Interview With Sum Tong

Sum Tong discusses his life of hard labor under the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.

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Sum Tong had moved from his hometown of Tropaing Arak to Phnom Penh in 1972, but was forced to return there in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge regime took power. His family feared for the safety of his highly educated older brother, who was at risk of being killed. He survived by concealing his educational history. As early as 1975, regime officials began killing suspected enemies in the village. Their neighbor, a medical doctor, was killed for his high education. Buddhism was outlawed, and pagodas were converted for the regime’s use or demolished. Sum Tong’s family was separated, as the siblings were assigned to hard labor in different regions. 

    Initially, Sum Tong worked alongside the Youth Unit in the fields, despite being very young. As he was under the age of 15, he was reassigned to a frontline child unit, which only worked within the commune. His unit collected waste from lavatories in the pagodas and households and dried them to be used as fertilizer. This process took a few days, and his team had time to forage for extra food such as fish in the fields. When he was a little older, he returned to planting paddy, working 16-hour days from 6am, with an hour lunch break. On just one occasion, he fell asleep from exhaustion while walking, and was hit by a supervisor. Laborers were given meager portions of porridge and remained malnourished. Once, he went foraging for food under the pretext of a toilet break, and believes his superiors knew his true intentions. Chronic hunger took a toll on his body - he fell ill, and returned to his parents’ home to recuperate. He received traditional treatment at the district pagoda that was converted into a hospital. Only patients were given sufficient servings of rice porridge, which helped him recover. In light of how demanding rice planting work was, he at times considered enlisting in the military. He was later rotated into construction projects, building dams and dykes for irrigation. 

    By 1977, his strong work ethic was recognized by the superiors, and he was promoted as a child unit head, and later as head of logistics. In this role, he developed a keen understanding of which regions yielded various kinds of crops, and was authorized to request ingredients for cooking, which his unit prepared and distributed to other units. This earned him the favor of his superior Mr Khan, who once enlisted his help to cook large amounts of glutinous rice for multiple units. Mr Khan also left Sum Tong to discipline two uncooperative boys from a child unit, who had been arrested for evading work. He knew their parents, and while he treated them harshly when regime officials were present, he fed them and was lenient towards them when the authorities left. Superiors were also more understanding towards him, such as how they overlooked his transgression when he shaved his head to treat a scalp condition, while others would have been persecuted for allegedly demonstrating commitment to Buddhism over socialism.

    His growing reputation also drew suspicion and envy from other seniors, including his own relative, who complained to the management that he should not be entrusted with such responsibilities. As a result, he was removed from his position in logistics and reassigned to paddy production. He also went foraging in restricted zones, with a permit from the commune office. Only once, near the end of the regime, he was detained and interrogated by Khmer Rouge soldiers despite carrying the authorization letter. His final assignment before the regime was toppled in 1979 was repairing dams damaged by fishes.

    When the Vietnamese invasion occurred, Sum Tong was on duty at the dams, and heard the explosions from combat. He and his colleague returned to a largely deserted village, and even the commune office and kitchen were empty. They took the rice that remained in the storehouse and went in search of their families. Sum Tong reunited with his parents at their hometown, from which they refused to flee further. The Khmer Rouge, which was being pushed back by the Vietnamese, forced civilians to follow them to refugee camps. He and many others tried to secretly escape, to varying degrees of success. While he was able to, others were suspected to be siding with Vietnam and were killed. His family eventually re-settled in their hometown after finding their way back from various refugee camps. Fortunately, all of them survived.

    After the regime collapsed, the trauma of his past oppression haunted him. At first, he carried an ax wherever he went, and was ready to kill anyone who had mistreated him under the regime. Eventually, he let go of his desires for revenge by recalling Buddhist teachings, and began working as a security officer. While he was able to let go of the need for vengeance, others were not, and revenge killings occurred in his community. On some occasions, he had to bury the corpses as part of his duties, and recognized the deceased as personal acquaintances. Buddhism was gradually restored in Cambodia, and he feels that the teachings should continue to be practiced in people’s lives.

Mr. Sum Tong, Phnom Penh


Q: Where did you live before 1975? A: In 1975, Lon Nol’s regime was finished. Before the Khmer Rouge came, I lived in Dey Thmey, Phnom Penh. I lived here since 1972, escaping from my birthplace, Toul Leap of Tropaing Arak. In 1975, the Pol Pot regime came to power; and I moved to my birthplace in Tropaing Arak. Under the Khmer Rouge, we lived as a collective, but we ate in our family. After few months, we lived in a commune and were forced to eat collectively as well. My family was very concerned about the safety of my older brother, who was well-educated. He was trained to do specialized work, but he denied doing it. He was afraid that he would be killed. My younger sister and I were tasked to build dams. She was tasked to build dams in Thnol Toteng. I was tasked to build dam at O’krang Vol in Kampong Speu province. We had to build huge dykes. People from many villages went to work there. It was the very first task. I remember going there on foot. Everybody went there on foot. We had no more rice left. We were starving. Each village received only 1 milk can of rice. A few villages together constituted a commune. And each village comprises of few people. 

