Thida recounts her experiences before, during, and after the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.
Born into a relatively affluent family in the 1960s, Thida recounts how her father was a successful businessman during the Lon Nol regime. She was thus able to pursue her education until the 11th grade. However, her father did not accumulate assets, and merely kept his earnings as cash in a plastic bag. Towards the end of the Cambodian Civil War, the family lived in Speu village, which put up a strong resistance against the onslaught of invading Khmer Rouge forces. Thida describes how the villagers built a fence barrier at the village border, covering it with palm leaves. This allowed them to detect the movement of soldiers in advance by listening for the rustling of the leaves, and the men of the village could prepare to mount their defense. Yet, this could not provide absolute protection from the Khmer Rouge troops, which ultimately took over her village. She further notes, however, that villagers’ responses to the arrival of the Khmer Rouge troops varied across localities; unlike her village that fiercely resisted, her neighboring village merely surrendered during the invasion..
When the Khmer Rouge regime rose to power, her family lost their wealth. Hoarding money was an offense, and her father buried his cash savings to avoid persecution. He was never able to recover the money. Thida’s education was disrupted in the midst of her 11th grade. Schools, which were mostly run at Buddhist pagodas, were closed; Buddhist monks were also killed. People no longer celebrated New Year’s and other Buddhist special occasions. She was reassigned to serve in a women’s mobile work brigade. Her unit was often assigned to faraway locations to build dams and dykes, and she could rarely meet her parents. The various members of her family were also deployed to different regions in different vocations. Her older brother was assigned to a stationary work brigade that tended to a vegetable plantation, while her sister was assigned closer to their parents and could meet them more often.
Thida describes life under the regime as one of extreme hardship and starvation. Citizens were required to dine together at communal halls for lunch and dinner before returning to work, but food was scarce and poorly prepared due to the lack of ingredients. She recalls being unable to enjoy many traditional foods that she had had under the previous government. The lack of food led her to even secretly consume grilled insects while at work, which another colleague discovered; but she was fortunate to avoid being killed. She also became ill due to malnutrition, and received herbal medicine colloquially known as “rabbit dropping medicine”, but citizens did not dare use the term openly with regime officials. Illness did not excuse her from work either, as workers were only given sick leave if they collapsed of exhaustion. Her superiors also did not allow her to visit her ailing mother while her unit was deployed to work.
Such acts of abuse were not directly performed by military officials, but by the assigned village chiefs who were brought in from Southwestern Cambodia to oversee Northwestern regions. While she did not directly witness any killings by regime officials, she did see bodies thrown into pits that were used as makeshift mass graves. Once, she even accidentally drank the water that had accumulated in a burial pit in the dark while on a deployment late at night. Khmer Rouge officials persecuted formerly wealthy families, including her own cousins, who had employed servants in their household during the previous government. Even infants were killed, and at times, were left alive and crawling in the burial pits until they succumbed.
This ended only with the arrival of the Vietnamese military in 1979, which quickly forced Khmer Rouge forces to retreat. The fleeing Khmer Rouge troops forced civilians to follow them to the borders, and Thida merely complied. Others were brave enough to defy the instructions and return to their home village. Her village was not liberated until February or March of 1979, although the country was formally liberated in January. She stayed at a Khmer Rouge refugee camp, where many suffered from cholera and malaria infections until it was disbanded. They encountered Vietnamese soldiers on the way back to their homes, but did not expose the Khmer Rouge collaborators who had abused them under the regime. Some former Khmer Rouge members moved to America.
After the regime was toppled, Thida had to beg her parents to allow her to resume her education, while her parents preferred for her to work so they could receive greater portions of rice. Their reluctance was due to the new government’s policy, which encouraged all citizens to plant rice, and compensated families in rice proportionate to their participation. However, she was able to convince them successfully. By this time (1980s), Buddhist traditions were also restored. Thida assisted in the cleaning and restoration of Buddhist places of worship where the Khmer Rouge had committed killings. She recalls cleaning an altar that had been bloodied by the killings. Citizens also began searching the burial sites for jewelry and valuables that belonged to deceased victims. Thida and her family were disgusted by their rummaging through the pockets of decomposing corpses, and did not participate. However, they collected human remains that were later passed to the government and stored in museums, for which they were also given rice.
As a largely Buddhist society, Thida shares that most people followed the teachings of forgiveness and did not seek revenge against their former leaders who worked with the regime. However, she does recall one case where a man killed a former guard who had raped and killed his sister during the regime. She herself bears no vengeful thoughts towards her former oppressors, but wishes for future generations to learn more about this dark chapter of their nation’s history. Particularly concerned that some might even grow to disbelieve that such atrocities happened in the country, she continues to participate at commemoration events and share her story with younger generations.
Mrs. Thida, Phnom Penh
Q: How old are you? A: I am 57 years old.
Q: Before the Khmer Rouge, where did you live? A: I lived in Ampe Phnom village, Rolaing Chork commune, Samrong Tong district, Kampong Speu.
Q: What did you do before the Khmer Rouge? A: I was a young kid. I studied until grade 10 and moved to grade 11. Because of war, teachers and students did not go to school anymore. It was in 1974 and there were many bombs propelling fires around our school.
