I was born on 2 January 1962 in District No 5, Phnom Penh. My house was located on Road linking Monivong Boulevard to the Tuol Tumpoung High School, just across the Russian Market. When the Khmer Rouge took over on 17th January 1975, I was 13 years old. I studied at grade 8. I did not understand politics. But I remembered what happened during that time. To understand the Khmer Rouge and what they did to Cambodia and Cambodian people we should also understand the context of the period before they came to power.
When I studied in the primary school, Cambodia was a peaceful country. Cambodia gained peacefully independence from France in 1953. Cambodia was a jewel of South East Asia, an oasis of peace. Cambodia was at the center of the global politics at that time. Communism spearheaded by the Soviet Union in Europe, China in Asia and Cuba in Latin America caused a lot of concerns for the United States of America and the so-called free world or Western countries. Though Cambodia was at peace, war was ravaging the between neighboring North and South Vietnam. The US was very involved in Vietnam in order to counter the spread of communism. Both China and the US were trying to court Cambodia into their camp. At that time Prince Sihanouk proclaimed the policy of neutrality. Cambodia received a lot of assistance from the United States, especially military assistance to strengthen the Cambodian military.
In 1962 Cambodia won a court case and regained the Temple of Preah Vihear. Relations between Cambodia and Thailand became sour. At the same time, South Vietnam did not recognize Cambodian international borders. Both the governments of Thailand and South Vietnam were supported by the US. In 1964, a coup sponsored by the United States was staged in South Vietnam and the Prime Minister Ngo Dien Nhiem was killed. That scared Prince Sihanouk, who decided to get closer to China. By maintaining close relations with China, Prince Sihanouk hoped to neutralize Cambodian communists who already went underground to prepare for the revolution with the support of the Vietnamese communists. North Vietnam promised to recognize the Cambodian borders. Economic assistance was promised by China and other communist countries in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Prince Sihanouk severed diplomatic relations with the United States and rejected the US aid.
When war was raging in South Vietnam, the Vietcong (North Vietnamese soldiers) were pushed into Cambodia by the US carpet bombardment to seek safe heaven. Bombs could not recognize borders and more and more civilian casualties among Cambodian population living near the border with Vietnam were reported. Cambodia therefore was dragged into the war and became the route to supply Chinese weapons to the North Vietnamese communists who waged the war against the Americans and South Vietnam. The bombardment also gave reason to the Cambodian communists to strengthen ties with the Vietnamese communists. Cambodian peasants in the border areas could not live in their village and decided to join the revolutionary army.
I remembered that in early 1970 the people of Phnom Penh were worried that some mishaps would happen to Cambodia. Every morning we were watching comet (in Khmer, a star with tail). People believed that this is a bad omen. It would mean that war is approaching. The US wanted to disengage from Vietnam, as the war was not popular at home. To do that, they decided to cut the supply routes from Cambodia. In March 1970 students staged demonstration against the Vietnamese Embassy and on 8 March 1970, General Lon Nol and Prince Sissowath SirikMatak, supported by the United States, staged a coup d’état to topple Prince Sihanouk. Monarchy was replaced by the Khmer Republic. In response, Prince Sihanouk called all Cambodian people to take arm and join the liberation army. My father was at that time Dean of the Faculty of Dance of the University of Fine Arts and took part in Prince Sihanouk’s cinematography projects.
Immediately, with the support of the Vietnamese communists, the liberation army took control of many parts of the country. To help the Lon Nol army the US military resorted to bombing many parts of Cambodia. Historian David Chandler stated that US bombing helped to slow down the victory of the Khmer Rouge. But many Cambodian peasants were killed by the bombardment. They sent their children to help the Khmer Rouge. Atrocities of the war created hatred feelings of the Cambodian rural people towards the population of Phnom Penh who they believed supporting the Americans and the Lon Nol army.