Q: How long were you tasked to work there? A: It was around 1 month at O’Krang Bol. Q: Did you eat as a collective? A: No, we ate separately. I prepared foods by myself, finding some ingredients like morning glory to cook. After that, I returned home. Then, I was tasked to build another dyke project at Ampel village of Angboeung Chork, near the Khov family Chinese cemetery. I built a dyke there. The Khmer Rouge started sending us off to do intensive labor work at different places. In around November 1975, I was tasked to do dry season rice cultivation at Samrong village near Ta Mouk area. It consisted of lower Ta Mouk, upper Ta Mouk and middle Ta Mouk. It is near Prek Phnov. I was sent off to faraway places. That was a very hard time. We did not have any rice harvest yet. I had an idea of where the rice was from. You know, they cooked a cauldron of porridge with a few milk cans of rice and water lily.  In that lake, there were so many water lilies. They cooked them with rice porridge to serve us. I got only a few gains of rice out of the porridge. It was the beginning of dry season rice cultivation. It was very desperate. 

Q: Where did you sleep then? A: I slept in the makeshift tent I made. It was around November or December, very cold and windy. In the early morning around 5am, we had to plant rice in the water.  We collected grass from the paddy field. We grew rice based on the water level. It was very cold, and I needed to go into the water to work. I had no choice. At first, I felt so cold in the water, but later on it was not so cold. I did that work until the rice was nearly ripe to be harvested. Then, I was sick. I got medical treatment at P’or pagoda. It was a district hospital. I slept in the open air tent, with no blanket. I used tree leaves to cover my feet when it got very windy and cold at night. Actually, only women were given proper tents to sleep in. Men slept under the trees or bushes. I got a fever and started shivering. I was allowed to stay home until I recovered. At home, I could only see my mother, while my father was outside doing work as usual. He was tasked with making ploughs and farming equipment at a different place. After getting permission to stay home, I went out to the nearby village to find fish. At the time, there were many fish. I got some and cooked them. Q: How was your medical treatment? A: I got rabbit waste tablet. It is black. In the morning, they gave me energy medicine. Q: How about injection or syrup medications? A: No, there wasn’t any. I got enough porridge made from newly milled rice. That porridge helped me recover. I ate a big bowl of porridge. Patients were allowed to eat sufficient porridge. I got more energy and felt better. Then, I had to return to work again. Around 1 year passed. The Khmer Rouge started to put people into units. They convened a huge meeting that many people joined, at Prasat Sre Ampel near Phneat Pagoda. All the people across the district came to join. Some harvesting activities were done. It was part of their strategy to send people to different zones.  They prepared to recruit people and then sent them to local and district units. They made plans. For me, I was a small boy, but I was put in a frontline unit. And people were tasked to make dykes there. The Khmer Rouge put people in different zones based on different criterion. A regional unit was huge. It almost covered the whole zone. I was in the Western Zone. I was in a commune but with a different unit. I was sent off to Damank Ampil near M’kak of Thnol Teterng area. I mean eastwards from Thnol Toterng. It is not O’kraing Vol where I was assigned before. I built dykes there too, for the irrigation system. It was along National Road 4. We worked on making a good dyke. I was there for the whole dry season to build a channel. 

Q: Did they give you targets? A: Yes, I was given targets as a group. Each group had to meet a 5-meter target. However, it depended on the soil quality: soft soil or hard soil. In some places, soil had many stones or small sediments. Therefore, the Khmer Rouge understood that. It was not so strict, but we needed to work both day and night. 

Q: How many people were in your group? A: My group consisted of 12 people. We were part of a larger unit. One unit comprises of around 30 people. In Snor commune, there were many units. In M’kak or Samrong Leu, there were many different units too. Therefore, in a district, there were many different communes and units. After working in a district unit, I was transfered to a children’s unit, but it was a front-line unit.  That was the policy of the Khmer Rouge. When the work is almost done, they would transfer us to different units. I was not allowed to go home at all. There are three areas in Samrong: North Samrong, South Samrong and Middle Samrong.  I was in North Samrong where the district unit members and other units got together. I belonged to a child frontline unit. In this unit, we worked with adult units. My close friend Mr. Tha was also stationed there. At North Samrong pagoda, the Khmer Rouge consolidated many different units into a big crowd. They restructured and regrouped us. I then was moved into a smaller district unit. 