Q: So, in 1974, the Khmer Rouge started to take over Kampong Speu? A: They were approaching the surrounding areas and the outskirts of Kampong Speu town. Q: Did you remember what happened when Khmer Rouge came? A: My village was a war hotspot. Most villagers had rifles/guns. If there were three men in a household, those three men of course had three rifles. There were village administrative leaders such as village chief, 10-household deputy village chief, 20-household deputy village chief and 50-household deputy village chiefs. Every night, we were on guard. We must be vigilant. Khmer Rouge troops were angry with us because they were unable to enter my village. There were cases where Khmer Rouge troops were killed by my villagers and their comrades took the bodies back to their places. My village was a target which more sensitive than the nearby Chek Kpous fortress. I feel that Khmer Rouge troops rarely attacked that fortress, but they liked to attack my village. Because of frequent attacks, we built fences to protect our village. We used big bamboo trees to make fences and gates to temporarily protect our village. The bamboo and the skin of palm trees were used as very strong gates. I think at least the gate and fence were barriers to those Khmer Rouge troops from entering our village. Huge palm tree leaves were put in front of the gates and fence. When we heard the rustling sound from the palm leaves, it meant Khmer Rouge troops were entering our village. The villagers on guard were ready to defend the village. So, my village was a hotspot for the Khmer Rouge. They often attacked my village. Sometimes, we left our village at night and slept at other places near the old market. Only men stayed in the village to protect it. M18 Claymore mines were attached to the gate. When they touched the gate, there was a strongly flash of fire. Khmer Rouge troops were very shocked, and our village men on guard just shot them overwhelmingly. Their comrades urgently took the bodies and injured ones away. The gate was not that strong, but it was an obstacle for their entering into the village. They approached my village and shouted, “Get the villagers!” However, they cannot enter the village immediately, they needed to untie the gate. Learning of this, our village men tried to defend the village while we were fleeing to the nearby lake to hide for safety. In 1975, my family and I dared not to come to the village anymore. My father came to our home to take pigs and Khmer Rouge troops saw him. They shot him, but luckily the bullet hit his sleeves only.
Q: So, you mean your father went home to take pigs? A: Yes, you are right. Some men still secretly went to the village. For women, we did not go to our village anymore because there were Khmer Rouge troopd around the lake and Sophor Tep mountain. When they came, we could not escape them.
Q: Did Khmer Rouge troops evacuate you to other places? A: In 1975, I was at Old market. On the liberation day, what had happened is like other people said. There were many Khmer Rouge troops on the trucks shouting cheerfully and victoriously, waving white flag. Some people went to see this happening and felt happy, hearing that the war had come to an end. However, then they were evacuated by the troops. We were driven out of our homes. Families were separated. It is fortunate that my older brother went to see the cheerful event and then came home quickly. Therefore, we were not separated but together.
Q: So not only Phnom Penhers were evacuated, but also the people in your province?
A: Yes, you are correct. People from everywhere were forced to leave home.
We were forced to leave home together and moved westward along the National Road 4. We walked with our stuff. We arrived at Thomtaor Pagoda, south of National Road 4 near the mountain. They kept driving us southward toward mountainous areas. We were not allowed to cook rice there wherever or whenever we wanted. When I wanted to cook rice, they did not allow me. They told me to move further. We kept walking, carrying rice pots. My father really liked money. He was good at business. I became poor because of the Pol Pot regime. My father earned a lot of money, and he did not use it to buy gold. He just kept the money. He kept money in an American-made plastic bag and covered it with clothes. He brought it with him while being evacuated. Finally, he buried it deep in the ground. The money was new notes. He buried the money so that Khmer Rouge troops did not charge him as an elite family. He really liked money. We reached Wat Phnom where people sold pork. He did not even buy it because he really liked money. He is very good at earning money. I became poor due to Pol Pot regime. We were told that within three days we would be allowed to return home. That was why my father kept money in the bags, hoping to use it when we returned home. Finally, he buried it.
Q: After the collapse of Khmer Rouge, did he go check the buried money? A: No, he has never gone to that place again, not even once. We stayed at Dong village, Chomsangke commune, Phnom Srouch district. Q: How was your stay there? Accommodation and food? A: There were many forests there. I cut small trees in the forest to make a makeshift shelter, using palm tree leaves as roof tile and small trees as walls. We had meal as a family separately because the collective dinning wasn’t arranged yet. I think that we had collective meals after 1976. After we stayed at the place for few months, then we could not have meals with family members. Khmer Rouge came in on 17 April 1975. They forced us to move to that place and few months later we were forced to eat collectively. At the place, Khmer Rouge assigned me to cut Eupatorium odoratumand and collect buds from the bottom of the lake to be used as natural fertilizer for rice growing. We put the mud in the cart and pulled it. We were forced to pull the cart as though we were oxen. Some people pushed the cart, and some pulled it.
Q: How about food at the time? A: Food was not good. Previously, I had main ingredients like MSG and fermented fish to cook foods but at the place we were forced to, I think I eat boiled leaves with salt. Fermented fish was rarely used.
