Mr Tou discusses his experiences under the Khmer Rouge regime, the importance of passing that memory down to future generations of Cambodians, and how that could be achieved.
Born in 1947, Tou was away from his home in Mok Da Village, working as a laborer in Bavet when the Sihanouk government was deposed in 1970. Lon Nol’s forces, in an alliance with South Vietnamese troops, clashed with Khmer liberation forces. Tou was arrested by Khmer soldiers on the suspicion of speaking ill of the monarch, and bribed them to release him. Upon his release, he enlisted in the Khmer forces. He was trained at Say Rieng and deployed to every battle in the area, fighting Lon Nol’s and the allied South Vietnamese forces. He left the service in 1972 after the situation deteriorated, and Phnom Penh was encircled by enemy forces. The road between Phnom Penh and Svay Rieng was blocked, and only accessible by air.
When the Khmer Rouge regime took power in 1975, his family decided to move towards the incoming Khmer Rouge troops, to avoid being mistaken as enemies. Along their journey, they first encountered Vietnamese troops who examined their belongings, but did not confiscate anything. The Khmer Rouge troops that they encountered next confiscated their valuables, saying that they were “imperialistic” in nature. Tou’s family then moved to Thlok, where Khmer Rouge personnel recorded their information. Unfortunately for him, an airstrike occurred just as he arrived, and he was accused of being a spy. He met a trader from his village who knew his parents, and asked him to pass them a message that he was moving to Romeas Hek. The next day, his relatives met him with a letter of authorization from Romeas Hek, and he moved there to live and work alongside them.
Tou did not find his next 2 years in Romeas Hek too difficult, but this would drastically change in 1977, when he was forcibly relocated to the border with Vietnam. There, he herded various animals for the collective, and was tasked to transport firewood on a buffalo cart with an assistant. The assistant was too young to assist with carrying heavy loads, so Tou only assigned him light duties. Citizens were severely underfed, and finding extra food became the sole topic of casual conversations. They planted various edible crops outside their work, but the harvest was always taken by the collective, and they did not dare consume it personally. As his house was a little distant from the rest, he kept a hidden store of rice, and would cook it secretly during storms for extra nourishment. When his unit was first assigned to dig canals and given a target, the 12-member team swiftly completed it within the morning, and were assigned further work, while other teams were reprimanded for not matching that pace. After that, his unit slowed down and kept pace with their peers to avoid being assigned more work. They had an hour lunch break, and walked in single file for an hour to and from the canteen.
Under this assignment, Tou was separated from his pregnant wife, who was assigned to husk rice elsewhere, and he was not notified of her whereabouts. It was only when he requested time off work to meet her that he was told she was in a different location and ill; but that he need not visit her because the regime’s medical staff were already attending to her. When he eventually got to meet her at her new location, they both teared. She cooked him rice secretly in the house, which he consumed excessively, causing a stomach ache. Ill laborers were only given traditional medicine and a painful injection that he is not certain had any medicinal properties.
While Buddhism had been outlawed, the communes individually staged performances for laborers on New Year’s Day. Senior leadership would attend and address the crowd with speeches on loyalty to the party, but they had better food and ate in a sheltered tent, unlike the laborers. That was also the only occasion that workers were allowed to return to their families. Tou held onto his Buddhist faith, but could not openly practice it.
However, in all other situations, Tou suggests that it was part of the regime’s strategy to disconnect familial bonds. Families were not allowed to work together in the same labor projects, and family members were not allowed to express sadness when their families were abused by the regime, at the risk of being named as enemies themselves. The authorities enforced that ideological commitment superseded any blood or personal relations. When his parents passed away, their funeral arrangements were left to the district chief, and were not done in accordance with Buddhist traditions. Tou explains that they died of malnourishment under the regime, and he was not even allowed to visit his family when they passed.
He also recalled seeing a disabled man being attacked and buried alive by Khmer Rouge officials for accepting food from Vietnamese troops, as they feared he would publicize their good deeds to his fellow Cambodians. Tou felt sympathy but was afraid to help him. When the Khmer Rouge was fleeing the onslaught of Vietnamese forces in 1979, Tou and other civilians would pick up leftover food that Khmer Rouge soldiers left behind. They were not concerned whether it was safe for consumption, merely seeking to ease their hunger.
Though more than 40 years have passed since the regime was toppled, Tou still feels pained about his past experience. He shares that he used to have nightmares about the regime, but that they have faded. However, as a staunch Buddhist, he follows the Buddha’s teachings of forgiveness and does not seek revenge. Today, he has a healthy relationship with the former Khmer Rouge members who still live in his village. These former perpetrators are even invited to weddings and other ceremonies. However, when the past is brought up, these individuals feel shame and withdraw from the scene.