Q: At night, what time did you finish work? A: It was around 10 pm at night. We had dinner at 6:00 and right after that we had to continue working. We built channels. There was no break time, that became normal for us. In the morning, we got up at 6 am and got to work. Going back to my story at North Samrong, I was assigned to a district unit. I had to work in different districts. Many groups were sent off to work at very faraway places at different districts around Am Laing district of Kampong Speu province. They walked there. For me, I was not sent to a faraway district but the neighboring district. I was tasked to collect waste from toilets in the pagodas. At the time, toilets were like open concrete water reservoir. I needed to get into that toilet reservoir full of waste to clear it. We worked in groups of three or four. But only I did that while the rest did not. I had soap, given by Angkar. At first, I felt hesitant and disgusted to do it. I broke the upper part of the waste reservoir. I saw many waste worms. And then I jumped into the reservoir full of worms and waste. It was waist deep. I sprayed rice husk and ash on the waste and used a bucket to lift the waste off the reservoirs. My team members pulled the buckets from the reservoirs. It spilled over me. That was disgusting. There were many worms on me. I used Kroma (head scarf) and hat to protect my head from the waste and worms. The wastes were dried under the sun to make natural fertilizer. I had to do that to survive. Well, I’ve told you this story before. I knew many places around Samrong area. I was in a group of four, with a head who did some tasks, but later on he did not do anything and just oversaw us completing the task. He observed us to make sure we really did our tasks. Our task was easier compared to others’. In the morning, I did that for around 2 hours and then we were allowed to rest and take a bath to clean our bodies. That was not well planned. I was given soap to take a bath. After some time, the waste completely dried, and we put them in sacks. We were not disgusted by that anymore. We packed all the dried waste and then my team was assigned another project of collecting waste in different areas. I kept doing that. Many different people were assigned to different task forces, such as growing rice in the dry season or bringing water to the rice field. They were overseen by unit heads. Their work was so tough and strict. For me, I just worked on collecting waste from mobile units. It was told to collect the waste from previous mobile units. It was not hard work actually. I used rice husk and ash to put out the bed smell. It was just dirty and disgusting. I worked on that for around two months, collecting tons of waste. There were several bags of that. We four in my group packed the dried waste well. We finished up all our tasks and had a break, sleeping on the hammock. We cooked ourselves, receiving milled rice. We just needed to find food. It was easy for us to secretly eat food. We had salt and we went outside to get fish. We baked fish. My team had solidarity. We worked together. We collected waste from home to home in the areas. I remember my team was assigned to collect the waste at different sectors. Usually, it took me few days to collect the waste. It took us around 4-5 days to get the waste dried. After finishing in each place, I could leave. There was a separate group who transported the dried waste. It was the Khmer Rouge’s policy to use us to do their work. They mobilized people from different units when it was almost time to harvest. I was assigned to grow corns. It was almost ripe enough to be harvested, but I was transferred to a different unit. The regime did not allow us to stay or work in one place for a long period of time. 

I was not allowed to visit my hometown, while my best friend Sitha was allowed to. I was moved to work at the commune level. At the commune level, I grew rice in the rainy season. It was a hard time. I had to get up very early and work until late at night. It was so tough. I just had enough food, not just a cauldron with a few cans of rice. Actually, we ate enough rice porridge. We were allowed to eat cooked rice after the harvest was finished. It depended on the cook. If the cook was smart, he/she cooked more foods and contributed to us. They were flexible in managing our food. They got rice from their superiors and cooked for us. They cooked some kind of stew with leaves for us.  In Pol Pot’s regime, we had to focus on work. I was assigned to work at Snor commune, near Toul Leap village. On the trip, I saw many soldiers at the outskirts of Phnom Penh. If we went across their off-limits area, we would be arrested. I stayed at Snor in Phnom Penh. Similarly, solders from Phnom Penh came to this place. The military would stop them and ask for basic information. 