Q: What kind of foods? Morning glory? A: Yes, sometimes we ate boiled morning glory. The forest was cleared by burning the forest and there were bamboo shoots. Wild flowers and bamboo shoot were cooked. There was no flavor at all. It was not a real stew. It was neither a boiled nor sour soup. I can’t name it. They did not use any ingredients except salt. I just ate it to fill my empty stomach. In collective dining, there were long table with long chairs at both sides. I sat on a chair and ate meal on the attached table. People filled in the chairs and had meals on that long table. We just ate the meal we were provided and after that we went home for very short breaks. Then, we must work again.
Q: Was your workplace far? A: It is not so far but just near the village we lived. I just worked at the rice field near the village.
Q: Can you visit home? A: Yes, while I was a young girl, I was allowed to go home. But in 1976, I was put in the commune’s women mobile working brigade. I was around 12 or 13 years old. You know, they put me in the commune women mobile working brigade. This work, it forced me to work at faraway place where we built dams or lakes. With the mobile sector job, I was forced to grow rice at faraway place and to harvest rice. It varied. Sometimes, I was forced to go to build dams/dykes.
Q: So, you were far away from your family? A: Yes, that is right. I hardly went home. I was not allowed to visit my mother who was sick at home. They asked me: Does visiting your mother make her better? The Khmer Rouge said that they had doctors to take care of my father. Sometimes, I wanted to go back home and asked for permission. Luckily, I was allowed to go home but I had to come back to the rice fields by the time work started. Sometimes, I went home at around 6 PM and slept there. In the morning, I got up at 3 or 4 am and returned to the rice field. Usually, the work brigade was in the forest. So, I walked through the forest in the very early morning. I lived in Dong village and the work brigade was in Koki village, which was the old empty village. There was a hall we collective slept at.
Q: How about your studies? A: Schooling was almost completely absent and irregular. When I was forced into the women mobile brigade, my studies were completed stopped. The women mobile brigade was key.
Q: You condition was like my father’s. He was put in a key mobile brigade.
I was sent to build the Tramdom dam and dig the Okontrom lake at Dos Kachor. It was very far. Do you know Dos Kachor? Do you know Dos Kachor fortress? It was very strong that Khmer Rouge hardly got into it. I arrived at Chom Sangke and Khmer Rouge troops had just made it to Dos Kachor to get the fortress. You know, soldiers at Dos Kachor fortress were very resistant and strong. Khmer Rouge troops had difficulties taking over the fortress. However, finally, Khmer Rouge troops took over the fortress and killed everything. They even killed infants. You know, at night, I heard the sound of firing and people said that it was a firing at Dos Kachor, that the military were protecting their fortress. You know, when I went to build the dam and dig the lake, I saw many bodies and skulls in B52 bomb pit in the forest. I arrived at night, and I did not know the situation. I drank water from the pit at night. Few days later, I just saw many bodies and skulls in the pits. I saw many different parts of skulls in the pit after we drank the water in the pit. Then, we moved to Dok El. Women mobile work brigades moved from place to place to complete different projects. We arrived at Dok El lake at night, and drank the water in the lake. Just in the morning, we saw the water was very oily because of decomposed bodies in the lake. Even the huge tree died due to the oil of the decomposed bodies. I felt very sad to witness that. I saw the tree stalk and its branches; all leaves were gone. It died. It was besides the lake and around the tree there were decomposed bodies with greasy looks. I wanted to find out why the tree died so I went near the tree, and I saw decomposed greasy bodies, colorful clothes of wives of military men and bodies of young children with ribs. Most of the bodies were children. I saw military stuff like food containers, glass. I felt so sad to see that. It was shocking and disgusting as well. It made me contemplate how painful they felt. The Khmer Rouge killed everyone mercilessly.
Q: Khmer Rouge killed them mercilessly because of their resistance?
A: Yes, exactly. Like the people in my village, we were very strong and resistant. I had never identified myself as a villager from Ampe Phnom where I lived before, because of security concerns. This is because the villagers in Ampe Phnom area were very resistant against Khmer Rouge troops.
Q: Have you ever been asked about your parents’ background?
A: Yes, I was asked about my parents’ background, but I told them lies. I cannot tell them the truth. I told them that my father was a farmer, he grew rice, climbed palm trees to get juice and caught fish. I did not tell them about the village chief for 10 households or 20 households or my father’s relative position. At night in 1974, they were on guard to protect the village. They have guns and rifles. My older brother studied in high school at the time.
Q: Have you ever eaten insects due to starvation?
Yes, I used to eat burnt grasshoppers and crickets. It was as big as a thumb. At Tramdom dam, I never had enough food. My life at that stage was very suffering. There was not enough food and clean water at all. I needed to walk to the Ta Am dam to take a bath. It was around 3-4 km from my work brigade. Sometimes, I returned to Tramdom late due to security concerns.
Q: Where do you sleep at night? A: I slept on a hammock attached to trees by side the lake. I was very scared of tigers roaring around our place. I heard the sound of its footstep on the sands in the lake. You know, a person in another village was attacked by a tiger. From 6 to 10 pm, I heard the sound of animals playing in the forest. But there were many people, up to a thousand; so I wasn’t that scared. They are from communes like what you may see in the documentary on Khmer Rouge. There were so many people. People across Phnom Srouch were forced to do laborious work.