Tou had not tracked the progress of receiving reparations in recent years, but is committed to ensuring that the memory of his generation, that lived through the regime, is passed down. He still attends annual commemorations on the May 20 National Day of Remembrance, and makes an effort to invite his community to participate more actively in these events, which have been facing dwindling participation over time. Further, he suggests that the government promote history education about the regime. In parallel, he feels that short clips of what happened during the regime should be broadcast frequently like TV commercials, so that it becomes part of the public psyche in future generations and prompts the sharing of Khmer Rouge-related oral histories within Cambodian families. In his personal capacity, he continues sharing his experiences with his descendants and is open to discussing further with researchers.
Mr. Tou, Svay Rieng
Q: Where did you live before 1975? A: Before 1975, I lived in Mok Da village, Mok Da commune, Romeas Hek district. However, I left home to earn money in Bavet town because of my family’s financial situation. I worked as a wage laborer, carrying clothes and cigarette from Cambodia to Vietnam and vice-versa. It was before 1970. In 1970, Norodom Sihanouk was toppled by a coup d’état. I was in Bavet during the coup d’état. I was not able to return home. After the coup d’état, there were different groups of soldiers in our community. There were Khmer liberation forces and Tiv Khi Vietnamese troops. After the coup d’état, there was a war. Lon Nol’s troops were in the town while Tiv Khi Vietnamese troops were coming to the town. Tiv Khi were South Vietnamese troops. Lon Nol brought them into the town. Outside the town, there were Khmer liberation forces and Viet Cong forces. I was stuck in Bavet, unable to return home. I was afraid of the Khmer liberation troops when I left the town. One night, Khmer liberation forces arrested me in Bavet. They questioned why I scolded King Norodom Sihanouk. I told them I had no reason to scold him. I was just an ordinary person and felt regret about what had happened. After arresting me, they kept me in a room. At around 3 AM, they forced me to drink alcohol. In the day, Tiv Khi forces took over the town while Khmer liberation forces ran away. At night, Tiv Khi forces were at their barricade while Khmer liberation forces entered people’s houses and made trouble.
Q: What happened after the interrogation? A: After I told them accordingly, I was freed. Actually, I gave them 3,000 Riels in bribe to release me. At the time, 3,000 Riels was very expensive. It was around 1domlerng of gold. Frankly speaking, I immediately became a soldier for Lon Nol after I was released. Then, I was stationed at a barricade at the border.
Q: When was it? A: It was 1970. Right after I was released, I was scared. Therefore, I decided to be a soldier. Then, I was stationed at a border barricade in Bavet for a week. Then, I was sent to Svay Rieng for military training. After completing the training, I was sent to the battlefield to fight against Tiv Khi at Boeng Rai, Ta nou, Chea Russey and other parts in Svay Rieng. I was on missions, fighting in almost every battlefield in Svay Rieng province.
Q: Who did you fight against? A: I fought against Tiv Khi that were pro-Lon Nol. I served in the Khmer forces while Tiv Khi forces were from Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh city. In Ho Chi Minh, there were two groups: Viet Cong group and Tiv Khi forces. At the time, Tiv Khi forces came to Cambodia to help Lon Nol’s troops. Lon Nol had a close alliance with Ho Chi Minh’s Tiv Khi troops. After completing the military training, I was stationed in O’samday village. Q: Was there a barricade in O’samday village? A: Yes, there was. It was located at near the bridge. Now, it has become a market.
Q: When was it destroyed? A: It disappeared after 1975 when Pol Pot’s forces defeated Lon Nol’s.
Q: Did you remember what happened before 1975? A: In 1972, I was not a soldier anymore. I learnt that the situation became worse. Svay Rieng town was surrounded by other forces. Phnom Penh was also surrounded by other forces. The Phnom Penh-Svay Rieng Road was cut off. We had to take a flight to travel between Phnom Penh and Svay Rieng.
Q: Really? A: Yes, we could not travel by road. A plane was shot down. I discussed with my family. We had to leave. If we waited until the Khmer Rouge arrived, we would be charged as military hostages. So, we had to leave before they arrived. If they saw us on the way, we would not face severe consequence if they arrested us. We walked northwards along the road towards Chek monastery. First, we met Vietnamese troops. They did not hurt us. They just checked our belongings. And then we met Cambodian troops in O’samdey village. They took all of our belonginsg. They were Khmer Rouge troops. They took what I had brought along from home. They took gold, diamonsd, and perfume, saying those things were imperialistic. They took everything from us except the clothes we were wearing. After that, I went to Thlok and settled there. At Thlok, there were men coming to record our personal information. Some wore short trousers and some wore long trousers. It was my bad day. When I arrived there, there was an airstrike against civilians at the village junction. As a consequence, I was accused as a spy. I found that the situation was deteriorating. I planned to continue my journey to Romea Hek’s Mok Da, which was my birthplace. Luckily, at Thlok I suddenly met a man who lived in Mok Da. He came to sell kitchenware such as hand-woven bamboo rice baskets and containers. I asked him if he knew my parents and relatives. He knew them. I asked him to tell my parents about my condition and to convey a message to my parents that I had left Svay Rieng town. In the early morning, my relatives came to meet me. They had a letter of authorization from Romeas Hek district. At Romeas Hek, I lived my relatives, with who were base people. I did the assigned tasks with them.