I studied for around for 15 days. Actually, we had no time to study. We started work in the morning at 6:00 and had a break at 11:00. We had lunch until 12:00. How could we study at lunch time? It was called “socialism time” when we were supposed to study. We learned to write. At the time, I was in grade 4 and was able to write already. We only had chalk made from clay and a stone to write on. We studied for only 10-15 minutes. Our teacher was not well prepared to teach us because they were too tired like us. Everybody worked. Heads and deputy heads of units worked as well. Sometimes, they were more tired than us. They had to get up early to wake people up. Some people got up late and those heads and deputy heads had to wake them up. Otherwise, the work might not be carried out well. They were afraid of being blamed. I studied at Ta En village, Snor, but soon we could not study anymore, because everybody just focused on work. We had to get up very early at 4 am. Sometimes, we farmed until 6 or 7 pm. Occasionally, we were forced to do it until 10 or 11pm at night. Generators were used to light up the rice field. Getting up early at 4am was very hard for us. We were very weak and sleepy. Sometimes, I really wanted to become a soldier. I told myself that if I was given an opportunity to serve as a soldier, I would go for it. Growing rice was too tiring. I had never experienced such hardship before. I sometimes walked with closed eyes because I was too sleepy. We all needed to work together, not to mention their assigned targets. Those who were not visiting their hometowns were assigned tasks in different ways. My siblings, like Mr. Taing and Sophanna were here with me. I gave them sweets and fermented fish sometimes. I was responsible for logistics including food. I brought in food from the district level. I had the authority to call up all the unit heads for a meeting via invitation letter. It was easy for me to do such work, having learnt from others and my own experience. I was assigned to be a supervisor on projects. The grandpa told me “Don’t waste your time. I was told to cook sweet sticky rice around 50 buckets of it.” I requested other units for assistance. I almost had no time to sleep at night. I was so fortunate that I could cook the food. Since then, I was de facto head of the unit. However, the other unit heads looked too busy to do their tasks.   

We worked until 11pm and were too sleepy. In the early morning, we got up early too, and were hungry. I got guava and ripe palm fruit. We had nothing in our stomachs. You can imagine. You can imagine how miserable our lives were. We had a break from 11:30 to 1:00. I once went out to find food or fruits on the pretext of going to the toilet.  I got a palm fruit and just ate it hungrily. It was sweet and tasty. It kept me full. I ate it raw, not cooked. It gave me energy. 

Q: Did they know that? A: I think they knew, but they did not punish me. They just asked me why it took me so long to go to the toilet. I was too hungry, and I was just speechless. 

We did farming both in dry and rainy seasons and there are particular units who worked on dry season rice farming. They were young people, such as the female unit and youth unit. There were child units that just worked in the communes. They were not allowed to work in the rice fields.  I was in a child unit but a frontline one.  I was less than 15 years old, but worked with the youth unit since before that. It meant I had to work as hard as them. They got up early to go to the rice field and so did I. I worked for 1 year. Then there was another arrangement. I was assigned to work at the commune level while others were reassigned to different places at the district level. My hard work was recognized by the superiors. In 1977, I was tasked with different responsibilities while new child units were created. Many children were put together in Snor. My younger brother Taing and sister Phanna were there too. Usually, only seniors were promoted as unit head. However, I was promoted as unit head due to my very hard work. I was young but energetic and able to work as hard as the older people. Therefore, I was promoted as the child unit head. Soon after that I was tasked to be responsible for logistics at Snor commune. I took over responsibility for that from Mr. Khan. I was the one authorized to get food and arrange the cooking units to distribute it to all units across Snor commune. We distributed food to all units like the vegetation unit, rice field units, or dyke units. With this position, I felt comfortable despite the strict regulations. Some of my close friends often asked me for food, and it was very hard to reject them. Superiors became suspicious of me. At my place, there was a person named Khan. He was very strict but gentle. He liked me. He often accused people who did not work properly, but he never killed anyone. Therefore, in 1977, my life was a bit better. During my term as unit head responsible for food, there was a new year celebration and foods were distributed to certain people. Mr. Khan told me to cook sticky rice. I asked the elderly people how to make sticky rice. Each unit had to receive a bucket of sticky rice. Actually, it was a big amount of sticky rice to be cooked. It was around 30 kg. I wrote a letter and sent them out to invite some unit heads to provide me assistance to cook the sticky rice. Finally, the sticky rice was cooked well. My younger brother and sister came to my workplace. There was fermented fish, but I did not give them. I only gave them some palm sugar. I could not give them fermented fish. You know, all foods were in the warehouse. I got it from the trade department. So, we finally cooked around 50-600 buckets of sticky rice. It took us 3 days to cook. We did not sleep at night in order to finish cooking it. There were around 120 people from two units involved in cooking this sticky rice. We made it and Mr. Khan was very satisfied with my work and appreciated me a lot. I managed that work for some time and then there was a woman who envied me. She was a senior unit head managing around 100 children. She reported to the higher-ranked officials that I was a 17 April person and should not be promoted as unit head etc. Then, I was assigned to do dry season rice growing again. One bucket of sticky rice remained, and I kept it underground. I would have given it to my mother if she had been near me. However, she was sent to a faraway place. It was impossible to bring it to my family members who were at different places such as the river. I used to bring a rat for my youngest brother, running for almost 1 hour. I kept it underground at Ampil village, near Angbeng Chork. I had no chance to unearth it at all since I was sent to different places. I was not authorized to give orders related to logistics anymore. Before, I was authorized to request ox carts and manpower for transportation of sugar, sweet cassava etc. It was around 1978 or 1979. I was tasked with different responsibilities, such as safeguarding the dam in a group of three. This task was not part of any particular unit. It was not so tough. However, in 1978, I was tasked to grow rice at Veal Ork Yum of Samrong. We dug dykes along the railroad toward the northern region, and that was very tough work. We worked until nighttime. We used light to brighten our field of vision. You know, I still do not talk to Mrs. Saroeun, who envied and reported me to the seniors. She is my relative from my father side. She lives in Oudong these days. I am angry with her. Actually, I did nice things when I was a unit head. At a certain time, I was given the authority to discipline two boys who liked to run away from their child unit.  It was Mr. Khan who handed me those two boys. He said that I can do whatsoever I wanted with them. He is very strict, but has never killed anyone. He punished people who committed wrongdoings by hitting them. I tied them to the tree and kicked them lightly, not strongly. I gave them meals and untied them. After 3 days, I did not try to be harsh like before. I told myself that if I was not able to correct these boys, the seniors would blame me. You know, the Khmer Rouge gave us a task and we had to do it well. I experienced working in a child unit, and I knew how difficult it was. Therefore, I would never punish them. I imagined how terrible it would be if youngers were punished. I kicked them in the presence of the Khmer Rouge officials because I just wanted to show that I was not lenient with those boys. But in reality, I felt pity for them. I tied them to the tree for a short time only, then I untied them and gave them meals. In the early morning, I went to see them again and they did not run away at all. They slept under the tree. After a week, I handed them over to their previous unit head and they joined work with the others. They were around 6-7 years old. Their parents knew me; and they were concerned. You know, chhlop (security force) arrested them directly.  

