Mrs Sor Sarath discusses her experiences under the Khmer Rouge Regime.
Mrs Sor Sarath was 10 years old when the Khmer Rouge took power. At the time, her father, a former soldier, was working as a cyclo driver in Phnom Penh to support his family. The family moved from Phnom Penh to escape rocket strikes targeted at Vietnamese forces, walking back to their native village of Preah Tiyear. The Khmer Rouge reorganized Cambodian society into collectives, and her family built themselves a shelter.
All citizens were required to work for the collective. Her father made cooking vessels, while her mother tended to the paddy fields and made morning glory stew. Though she was only a child, Mrs Sor Sarath was also expected to participate, collecting buffalo excrement to be repurposed as fertilizer. She had to hit a daily target of 20 buckets. All laborers were served lunch and dinner at the communal kitchen, but portions were meager. In the evenings, she and a group of 30-40 other children were allowed to study in the kitchen, which was used as a makeshift classroom. They were taught largely about the geography of Cambodia, which they had already learnt under the Lon Nol regime, as well as revolutionary songs in praise of the Khmer Rouge. Buddhism was prohibited, and the regime only celebrated the anniversaries of their triumph over the Lon Nol government.
Outside of her regular duties, she also planted pumpkins and luffa gourds as a personal project, but was not allowed to use them for personal consumption. Instead, she had to transport her produce to the collective. She also recalls that the authorities would come searching if they saw smoke rising from any household, accusing the residents of cooking secretly. Her family did secretly cook extra rice, hiding it in teapots, but also brewed tea to serve officials who conducted searches, to conceal their cooking. She recalls waiting outside her home with an ax, hitting a tree to cause a loud noise to alert her mother of approaching officials.
She also shares that the regime persecuted former soldiers and any citizens with advanced educational qualifications. Officials would periodically question civilians to ascertain their professional history. Her father was advised to conceal his military background and only declare himself as a cyclo driver, and that his children were not highly educated. On another occasion, he was asked whether he wanted to move to the Western regions, where it was said that food was more abundantly available. However, this was a ploy by the regime, as those who registered were put to death. He was advised to refuse the offer, and thus survived. However, Mrs Sor Sarath did lose many other relatives to the regime, both her grandmothers, and two uncles. One was conscripted by the regime and lost his life in combat, while the other was marked for re-education. She also witnessed officials torturing suspected enemies, such as a man who was tied to a bike and dragged on the roads, for suspected collusion with the Central Intelligence Agency. People with Vietnamese spouses were questioned if they would leave Cambodia for Vietnam, and would be killed if they answered in the affirmative.
When the regime was toppled in 1979, she felt relieved at the return of her freedoms. However, she also saw villagers chasing after former Khmer Rouge leaders who had abused them in the past. She feared that the villagers might also kill her and her family amidst the confusion. Revenge killings and robberies continued until the new government suppressed it. She herself, however, does not seek revenge on the Khmer Rouge regime. As a Buddhist, she practices the teachings of peace and forgiveness. She feels that the Khmer Rouge Tribunal should only prosecute the top leaders of the regime, but notes that many have already died. The only reparation she seeks is an assurance from the present government never to repeat such atrocities. In retrospect, she still feels pain when recalling this chapter of her life, and used to participate in commemorations of Liberation Day on January 7. She shares with her children that they now live much better than she did during the Khmer Rouge, and hopes that contemporary Cambodian youth would learn of this history and work to develop the country further.
Mrs. Sor Sarath, Svay Rieng
Q: What do you remember about the Khmer Rouge?
A: In 1975, Khmer Rouge soldiers launched military attacks on the Obek Ko’om area in Phnom Penh, launching B52 rocket propellers. I saw some people getting injured. At Obek Ko’om, I was staying there as a refugee. I received rice and salty dried fish.
Q: Why were you living there as ra efugee? A: At the time, my mother was at her home village while my father was in Phnom Penh working as a cyclo driver to earn money to support the family. In Phnom Penh, my father was given a proper shelter in a refugee center where he then brought my mother and my sibling to live with him as a family. In 1975, Khmer Rouge soldiers kept pushing into the city. So my family escaped them for safety. We escaped to Derm Ko market near the cinema where I saw Khmer Rouge tanks with the national flag hung upon it. I saw many Khmer Rouge soldiers in lines in black uniform and arms. It is said that they were negotiating with their counterparts. Then, they drove us from our house, saying that they needed three days to clean the city. Some took property with them. Some did not because they thought that they will be back after three days. So we just kept moving out of the city.
