Interview With Toch Leaksmy

Toch Leaksmy discusses his experiences from his childhood, at the beginning of the Cambodian Civil War, to his adult life as a government official and later NGO aid worker, across 1966-1990.

Tags & Keywords

Leaksmy begins by discussing his early childhood before the Cambodian Civil War, when his family was more prosperous than others in their farming community. He then recounts how his father was taken away by the Khmer Rouge for re-education and never returned. Leaksmy then juggled both his education and his responsibilities to provide for his family by farming. However, much of the curriculum was merely Communist ideology, and many people continued to practice Buddhism. His mother supplemented their income as a goods peddler. When the Vietnamese took over, many former Khmer Rouge agents were killed in the name of mob justice by their fellow villagers. The government’s poor management of the economy also introduced uncontrolled inflation, such that trade began to be conducted with gold. He was granted a government scholarship to study in the Soviet Union. Upon returning to Cambodia in 1990, he worked for the government’s propaganda Ministry, and later assisted the UNTAC. He received further education in English in Australia, and he later moved on to work for aid agencies collaborating with the Ministry of Education. His broad range of experiences provide a broad view of Cambodia’s Cold War.

Born in 1966 as the oldest of six siblings in the fertile Kandal Province, Leaksmy fondly recounts enjoying his childhood playing outdoors with his classmates, despite having no electricity at the time. His father was a teacher while his maternal grandparents were farmers owning fruit orchards that sold produce to Vietnamese middlemen. Everyone in the family worked on the farm, and he recalls how the villagers would support one another and share quality agricultural produce amongst the community, and celebrated special occasions as a family. He initially lived with his grandparents in Kandal Province, while his parents moved to Prey Veng Province, where his father taught. Leaksmy moved to Prey Veng in 1972 when the Khmer Rouge invaded his native province, and continued his education. He remembers witnessing clashes daily, as Prey Veng was near a Khmer Rouge stronghold. Yet he notes that they saw Vietnamese soldiers more often than Cambodians, destroying bridges to block enemy tanks.

However, the family’s fortunes changed when his father was taken away for re-education by the Khmer Rouge government in 1977, never returning. His mother worked to support the family as a trader. She purchased assorted goods smuggled from Thailand at the border, sold them for profit in Phnom Penh, and then re-investing those profits to purchase Cambodian goods for resale at the Vietnamese border. She operated this enterprise entirely on bicycles, beginning her workday at 4am. Leaksmy also supported her in her business, and worked with her in farming, herding cattle and digging canals; while continuing his education. Under the Khmer regime, Leaksmy recalls not having to use money very often, other than as pocket money for school. Families were not allowed to cook at home and all were served at the communal kitchen.

When the Vietnamese invaded, many former Khmer Rouge agents were killed by their fellow villagers in the name of mob justice, and even their children were discriminated against, but this tension healed with time. Under Vietnamese rule, Leaksmy experienced a highly ideological communist curriculum at school from 1979. In line with Party policy, students were taught that religion was the opium of the masses, but many Cambodians still continued to practice Buddhism, showing him that the government could not force their ideology onto the people. Vietnamese authorities did attempt to use the religion as a propaganda tool by developing a centralized organization to oversee the teachings by Buddhist monks, forcing them to advise their congregation to support and appreciate the Vietcong government. Youth were also not allowed to enter monkhood, as they were required to work or serve in the military. However, the government was ineffective, and economic mismanagement led to uncontrolled inflation. Traders like Leaksmy’s mother even stopped relying on fiat currency that the state was readily printing, preferring to base transactions and savings on gold. Upon completing high school, Leaksmy received a scholarship to study in the Soviet Union.

After returning to Cambodia in 1990, he found a job at the Ministry of Culture, Propaganda & Information. However, he was well aware that most of the content they were putting out was biased and was not truly “information” that represented issues as they were in reality. When Vietnamese rule ended, he worked with the UNTAC for a year, where he received further English education in Australia, as that was the UN’s working language. Following UNTAC’s departure, he again worked for the government, but this time as an external partner through an NGO, collaborating with the Education Ministry on issues of university reforms. Leaksmy’s diverse recount thus reveals a myriad of experiences of life in Cold War Cambodia in multiple domains of daily life.