Q: At the time, most people wore black uniform? A: Yes, we had only black uniforms. Sometimes, we were given the uniform. I was very unfortunate most of the time since group leaders never paid attention to me. Some people had already got the uniform and they still got it again while I never got it. I was not good at asking questions and I did not like talking. The group leaders told me to just wait for the next time then I can get the uniform or scarf. At the Tramdom dam I mentioned earlier, there was holiday on the10th and 20th of every month. During these holidays, we went to the forest to get rhizomatous spices similar to Galangal. When we got it, we boiled it. We found wild fruits to eat. They felt delicious because we were too hungry. I climbed the tree to get plou bat. It tasted sour and sweet.
Q: Weren’t you afraid of poisonous fruits?
A: No, I was not. I learnt from local people. I (17 April people) just ate what the local people ate. I knew some wild fruits were edible. They are also available in the forest near the village we stayed. Some people got lost in the forest because it was a thick forest. We could not see the sun at daytime. Now, I think that I am fortunate that I was safe and was not attacked by wildlife. In the forest, there were many wild bamboos whose wires were very sharp. It can cut our body. When it came to that, I felt very scared. It is like razor blade cutting our body. At night, the comrade cook went to find monkeys in the forest. They use dynamo to make light, so that they could see the monkeys. Sometimes, they can get 7-8 monkeys overnight. Then, in the morning, they cook those monkeys. I had never eaten those cooked monkeys. Sometimes, the cook made food from antelope meat, and I just ate it. I did not eat foods cooked from monkey meat. They usually cooked fish as alternative for those who did not eat wild animal meat. I just cooked fish for the sake of cooking. The fish stew they cooked was like cow dung. Talking about cow dung, my older brother was put in a commune mobile working brigade responsible for vegetation. His brigade was not moving from place to place often like mine. A bit far from the villages, there was a plantation that my older brother took care of. There were so many papayas and eggplants in the plantation. Because of starvation, he secretly ate the eggplants, and his teeth became brown.
Q: Is he still alive? A: Yes, he is still alive. Now, he is a retired policeman. He just secretly ate the eggplants. If the Khmer Rouge found out what he had done, he would have been killed.
Q: How about religious practices? A: Yes, when I firstly was forced to move to the new place, there were Buddhist monks at Prey Russey pagoda. After that in 1976, the monks were defrocked. Not just defrocked! They all were killed. They were killed at O Thmor Kambor near Wattanak Trach. Q: Is it far? A: Yes, it is. When talking about this, I feel so scared. My father’s siblings were separated at Kraing Chek. He met his children at Tropaing Khen. Then his children and themselves were killed. I feel very sorry to see that. Like a young man like your age, if they were not killed, they still would have had a chance to grow up and live their lives these days. Only his daughter was not killed. She worked at a brigade far away. Her identity was hidden when the Khmer Rouge tried to search for her background. For his teenaged sons, Khmer Rouge said that the teenaged sons were sent to other area to collect fertilizer at Skous. They were happy because Skous was near their hometown. Howesver, they were killed. They were taken away for having money in the past. Pol Pot was not happy with us at all. They called us reactionists and capitalists. The Khmer Rouge don’t like these people. Those people had housekeepers and they killed all these people. He was my brother and we lived near each other. I was sure of the killings, but after the killing, I saw the local people distributed clothes to other people. My brother was rich and had housekeepers. Khmer Rouge really hated those people and killed them all.
Q: Have you ever been harmed or tortured? A: I was not harmed or hit by the Khmer Rouge. I was just too tired because of overwork. I was not expecting to survive the regime. I am grateful that I still live today. I often tell my children that you are lucky because I am alive and gave birth to you. If I was killed at the time, I could never have given birth. I think those who survived the Khmer Rouge regime are lucky enough. In the regime, we were overwhelmingly forced to overwork, and ate insufficient food. We were so thirsty. Their political revolution was significant.
Q: Have you ever witnessed the killing? A: No, I have not. I just knew that people disappeared. However, in my place there were not many cases of killings. In the Northwestern areas which were managed by Southwestern people, many atrocious killings happened.
Q: When did it happen? A: It happened in 1978. The Khmer Rouge leadership started to shift people to different regions. Like my older sister, she was transferred to another region while I was in the same region and could still meet my parents sometimes. My older sister was transferred to the Northwestern part of the country when her child died. Fortunately, she survived the regime and returned home. My neighbors who were forced to move to the Northwestern part said that there were many cruel killings. Bodies were everywhere. Because there were too many bodies, there was neither any proper burial nor cremation at all. People just put dried straw on the bodies. Mr. Houn, my neighbor, told me that many children were killed and some were still alive, crawling around the pit full of dead bodies. However, they could not go anywhere but crawl in the pit until they died.