Q: How old were you at the time? A: I was over 10 years old. I kept walking across the forest and mountains. The Khmer Rouge asked us about our previous work background. For those who used to serve in the military, they will be sent for further education. For those who were cyclo and motor taxi drivers, they were allowed to go. University students were not allow to go as well.
Q: So you saw a large crowd on the way? A: Exactly. I saw large crowd of people. Some died on the way. Some got injured. At night, we got stuck and in the morning I saw so many Khmer Rouge soldiers with black uniform and beret getting into the city. They were so young. We were forced to go through Takmao of Kandal province where we crossed the river using a boat. You know, we were often asked our previous work background along the way. Kind Khmer people told my father that if someone asked us questions, he should tell them that you were a cyclo driver and your children were just normal vendors, not government employee or student. Don’t tell them that you are a government officer. Never tell them that your children have education. They were Khmer Rouge officials. We always replied in the way that we were told to do. We kept walking across Phnom Srok mount. It took us several days to arrive at our hometown. We were provided with rice and morning glory stew. Many cars and motorbikes were abandoned on the street because there was no gas station to buy gas. Finally, I got to my home village- Preah Tiyear.
Q: How did you cross the Neak Loeung River? A: Let me recall it. Khmer Rouge used boats to help us cross the river.
Q: How was your life after arriving your home village? A: We built a small shelter. People do farming as collective. We help one another and the we share the harvested crops. Khmer Rouge started their policy little by little. We planted rice in the paddy field as collective.
Q: Who managed that collective farming? A: There was village chief who were responsible for that. However, I did not know him.
Q: You were around 10 years old. What were you tasked to do? A: I was tasked to collect fertilizer basically. I collected buffalo excrement from rice fields and put it in a kiln. I must find 20 buckets of buffalo’s excrement to reach the target for the whole morning. After that lunch was served. In the afternoon, I studied.
Q: What did you study? A: I studied about the border of Cambodia, high mountains etc. Basically, it was about geography. I knew some of it since I studied in the Lon Nol regime. Most students also had learnt of that too. We just learnt it. There was no proper classroom for us. We studied in a dining hall which hosted around 30-40 kids.
Q: How about uniform? A: We had only black uniform as common clothes and car-tire sandal. I did not have school uniform at all.
Q: Did you learn any revolutionary song? A: Yes, we were taught to sing revolutionary songs like 17 April and Liberating Kampuchea.
Q: Do you remember it? A: I have almost forgotten it.
“17 April, liberating Cambodia.
Yell of victories resonates powerfully.
Dark cloud disappeared.
Brightness is coming.”
We had class in the afternoon.
Q: How about meals?
A: Always, meals were provided twice, lunch and dinner. There was no breakfast at all. Per meal, I got only a small china of porridge. We were provided with cooked rice after the harvest, but soon after that we were provided with porridge. There was no tasty stew served at all. The cooks used fermented fish called Prohok as ingredient to make stew of big cauldron. Sometimes, they used sugar and fish sauce to make sweet sauce to serve us. Sometimes, they cooked morning glory or water lily soup. There is no taste at all. We returned home in the evening. At night, we were not allowed to work usually, but sometimes, we were tasked to thresh rice and get it ready for rice bank. I was also tasked to herd a buffalo cub. It then died and I was tasked to carry fertilizer from places to places. I forgot where I carried fertilizer to. Q: After work, can you go somewhere to relax? A: No, I did not have any holiday. I worked and stayed home. I was not allowed to go out. We were tasked to work and to plan trees. At home, we must not make any smoke. When Khmer Rouge sees any smoke from any person, they will right away come to our house to arrest the people in the house. They would accuse us of secretly cooking rice. If we want to cook rice, we must keep it secret. We must pound rice silently at home. One day, my mother was cooking rice and I was standing under a palm tree to give signals to my mother. When Khmer Rouge came, I signalled to my mother by hitting an axe against that palm tree to make an alarming sound. When we cooked rice, we kept a tea pot near the rice pot. If the Khmer Rouge came, we hid the rice pot. We used the tea pot as better evidence, serving them a cup of tea. They would leave your house. Every time we secretly cooked rice at home, I felt so scared. I grew some pumpkin and luffa gourd plants. The fruit or vegetables harvested at home, we were not allowed to eat or cook. We needed to harvest them and take them to the collective. There were so many pumpkins and I needed to transport them to the collective. They did not force us to grow those vegetable trees. I just grew it on my own will.
