Khmer Rouge history, do you have other suggestion?
A: I suggest to the government that there must be a law which prevents the mass killing no matter who the prime minister is. Never kill people like what has happened under Khmer Rouge’s regime. Don’t let the history of 3 years, 8 months and 20 days repeat. Don’t use the leadership of Pol Pot in our country. No matter who you are, if elected, never kill your own people. No matter what political party you are, never kill people.
Q: When thinking about Khmer Rouge times, are you scared? A: I am getting old now. I believe in karma. Let karma work out its way. I have never thought of revenge against anyone. I have thought of hurting or killing no one. Despite being a deputy village chief, and head village security guard, I have never used violence to lead. Instead, I use Brahmavihara: loving kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita) and equanimity (upekkha). In case, there are serious issues happening, let law work it out. I absolutely can’t kill people. During Khmer Rouge’s regime, uneducated persons led the educated ones, whereas now educated persons lead the uneducated ones. Educated persons are needed now. During Khmer Rouge’s regime, uneducated or less educated persons became the leaders. They exceedingly overdid the plans from their superiors. Due to this, there was no doubt that people were killed. In the trial by the Khmer Rouge tribunal, the top Khmer Rouge leader said, “I was not killing people”. The task assigned or the commandment given was excessively implemented by lower-level leaders because they were uneducated. Sometimes, they used their own personal issues to give the command to kill without the command to kill from the superiors. At the time, commandment was very powerful. If the commandment was given to dig up bamboo stump, the task must be done. If the commandment was given on any particular thing, it must be done, no matter what.
Q: Were you single at the time?
A: Actually, I got married in 1976.
Q: How was your marriage look like?
A: It was a forced marriage. Khmer Rouge officials drank tea and they assigned a teenager boy and a teenage girl to chant a revolutionary allegiance to Angkar (the organization” in Cambodian). After allegiance ceremony, there was a feast at the commune office. I just left the place without joining the feast. I borrowed my uncle’s clothing – black uniform- for the wedding because I did not have it. Q: Was it in 1976? A: Yes. There were 65 wedding couples at the same collective wedding ceremony.
Q: Was there a layman in your wedding ceremony?
A: Not at all. We were seated next to our partner in a long line. A man amongst grooms was selected to chant their revolutionary allegiance and so did the representative of the brides.
Q: What is the revolutionary allegiance chanting? A: It goes “I declare that I will live with her/him forever and completely follow the leadership of the (communist) party. I keep my loyalty for the party”. The declaration of the bride representative was similar to the groom’s one. After the declaration, the groom just went to stay at his wife’s house. It was not the same as today’s wedding ceremonies.
Q: How was the feast? A: People cooked beef for the party, but I did not join it. I left the party right after the revolutionary loyalty declaration.
Q: Where did you go? A: I went back home. Now, it is where Ms. Roeun’s house is located. When I was single, I was very shy.
Q: After marriage, you and your wife were forced to work at different places, right?
A: That’s right. Sometimes, I chopped firewood at home while my wife was forced to dig a canal at a faraway, different place. Occasionally, she was allowed to visit family at home. We were unable to live together happily.
Q: Was requesting to visit family at home possible?
A: Just occasionally it was possible.
Q: This is my last question. Talking about Khmer Rouge’s regime, do you think Khmer Rouge history is bitter and terrifying?
A: Khmer Rouge history is not only bitter but also terrifying.
Q: Why? A: Because Khmer Rouge killed its own people. They studied at foreign countries and followed the doctrine of foreign countries. Consequently, Cambodian people rather than foreigners were killed. It hurts so much. They killed their own people.
Q: After telling me your real-life story, do you feel relieved/relaxed?
A: Yes, I feel much relieved. I feel fresh in my mind.
Q: If in the future there is an interview request on Khmer Rouge history, will you allow?
A: Yes, I will be glad to join the interview as I am joining yours right now.
Interviewer: Soeung Bunly
Interviewee: San Song
To what extent was Cambodia’s Cold War part of a larger global conflict, and to what extent was it based on local tensions, given San Song’s testimony?
What does his comments on the role of education in preventing conflict suggest about the Cambodian Civil 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.