Q: So, it happened in the Northwestern part of the country? A: Yes, it happened in the Northwestern part of Cambodia, like Pursat and Battambang provinces. Some families were killed and none of family members were alive. Some families only had one member who survived. My cousin was sent to Battambang. She was given rice husk porridge. She did not swallow it actually because she was afraid that she would have constipation. Instead, she just drank the liquid of the porridge. Her life there was much more terrible than mine. My uncle had 6 children, and all died. He was so desperate and gravely sad. His children got sick and the Khmer Rouge took him away while they were on the verge of death. His family was forced into Pursat province. It was very cruel.
Q: Do you know the background of the lower ranking leaders in the community at the time?
A: For my place, the local people managed those at their place. However, at the later stage of the Khmer Rouge regime, the leaders in my place (Southwestern part) were transferred to the Northwestern part of the country. That was why those leaders were called Southwesterners.
Q: So, it means that people from Southwestern part were transferred to Northwestern part to be leaders there? A: Yes, that is right. Many people in the Northwestern part died due to starvation, torture and extermination. They were very cruel.
Q: Were there any Khmer New Year or Pchum Ben ceremony under the Khmer Rouge? A: I was very young, but I remembered that there was no Khmer New Year celebration or Pchum Ben ceremony at all. We just focused on our assigned tasks. I did not even know which date it was. My mother knew the dates of celebration in the Buddhist calendar, like full moon day etc.
A: You know, Khmer Rouge troops were very afraid of the Youn (Vietnamese) military. I don’t know the situation in other places but in my place, it happened like that. Phnom Penh was liberated on 7 January 1979, but my place was not liberated until February or March. We heard that Youn reached our place at K’ek Ktoum along National Road 2. The Khmer Rouge just lost control and ran away while trying to force us to follow them. You know, some Cambodians who live in the USA were former Khmer Rouge members. They escaped the Youn military to the western part of the country, especially the border areas where they cannot move forward anymore. At the border area, there were refugee camps where they settled. Some Khmer Rouge troops then moved to USA. Both civilians and soldiers went to the border areas. For me, I was also forced to follow the Khmer Rouge and then we stayed at Kraing Lvay, near Kirirom. At Kraing Lvay, many people died due to cholera and malaria. Per night, at least 6 people died, so we decided to return to our home village.
Q: So Khmer Rouge troops lost control and solidarity? A: Yes. Some Khmer troops moved to border areas while some returned home with us. Some villagers returned home long before me. I was too scared to return home, following the Khmer Rouge. I dared not to escape, but others were brave enough to escape from Khmer Rouge troops and returned to their former villages. They found their own way home. I just followed the Khmer Rouge and then they moved back to the home village, and we just follow them too. At a particular place, we met the Youn military.
Actually, 17 April people were not cruel. When Youn troops arrived at our place, we never reported to them who was bad. However, there was case of revenge at the nearby village. The villagers took revenge against a security guard who raped and killed a woman. When the Youn military came, the older brother of the female victim met that perpetrator. He shot the man dead when he was on a tamarind tree. He was very pained and took revenge against the man. At the time, not all Khmer Rouge troops ran away from our areas. Some were still in the village, so we only dared to stay in a place along the national road. We had not entered our previous villages yet due to security concerns. On the way, I saw Khmer Rouge troops whose wrists were tied together behind their backs. You know, I celebrated New Year’s in April when we were on the way home. You see I just follow the Khmer Rouge officials. However, I was fortunate that I was not further forced to border areas or refugee camps. From the refugee camp, some Khmer Rouge officials went on to USA.
Q: How was the situation like when you were on the way back home? A: It was silent. No one controlled us and forced us to do tasks. You know, before Youn arrived at our place, local people (old people) became quiet and gentle. They were no longer aggressive. However, we did not do anything against them. We were nice people.
Q: How hopeful were you? Maybe, you felt excited that you were able to return home.
A: Of course, I felt very excited. My father was very excited to return home. He prayed to Lord Buddha that we should return home and he promised to have his hair shaved. Once we arrived home, he went to have his hair shaved at the pagoda immediately. I mean the pagoda which once used as prison and torture center. Many people were killed there. The story that I told you before, regarding gold and valuable property that the villagers got from the bodies in the pit. Many bodies were laid on the main building of the pagoda. People took the bodies and buried them at the west of pagoda. These days, the burial site is a museum.
Q: When I was a high school student, I visited the pagoda many times, but I did not know that there is a museum.
A: There is a museum storing bones and skulls at the west of the pagoda. On 20 May, there is a commemoration – Remembrance Day. People call it the museum which stores bones and skulls. It is to the west of the pagoda. If you have a chance, you should visit the place and its surroundings which once to be pit of bodies. People in my village took the gold and valuable property from those bodies. My family and I were not fortunate to get those stuff. We felt disgusted by those decomposed bodies. We just watched them searching for gold and valuable property. Some found a bunch of golden jewelry like diamond necklace, bracelet etc. A villager gave my cousin a necklace which was taken from a body. When she went to the market a goldsmith said that it was a diamond bracelet. We don’t want those jewelry.