Q: Who are those collective heads? A: They are people who lived in the same commune but different villages. For my collective, its head was from Trea village. They were not from Svay Rieng downtown.
Q: How about ceremonies like Pchum Ben? A: No, there was not Pchum Ben. There was no pagoda to go to since they were not functioning. Khmer Rouge just cooked pork caramel to serve us. With this ceremocy, I could eat joyous meal. Still we cannot eat on a larger scale. I can’t remember it well. Maybe, it was a liberation ceremony day. We almost forgot about New Year Day.
Q: Have you ever eye-witnessed torture by Khmer Rouge? A: Yes, I saw Khmer Rouge using their motorbike to drag a person on the street. The tire was broken and the person jumped into the well. He attempted to commit suicide. But Khmer Rouge took him out off the ground. At the time, there were Chinese and Vietnamese communities here. Chinese were allowed to stay while Vietnamese are told to go back to their home country. They asked a person who has Vietnamese spouse will they go to Vietnam if their Vietnamese spouse are to return to their home country. If they say they will go, they will be killed.
Q: Can you tell me more about the person who was tortured by Khmer Rouge? A: The person’s hands were tied behind his back and the rope was attached to a bike pulling him. He run after the bike. People saw that and we were so scared. We dared to do nothing and kept pretend that nothing happened. That person was accused as Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Q: What happened to him after that? A: It said that he was killed at Thlok pagoda where many victims were killed under Khmer Rouge.
Q: It appears that you remember a lot. A: Yes, I remember some. I also remember what happened under Lon Nol. Q: Were your relatives killed under Khmer Rouge? A: Yes, my uncle was killed. He was a village chief in our village and then the Khmer Rouge sent him off to the battlefield. It was when the liberation army almost took over our area. Last time, my family moved to Ampel Prey and my uncle stayed at my mother’s house overnight before leaving for the battlefield. After that, he went without return at all. If he had not gone to battlefield, he would have survived.
Q: Did he use to serve as a soldier under Lon Nol regime? A: No, he was not. The Khmer Rouge sent him off to the battlefield. At the time, Khmer Rouge sent Eastern soldiers to the Southwest zone and Southwest soldiers to the Eastern zone. Khmer soldiers were very strong. They attacked Vietnamese troops and push them to the border.
It was in late 1978 when the liberation was close. We did not stay at our house anymore and moved to Ampel Prey. Khmer Rouge launched many rockets to the Eastern part toward Vietnamese soldiers. They were flying over me. In fact, Khmer Rouge attempted to kill me before the liberation came. They told us to eat pounded rice and they prepared to put land mines. There were few trucks loaded those land mines. You know, Vietnamese intelligence had already come to our village.
Q: Why they asked people to eat Ambok? A: It was their plan. When people were busy eating Ambok, Khmer Rouge soldiers can put land mines. However, they did not manage to accomplish their plan. Vietnamese intelligence reported to their soldiers and the soldiers strongly attacked the Khmer Rouge. They knew that the Khmer Rouge had almost killed us. So my uncle was killed and both my grandmothers passed away due to hunger. One is from my father’s side and the other is from my mother’s side. There was no medicine at all except rabbit waste medicine. Q: How do you feel when you recall the killings at the time? A: I am wondering why they killed people. When they killed people, they played music very loudly with huge loudspeaker to distract people from hearing people’s cry. Most people killed were from different places, not from our places. There are few people killed from our place. We heard the sound of people crying out of pain, but the music from loudspeaker dominates. The Khmer Rouge asked my father if he wanted to go to the western areas, saying that western area had many foods to eat. They will register those who wanted to go. People who were very kind told my father that if someone asked to register you to be sent to western areas. “Never register!” We are new people. If we register to go to the western area, we would be killed.
Q: By western area, do you mean Phnom Penh? A: No, it is not. It is Pursat. There, base people controlled new people like us. They tasked us hard work. There are new people, old people and reserved people. The Khmer Rouge told us that the at Western areas, there were many fruits and foods to eat. If we want to go there, we can go. People who worked for the Khmer Rouge told my father not to go there. My father used to help them before. Under thw Khmer Rouge, he made kettles, teapots, and cooking pots for unit heads. He was so kind. My mother looked after dry season paddy. She stewed morning glory near the lake.