In 1974 and early 1975, Phnom Penh was under attacked by the Khmer Rouge shelling. I remembered walking to school, sometimes under the rocket shelling. On 12th April 1975, the US withdrew from Cambodian. We were living in the Grey Building apartment reserved for civil servants. The US marine helicopters came to lift the remaining US Embassy staff. That was followed by the Khmer Rouge rocket shelling. Many high-ranking Ministers of the Lon Nol government, except Lon Nol himself, decided to remain and die in Cambodia. But they sent their family members to the US. Some of my father’s friends served in the Lon Nol government. His former boss, the Rector of the University of Fine Arts, Hang Thun Hak, was Prime Minister of the Lon Nol government. His close friend, Kong Orn, was Minister of Community Development. The Rector was Huot Kim Leang. All of them, who studied in France, were seen walking in Phnom Penh, but disappeared when the Khmer Rouge took full control of Phnom Penh.
In the night of 15th to 16th April 1975 our family left our apartment to live temporarily at the University of Fine Arts buildings of which my father, Hang Chuon, was administrator, hoping to be able to escape to somewhere. But we could not go anywhere, as there was heaving rocket shelling everywhere. We came back to our apartment and decided to stay overnight in the Chaktomuk theatre in front of our apartment, which we used as bunker. We woke up in the morning of 17th January 1975 and we saw that the Mekong River was turning black as the Khmer Rouge soldiers were crossing the river to storm Phnom Penh. It was a final day. Many people thought the war was over.
The Khmer Rouge soldiers walked in row and shouted to us to leave our homes. We packed up and leave our apartment. They told us to leave just for 3 days and we would come back home once everything would be organized. It was a very hot summer day. The streets of Phnom Penh were full of cars, motorcycles and pedestrians. It took the whole day to get to the other side of the river and we camped in Prek Eng, Kien Svay. We waited for a month and the supplies were running short. Everything was expensive, but people continued to accept Lon Nol’s money. My father met his friend, who told him not to go back to his native village and to go as far as possible so that people do not recognize his background. My father’s friend was a professor at the University of Fine Arts. Many of his students joined the Liberation movement. His students told him when he was captured for one month by the Khmer Rouge.
We crossed the Mekong River and walked to Arei Ksat district in front of the Royal Palace. It was melancholic to see Phnom Penh at sunset in April 1975 from across the river. My father’s auntie believed in Buddhist future telling. One of them: “Battambang will collapse, Phnom Penh will disappear, Prey Nokor (Saigon) will be shattered, but Angkor will be happy”. She also believed in dreams. One night she had a bad dream and decided to part from my family in order to pursue the journey toward Angkor Wat. But her family ended up in Battambang and not Siem Reap. She and all male members of the family died.
Then we were shipped to Tonle Bet, the eastern side of the Mekong in Kompong Cham town. We walked along Route 7 and reached Stoeung Market. Local people from Srolao Chhroeung village came to take us to live with them.
Finally, after a few months of travelling, our family settled in Srolao Chhroeung village, Veal Mlu commune, Dambe District, Zone Number 21, in eastern part of Kompong Cham Province. The village was located near the Rubber plantation. The village was surrounded by thick forests. The soil is fertile, in some places there are red soils, which are good for rubber plantation and any other crops. In my family there were my father, my mother, two sisters, four brothers and me. One of the teachers of the University of Fine Arts also lived with us. Mr. Chun, an electrician at the Chaktomuk theatre came with my father.
For the first time, I saw the B52 bomb craters. The bombs would never reached the Vietcong soldiers who dug tranches deep into the jungles. I was told about the stories of different planes attacking the villagers. We started a new life. We distributed tobacco and clothing to the local people. They seemed to like us. My family lived with Mr. Kol’s family. He had one daughter, Nang, and four sons, two of which, Bav and Khav, served in the Khmer Rouge army. My parents started to farming. They know how to do it, as their parents used to be farmers. I learned very quickly. During the first years, I looked after a couple of oxen belong to Mr. Chhin. I learned how to fish, to prepare traps for fish and other forest’s wild life. So every day I had to collect snails, craps or fish to feed the family. There were many leaches in the river and in the lakes near the village.