Q: Have you ever been hit? A: Yes, someone slapped my face hard when I was carrying soil in a dyke construction project. I dozed off actually. It was in Damnak Ampel. I was very angry at the time, but I tried to calm my anger down. I kept remembering it. But later on, I felt that it was not a big thing anymore. Many people were hurt and harshly punished much more terribly than me. Their throats were cut off. My neighbor cried profusely when he was taken away for killing. It was in 1975, a few months after the Khmer Rouge occupied the country. At the time, the situation was so chaotic and confusing. Actually, they knew each other and used to be colleagues. But then they worked for different factions. One worked for the liberation army while the other worked for Lon Nol’s regime. When the new regime took over, they took revenge and killed each other. In 1977, a guy I knew told me that he had killed a man named Chi, by cutting his throat off with part of a palm tree at Tropaing Arak. I listened to him and pretended to be clueless. However, I thought to myself that the man who was killed was none other than Mr. Chi. He was a son of Mr. Noeun. And Mr. Hourn was killed too. He told me the truth, but I said nothing. He was in his late twenties and was a soldier. Another guy who killed was a commune officer. He used to serve as a district soldier. I don’t want to say his name. It is just the past that I knew. In short, I was slapped once only and received some advice. In 1978, I was moved to a different sector, not the kitchen sector where I got enough food. I was so hungry. Then, I was sent to Snor Commune office at Por Bak. I worked there and was provided with steamed rice. Mr. Douk was in charge of that commune office. I heard that he used to be a chief pagoda monk before the Khmer Rouge regime. He is noisy but good hearted. He allowed his staff to eat enough food. It was nearly 1978 and we had a lot of rice in the rice banks. In the meetings, he said that we can eat enough food. We ate cooked rice rather than porridge. 

Q: How about stew? 

A: We prepared stew by ourselves. We found fish in the rice field or lake, and cooked it. But the main food for us was cooked rice. We received some salt as incentive for our work. At the commune office, I was responsible for rice milling. We had a rice milling machine, but it was not enough. Therefore, we used traditional rice milling methods. Rice demand increased because people were allowed to eat rice. I was head of a rice milling sector and there was a girl who was also responsible for another rice milling sector.  Once, there was a meeting of different sectors at the commune office where different projects such as food production, handcrafting agricultural equipment, rice milling, tailoring etc were distributed to many different work brigades. The commune office needed a man who could climb palm trees to pluck fruits for cooking. Mr. Douk asked, “Who can climb a palm tree? Please, raise your hand.” I immediately raised my hand before the commune committee. I was not scared at all. Then Mr. Khan, who was a deputy of the commune office recognized me. He asked me whether I could climb palm trees. I told him that I surely could. Then, he told me to get some palm fruits and other vegetables to prepare food. If I needed any vegetables, I just told him to request them. I needed to get sweet cassava and water lily etc. All people working under the commune office got cooked rice. It was cooked in each working brigade. The tailor brigade prepared its own stew. The rice milling brigade prepared its own stew. It happened like that. 