Interview Transcript ‘Reconceptualizing the Cold War: On-the-Ground Experiences in Asia’ Project

Date of Interview: Saturday 15th February 2020 Place of Interview: Phnom Penh Interviewer: Chris Patterson Interviewee: Toch Leaksmy, 54 years old

Full Transcript: Identity My name is Toch Leaksmy and I’m Cambodian. I’m now 54, already 54. 1966. I’m a native to Kandal province. My native district is Kaoh Thum district, about 50 km south of Phnom Penh. Family I was born in a family of teachers. My father was a secondary school teacher and my mother was a housewife. I have 6 brothers and sisters and all of them went to school and some of them now work in universities and some live in Australia; my sister live in Australia. I went to the school; my first year was 1969, just a year before civil war broke out in 1970s. I move two different places during the war. Actually my father lived in Prey Veng province. He taught in Prey Veng province, so I left my native district to move with my father and I studied in Prey Veng also. I saw fighting everyday because Prey Veng is along National Road Number 1, which is near the Khmer Rouge stronghold. My mum was the daughter of the farmer, because my grandparents, was the farmers, so she was very strong in working in the field. Even though my father was the teacher, but actually, in the family, every body worked, so she was very strong, and even after the Khmer Rouge fall, she also took care of the whole family. Because I’m the older in the family, oldest child, six siblings, so it was very difficult for her. But she managed to keep the family well. All of my siblings finish at least high school, and three of them finished university. So my mother sacrificed a lot for the children, and now she live in my native village. She’s now 80 already, but she’s still healthy. She can still ride the bicycle to go to her fruit orchard. We have some fruit orchard, like mango and sapodilla.

Childhood (1966 – 1972) My childhood is different because it is close to the civil war; so we have good experience and bad experience. We went to school, and after school we play with other children, we don’t have bike; that is for transportation, at that time. We play, like the game, hide and find, just like that game, and hopscotch; without any toys, just the games, and also we went to swim in the river, not like swimming pool, like the village tree, we climb to the top of the tree and jump to the water. When we saw the boat coming, we make a jump, and then the water go, and the old people swear you, ‘why you do like this!’ Playful boys. And, also sometimes, because we were very bad boy, sometimes we make the slingshot to kill the bird, and my parents swear me, ‘why you kill the bird, you will go to hell’, like crazy. It was very happy when I remember back to my life experience in the past. It was a deep memory in my life, was my village. I remember when I was very young I feel very happy at that time, because I did not know about politics or economy or anything as a child. What I saw is the family, and the surrounding, and in the village. At that time, in the village, there was no electricity, there was no running water. There was some motorbike, but not like now. In the whole village maybe there was only one or two family that had a motorbike. But we were very happy, because we enjoy a good life, because in my village people were better off, because of the land, fertile land. We did agriculture and farming, and we sell the produce, maybe to Vietnam. I saw the middleman come to our village and they bought corn, beans and mango, and so on, and also because, at that time, there was no large scale business, there was abundance of natural resources, we don’t have to worry to have fish or cattle or something for our consumption. So it was good. When we have a festival, like Pshum Ben or Khmer New Year, we celebrated very happily, because all the family lived in the village, except some of the children went to Phnom Penh to study for higher education. This is what I remember. The people share what they have with the neighbour. For the neighbour, when you have good fish you share to them, when they have good vegetable, then they share to them. This is what we have, is the community experience at that time. People live in harmony. The War (early 1970s) My early childhood was very bad. Cause at that time, the war; the civil war, erupted in Cambodia. I remember that when I went to the primary school already there were fighting between the Lon Nol force and the Khmer Rouge force. It was terrible. The first thing I remember about the war, and the politics was the coup - March 18, 1970. My mother lived in Prey Veng, and at the time I lived with my grandmother and grandfather in Kaoh Thum, and my mother and father taught in Prey Veng. When the coup happen, my mother came to my native village, and I heard this, but I didn’t know, ‘what is coup?’ But I saw; in Kaoh Thum first, fall to the Khmer Rouge, very, very early.