Q: Did you move to live in Romeas Hek before 1975? A: No. It was in 1975. However, we were not completely liberated.
Q: Did it happen prior to the liberation in Phnom Penh? A: Yes, it happened before the liberation in Phnom Penh. I do not remember the specific date actually. However, soon after I arrived at Mok Da, I realized that there were arrangements to put newcomers who were evacuated from Phnom Penh, and former military officers, to work; based on their previous positions and ranks.
Q: How was your life in Romeas Hek?
A: After 1975, the situation was not that hard until 1977 when my life became extremely desperate. In 1977, I was forcefully sent to Cambodia-Vietnam border.
Q: What for? A: They wanted me to stay there. They sent people from the western region to the live along the border while people who lived in the border were forced move into the western region. At the border, I saw many cows, buffalos, pigs, chickens, and ducks in the villages. I caught and kept some of them, herding them for the collective, because we had meals as a collective, not in private. We had to work hard without any relaxation. We had no free time. Q: What work were you assigned? A: I was in charge of transportation. I had to transport firewood for a collective using a cart, while my wife was assigned to husk rice, despite being pregnant Transporting the rice was another group’s responsibility. Q: Was it an ox cart? A: No, it was a buffalo cart. I had an assistant who took care of the buffalos after I finished my daily work. He always assisted me. On the cart, we had a cooking pot and plates to prepare for our meals. On the way, we cooked and ate whenever it was time for meals. I did not need to have meals at home. For instance, we were deployed to Svay Rieng town for a day. We were given two milk tins of rice. Therefore, we had to cook the given rice for our meals. They did not care about whether this rice portion was enough for us or not. Our work was extremely heavy. We had to carry very heavy firewood and bags of rice. No one helped us. I was physically strong because I was young. I could carry heavy things. Q: How old were you at the time? A: I was 29 or 30 years old. After the liberation in 1979, I was 32. Now, I am past 70.
Q: You carried heavy things on your own. How about your assistant? A: He was too young. He was just 10 years old, and could only nurse the buffalos. I always only asked him to carry water and do other light tasks. I understood him. During Pol Pot’s regime, I was slender but energetic. My life was so terrible. Insufficient food for consumption. When we had time to chit chat, our topic was always about finding supplementary food to fill our stomachs. For instance, we talked about slaughtering a dog for food. We planted banana, coconut, and cassava. However, we had to give all the harvested yield to the collective. We were not allowed to eat them. If we had dared to eat them, we would have been accused of disloyalty to Angkar. Consequently, we would be be punished. Q: So you dared not eat them, right? A: Exactly, not at all. I am telling the truth. My house was a bit isolated from the others’. Much rice was stored at my house. When there were heavy rain showers, I secretly took the rice and husked it. I placed a plastic under the mortar so that the husking did not make loud sounds. The husks were thrown away while the rice was kept. We cooked rice porridge. We still did not eat enough rice but at least we had more rice in our stomachs, which gave us more energy. I was separated from my wife because of forced labor. We burst out crying when we met again. Our lives were very pitiful.
Q: So, you worked separately from your wife? A: Yes, of course. I worked in a different place from my wife. We were not allowed to work in the same place at all. Requesting to visit family was sometimes approved but we were not allowed to even stay overnight at all. We just could spend time to have a meal with the family and then we had to return to our workplace. My wife and I were separated. I was assigned to dig soil while my wife stayed home. Later on, I just realized that my wife was sent off to somewhere else that I did not know. I was not informed of this at all. The Khmer Rouge told me that if I wanted to go home, I could not go to my previous house. I had to go to the house where my wife was sent to. It was located in Dong commune, which I had no idea how to get to. I walked through the forest and got lost. Finally, a road caught my eye, and I asked a person who was riding a bike: Where is Cherteal village? A: He told me to keep walking through another forest. Then, I would reach Cherteal village.
Q: Who was that person? Khmer Rouge? A: Yes, he was from the Khmer Rouge. I was assigned to dig a canal. We had a break at 11:00, but I asked for permission to meet my wife because she was relocated elsewhere. My wife went to the plantation and once she came home, she cooked rice for me. I ate too much rice because of extreme hunger. My stomach was too full with rice. I almost died. She cooked the rice that we secretly kept in our house. I hungrily devoured too much rice. I felt that my stomach was about to explode. My wife used a coconut shell water dipper to gently scrub my stomach, traditionally believed to reduce stomach pain. It worked actually. She saved my life. I could continue to live my life. It is true. I ate a lot, but I was still hungry.
Q: How about the treatment when people got sick? A: We told the person in charge that we were sick. They just gave us a traditional herbal medicine which later was called rabbit waste medicine. It tasted bitter. Some liquid kept in a Fanta bottle was given by injection. While working in the lake, we were injected with that liquid. The liquid was as transparent as tear drops.