Q: Do you need an order to collect palm fruits? A: No, not all the time. I just assessed the situation. I could get palm fruit and other vegetables to prepare for food. It varied. I knew the area well, and I knew where palm trees were. Usually, I could pick many palm fruits, enough to fill a cart, from a single tree. I picked only young palm fruits for cooking. Each day, I climbed only a few palm trees to get their fruits and that was enough for cooking. It was not difficult. I came to Phnom Penh to collect morning glory. But I needed a letter from my commune office to come to Phnom Penh, where the soldier checked it each time. I showed them the letter and they allowed me to enter Phnom Penh. I told them that I was from Snor commune and wanted to collect morning glory. I was once arrested in 1978 when Vietnamese soldiers were fighting against the Khmer Rouge.  I was stopped at Teuk Tla Health Center where the military was stationed. I was collecting morning glory in the area. When I left the area, they stopped me right away. Then, they sent me to somewhere near Chhroy Changvar bridge. I was detained for three days. I was a bit concerned but I had the letter which reassured me. If I did not have a letter, I would have been killed. At the time, the Khmer Rouge soldiers fought the Youn (Vietnamese soldiers). They went into Vietnamese territory and attacked. They wanted to take back Kampuchea Krom. However, unfortunately, no one supported the Khmer Rouge soldiers, not even China. They did not have airplanes. I was told that Vietnamese soldiers used DCA to overpoweringly shoot the Khmer Rouge solders. Many Khmer Rouge soldiers were killed. They were very strong. The Khmer Rouge soldiers did not have modern weaponry at all. If they had modern weapons, they could have occupied some areas of Vietnamese territory. Once, my head was very itchy and I decided to shave my head, so that I could apply medication. My friend named Mr. Mean also shaved. You know, Mr. Khan asked me why I shaved my head. I told him that my head was itchy, and I shaved my head so that I could apply medication thoroughly. Then Mr. Khan asked me why Mr. Mean shaved too. I told him that he just followed me. Mr. Khan was not very happy with that. He told us that he knew me well and understood me. If I was another person, I would have been killed. You know, at the time the situation was chaotic where Vietnamese were fighting against the Khmer Rouge and some of them were in Phnom Penh. And the Khmer Rouge did not allow us to shave for any reasons at all. I was not tortured or physically abused. However, I was forced to do very tough work. It was extremely tough; I cannot describe it in words, you know. After that, I was tasked to work at an area near the river. There of us were sent there to take care of the dam at Ong Ko near Cham Mosque of Kopmong Ors, Ponhea Leu, Prek Kdam. Many people were tasked to do work there like dry season rice cultivation, building dams etc. I knew that area very well and most people from Western Zone were assigned there. That area was very spacious and not many people lived there. I did not know where people had gone. Now, there are many people at Kampong Ors and Cheur Boun. I was tasked to plant corn and fruit trees. The soil at river areas was very good for planting, unlike the soil in the village. Therefore, the Khmer Rouge sent many people to work at those areas, such as Toul Sangke, Cheu Boun, Bat Toul, Toul Tachouk, Spean Setha and Prek Kdam etc. The area was for plantations. Some elderly people were tasked to take care of the tobacco plantation. So, I was responsible for looking after the dam while many other people cultivated dry season rice at the other side of the river. I had to make sure that the dam was not broken or leaking. I needed to look after it well, to make sure that eels had not made holes in the dam. The commune committee who assigned me informed me that if the dam leaked, I would be shot dead. They told me that. In the morning, I rode a boat to check the dam with Mr. Chhoeun. We carefully monitored it. When we saw any bubbles popping up, we tried to identify the holes to prevent leaks. I was in a group of four who took care of the dam. We did not care about dry season rice cultivation because it was not our task. We cooked ourselves and there were so many big fish and eels. That was the task I was doing before the Khmer Rouge regime collapsed in 1979. 

Q: When did you come back to your home village?

A: Around 12 midnight, I came to my home village. You know, I was surrounded by water. I did not know clearly that Phnom Penh was taken over. I just heard the sound of strong air bombardment several times. I did not realize that Phnom Penh was occupied by the Vietnamese. But I noticed that it was very quiet. I heard no voices of people over the water vibration. You know, I could hear people from afar because the water sends strong sound waves. For example, now I am here but I could hear people in Pochentong because of the sound waves of the water in the river. Sometimes, at night I sent a voice signal to my colleague by yelling to the water and they did hear me. It was very quiet, and I started to wonder what had happened. Then, I decided to see if there were people in the kitchen. Finally, I saw no one and there was hardly any luggage left at all, but I saw a cauldron of cooked rice remaining. I thought that the people had left around 4 or 5 pm. I heard the airstrike around 2 or 3 pm and people might have moved around after that. Then, I rode a boat back to the place where I kept my luggage.