Q: When did it happen? A: It was in 1980-1981 if I remembered it well. The villagers dug the pit and searched for the jewelry. At the pagoda, there is a big old tree with many nails on its stalk. It is said that the nails were used to nail torture victims against the tree. We can see many nails on it. It is a huge tree. Now, it died. In front of the stair of the pagoda, there is a pit of bodies, but the villagers found no jewelry. I don’t know how aggressively they killed the victims but there were blood stains on the sitting chair of the Buddha statue atlas. As you know, in front of the Buddha statue, there was a multilevel altar. You know, blood stains are clearly seen on it. I think that maybe the victims cried for help from Lord Buddha and Khmer Rouge troops sarcastically killed them before the Buddha statue. It is just my assumption. You know, the blood stains were very thick on the altar. We had to strongly wash them off. Q: So, you mean you washed the altar? A: Yes, I cleaned up the pagoda with other villagers. We used water from the lake to clean up the blood stains on the altar, wall and floor.
Q: Have you joined the 20 May Commemoration Day?
A: Yes, I joined it.
Q: How did you feel when you joined it? A: The performance during the commemoration did remind me of the past I personally experienced. It reminded me of the actions where victims were brought away to be killed when they we were caught stealing sweet cassava by the security forces. I cried watching the performance. The performance was so good as though it was real.
Q: Was there any ritual/religious celebration? A: Yes, there was a Buddhist ritual like offering alms to the Buddhist monks who presided over the celebration. There was also a Bangskol – a dedication ceremony for the dead beloved ones.
Q: How do you feel about the commemoration in general? A: I often join it. I feel peace and calm when joining it. I have a joy in bringing food to the celebration, offering alms to the Buddhist monks and Bangskol. The celebration is very important; we remember and pray to our deceased beloved family who died poorly. No one performed any rituals before they died. We also dedicate our merit-making and compassion to the spirits of those from different places who were killed. There are hundreds of bodies because the pit almost covers everywhere in the place.
Q: Now, is the place rebuilt with houses? A: No, there was no house.
Q: Was there commemoration, or Buddhist rituas?
A: No, there were no houses built at the place. The provincial department of agriculture has grown some trees. Now, they have grown well and provide shade. Previously, the provincial department of Women’s Affairs wanted to get the place but the villagers did not agree. There were villagers who wanted to get the land for building houses, but the provincial department did not agree. So now we let the landscape remains the way it is.
Q: Were the pits filled in?
A: Yes, there are no pits anymore because they were filled in. Some pits are huge. I watched the villagers searching for the jewelry from the decomposed bodies. My family did not want to get the jewelry from those bodies. We felt disgusted by those bodies. You know, the bodies were there a few years after the killings. They were decomposed and emitted a bad smell. In the pit, water mixed with the decomposed bodies. My family was not brave to get in the pit and search for jewelry. The villagers got in the pit and searched for jewelry in the clothing pockets of the decomposed bodies. We just stood by the pit, watching them. The smell was disgusting. Gradually, the movement spread widely to other places. As a result, the authorities disallowed searching for jewelry. They asked villagers to collect bones and provided those who collected the bones and skull with rice. My family did not search for jewelry in the pits, but we collected bones and skulls. We had baskets to collect the bones and skulls. We kept bones and skulls separately in an assigned place. They compensated our labor with rice. Later on, the museum was built to keep those bones and skulls.
Q: I visited Ampe Phnom several times, but I didn’t know that there was a museum there.
A: Do you know the pagoda?
Q: I do know the pagoda when I didn’t know the museum. If I have known it, I would have visited it. I may visit the museum in the future.
A: At the west of the pagoda stands the museum. If you can find it, you can ask Buddhist monks.
Q: How was the road condition? A: The road is made from laterite. The villagers traveled on the road back and forth. The road to the pagoda is made from gravel. In the pagoda, there is a primary school that my child once studied at. You go pass the school and you will see the pagoda. My village is located next to the pagoda. It is a huge village with 170 families.
Q: Have you ever dreamt of those real-life past experiences? A: No, I have never dreamt of it. However, I used to think of it occasionally. When I listen to related news, I immediately recall the past I personally experienced. I used to listen to Mr. Francois Tan’s documentary, and I remembered Khmer Rouge history. Q: How did you feel when you recalled it? A: I was not scared or shocked, but I just felt a bit sad. I remembered the hard times. I reflected on the past and now. Now, I can live my life. I am very fortunate to survive the regime. I think if we were not liberated, we would have been killed. My father prayed to God to protect us, and his prayers were answered. We could return home. We can’t put into words how excited we were. For three years, we left our home. I was very homesick. Hearing the thunder’s sound in the beginning of the year, I was so homesick. I almost cried. Before the Khmer Rouge regime, my parents were very nice people. However, during Khmer Rouge, both my mother and father dared to steal. My father used bamboo as a bed with palm leave rug. He hid rice under the bed. He covered the rice with Sangke leaves. One day, the unit head visited him, and my father opened palm leave rug to get Sangke leaves. My father was very worried that the man would see the hidden rice. If he had seen the rice, my father would have been accused of greedy possession and non-integrity. We were not sure if the man saw the rice, but my father was almost paralyzed that the man would have seen the rice. He worried for months. He couldn’t sleep well. He was afraid that he would be taken away and killed at night. My mother was tasked to work in the plantation, growing sweet cassava and cucumber. In the afternoon she collected the skin of trees that were cut down as firewood. She tied it in a big bunch. She hid corn and cantaloupes inside. Each day, she hid 4-5 corns and cantaloupes. Under the Khmer Rouge, even the nicest person became a thief who stole things to eat and survive. If the Khmer Rouge detected the person who stole, that person woulc be killed.