Q: How do you feel when you remember this past? A: I still feel pain. We used to have good life. We ate sufficient, delicious foods. I feel desperately shocked. We cannot say anything. We cannot complain at all. We were not brave to say anything if something wrong happened. We dared not to ask any questions. We just kept silent. The Khmer Rouge had rules for us to abide by. We must be loyal to Angkar.
Q: Have you thought of any reparations?
A: I don’t want any reparations except justice. Please, never harm people. Just do good and harm no one. I was very angry when someone hurt me. I like justice and hate injustice. I don’t want to see such atrocity happening again. I need nice leaders not bad leaders who make people’s live miserable.
Q: Do want to next generation to study about Khmer Rouge? A: Yes, I really want them to know justice and doing good. They must be trained to be a good citizen who take the right path. I want them to learn about Khmer Rouge history, so that it will not be repeated. They must learn from the history as lesson learnt for Cambodia. They must resist the regime if it happens.
Q: Do you have any suggestions? A: I suggest the leaders should be nice, leading the country for development. They must bring happiness to people, not suffering. We as citizen want happiness and peace. Justice should be done for any problems.
Q: Do you think that experiencing the Khmer Rouge regime is your karma? A: When it comes to Karma, I just do good and make merit, avoiding bad deed. When we do bad deed, we receive bad deed. The bad deed we receive can be from either the person we did bad deed against him or different person. What goes around comes around. It obviously happens this life, not to mention the afterlife.
Q: Have you thought of any revenge against former Khmer Rouge? A: No, I have never thought of that. They were under the regime. They are tasked to do work. They just followed the instructions from others. I am not angry with them. I am angry with top leaders only. Those followed the other’s command also wanted happiness and did not want to harm others. They are innocent people. If top leaders are punished by law, justice is done. Let’s law work out. There is no point in revenging.
Q: Have you heard of Khmer Rouge tribunal? A: Yes, I have heard of it. However, I don’t know it well. I don’t know how it processes now. I am not sure if the tribunal has put those top leaders on trial yet. Some have died without before the trial. I think the information about the tribunal is limited.
Q: Can you describe the situation after the liberation? A: After the regime collapsed, we had nothing except bare hands. Kept struggling and moved forward. We still did collective rice planting. When Khmer Rouge came to power, we also did collective rice farming. For example, in a village, we have 100 persons who were able to grow rice from 5 to 10 hectares of paddy fields. We got up at 4 am and started working. In the morning, we already did 4-5 hectare of paddy planting. Rice was distributed to each household.
I feel so happy the Khmer Rouge regime came to an end. I focused on doing paddy planting. We help one another grow rice, and the paddy owner will get the harvested rice. I was so excited because I have freedom. I was neither worried nor scared any more.
Q: Have you ever participated in liberation day 7 January? A: Yes, I have participated in 7 January liberation day. There was a national flag respecting. It was held at a stupa site where skulls were kept. We brought foods to celebrate Bangskol by Buddhist monks to remember those who were killed.
Q: How do you feel when you celebrate that?
A: I feel good. We are not sure who they were but we dedicate to them. They suffered and were killed. I feel pity on them. I participated the celebration long time ago. These days I don’t participate it any more. I was invited to join the celebration and to preside over the event. These days, I do not often join the celebration. Only village chief or commune chief join it. Villagers are too busy to join.
Q: Have you ever told your children about Khmer Rouge history? A: Yes, I often tell them about Khmer Rouge history. When I cook good foods, I tell my children that under Khmer Rouge regime I had no tasty foods to eat. If I had such tasty foods, I would have enjoyed them. I can always eat only sauces with young mango leaves. It would have been enjoyable if I had eaten foods these days. My children ask me that “You weren’t that poor, were you? They almost do not believe it. However, they go to school, and I told them so they become were much aware of that history. They knew well as though they were experiencing the regime.
Q: Have you ever been interviewed before? A: Never. I think most people know of Khmer Rouge because they personally experienced it. They are over 40 years or 50 years. For those who are in 40th, they were too young maybe they forget a lot. Some people have strong memory while others do not have.