Q: Was it a machine boat? A: No, it was not. I had to row the boat, made from palm tree. I brought some remaining rice from the kitchen and walked home. I reached Kampong Ors where I had to cross the river and there, I heard the sound of tanks from the East. I thought that Vietnamese troops were approaching. People had already gone. There was no car or truck at all. So Mr. Chhoeun, Mr. Sak and I used bicycles to load banana trees and take them to the river so that we could use them to cross the river. We held onto the banana trees to prevent ourselves from drowning. Finally, we made it. We reached the other side of the river near Krous Pagoda, in the northern part of Prek Phnov. Then, we walked a bit. Because of tiredness, we decided to sleep somewhere at the western part of Prek Phnov. We heard extremely loud bombs and weapon explosions. I thought that the military fortress at Longvek in Oudong was set on fire. I heard the explosion and saw the flames. I walked to the commune office to see if there would be any task arrangements, but it was very quiet there. Then, I went to see the commune office kitchen. I saw a lot of milled rice and salt. Mr. Chhoeun and I took some. I learnt from the experiences of my parents that in war, rice was the most important thing for us. Wherever we went, we needed it. We aimed to go to Trep village where my parents were. The village was very quiet. On the way, we met Mr. Phourn, who was a commune level security guard. He told us that people had fled to the western region, maybe Trapaing Arak. I told Mr. Chheoun that we should split the rice in separate bags so that we could go different directions to find our respective families. Finally, I met my parents in Trapaing Arak. They told me that they would not flee further westward because they knew the situation well from their past experience. At the western area, there was not enough food to eat and not enough water. At night, the Khmer Rouge came to our village to force the villagers to go with them. They did not want us to side with the Vietnamese soldiers. We tried to escape little by little. Each family had oxcarts loaded with basic stuff to travel. It was very dangerous for us because we were staying in a place between Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge territories. You know, Mr. Pov’s older brother named Than was shot dead by a Khmer Rouge soldier. He was forced to leave his village, and came to Phnom Penh to get cows. On the way back to where he was forced to, he met Khmer Rouge soldiers. Then he was shot dead in Tropaing Arak. The Khmer Rouge said that he had contact with, and became indoctrinated by Youn (Vietnamese soldiers). As for me, I went to catch chicken and ducks in Phnom Penh and got back safely. You know, Vietnamese soldiers just attacked and pushed Khmer Rouge soldiers back, bit by bit. Like my younger sister Rath, she was evacuated to a mountainous area in Kampong Speu for months with other people. The Khmer Rouge tried to evacuate and forced people to go with them while being attacked by Vietnamese soldiers. Some people got a chance to escape and returned to their home village. Some were still with the Khmer Rouge, and some were killed. They had different fates. That was the real situation before the collapse of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. After the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime, I reunited with my parents, and we decided to stay at Damnak village near Pochentong. A few months later, we moved to Trapaing Arak, which was my parents’ hometown.

Q: Were your relatives/siblings killed? A: No. My relatives and siblings were not killed under the Khmer Rouge regime. My aunt Nang was evacuated and forced to go to a faraway province. Some Khmer Rouge security guards in the village knew my family well, and my father had no work history related to the previous Lon Nol regime. They knew that my older brother was highly educated but they did not hurt or kill him. They also recognized my hard work, so they turned a blind eye. You know, under the Khmer Rouge, most of the highly educated people were forced to labor and then killed. My neighbor was a medical doctor before the Khmer Rouge came to power. He was very gentle and kind. When the Khmer Rouge came to power, they forced him to labor at night. After a few days, he was killed. 

Q: How about pagodas? The Khmer Rouge used pagodas as hospitals or pig farms. Or they just demolished the pagoda, you know. Like Toin Or pagoda, the Khmer Rouge converted it into a hospital while Phneat pagoda was demolished by landmines. In 1975, I saw so many landmines and bullets in the rice field. It was almost everywhere. It was scattered almost everywhere really. On the hill and trench, I saw so many landmines and bullets. You know, I am the one who set fire to those bullets. I set fire to the trench where there were many bullets. I destroyed them. They exploded. 

