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Surviving the Khmer Rouge: A soldier’s story

On April 17th, 1975, the Khmer Rouge took hold of Cambodia. They wanted to transform Cambodia into a rural, classless society. They were starting at ‘year zero’. Money, free markets, normal schooling, private property, foreign clothing styles, religious practices, and traditional Khmer culture was abolished. Public schools, pagodas, mosques, churches, universities, shops and government buildings were shut or turned into prisons, stables, reeducation camps and granaries. Over the next four years, approximately two million citizens (a quarter of the population at the time) died from torture, execution, overwork and illness. 

This is one Khmer Rouge survivor’s story.

I was born into a poor family in Bakong District, about 17km from the centre of Siem Reap. We lived in a house made from palm leaves and bamboo. When I was young I studied at the primary school at the local pagoda. The oldest of eight children, I had to stop studying in grade six as we couldn’t afford it.

At first I stayed at home and took care of our farm, because there was no other work to do in the countryside. Then something terrible happened.

A deserted Phnom Penh. Photo taken at Wat Thmey.

There was fighting between the Khmer Rouge and the Lon Nol government before the Khmer Rouge took power. As the Khmer Rouge were the more powerful party in my village, I was told that I had to sign up to fight for them. We called them the red army. If I didn’t sign up to be a soldier, they were going to send my parents far away from their hometown. I wanted to avoid this, so I signed up to fight for the Khmer Rouge, to enable my parents and siblings to stay in their hometown. I then ran away to cooperate with Lon Nol’s army.

I spent six months training in Siem Reap, to prepare myself to fight for Lon Nol. I was one of four big groups that had to constantly move around. We learnt about the strategy of fighting, how to shoot a rifle, using grenades and bombs and other weapons. I can still remember how to use them.

I was willing to fight for Lon Nol, as I thought he was good for our country. I knew the Khmer Rouge was bad, and that the big war would happen. My team and I travelled to many places to fight the Khmer Rouge soldiers. One time, when we were in Battambang, Pol Pot’s soldiers surrounded us for seven days and seven nights. A plane from our side dropped parachutes with bombs towards us, so we could use them. We only managed to receive three bombs, and the rest were captured by the enemy.

Our leader told us to fight the other side and push them out. Although we were successful, 15 people from my team died on that day, and around 20 from the enemy’s side.

I am positive that I did not kill anyone when I fought in the daytime. However, I am not sure whether anybody died at my hand in the night time. It was too dark to know.

I was 21 when the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia. We heard through the radio communication that Phnom Penh had fallen, and the government had lost. We were told to put down our weapons and not fight back.

The Khmer Rouge soldiers came to our barracks and took down our names. We were then taken to Bakong district, close to my hometown, to be killed. On the first night, they executed the generals of our group. We knew we would be killed on the second night, so I made the plan to run away.

Skulls of victims of the Khmer Rouge. Photo taken at Wat Thmey.

There were 19 other Lon Nol soldiers in my group, and because Bakong was my homeland, they selected me to be the leader. Luck was on our side, as there was a big storm with rain and lightning that night, so the security guard who was responsible for staying at the gate to the compound had moved elsewhere to seek shelter. When the coast was clear, we escaped one by one. We reached my village and rested there for one night, then walked back to Siem Reap. We didn’t have to hide or go too quickly, as there were not enough soldiers to spend time to catch us.

We walked all the way to Kok Krosaing village, as some of my team members were from there. We were so lucky, because the member that Pol Pot had sent to manage the village was my friend. He and I had known each other when I was a Monk at age 15. The man knew I was a soldier for his enemy, but because I was his friend, he deleted my name and my team members names from the register, so we were allowed to live. I stayed with him and a lady who was like my mother.

My job was to measure the rice fields, and allocate work for people to do. I made sure I allocated the same amount to everyone, so that it wasn’t unfair. I didn’t pity the people who had to work in the rice fields, as I knew it was the rule and couldn’t be changed. I told them not to work too quickly, otherwise their quota would be increased.

When people didn’t finish their work on time, I made reasons for them to the leaders so they wouldn’t be punished. Luckily, my leaders weren’t as mean as leaders in other parts of Cambodia, so they accepted my reasons. I never had to send anyone to their deaths.

For awhile I moved near Phnom Kroam, a mountain about 8km from my village. The people were digging roads and cutting small trees, so I had to monitor them. I fell in love with a girl, and I gave her less work to do than others at that time. Other people found out, but as I was friends with a leader, I didn’t get in trouble.

The Khmer Rouge had many strict rules that we had to follow. We always had to move forward with our work, and could not fall behind. I had to follow the rules, and made sure never to break them. If I had broken the rules, I would have been taken to Wat Chork pagoda and hit in the head with a piece of wood until I died.

A journey back home. Photo taken at Wat Thmey.

One time, a man in my village was taken to the prison at Wat Chork because people said he was a bad man. If somebody didn’t like another person, they could just say they were bad, then they were taken away. I went to Wat Chork to please for the man’s life, but when I got there, nothing could be done. They tied the man’s hands and used black fabric to cover his eyes. He begged for his life, and said, “Please don’t kill me or hurt me”, but they didn’t listen. The soldiers used an axe to hit his head until he died. I felt so sad and angry when I saw that. If I was the leader, I wouldn’t allow that to happen.

Although many people didn’t have enough food to eat, I did, as I knew the leader. I was able to save some food to give to others, but I had to hide it. I couldn’t let the leader or other people see it, or I would be punished.

I felt sad when the Khmer Rouge was in power, but I was helpless. There was nothing we could do. If we killed the leaders in our village, we would all have a big problem. The risk was too big.

On the day the Khmer Rouge ended, I saw Pol Pot’s soldiers run away. My friend collected the weapons in our village and gave them to the good soldiers. I then walked to my homeland to find my family. Although my parents were alive, two of my siblings had died. They had been sick, and there were no real doctors or medicine to help them. Another one of my brothers was missing. We didn’t hear from him for a long time, so we assumed he was dead. We held a ceremony to pray for his spirit.

Thoeun at his family home

In 1988 we found out that my brother had survived. He had been near the Thai border when the Khmer Rouge fell, and managed to get on a plane and move to Canada. His wife was looking for us, and she found us. The year they found us, they sent my family some money. We felt so lucky, so we named my son who was born that year, “Dollar”. I was so happy he was alive.

I have had a difficult life since I became a Khmer Rouge survivor. I have eight children, from ages 14 – 34, and seven grandchildren.  Now I am 62 years old and take care of my buffalo and cows every day. I still remember so much from that time, and hope it will never happen again.