Q: Did the injection work? A: I have no idea. The injection was very painful. Everyone who got sick got this injection. They just wanted to show that they had medical personnel to take care of us. They just wanted to show that they were professional in providing healthcare services. We were not to worry, and just keep working hard. For instance, a group was assigned to finish digging 10 meter of soil per day. We worked so hard that we could finish it within a morning. Then, we were not allowed to stop working, but were assigned another task with another target. They assigned us, a group of 12, to dig a 10 square meter canal, 3 meters deep in one day. We worked very hard to finish the task. Finally, we finished our assigned work, but we were not allowed to relax. We were assigned additional tasks. That was the way they ruled us. We felt happy because we could finish our assigned task earlier. But we were assigned to dig another 10 square meter canal, 3m deep. I just received the admiration that our group was exemplary, while other groups were criticized due to their slow progress. They worked slowly. So, groups who worked slowly had to work fast. After knowing how they ruled us, my group just worked as hard as the other groups. We did not work very fast like before. We discussed this with our group members. This discussion was not heard by the Khmer Rouge.
Q: When your group the finished assigned work faster than planned, did you get enough rice as an incentive? A: No, we were given the same portion of rice which was cooked in the same cauldron. When it was time to work, the Khmer Rouge whistled to give a message. Carrying a hoe and baskets, we walked in line to our workplace.
Q: How long did thewalk take you? A: Almost 1 hour. I had no time to relax actually. For example, I worked here and the place where we had meals was at Prey Chlak village. We reached there on foot. After finished eating, we had to walk in line to our workplace.
Q: It took you almost an hour, right? A: Yes, exactly. Q: You had no free time to relax, right? A: No relaxation time at all. We had to walk in a line to get meals. After eating, we drank water. Without any rest time, we had to walk in a line back to the workplace. Females walked in their line and male walked in their line separately. We were in long queues, group by group.
Q: While walking, were you overseen by any Khmer Rouge officials? A: Yes, the group leaders kept their eyes on their group members every minute.
Q: Were those leaders from a different area? A: We lived in the same collective. It varied. For instance, the teenagers who were old enough to fight in the battlefield were assigned particular tasks. However, in general the Khmer Rouge never cared about age of people. As long as they could work, they were assigned tasks, no matter how young they are.
Q: Had you known those group leaders before? A: It depended on the arrangement at the district level. We were from different communes like Thlok, Porthi Reach. It was similar to the military. After working together, people got to know one another. The head of the brigade was responsible for 30, 40 or even 100 people. Upon receiving orders from the senior officials, s/he carried out the tasks accordingly. It is similar to the military. On New Year Day, we were not allowed to go home. For instance, we worked near Bakrong bridge. On New Year Day, a performance was organized at our workplace. Samdey village’s collective organized their own performance for Samdey villagers. There was a feast and district level Khmer Rouge officials presided over the celebration, and addressed us sitting in broad daylight in the rice fields.
Q: Wasn’t there any temporary tent?
A: There was no temporary tent for us. However, there was a temporary tent for the delegates.
Q: What was the speech about? A: It was about loyalty to Angkar, kill the internal enemies etc. Every clause of the speech was accompanied by big applause. We recited the revolutionary pledges. After the speech came to an end, each of us was provided a plate of rice with food. The delegates also ate there.
Q: Did they eat with other people? A: No, they ate in a temporary tent. After finishing my meal, I took the opportunity to see how those delegates ate, because I really wanted to know. They ate a few kinds of food and their rice pot was covered with mosquito net to keep out flies. Their meals were special. Q: Were there any Buddhist monks joining the ceremony? A: No there were no Buddhist monks at all. Monasteries were dismantled. For instance, Svay monastery was completely destroyed while some other monasteries remained, but without any Buddhist monks.
Q: What about Pchum Ben day? A: Neither New Year’s Day nor Pchum Ben Day was celebrated at all. They did not care about any celebration.
Q: Did you feel sad when you were unable to celebrate those special events? A: I was sad. I felt pity for my son. It was unfortunate he was born during the Khmer Rouge regime. He was born in a tough situation. My childhood was not that desperate. I didn’t imagine that the situation would become better like today. In fact, we lived in darkness under the Khmer Rouge.
Q: As religious practice was completely absent under Khmer Rouge, how did you feel?
A: I thought of the religion that I always practiced, but I couldn’t speak it out. The Khmer Rouge regarded Buddhist monks as lazy people. They did nothing except eating. They did not do any work. I told myself that it is our Cambodian tradition and culture. Traditionally and religiously, we celebrate Khmer New Year and Pchum Ben etc. Since I was born, I saw Cambodian people celebrate these. However, under Pol Pot’ regime, there was nothing.
Q: Did you feel sad? A: Yes, of course, but I could say nothing. I just kept this feeling. I didn’t speak it out. Otherwise, I would be accused of dissent. Even when our wives, fathers and/or mothers got beaten up, we were not allowed to burst out crying. We would be accused of pitying dissidents and consequently would be punished. If our parents were tortured and we cried, we would be punished on the grounds that we supported the dissidents. We felt very hurt, but we could say nothing. Actually, we did not personally witness our parents being tortured, but after learning of the torture we were very hurt and angry. We were broken hearted, but we couldn’t cry. If we cried, we would be accused of being enemies. They said that being parents and enemies is different. No matter who you are, when you make mistakes, you are enemies.