The coup took place in March 18, 1970, and the Khmer Rouge maybe took the time we didn’t call them Khmer Rouge, we called, the Resistance Force, the Liberation Force. They took my native village on March 30, just ten days after the coup. I saw the government force, not Lon Nol, who was the government as well, but the government force, withdraw from my native town to Phnom Pehn, and then a very little number of Khmer Rouge, the Viet Kong, because they have Khmer Rouge, they took over the town. I was in my town. It was peaceful. They just withdraw. But I saw the Viet Kong just destroy the bridge. There are many bridges along the road to my native town, maybe 50 bridges, because we dig the canal to the rice field to get fertile soil. So they burn down all the bridges to prevent the tank. They said, ‘ok, maybe the government tank will go there’, so they burn down the bridges, the one I saw. The Khmer Rouge (1972 – 1979) So everyday we heard the artillery and we were hiding in the ground. It was terrible. Sometime, because my house was in the outskirts of the town, so sometime I saw Viet Cong forces pass through my village. We rarely saw the Khmer Rouge, mainly the Vietnamese forces. When, in 1972, when the Khmer Rouge took over my town, then I left that town to my native district Kaoh Thum, and I lived there until Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh. My father fled to Phnom Phen and lived there, separately. After 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took over, we unite the family. Not in Phnom Penh, there were no people allowed to live here; they expel people from the city. So we live in the countryside in my native village Kaoh Thum, one of the districts in Kandal province. I lived there father was arrested - we don’t know what reason and the Khmer Rouge took him, they say for ‘re-education’, and he never returned back, since 1977. I didn’t see him anymore since that time. Most people were told, ‘ok, you go to re-education and then, that’s it. Re-education during the Khmer rouge means going to the jail or persecution. I live until the Khmer Rouge until 1979 when the Vietnamese came, and they expel the Khmer Rouge. I never saw my father again. For my whole family we lost nine people, they just took them for re-education and they never came back again. During that time the Khmer rouge used very strange word: for killing they never say ‘killing’, they used ‘liquidate’, ‘liquidate’ or ‘destroy’. When they want to kill somebody they say ‘they are enemy and they must be liquidated’ or, ‘they must be destroyed’, not ‘killed’, never heard the word ‘killed’, ‘killing’. When you were sent to the jail they say, ‘to re-education’. When they want to confiscate something from you, like a watch, or the value item they just say ‘request’, ‘the authority’, ‘Angkar’ (angkar mean authority) want to request the watch from you.

Also to rename the places - it was like the so-called region, there was also district, but the district was normally assigned by number, I don’t why. My district the Kaoh Thum district was assigned district 18 , not Kaoh Thum. Kandal province was region 25 and like the state, or ‘oblast’ in Russian, like the region was assigned the direction, like the East region, the south-west region, the north region, which is bigger than the number. The Khmer rouge people in my village, I know them, I know them closely, and some of them were killed instantly when the Vietnamese took over, the people, mob-justice, yes, the people just took revenge and killed them instantly. Some of them fled the village and

went to go to hide somewhere else and some of them also in the government, high- ranking, not really high-ranking, I know one of them, but he died already, one of them

became the Governor of the province and he died recently, 2 or 3 years ago. Of course immediately after the Vietnamese took over there was discrimination against them, even against their children, but later on when the time past, we just forget about it. Commerce (1975 – 1989) During Pol Pot time it was very hard for my life, but after Pol Pot it was very hard too. Because I have no father to care family, so I am the older in the family, so I have to be responsible for everything with my mother. We did farming, I went to school; it was very difficult. Fortunately my mother had idea - so even though I had no father, my family was prosperous than other family in the village because she do some small business, like trader, like vendor – she took something from Phnom Penh to sell at the Vietnamese border. At that time Cambodia was blockaded - economic blockade from the world. So there was no goods. Everything was very difficult, even garment or clothes. But there was a small corridor of smuggling from Thailand to Cambodia for clothes, food or medicine, very small amount. So my mother bought from Phnom Penh in the black market and sell to Vietnam, and we got profits from that. She was buying clothes, materials, fabric for the clothes and even paper, cigarette paper - the paper for making cigarette; some people bought from Thailand and sell in Phnom Penh, and we bought this and resell to the Vietnamese. Because my house is very close to the city, in the morning she rode the bicycle, because we only had the bicycle at that time for the means of transportation; she rode the bicycle to Phnom Penh, get up early in the morning, maybe 4am, and get here in Phnom Penh maybe 6am or 7am and then bought something, and then maybe (its difficult, its not the open market, it’s the black market so we have to know the people where they buy this one, and there’s no telephone, so its not easy) when she got the goods she rode the bicycle back to my house, maybe she gets home with only a small amount (because we use the gold, not the money at that time, everything is paid in gold, even though there was paper money, Cambodian Riel, but normally people use gold), and when she got home maybe 4pm.