Q: So, after 1979, you had nothing, right? A: You are right. I had nothing. The situation was even more difficult than that under Khmer Rouge, where I could eat boiled corn or boiled sweet cassava with stew. After the collapse of Khmer Rouge, I ate rice with papaya tree stump because we had no food to eat. We were too scared to search for food while some Khmer Rouge troops were still around, even though the area was liberated. We feared that Khmer Rouge troops might spot and kill us. We decided to cook rice and used banana tree stump for stew. You know, the banana tree stump was in the banana plantation where bodies were buried. I did know that. We also took papaya from that plantation. Few years later, we learnt that the plantation was a burial site and villagers began to unearth the bodies and their clothes to search for invaluable jewelry. You know, there are kids who got shoes from the pit, and they played with the shoes. When they played with the shoes, the gold necklace was seen.
Q: In 1980s, were there any pagoda yet? A: Yes, I think there were pagodas and schools started to reopen. My parents did not want me to study, but I urged them that I wanted to study. After liberation, we were grouped to grow rice as a village and then in groups. After the harvest, villagers were given rice according to their commitment and labor. That is why my parents did not want me to go to school. They were concerned that they would get less rice to support the family. I repeatedly begged them that I really wanted to study, and I promised that my study will not affect the portion of rice received. After that, they agreed. Before the Khmer Rouge, I studied grade 11 for a short time and then Khmer Rouge took over the country. Q: What do you think about “Hatred could be stopped by non-hatred”? A: I think this Buddhist teaching is very important. It helps heal our anger and mind. If we take revenge, killing will not stop but keep continuing. I personally always hold the belief that taking revenge brings us nothing. We take revenge against others, then the next day their children would take revenge against us. The revenge killings will occur endlessly. I listen to Buddhist teachings a lot and I understand well. My mind becomes peaceful as you mentioned. I am poor but I am satisfied with this life. I accept what it is and live it happily. I don’t want too much. Actually, I want something within my reach and ability. I don’t envy other people at all. Listening to Buddhist teaching is very good for me. I don’t get revenge someone. I try to be a nice person. What goes around comes around. I think you understand what I mean. Therefore, never do bad deeds to others. Buddhism is very helpful when we embrace it.
Q: Even though you experienced the atrocious Khmer Rouge regime, you did not get angry at all, because of Buddhism? A: I was not angered at all. Maybe, other people are angered. People are different.
Q: So, do you agree that Buddhism plays important role in our society relating to building inner peace? A: Yes, I strongly agree with you.
Q: Have you ever been interviewed before?
Q: So, I am the first person to interview you regarding the Khmer Rouge regime.
A: Yes, you are the very first person to interview me. Q: How do you feel about joining this interview? A: I feel a bit relieved when I speak about my personal experiencse. It allows me to remember the old times when I describe the past. The moment I told you the story, I remember that I drank water in the lake. I was too thirsty and wanted to drink all water in the lake. I worked under the sun. The actions and moments were very clear and lively as though it were real. When I told you about the mass grave, it seemed like I was in that moment.
Q: So even though over 40 years have passed already, you still recall it.
A: Yes, that is right.
Q: If in the future there was any person who wants to interview you on Khmer Rouge history, will you allow? A: No problem. I would be glad to join the interview. I am not a mean person. I will share with them what I know. I personally experienced the regime, so I will tell you as much as I can.
Q: In your village, are there any former Khmer Rouge cadres now?
A: In my village, most of my villagers are 17 April people. As I told you earlier, people in my village were very resistant to the Khmer Rouge. The village near mine called Chrolong Thkov just followed the Khmer Rouge, riding bullock carts to live with the Khmer Rouge since 1974, while the people in my village were so resistant at all.
Q: Did the Khmer Rouge use the people in your village to fulfill any work and responsibility after they took control of your village?
A: In 1975, the people in my village left the village for different places. When the regime fell, we rediscovered who lived where. Some were forced to Pursat province, Battambang province and other provinces.
Q: Were there any newcomers to your village after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime?
A: After the collapse of Khmer Rouge, I think there were no newcomers. However, over recent years there are newcomers who get married to ladies in my village. Simply put, in my village there were no newcomers after the Khmer Rouge regime. We left our village and settled in different ones from 17 January people. You know, we were very discriminated by local villagers. They said that “You came to our village with nothing except belly and water. Actually, I could not decide which village we went to, we was forced to go to whichever village the Khmer Rouge determined.
Q: What does it mean by “belly and water”? A: They mean that “we have no land to cultivate rice at all”. At the time, we did not even have enough clothes. The Khmer Rouge forced us to leave our village and told us that we can come back after 3 days. We were not allowed to bring along anything. I brought a little rice which we cooked to feed our stomach for few days.