Q: Were your parents tortured? A: No, they weren’t. They passed away. They were old. However, before their death, they had insufficient food. They were very hungry and became too weak. We wanted to get their bodies cremated, but the authorities did not allow that. Their bodies were not buried properly, as they were supposed to be religiously and traditionally. One day, my wife got sick, and I asked for permission to visit her personally. I was not allowed to visit her, and was told that I was not a doctor They already had medical personnel to take care of patients.
Q: Were you allowed to go home and hold funeral ceremonies for your passing parents? A: Not at all. The Khmer Rouge told me that the head of the collective was fully responsible for organizing the funeral ceremonies of my passing parents. I needed not do anything. We were to just keep focusing on our work. There was no need to visit our family. They disconnected our family relations. They were very brutal.
Q: Now, do you hate the Khmer Rouge? Do you want revenge? A: So far it has been more than 40 years after the liberation day. My pain remains. However, I have never thought of revenge against those former Khmer Rouge officials. What I really feel now is that I don’t want such a brutal regime again. I don’t want to even use the word “revenge”. I don’t want the younger generations to experience a Khmer Rouge regime in the future. That is my personal point of view.
Q: But you are still emotionally hurt and traumatized, right? A: Exactly, right. When it comes to this genocidal regime of 3 years, 8 months and 20 years, it gives me goosebumps. I feel this because I personally experienced the regime. You did not personally experience such a horrifying regime. You just learnt about it from older people. However, you may feel that lives during the Khmer Rouge regime were indescribably desperate. You just heard about this past regime from others. You don’t understand as deeply as we do because we personally experienced it. Metaphorically speaking, only a man touching a fire can truly feel how hot it is. You see that man touching the fire and you know the fire is burning his hand. However, you do not personally know how hot the fire is as you did not experience it. That is what I mean. Do you understand what I mean? Q: Yes, I got your point.
A: In Cambodia, when you ask old people about their lives under the Khmer Rouge, you will get the same answers. No matter where they lived, be it Svay Rieng, Battambang, Kampot or Takeo, their lives suffered. That is the truth because everybody talks about their hard time. If only I tell this story while people in Samdey village or in Prey Veng province don’t tell the same story, it means I told you lies. The history is just that, so old people tell the truth about the Khmer Rouge. People in Battambang province and in Phnom Penh city tell a common history of Khmer Rouge. Our lives were genuinely desperate. Usually, we fear tigers and maybe elephants. Imagine! How terrible is it that we were afraid of human beings? Do you believe me? Fearful relations between fellow human beings are destructively chaotic. Sometimes, when we sleep at night, we often thought of being woken up and taken away for extermination. We thought of ourselves being reported of wrongdoings we unintentionally did. They did not question us directly. For instance, sometimes, a particular person who dislikes me can get me into trouble by telling the Khmer Rouge that I have secret verbal communications with other people. With this made-up accusation, I will be taken away for extermination immediately that night. When taken away, I would have no chance to return. It can happen like that. They would accuse us of being internal enemies. That’s it. Some people were made to work to death.
Q: So at the time, death could happen anywhere, at any time?
A: Yes, life was very fragile. The Khmer saying goes “Living for a day means living for a lifetime”. You know, even the village chief had the authority to order killings. For instance, I was a head of the kitchen in Samdey village. I selected a security guard who was very cruel and liked killing to be my subordinate. I can order him to arrest the person whom I thought did wrongdoings. He would arrest that person immediately. I just had to close my eyes to signal to him that the suspect is to be killed. The security force will take him away and kill him somewhere.
Q: Have you personally witnessed the killing? A: Yes, I have. A man was buried in the pit while he was still alive. Q: Was he old or young? A: He was a person with disabilities. At the time, Khmer Rouge forces fought against Vietnamese troops in 1979. When Vietnamese troops were approaching, he was there. He could not go anywhere because of his physical disabilities. When Vietnamese troops retreated, he was killed by the Khmer Rouge on the accusation of building a relationship with the Vietnamese. He was buried alive in the shallow pit. Dogs took him from the pit. Although I eye-witnessed it, I kept working, digging soil. I pretended that I saw nothing.
Q: What did the Khmer Rouge use to kill him? A: They used bamboo sticks to hit his head. Then, they pushed him into the pit and buried him. After that, they just left the scene while I kept digging soil nearby.
Q: Didn’t you want to help him? A: No, I dared not help him.
Q: But did you feel pity for him? A: Yes, of course I did. He was an innocent disabled person. He physically could not move around but he was accused of building relationships with the Vietnamese.