Children could adapt very fast to new life. But older people take more time to learn and to adapt. We changed our languages to use the words of the local people. My father did not like it. He remained hard-working. We could survive because my father worked very hard on the field. He became exemplary in field work. His job was to clear forests and to convert them to rice fields. He had to cut big trees and dig them out manually. He passed his love for work to me.
He changed the story of his life. He told the Khmer Rouge that he also came from a peasant background, which is true. But when “old people” said they saw his name on Prince Sihanouk’s film, he told them there were two persons with the same name, Hang Chuon. We had to learn how to lie to Angkar (the Khmer Rouge’s organization or ruling party) to survive. We were allowed to build a small shack next to our adopted family (old family), so that they can observe, monitor us and report to the village chief. Everyone was everybody’s spies. We should report on each other. We were followed everywhere. The Khmer Rouge were effective to create militiamen’s group, whose job was to spy on the “new people” and report to Angkar (organization). Our lives were at their mercy.
Later on we were allowed to build our own house, when they trusted us. In 1977, I was 15 years old. I joined the Youth group or “Mobile group of young people”, whose job was to help farmers plant rice or build irrigation canals. It was tough, as whether you are 15 or 21, you must complete the same amount of day work. I remember a big Khmer Rouge project near Kompong Cham town, called the Boeung Krachap barrage. It was intended to store water for irrigation purposes. There was no engineering study and after the dike was finished it was useless. We also dug canals and cut rice fields into rectangular chessboards. Some were useful, but some were not. The Anlong Damrei dam that we built could now be used for irrigation purposes. We worked from dawn to dust, without enough food to eat. During the harvest seasons we were allowed to eat rice, but half of the year we ate porridge. Everybody was entitled to the same amount of work and the same ration of food. It was hard for the teenager like me to work, but was tough for older people to eat, because they don’t have enough to eat. I remembered some people decided to cook their sandals made from buffalo’s hide and the soup was tasty.
But with our hard work, our adopted family loved us. Mr. Kol told my father that he should stay with him in the village and not to go any other villages. The Khmer Rouge organization invited some Phnom Penh people to go to live in some other places. We don’t know what happened to them. The village was stricken by malaria. Many people died from malaria. There was no medicine.
I remembered once in 1976 I had blotches on my skin that left scars on my legs till this day. It was caused by the lack of Vitamins or other protein that protect the skin. Some villagers thought I was going to die, as there was no medicine. I could not walk, stayed at home and produced fish traps. “I decided to fight with my own destiny”. I could hardly walk, but took the fish traps and put in the rice fields near the lake with many leaches. Nobody dared to be there, even the son of my adopted family, Mr. Lao. The leaches suck my blood. I could hardly get out of water. I could catch a lot of fish, as nobody fished there. But then, the next day my wound started to be cured. I decided to undergo the “leach-sucking therapy” for a few weeks and was fully cured from this skin disease.
My brother died during the Khmer Rouge. He did not have enough to eat and no medicine to treat. My grandmother died. Many of my cousins died. Two of my cousins who were active in staging student demonstrations against the Lon Nol government were all killed by the Khmer Rouge. Uncles and aunties, especially the extended family members were either killed or died during the Khmer Rouge and I don’t know for sure how many of them, as there are too many relatives died.
In 1977, the Khmer Rouge attacked Southern part of united Vietnam. I remembered on evening after having dinner, the Vietnamese army shelled Krek village, in which we worked on the field to transplant rice. He was panicked by the shelling and run across the rubber plantation to get home. After that I was allowed to work in the village. But a few months later, the Vietnamese army crossed over the border and took control of the Eastern parts of Cambodia. We were liberated from the Khmer Rouge and enjoyed our freedom. We took time to mill the rice, packed up and travel inward. The Khmer Rouge soldiers run ahead of us. We did not care. We almost reached the Mekong River. Then the news came that the Vietnamese army withdrew. They just wanted to test and punish the Khmer Rouge. We came back to our Srolao Chhroeung Village.