Q: Did the Khmer Rouge tell where to go? A: Not at all. They just told us just to leave our house. We just walked and Khmer Rouge kept driving us to move forward. They did not allow us to cook rice anywhere, they forced us to keep moving and to cook rice at another place. After we had lunch, they drove us further. I (with others) passed Toin Taor and was then directed to Phnom Bong Mount. I reached Ang Setha Pagoda where a collective meal was served. I got portion of rice and stew. Some people had not had enough food. I used to enjoy meals at home, you know. The collective meal was very poor. At the beginning, I could hardly eat it. For example, tamarind leaf sour stew was like tamarind’s leaf water, traditionally used to clean wounds. There was no smell of fermented fish at all. However, day by day, I became accused to the food. They cooked a kind of grass or bamboo. Frankly speaking, it was very hard to eat because I did not like such stews. It was not tasty at all. However, I needed to eat to survive. I ate rice with overcooked potatoes with an unpleasant smell. For the whole year, we were given cooked rice for only three months. In the field during work in the mobile brigade, I felt so happy to be informed that cooked rice would be served. I couldn’t wait for that cooked rice because we ate only porridge. Eating cooked rice with salt was enjoyable enough for me. I make a small food container from palm leaves. Then, I used it to keep cooked rice. It is very tasty to eat that rice with baby mangoes and salt.
A: Do you want younger generations like me to learn about Khmer Rouge history? A: Yes, I do. I really want them to learn about the history. You know, I often tell stories about the Khmer Rouge to my children. Some youths do not believe that there was a Khmer Rouge regime because their parents do not tell them the story. I often tell children the story. I tell them different parts of what had happened when I can recall it. Q: Were they interested in listening to the story? A: Yes, they were. I really want them to know that under the regime, our lives were extremely difficult and suffering. One day, I was very sick but due to hunger I had to look for crickets that stayed under piles of rubbish. You know, I got sick because I was starving. I grilled them and I was caught doing so. I was charged with faking sickness. The Khmer Rouge said that I was pretending to be sick. Actually, I truly got sick and could not work.
Q: Were you scared when you were caught grilling crickets? A: Yes, I was so scared. The guy who was building the nearby dam saw me grilling crickets. He was about 150m away from my place, so he could spot me. However, I was still lucky that I was not killed.
Q: When you got sick, did the Khmer Rouge give you any medicine? A: Yes, I received traditional herbal medicine made from tree roots. It was called rabbit dirt medicine. It was made from the fibers of tree roots. Under the Khmer Rouge regime, we were not brave enough to call the medicine – rabbit dirt medicine.
Q: So, rabbit dirt medicine was called so after the collapse of Khmer Rouge regime. You dared not to call it rabbit dirt medicine at all under the regime.
A: Yes, it was. You know, when I got sick, I drank herbal medicine – a liquid from cooked Neem tree skin. I shivered and was so hungry. I got only a spatula of porridge and I was exhausted. If I had eaten more than this portion, Khmer Rouge would have charged me with pretending to be sick.
Q: So even though you were sick, you needed to work? A: Yes, you are right. I had to work even though I did not want to. The Khmer Rouge wanted us to work to our full potential. We were allowed to have days off when we almost fell because of exhaustion.
Q: Do you have any suggestion regarding the Khmer Rouge regime? A: I do want our Cambodian future generations to learn the history of the Khmer Rouge regime. Now, I am in my fifties. I may not live much longer. Maybe, in 10- or 20-years’ time I and others who experienced the regime will leave this world and the history will go with me too, and no one will learn. The history must be learnt from people to people. I want to see more education and attention to this history in our country. The 3 years, 8 months 20 days of Khmer Rouge regime is a very important event for us.
Q: If you are invited to join a dialogue between former Khmer Rouge cadres and victims in the community, will you join? A: Yes, I will join if I am not busy with my household chores. Are you referring to a workshop? I will be happy to join. You know, before the liberation by the Vietnamese the village chief in my village was very kind. He told us that “when the water rises, the fish eats the ants. When the water recedes, the ants eat the fish”. I understood what he meant. As victims, our turn to harm him was coming closer while his turn to harm us is ending. People called him Achar Chom. He was a layman who had a lot of knowledge of Buddhism. He was a nice person. He was not a person who killed others. He served the Khmer Rouge regime, so he knew the situation. It was hard work to serve as village chief under the Khmer Rouge. If he doesn’t kill people, he will be killed. He did not want to kill. I can see that he was a nice person. We called him Achar Chom. Actually, he was a village chief for only few months and then the Vietnamese came to save us. Anyway, the Khmer Rouge always changed village chiefs. We had grandpa Doum, grandpa Vet, grandpa Ly, and then Uncle Chom as village chief. Uncle Chom was the last village chief before the Vietnamese came.
Interviewer: Soeung Bunly
What does the variation in different localities’ responses to the arrival of the Khmer Rouge forces suggest about the nature of the Cambodian Civil War and Cold War in Cambodia?
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 Thida’s testimony?
Consider how the experience of repeated, forced relocations shaped Thida’s experiences of the Cold War.
Assess the role of religion in Cambodian society during and after the Cold War, and how it shapes survivors’ memories of the civil war.
Discuss the significance and limitations of institutions of public memory in light of Thida’s reflections about museums, commemorations, and younger generations’ understanding of the Khmer Rouge regime.