Q: Was it in 1979? A: Yes, it was. Vietnamese troops arrived at our village. They realized that he was disabled and gave him instant noodles. They were better than the Khmer Rouge. They gave him instant noodles because they felt pity on him. Khmer Rouge killed him because they were afraid that he would talk about the Vietnamese’s good deed towards him. Vietnamese troops were generous, giving him food. That was the strategy of the Khmer Rouge. When the Vietnamese left the place, we saw leftovers we ate them. This is because we were too hungry. They arrived at our place and ate there. Then, they left the place, leaving messy leftovers. Because of our deep hunger, we ate those leftovers without even thinking if they were poisonous. I devoured it all and was fine.
Q: You mean the leftovers left behind by Khmer Rouge troops? So, the Khmer Rouge was dispersed and scarpered for safety because Vietnamese troops were defeating them. A: Yes, the leftovers were left behind by Khmer Rouge forces. As an ordinary person, I just ran away when there was gunfire. I saw leftovers, scattered and messy. I ate them up.
Q: Weren’t you afraid that the leftovers were poisonous?
A: No, I wasn’t. I ate all the leftovers. If after eating I had food poisoning, I accepted death.
Q: So you are still emotionally hurt, but you do not seek revenge, right? A: No, I don’t hate. I don’t seek revenge. Our country has laws. There are some of former Khmer Rouge officials who still live in this village, yet I don’t begrudge them.
Q: Are they still alive? A: Yes, many of them are living in this village.
Q: Do you have good relationships with them? A: Yes, we have a good relationship. We are like friends. In Samdey village, former Khmer Rouge members who once lived here dared not return home, but now we have built good relations. When there is a wedding or religious ceremony, we invite one another. Now, we never talk about the past.
Q: Do you want to completely forget it? A: Yes, we want to forget about it. However, sometimes we recall it, and the former members just keep quiet. They feel ashamed. If they said something, people would warn him of being beaten up. When people say that, they leave the scene quickly. Sometimes, they forget that they used to be Khmer Rouge officials.
Q: Are they old? A: Yes, they are old. They are as old as me. Some are in their sixties, and some are above 50. They are old now. Those who are in their 50s know about the Khmer Rouge.
Q: Have you ever had a nightmare about what happened during the Khmer Rouge? A: Yes, I had a nightmare about the Khmer Rouge. In the dream, I was assigned to dig a canal, but I had no idea where it was. I was extremely scared. In my dream, the Khmer Rouge arrested people. I had nightmares after we were liberated, but now I do not. Now, I sometimes dream that I join the ceremony or meet a young girl. When I feel happy, I have a good dreams. When I feel bad, I have nightmares.
Q: In Buddhism, Lord Buddha said that “hatred could not be ceased by hatred”. What do you think about this? A: This is a very good teaching. However, I don’t know if it is good for you.
Q: Why do you think it is very good? A: It teaches us not to recall the past. Let bygones, be bygones. Recalling the past would fill us with remorse again. What we suffered had happened in the past. We are decent persons, so we do not take revenge. Our Khmer ancestors said “When bitten by the bloodsucker, never bite it out of revenge. Just take it away. That’s it”. At the time, law enforcement was very poor, but now it is different. The government teaches us to care about one another. Never hate or take revenge on one another. All human beings want to live happy lives. All of us want happiness, and to get happiness we must have deep mutual understandings. This is how to live in happiness. If we don’t have mutual understandings and always think about the past, we cannot have happiness. Revenge would happen. At the time, things happened the way they did, but now we can’t do illegal acts. We have laws in force. Committing illegal acts would mean facing punishment in consequence. Former Khmer Rouge officials were granted with pardon. They are human beings like us. They have rights and freedoms. If we punch them, we are wrong.
Q: Do you think Buddhism is important in finding inner peace?
A: Yes, exactly. Buddhism teaches people around the world only two things: good and bad. The Buddha teaches us not to do bad deeds. He teaches us about mutual respect and caring. Never do bad deeds. However, not all people are good. Applying Buddha’s teaching in our lives can reduce the problems in our lives. Some people learn Buddhism, but still do bad deeds. What goes around comes around, said Buddha. If you are a pig dealer, the pig is the main factor of your business’ success or failure. Buddha’s teachings existed even before the law. He used Dhamma talks to educate people because in his time there was no law. If he did not give Dhamma talks, people would have killed one another. Therefore, he educated people by Dhamma talks. Bad people will go to hell. Now, if you hurt others, you will be punished by the law. The police will arrest you. In Buddha’s time, there was no policeman. Religiously, there are guards to punish the bad people. In our country, it is stipulated that Buddhism is a state religion. Whether you believe it or not is not a problem. We should believe in good things. We must be aware of bad things. Actually, all people are aware of bad deeds, but they still do it. For instance, after you do bad deeds, you feel guilty. You get drunk and use bad words on others. You feel that it was not right. You feel that you made people disappointed.