The Khmer Rouge, after such humiliating defeat, started to purge their officials from high ranking officials, such as Party Secretary of the Eastern Zone to the village chief. They sent the army from the South-western zone, clad in green to replace the soldiers of the Eastern Zone clad in blue. The “new people” were now sparred, as the Khmer Rouge’s Organization was waging the war between different zones and purged their own officials. Some of them were sent to the famous prison S21, where Duch, who was recently sentenced by the Khmer Rouge Tribunal for 18 years in jail, was the interrogator and chief. It did not take long.
Some of the Eastern Zone’s officials crossed the border to Vietnam. They were detained and put into prison. With the support of the Soviet Union, Vietnam prepared for a larger war against the Khmer Rouge. On 2nd December 1978, a Front for the Salvation of Kampuchea was formed in Snuol District, Kampong Cham Province, about 100 km from our village. The Vietnamese army attacked for the second time in the second half of 1978. We were evacuated from Srolao Chhroeung Village, Veal Mlu Commune, to Kandol Chhrum District for a few months. Some of the villagers decided to go to the jungle to join the newly established front. Then, together with many villagers, we were trucked to Santuk District, Kompong Thom Province.
This time my father saved the lives of the old villagers who now had the same social status like us. Santuk District, Kompong Thom Province was in the Central Zone, under another commander. We were obliged to report our personal histories to Angkar again. He told them not to report their true personal histories, not to tell them that they had children serving in the Eastern Zone army. Otherwise, they would be killed. He saved the lives of the villagers. Again I worked in the rice field. One day in January 1979, I saw the convoy of the Khmer Rouge evacuating from Phnom Penh. The whole night we heard trucks transporting troops and people. In the morning, we saw the Khmer Rouge soldiers running pass us. We are on the road again. Firstly, we milled rice so that we could have enough supplies. After that we headed to Phnom Penh.
Our family lived in Kilometer No 7 at the outskirts of Phnom Penh for a few months. Then the then Minister of Education, Mr. Chan Ven, came to our camp to recruit staff members. My father volunteered to come to work in Phnom Penh. In March 1979, we finally came back to Phnom Penh. In January 1979, there were only about 70 people lived in Phnom Penh. When we came to Phnom Penh, we settled in the block reserved for the staff members of the Ministry of National Education, which are the surrounding areas of the International School of Phnom Penh (ISPP). Our family lived for a few months in the house, currently the Embassy of Bulgaria, in front of the ISPP.
There were not many people living in Phnom Penh. Almost all of the houses back in the whole year of 1979 were empty. It just looked like jungle in the capital city, except there were also concrete jungles. The Central Market was surrounded by big coconut trees. There were stories that some of the Lon Nol’s high-ranking officials were killed and buried there. We could not check out. We received ration food. We ate collectively, as there was not enough food. Sometime we received rice or maize ration. No money and gold was used in the market. The Khmer Rouge collected all the motorcycles in Phnom Penh and stored it in the Teacher Training School near the Independence Monument. Some of the town houses were transformed into warehouses. Because during the Khmer Rouge rule, people only allowed to wear black uniform, then the clothes, equipment and utensils that were left behind in 1975 were stored in different places. In some warehouses, there were only left shoos. And the next house only right shoos. We imagined that during the Khmer Rouge, Phnom Penh was also divided into different zones and people could not communicate or travel from one zone to another. This way, the Khmer Rouge could ward off their class enemies and control the population.
My first priorities were to collect books in Khmer and English. I was thirsty for knowledge. I understand want to know the truth and the only way to find it out is to learn, learn and learn. The truth can be relative or absolute. You cannot rely on other to give you the truth. People have different interests to tell their sides of the truth but not the whole truth. The truth about the Khmer Rouge can only be known by oneself from inside. At night I was responsible for guarding the Minister’s house, which is the current office of ISPP. I started a job at the Ministry of Education at the age of 17. I worked with a group of young people to clean up school. The first school we cleaned up was the Chaktomuk Primary School so that it could open for the September 1979 school year.
My father was appointed Chief of Cabinet of the Ministry of National Education, in charge of day-to-day management of the ministry. During the decade that followed, he was responsible for restoring the education system across Cambodia.
