Interview With Siv Thuon

Siv Thuon recounts his life during the Cambodian Civil War.

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Born the son of a contracted soldier in the French army in 1948, Siv Thuon grew up in an affluent family in the government-controlled zone of Damnak Traeyung Village in Kampot province. He attended a Buddhist school and recalls how most of the civilian populace worked for Chinese traders, who borrowed money from them with rice produce as collateral, which was then sold to Vietnam. During the Cambodian Civil War, the Communist Issarak movement often attacked his hometown, and he recalls how “Issarak” was synonymous with villainous guerrillas at the time. The Issarak threat continued even after Cambodia achieved independence, with communist guerrillas looting from the civilians. Siv Thuon also discusses how the Vietcong would pass through his village but not harm the locals, while the South Vietnamese soldiers who were deployed to resist the communists often raped civilians. Women would draw on their faces with charcoal so as to avoid attracting the attention of the South Vietnamese. Khmer soldiers, on the other hand, were helpful, providing food supplies. He moved to government-controlled Tani in 1971, refusing to follow his father back to his hometown for safety reasons. He then moved to Phnom Penh in 1973, studying medicine and taking a job as a nurse by 1975. However, when the Khmer Rouge rose to power, he was moved to Battambang province as a laborer.

His official date of birth is 16 October 1954. However, he was born in 1948, at Damnak Trayeung Village, Samrong Commune (now Samrong Leu), Banteay Meas District, Kampot province into an educated and well-off family. He was the only child in the family. He started school at the age of 10. Before he went to school, he learned about consonants from his father. He attended pagoda school and his teacher was a Buddhist monk. At that time, ethnic Chinese people lived and were sellers in the market. Ordinary Khmer people lived in the village growing rice for living. Some poor family worked for the ethnic Chinese for a living.

Some villagers borrowed money from the Chinese and after the harvest, those Chinese ethnic collected rice from the farmers. Those Chinese people sold rice to Vietnamese.

When he grew up, Tuon’s homeland was not very safe. Because his house was in the government-controlled area, the Issarak Movement (communist group) often created chaos. They came to steal cows and other property at night. His father was the contracted soldier hired by the French during the French colonial period. The Issarak people knew his father’s background and therefore intended to arrest him causing him to escape from home most of the time. At that time, the tension between government soldiers and Issarak movement was bad. Because of fear, the French mobilized villagers to live near the National Road to avoid being contacted by the Issarak soldiers. At that time, the term Issarak meant ‘bad people’ and ‘guerrilla’. Sometimes, Issarak soldiers burned people’s houses.

After Cambodia got independence from France, his homeland became safer. But the Issarak movement was still active in the jungle nearby and often stole people’s property. After the independence, the Issarak soldiers turned themselves into robbers or bandit. Although Cambodia gained independence from France, the communist movement remained taking control of some areas in the jungle.

Before the coup, Viet Cong guerrilla soldiers walked pass his village at night; however, they did not harm villagers. They suspiciously transported weapon to hide in the mountain not very far from Thuon’s house. On March 18, 1970, the coup was staged by the CIA-supported generals to remove Prince Sihanouk from power. At that time, Thuon was about to take high school exam.

In April or May 1970, the South Vietnamese soldiers came into Cambodia to fight the North Vietnamese shelters. Villagers hated South Vietnamese soldiers as they robbed people’s property and sometime killed villagers. They raped young women. Young women applied their face with black charcoal to make themselves looked ugly, so that they would not be attracted by the South Vietnamese soldiers.

After the coup, people thought that the country would plunge into war after the Prince was deposed. The conflict occurred. Young people did not support the Prince, while old people did.

While South Vietnamese soldiers were cruel to villagers, the Khmer Rouge communist group were nice. They came to lure and attract people at night to support their revolution. They gave people some food such as sugar.

In around mid-1971, Thuon came to Tani, which was the government-controlled area. Tani was the strongly fortified town as the artilleries were installed on the mountain to protect the Khmer Rouge communist encroachment. He attended school there. He lived in Tani for approximately one year. He was the only one who came to Tani, the rest of his family members continued to live at home village. While at Tani, his father came to persuade him to bring him back to homeland, but he refused to go. His father returned home, crying hopelessly because he could not convince him to go back home. He did not go back home because he was worried that he would be killed.

In 1973, he continued his study in Phnom Penh where he studied medicine. He became a male nurse in early 1975. Then, he got a job and worked at the hospital, where he witnessed many injured people sent from the battlefield and ordinary people who were hit by Khmer Rouge communist weapon.

On April 17, 1975, the country fell to the Khmer Rouge communists. Thuon was evacuated to Battambang Province at the Northwest of the country where he was forced to work hard.

Interviewer: Socheat Nhean

Interviewee: Siv Thuon

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Transcript Notes

  1. The Issarak movement was a Communist movement initially formed to fight for Cambodian independence.

  1. What was Cambodia’s Cold War?

  2. What does Siv Thuon’s differing attitudes towards different communist groups suggest about the nature of the Cold War in Cambodia?

  3. How does Siv Thuon’s characterization of Khmer Rouge soldiers vs the South Vietnamese destabilize traditional understandings of the Khmer Rouge regime?

  4. How did Siv Thuon’s background and class position in Cambodian society influence his Cold War experience

  5. Consider the role of constant, forced movement in shaping the Cold War experience for Siv Thuon and other Cambodian civilians.

  6. Consider, in light of Siv Thuon’s reflections, the extent to which ideological concerns shaped the Cold War in Cambodia and Asia, vis-a-vis more pragmatic considerations.