Q: After 1979, how was the situation in monasteries? A: Monasteries started to rebuild. There were gradually a few monks. Now, there are many monks in the monastery. However, now monks are not as many as in the past. In the old days, there were between 20 and 30 monks in a monastery. Now, in a monastery there are fewer monks. Why not many monks? It is because nowadays youth are not very well-behaved due to modernity. That is my point of view. Q: Post-Khmer Rouge, did you go to the monastery to celebrate the ritual ceremony commemorating your relatives who were killed under the regime? A: Yes, I go to the monastery to dedicate offerings to those who were killed, including those who sacrificed lives to defend our country, and ask them to protect us forever. Q: How do you feel when you do that? A: I feel relaxed. I think that in the future, people will not allow themselves to be led. They have had enough war. That is just my observation. Now, in Cambodia you can’t invite people to serve in the military. I think people are so tired of experiencing war. Now, there is a market. People enjoy coffee. They have a cars and motorbikes. Why would they need to serve as soldiers in war?
Q: Do you think the Khmer Rouge regime happened because of karma?
A: I personally don’t believe much in karma. I say that most leaders in the past were very selfish. They felt this world belonged to them only. The Khmer Rouge was under the leadership of Mao Zedong, communist Chinese leader. In China, money was used but in Cambodia currency was abolished. Everything had to be collectivized, while ordinary people like us had nothing except bare hands, to implement its extreme utopia policy. They wanted to be the top leaders. I they were the only group think in the world who killed millions of their own people. The world called them the top killers. Only the Khmer Rouge did this.
Q: Are you talking about អង្គកាមហាលោតផ្លោះ (English please)? A: Yes, they were extremists. They wanted to achieve too much in order to satisfy their top leaders.
Q: Have you ever told your children or grandchildren about your life experience during the Khmer Rouge? A: Yes, I often tell them my life story during the Khmer Rouge. I sometimes compare their way of living with mine in the past. Now, they could die from eating too much food, while during Khmer Rouge times, people died from hunger.
Q: What is their response?
A: They said that I can say so because I personally experienced the regime, but they did not. They said that they were born in a good environment where food is available.
Q: Do they believe you? A: I think most of them believe me. I think the most important thing is learning from their teachers like you. At school, they read books on Khmer Rouge history.
Q: Since you personally experienced the genocidal regime, do you want any justice or reparations?
A: I personally went through the genocide regime of 3 years, 8 months, and 20 days. My family was not killed. We ate insufficient food. Our lives were indescribably desperate. The current government has done justice for our people through ECCC. It has been in operation for many years, but the decisions have not been made yet. I think you may also know about the process of finding justice at ECCC. I don’t know where it is up to now because I have not kept abreast of it lately. ECCC news is rarely broadcast. Maybe, they just delayed the proceedings in order to let those elderly top former Khmer Rouge officials pass away. That is my personal point of view.
Q: Do you think the government should further promote education about the Khmer Rouge? A: Yes, I think the government should further promote education about Khmer Rouge history. If it doesn’t, people might forget about it because of their comfortable lives. They will forget about the history. However, the Bayon TV channel often broadcasts Khmer Rouge documentaries, comedies and dramas on the Khmer Rouge.
Q: Do you think the broadcasting is enough?
A: I don’t think it is enough. It should be broadcast at least once per week. Each week, different stories on the Khmer Rouge should be broadcast. Some TV channels broadcast unimportant issues. I suggest there should be a daily video clip on the Khmer Rouge, so that people can watch it every day. The clip should be broadcast as frequently as beer advertisements. When people watch TV, then the clip should pop up immediately. Then, people will say “Oh, this clip is about Pol Pot’s regime”. It must be broadcast as frequently as the advertisements for the Carabao energy drink. I think it is possible to make it happen. When broadcast, people may give commentary on it and reaffirm the desperate times they experienced. Children may wonder why the clips on the Khmer Rouge is broadcast every day when watching TV. Their parents or relatives who also watch TV might explain to them. Or they may have learnt about Khmer Rouge history at school, and watching TV about it would further reinforce what they have learnt from school. Too many useless things are broadcast on TV. I think TV channels are very commercial. They broadcast advertisements so that they can get money, while broadcasting clips on the Khmer Rouge probably brings no benefits. However, a 2–3 minute clip on the Khmer Rouge is enough.
Q: Have you been interviewed on the Khmer Rouge before?
A: Many years ago, I was interviewed at the Remembrance site near the Thlok Administration Police Office. There was a task group who took a picture of me telling my story during the interview. The picture was used as an illustration in their book. They conducted interviews at Thlok commune office as well. From that time, I have not been interviewed again before you.
Q: Do you want to forget Khmer Rouge history?
A: Forgetting the Khmer Rouge means removing important history. We have to remember it rather than forgetting about it. However, never seek revenge. Let bygones, be bygones.
Q: Now, do you feel scared of the Khmer Rouge? A: I personally don’t feel scared anymore. I don’t think a Khmer Rouge-like regime would reoccur in our country. It’s impossible. Q: Why? A: This is because people would not believe in lies like before. They will not join any military combat. They will not join any war. Our current way of living is better now. We can eat what we want. We can do any business, except stealing someone’s belongings which is illegal. We can do everything as long as it is legal.
Q: What was your hope after the liberation in 1979, because Cambodians almost had nothing?