And next day, early in the morning, she rode to Vietnamese / Cambodia border, about 30km away from my house, up to 80km away even to the border (and its ok at that time, even me when I wanted to go to Phnom Penh, the bicycle is the only means of transportation, it’s ok no problem, first time its difficult but later on no problem, and we were healthy, when we used that, honestly we were health but now we are lazy because everything is motorised). Religion (1979 – 1989) At that time under the Vietnamese occupation, religion was very restricted. Also in the school we were taught it was about Marxism and Leninism - so we were taught that religion is just opium. Lenin and Karl Marx said religion is opium for thee people, so it’s useless. But I feel that the government is just cheating, that they taught us in the school about the bad thing that is religion but in reality some practice Buddhism so I thought ok, they can’t enforce their ideology, and I know people can practice in some restrictions way/. Not good at that time, some people feel not good. Also I think this was the Vietnamese doctrine or Vietnamese propaganda because normally the communist they also don’t like the religion, but they want to explore religion for political purpose. So they control all temples across Cambodia at that time and set the so-called ‘Wat Committee’ who oversee the activities, control the activities of the people in the Wat; in the temple, even the priests. And teachings by the monks during ceremony must, at that time, must in accordance with the policy and principle of the communist party. The member of the Wat committee, the Ajar [temple attendant], and the local authority, its easy - in the community, when you have a funeral or a religious ceremony and the head of the village and head of the commune they were all government agents. The teaching focus more about the political and economic purpose - so you have to be faithful from the government, because the government save you from the Khmer Rouge, for example - the monk must say this, because the Ajar is behind him. You know the loudspeaker? Normally in the village when we have ceremony we have the loudspeaker - with loudspeaker, everybody can hear ever though you were not in the event, just 1km or 100m away you can hear from the loudspeaker. So, I remember the agency that control (because there was no ministry or culture and religion at that time), the agency that that oversee the religion was the ‘National Front of Salvation of Cambodia’, ‘National Front of Salvation and Building of Cambodia’, I remember. It was the front that the Vietnamese install, that the Vietnamese create during the fighting with the Khmer Rouge at the Vietnamese / Khmer border, before 1979, I remember.

The monk say ‘ok people must work hard, honestly, rely on yourself, no god will help you unless you help yourself’, this is the teaching of the Buddhism – ‘no god will help you, this is what the Buddha say, no god will help you, unless you help yourself’. Reliance on yourself is the best way, this is in the Buddhism, but, they say, ‘ok, like the government, protect the government, as the resistance, Sihanouk, the King Sihanouk at that time’, or ‘Pol Pot is bad’, or something like that. In 1987, when Hun Sen met prince Norodom Sihanouk for the first time for a peace negotiation, at that time there was no, during early 1980s, there was no young monk, only old monk - when you are young, you are no allowed to be a monk, you just go to work, or serve military forces to work. Young people were not allowed to be monk, only old people - and also old people, only 2 or 3 monk per temple, we don’t see the orders or directives or writings but we observe that most temples, pagodas, have 2 or 3 monk and very old. Work & Study (1979 – 1990) After the Khmer Rouge fall I lived with my mother and we do farming. I went to the school again until I finished my high school, and I applied for a scholarship and I was sent abroad. I was sent to the former Soviet Union to study for five years. I returned back to Cambodia in late 1990 before the Soviet Union collapse. When I came back, I worked for Ministry of Culture, Propaganda and Information, at that time. There was different Ministry from now; there was so-called Ministry of Culture, Propaganda and Information. You know, the communist, they have that word, ‘propaganda’ – mean information for Communist party; they focus on ideology instead of information. It’s different from ‘information’ which is what exactly event or work, but ‘propaganda’, not real one, something happen different from what they said, this is ‘propaganda’. They say communist is good, but not good, this ‘propaganda’. Economy (1975 – 1989) During Pol Pot there was no money. Late 1970s Cambodia did not use money, because the Khmer Rouge took over; no economic activities, no money, no market. I remember one cadre of Khmer Rouge talk about dollar – it’s interesting, we did not use money but they talk about dollar! They say, ‘we need to produce soybean, because soybean at international market can be sold $400/tonne’ and they say, ‘we would sell soybean and buy tractor from china to use in the farming’. I did not know what is dollar! I remember the Riel, but different picture and value. I remember my mother, when I go to school my mother gave my one Riel, and I could buy more items. And not ever one Riel! 50c, we have a coin. I got two coin, equivalent to one Riel, one coin for the morning and one for the afternoon. Because we have two times schedule school, in the morning and in the afternoon.