Q: How about Buddhist monks? A: I think Buddhist monks were defrocked after 1971. However, Buddhist monks from Lon Nol areas were defrocked in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge came to power. My close friend named Ear became a monk in 1971 or 1972. I forget the year. After the collapse of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, he came to meet and greet my father as a normal person (not a monk). I think after the Khmer Rouge came to the village, Buddhist monks had to leave their monkhood to save their lives. You know, in the area I lived, the Khmer Rouge did not allow Buddhist monks since 1970 or 1971 if I remember it correctly. However, in the area occupied by Lon Nol, I believe there were Buddhist monks at the time. And after 1975, I think no more Buddhist monks remained. 

Q: Have you ever thought of that bitter past? A: Yes, I recall the past where my life was so terrible, bitter, and hard. My life was extremely desperate and painful. I did very hard labor. If I had not worked so hard, I would have been tortured and killed. Some people in the working brigade were severely tortured and killed. They worked so hard but received insufficient food. I was very committed to hard work. I tried to satisfy the Khmer Rouge as much as I could. I was so afraid that they would kill my siblings or parents. I did not want to make any mistakes which could lead to my parents or siblings being killed. During the Khmer Rouge regime, I was away from home for over 3 years. I just focused on work. Sometimes, I recall it at night when I sleep. It was a hard time. However, I try to forget it and think about the current situation where life became much better. Even though I am not rich, I am so happy with my life. I can live and meet my family and relatives. 

Q: Have you ever been angry with the Khmer Rouge? A: After the collapse of the Khmer Rouge, I was so angry. Wherever I went, I brought a small ax in my pocket. At the time, if I had met them, I would have killed them. He slapped me strongly. It hurt so much. He forced me to labor until almost midnight. It was terrible. Now, I have forgotten it. I just thought that I was young, and I very sleepy at the time. The Khmer Rouge had not allowed us to have a break. We had to work hard to build the Phneat Dam. They were too strict. We were not allowed to have a break at all. At the time, I was so angry with that guy. 

Q: Do you want to forget about that past? A: I cannot forget that past entirely. It is still in my memory, you know. Sometimes, it appears in my mind. The hardship and struggles of that the time are so deep in my mind. However, it became less strong with time. 

Q: How did you feel after the Vietnamese came to liberate? A: I was so glad to be liberated. I met my family. I was so excited, you know. Then, I became a security guard in my village where I worked with Vietnamese colleagues. 

Q: Was there any revenge after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge? A: Yes, there was a case of revenge killing in my village in 1979. A man named Sem was shot dead out of revenge. I know him well. I was the one who buried his body. It happened a month after the Khmer Rouge collapsed. I remember that at the time, China and Vietnam were fighting. In Pochentong, there was a district office and a district hospital. Some people were detained in that district office. Mr. Sem lived in Trapaing Arak. I did not know where exactly he served under the Khmer Rouge. However, after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge, he was arrested and killed in Damnak village. I did not know that he was arrested and killed. But in the morning, as a security officer, I was told to bury his body; and when I saw the body, I just recognized it was him. He had lived in my parents’ hometown. I had known him well and I used to meet him when I was tasked to do dry season rice cultivation at the river area. Maybe, he hurt others during the Khmer Rouge. He was shot dead. 

Q: Is this your first interview about your life under the Khmer Rouge? A: Yes, this is my very first time being interviewed about my life under the Khmer Rouge. 

Q: Do you believe “Anger can be finished by not getting angry?”

A: I think Buddhist philosophy is very good. Violence can be ended by nonviolence. If we get angry and take revenge against each other, the killing will continue. People will hate one another, and it is good for us at all. As Buddhists, we should calm down and forgive. Don’t kill and hurt. In 1975, I witnessed killings in my village. The victims cried for help and then got killed. His throat was cut off by a palm tree branch. And after 1979, a man was shot dead, and I buried his body. I experienced the killing of people I knew. The man lived in Chambok Kong of Toul Prich district. He used to help my mother and siblings. You know, in 1972, my mother and my siblings Phanna and Taing were evacuated from Ang Nisay pagoda to Thnol Toteng. He kindly accompanied them on their return to our village. So, we should apply this teaching of Lord Buddha. 

Interviewer: Soeung Bunly

Interviewee: Sum Tong

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Transcript Notes


  1. Given the many close shaves Sum Tong had with almost being killed, and his rise through the ranks, consider how personal networks shaped Cambodians’ navigation of the Khmer Rouge regime and the Cold War? How does that enrich our understanding of the Cold War in Asia?

  2. Sum Tong discusses the experiences of many different generations of Cambodians during the Cold War. Consider the merits of studying generational variations in social histories of the Khmer Rouge regime.

  3. 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 Sum Tong’s testimony?

  4. Assess the role of religion in Cambodian society during and after the Cold War, and how it shapes survivors’ memories of the civil war.