Q: Do you want to keep this history or forget it? A: I want to forget about it. But when somebody does activities similar to that happening in that regime, it immediately reminds me of the regime. When I feel good, I forget about it at all. However, when my feelings are hurt, I immediately think about the past.
Q: How do you deal with it? A: I use Buddhist teaching to calm my feelings. I try to forget about it and think of forgiveness, or Kshanti. Feeling good about good things can calm me down. I don’t want to think about terrible and bad things. It makes me sick. I am old now. It gradually disappears. Now, I am trying to calm down when someone gets me angry. I just focus on good things to be happy. When someone make me angry, I can deal with it. The situation under Khmer Rouge was very atrocious. Everybody was equal, no divide between the rich and the poor. The uneducated persons were encouraged to be leaders while educated ones got no chance to be leaders at all.
Q: Are they young? A: No, they are old and uneducated. Most of them are old people (base people) who have less education. New people were more educated. They moved to cities where they do business and get education. Base people do farming only. They do not know anything apart from growing rice. They just blindly receive the orders or commands. They are illiterate.
Q: Are educated persons target of killings? A: Yes, you are right. They did observations and ask questions from time to time to identify who we were in the past. They asked follow-up questions to find out the truth of our life before the Khmer Rouge. My uncle in law and his whole family were evacuated from Phnom Penh. One day, he was at Kompong Trobek. He then was allowed to stay at a house of base people before moving to Svay Rieng. Being asked questions regarding the work of my uncle in law, the house owner told Khmer Rouge that my uncle in law was a soldier from the artillery sector. Then, he was not allowed to move further to Svay Rieng with his family. He was told that his name had been listed for further education. He was left behind at Kompong Trobek. Since then, we have never met. He was killed there. He was the husband of my aunty. The house owner was our relative. He was an honest person who always say something truth. We have not asked him to hide the family’s background yet. My father was aware of the situation and was not telling the truth of his work background. But the house owner had already told the Khmer Rouge. He was the father of Mr. Tony. We have never seen him. My older brother was also asked of his previous work background. We told the Khmer Rouge that he was a cyclo driver. My father was a military official in logistics, responsible for distributing rice to people. After the liberation, we SRU. I remember on the way I saw the villagers chasing the former Khmer Rouge who were so harsh.
Q: After the interview, what do you feel? A: I feel relieved when I tell this real life story.
Q: Will you share that in the future? A: Yes, I will share what I personally experienced and eyewitnessed. We must personally experience that and then we can share it.
Q: After the liberation, were there any actos of revenge in your areas? A: After the liberation, we were on the way home from the western part. I saw villagers chasing the former Khmer Rouge who were so aggressive to them. I was very scared. I was afraid those former Khmer Rouge would run to us and cause confusion that the villagers will kill us too. At the time, it was chaotic; there was no law yet. You know, villagers chased after the unit heads who ran across us. We were so scared. Village and Commune had no management yet while the Vietnam military were on guard. They were on guard in the village to protect people. I remember that there were cases of robbery as well. I was so scared. My father knew a Vietnamese man and asked them to safeguard my house.
Q: Did you eyewitness the revenge killing? A: Yes, I did eyewithness it. Some were killed while some got injured. People tried to stop the villagers from killing those former Khmer Rouge. Later on, the authorities prevented those revenge killings.
Q: Now, are there any unit heads who still alive? A: They have died. There are kitchen heads, chief etc who are alive. They were in lower positions and people were not angry with them at all. People got angry with those who had power to order the killing or to hurt others. Now, we do not discriminate them. Some female unit leaders have passed away.
Interviewer: Soeung Bunly
Interviewee: Sor Sarath
The term “base people” refers to the base of society - the peasant class.
In light of Mrs Sor Sarath’s testimony, consider to what extent the Cambodian Civil War was a domestic, regional, or global conflict during the Cold War Era.
Discuss the role of interpersonal relations and social networks in helping Cambodian citizens get through the oppression of the Khmer Rouge regime.
Consider the possibility of generational differences in Cambodia’s historical memory of the Khmer Rouge, given that Mrs Sor Sarath was only a child during the regime. How would that enrich our understanding of the Cambodian Civil War and the Cold War in Asia?
Assess the role of religion in Cambodian society during and after the Cold War, and how it shapes survivors’ memories of the civil war.