In the Pol Pot time we don’t have to spend anything because the commune kitchen you were not allowed to cook at home. You go to work and after you go to the commune cooperative kitchen. Like dining hall. In one village there is one dining hall, a big one, can accommodate one or two hundred people. I remember, because I already work at that time, I work digging canal and also take care of cows and cattle, everybody have to eat at the dining hall. You were not allowed to cook at home. When you were caught you will be sent to the prison or killed. Currency (1979 – 1990) They have the scales in the market. They’re Dealer, Gold Dealer. So when you want to buy something (the Vietnamese also bring the gold to change) we have the Dealer. We want to inspect that quality of the gold - they used the fire. So ok, they used the fire, when the pure gold, when there is something that is not the gold, then it melt away, its easy when you put the fire on, the pure gold come, and if something not pure gold, you will see the black, and people get used to this. Even me, at that time, I know real life practise teach you something about this experience. Normally we have the small sack and put it [gold] here around neck and when we come home, no problem, just keep it in the cupboard. But after that I remember 1G of gold, I don’t know how many ounce in English, the measurement we had was 1G; this is the eastern measurement of gold. I remember, maybe 3 or 3.4g is the same. 1G just cost you 90R and this is in 1980 and after that in 1985 it jumped to 300R and after that, when I returned from the former Soviet Union, in late 1990, I remember that 1G cost you 100,000R so its inflation. Normally the communist government try to make the currency very high value, but it’s not in accordance with the market value, the market value is different, and that’s why they issue the money many times but they cannot keep the currency in high value. Maybe one month later there is inflation. After 1990 we did not use gold anymore but people compared the local currency with the dollar or gold. At that time, before UNTAC, the biggest note was worth 500R so we have to carry a lot because there was no 100,000R like now. But at that time, I remember, when I worked for UNTAC, when we bought the money to pay for the government salary in Buntea Meahchey I just full sack loaded on the helicopter: because I was a translator. So the government employee need to get paid, so took the money from Buntea Meanchey on helicopter so I remember ‘oh my god’ heavy, very heavy. Marriage (1990) It’s strange, in Cambodia most marriage is arrange marriage, but for me, no. I met my wife because she’s my neighbour. She lived about 100m away from my house in Phnom Penh where I was living. At that time I lived with my aunt. As a neighbour I saw her as a

neighbour and I talked to her as a neighbour and after 3 years then we got married. I didn’t have friends in the neighbourhood, because when I returned back from the Soviet Union, know during my high school study, I studied in Takmao town, south of Phnom Penh so I didn’t have friend here in Phnom Penh. I only had friend when I studied in the Soviet Union. So when I returned, the neighbours, I mean the people aged like me; I don’t have a friend, because in Phnom Penh, sometime you don’t have friends unless you work with them. It’s not like in the village. So friends here are the ones you work with or your neighbours. [wife]; Because we also had business, you know people here in Phnom Penh we worked you know, even through you, because my wife was a teacher also, she worked as a teacher, and also at home she worked as a tailor. She got something from other people, like the tissue or shirt. Because that is additional income; because here in Cambodia when you are the government employee there is not enough income, so you have to work for additional income. So some people sell something and some people do something, like what we call a tailor job. So because my aunt sell the clothes, ready made, in the market [Olympic], she bought garment and material from the market and make it into the clothes. And my wife she also do the clothes; so I bought this to my wife’s house for her to sow and when she was done I took it from her house to my aunt house, so we know each other from this. And I just make fun to her, saying something. Work with UNTAC (1992) When the Peacekeeping force, UNTAC, came to Cambodia, I work for them for one year, and then I learn a lot about Democracy. I got influenced from the west during the UNTAC because we work (especially communication was in English), and I had opportunity to study, to improve my English, I was sent to ACE, Australian Centre for Education, at that time. When UTNAC left Cambodia I worked for the government again, and I work for Ministry of Education, because my department was transferred to Education. Before that it was under Ministry of Culture and Propaganda and Information, but after the UN-run election we were sent to the Ministry for Education and I got a scholarship to study in Australia. When I return back I worked for the government again, and then I quit the government to work for NGO. Now again I work for the government but not the government staff, because they are projects sponsored by Aid Agency for University reform, and legal project with Ministry of Education, and so on. This is my experience.

Interviewer: Chris Patterson

Interviewee: Toch Leaksmy

Tags & Keywords

Transcript Notes


  1. In light of Leaksmy’s account, discuss what Cambodia’s Cold War actually was. Is it more accurate to consider it a local, regional or part of a global conflict?

  2. Related to the previous question, did Cambodia even experience a single Cold War, or multiple “Cold Wars”? 

  3. Consider how movement across geographical regions shaped Leaksmy’s experience of the Cold War.

  4.  What does Leaksmy’s testimony suggest about the role of ideology in shaping Cambodian civilians’ Cold War experiences on the ground? How does that nuance our understanding of the global Cold War?

  5. Discuss the role of religion and spirituality in shaping Cambodians’ lived experiences of the Cold War.

  6. Discuss how the experiences of Leaksmy’s family illustrate their agency in navigating the Cold War Era in Cambodia.

  7. Consider the issues of collective memory and trauma surrounding conflicts, in light of Leaksmy’s recollections.