The second school that we cleaned up was the Kampuchboth Secondary School. I was told that Khieu Samphan, one of the Khmer Rouge leaders, taught at this school in the 1960s. The highest class was grade 8 and I was enrolled in this school. A few months later, we cleaned up the Sissowath High School (at that time was called the Phnom Daun Penh High School), which is a complete secondary school from grades 8 to 10. I was then transferred to the Sissowath High School, where I spent two hard-working years. I read a lot to study Khmer, English, mathematics and other subjects. There was no English teacher. I had to learn English by myself. The book was called “English for Today”, the English textbook I used during the Lon Nol time. It was funny, after I revised and finished the first book and started the second book, I opened an English class to teach some of my friends. At night I listen to the Voice of America in easy English. I could understand maybe only less than 10% of it.
I skipped one grade, grade 10 and finished the exam of high school. With the high school certificate in my pocket, we looked for higher education. Again we cleaned up the Institute of Technology and the institute opened in September 1981. There were no Cambodian teaching staff members, because almost all of them were killed during the Khmer Rouge. All the teaching staff members were Russian. I changed the cap to study Russian. Then I got the scholarship to study “International Economics” in the Soviet Union. I want to understand what going on and how we can do to manage our destiny and not the other way around. I spent 3 years in Kiev at the Institute of International Law and International Relations of the Kiev State University, Ukraine and almost 7 years in Moscow, Russia, at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, earning a Master’s degree in 1988 and a PhD degree in 1991.
Coming back to Cambodia in November 1991, I had to get back to English. Russian was no use any more. It was a little bit easy, but not really, as I studied English as the first language and French as the second language at the institute. Then I worked for five years at the Australian Embassy, where I learned to write good English. In 1999, I started working at the Ministry of Economy and Finance, as a World Bank consultant to the Royal Cambodian Government. Afterwards, I was asked to join the government and worked very hard, even during weekend, to move up from a staff member to Deputy Director, then Deputy Secretary General and Secretary General of the Ministry until July 2010. Now I am Secretary of State (Deputy Minister) of the Ministry of Economy and Finance.
I have spent almost 30 years studying the Khmer Rouge. I read a lot of revolutionary theories and philosophy. Plato, the famous Greek philosopher, in his book, the Republic, wanted to train a new class of soldiers by separating young people from their families. He introduced the notion of justice: “Justice is to give everybody what they deserve for”. But that was hundreds of years before the Christian Era. The St. Thomas D’Aquin introduced in the notion of distributive justice and the role of the government is to make sure that everybody gets equal justice.
I hoped to get a clear answer why that happened in Cambodia. But I could not get. Why they killed? Was it the attempt to create a new society or a mere revenge? Now I have come to the conclusion that the wars and the bombing created hatred among different social strata of Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge’s desire to create a new society was mixed with the spirit of revenge for what they had suffered. The culture of brutality was promoted during 1970-1975 and continued during the Pol Pot era.
In 1979, the government of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea organized a tribunal to bring the Khmer Rouge leaders to justice. They were sentenced to death in absentia. However, it took almost 20-30 years to have another tribunal. I feel that the only difference between the two tribunals is to ensure due process and to have some sort of standards. I waited for the tribunal to get the answer why they killed so many people. But I could not get this clear answer. Justice? I don’t know. There were so many people involved from A to Z and not only the Khmer Rouge. For example, after 1979, the Khmer Rouge was in limbo. But countries in the region made a lot of effort to resuscitate the Khmer Rouge so that they can use them to fight the Vietnamese troops. At the end, Cambodians were fighting a proxy war between Russia, on the one hand, and the United States and China, on the other hand, at the global level. ASEAN countries (at that time there were only five members) financed generously the Khmer Rouge so that they could become an effective instrument to fight the Vietnamese at the regional level. At the national level, it was the Khmers fighting the Khmers. It left behind a country with broken social capital.
There are different stories. But people should now the whole stories in the context of that time. The Khmer Rouge regime’s mass murder and the Cambodian tragedy were interplays of wars, revolution, ideology and geopolitics within the social context of Cambodia. If you don’t know history, history will repeat itself, but in a different way.