A: After the liberation in 1979, all Cambodians had nothing except bare hands. However, we were hopeful as the sun was shining. Our Khmer saying goes “Start walking in the early morning! Study from very young age!” Those who worked hard after the liberation day gradually became much better. Those who start walking in the early morning can go far while those who walk lazily could not go far. My hope persists until today. Q: Why? A: Freedom is our hope. We have the freedom to do whatever work we like. We have the freedom to have enough sleep. We can work or run businesses as we wish without intimidation or threats. Hope is our right and freedom. Having time to earn money is my hope. I keep working hard. Those who keep walking tirelessly go far while those who walk lazily get left behind. Those who keep struggling now become oknha (tycoon). We keep moving because no one stops us.
Q: Have you ever participated in 20th May Remembrance Day events? A: I join it every year actually.
Q: Where is it celebrated? A: Every year, it is celebrated at a remembrance site near Thlok Administration Police Office.
Q: What activities are held?
A: The current activities of the celebration are different from those when we were just liberated in 1979. After 1979, the celebration was called Anger Day, held on 20 May. There were scarecrows in the celebration and people recited the slogans criminalizing the Khmer Rouge regime. But later on, it was changed to 20 May Remembrance Day. We usually bring food offerings to Buddhist monks who preside over the celebration to commemorate those who passed away, including those who sacrificed their lives for our nation. Buddhist monks give dhamma chanting and bangskol (dedicating all food offerings to the souls of those who were killed). We call on their souls to eat the foods we offer and receive all merit-making that we have done. We also ask their souls to bless us with happiness and prosperity. Q: Is there any activity related to Khmer Rouge history? A: A particular person assigned by the government reads us a document on Khmer Rouge history, prepared by the Heng Samrin government.
Q: Do you mean a speech? A: Yes, a person read us just the important pieces only not all.
Q: Who is that person, a commune chief?
A: Yes, usually a commune chief addresses us at the speech, reading us Khmer Rouge history.
Q: Do you think Remembrance Day is important? A: It is important not only for me but for all Cambodians. The celebration is to remember the Khmer Rouge otherwise it will be completely forgotten. Unfortunately, it is held onlu once per year. Actually, it is held once per year like Pchum Ben and New Year celebrations. However, we automatically celebrate the latter while commune chiefs have to gather people to celebrate the former. For Buddhist holy days, people enthusiastically and voluntarily go to the monastery. I think the government wants its people to remember Khmer Rouge history as deeply as they remember the holy days of the Buddhist calendar. But the government finds it hard to achieve. People seem to forget about Remembrance Day. Like for 7th January celebrations, people need to be invited from household to household to join this celebration, otherwise no one join it. This can be translated as them forgetting the 7th January event. Do you agree with me? I personally see it this way. Usually, people remember Buddhist holy days well. They prepare food and fruits in advance of the holy day. Sometimes, when asked “why are you preparing foods and fruit?”, they just respond, “Don’t you know that tomorrow is a Buddhist holy day?” If they remembered celebration set by government the way they remember holy days, the government would be extremely glad. People do not join these celebrations if they are not given something in return. If the government wants people to join the 7th January Day celebration, it has to give them some small souvenir. After 3 consecutive celebrations with small souvenirs year on year, people will remember the 7th January Day deeply. They will join every meeting, or any activities related to 7th January. They will definitely join. Today, it appears that no one talks about 7th January Day. They keep silent. I often go to their houses to inform and ask them to join 7th January Day at the commune office. They told me that they are too busy. Then, I respond with “Why weren’t you busy on this day (7th January) right after 1979?”. They replied that they could not answer my sarcastic questions.
Q: Do you feel good after telling me your life story? A: Keeping untold personal stories inside is a burden. But after talking with you I feel relieved as though I took medicine. I feel fresh and relaxed. Although the information I shared is not fully correct due to my memory loss, I feel relaxed after talking with you. Anyway, I am reflecting on the journey through which I have been throughout my life. I am an old man, metaphorically, like a sun which is setting.
Q: Excuse me. How old are you? A: I am 73.
Q: In case, there is a researcher who wants to interview you on Khmer Rouge in the future. Will you allow the interview? A: I am always glad to be interviewed as long as it is legal. I know you and I am happy to join your interview. For other persons who want to interview me, they need to show me any request letter or permission letter from the relevant ministry or provincial department because I don’t know them. I will join the interview when they show me the letters. However, you are a special case. You don’t need to show me any letter since I know you very well. Do you get my point? A: Yes, thank you.
Interviewer: Soeung Bunly
What does Tou’s transition from being a Khmer soldier until 1972, to his opposition to the regime suggest about the nature of Cambodia’s Cold War and this chapter of Cambodian national history?
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 Tou’s testimony?
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 importance of public memory and familial oral histories of the Khmer Rouge years to Cambodian society, in light of Tou’s reflections.
What does the ability of Tou’s community to reconcile with former Khmer Rouge members suggest about the nature of the conflict and its long term social consequences?