Memories of Victims under the Khmer Rouge







Sophearith Chuong


            If I speak honestly, I don’t really know or understand what happened during the events that passed on 17 April 1975, because I am one Cambodian child that was born at the end of 1974.  From the day I was born until 17 April 1975, I was not even one years old yet.  Therefore I am not able to remember what happened at that time.  Even after I grew up and became more aware, I have never heard anyone in my family tell me stories about the Khmer Rouge period.  But through my studies after the Khmer Rouge regime and under the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, I was able to understand a little bit about the suffering, the forced labor, the inhumane torture, the unmerciful starvation, and the brutal executions that took place.  I have also visited the execution centers and seen the skeletons of corpses and their clothes placed on display for national and international tourists to look at on the 20th of May.  This is a day set aside to remember the genocidal acts committed by the Khmer Rouge regime.  Not only this, when I was about ten years old, I have also seen in another place called Phnom Pros, Phnom Srey, the graves of corpses of victims with their bones and clothes intact.  At that time, my parents were visiting their native district in Prey Chor District, Kampong Cham Province.   I also remember that near Cambodian New Year, around 1973 and 1974, other orphans and I in the Kampong Speu Orphan Center were taken to the city of Phnom Penh to visit the palace, the National Museum, and the Tuol Sleng Museum.  All the sites I have ever encountered after the Khmer Rouge regime have made me most upset and shocked especially the things I have seen in person.  For example, the displays commemorating the genocidal acts on the 20th of May, the graves that I have seen in Phnom Pros, Phnom Srey, and when I entered the Tuol Sleng Museum.  When I saw all of these scenes of genocide, I would think, “Cambodians should not have killed Cambodians in such a brutal, barbaric, and inhumane way.” To speak to the point, I could barely believe what I saw. 


            My understanding of the genocidal acts committed in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge is still not yet deep.  What I know and what I have heard is still not very advanced, because these events occurred almost everywhere throughout the country.  The reason why I dare to speak this way is because I have experience as an employee at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, I have read the documents of the Khmer Rouge, and I have seen a map of all the graves of the victims throughout the country of Cambodia.  I have seen the photographs of victims and I have seen many other things that are stored at the Documentation Center of Cambodia. But even with these experiences, my understanding of the Khmer Rouge regime is still very limited. 


            Honestly I began working as a volunteer for the Documentation Center of Cambodia through the help of my friend who was also a volunteer there.  Most of the employees who began working at the Documentation Center of Cambodia started out as volunteers, including myself.  Before I began working as a volunteer, I had to undergo a test of my knowledge and abilities and interview with the director.  Afterwards I had to wait many months for news from the Documentation Center of Cambodia before I was called to work as a volunteer.  My hope and efforts to find a job became a reality.  This was an historical moment.  I have many reasons to be happy because I am able to serve at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, a place I am most exceptionally impressed with.  When I first came to the Documentation Center of Cambodia, the first thing that caught my attention was a photograph of a victim and a photograph of the bones of victims of the Khmer Rouge regime that hung on the wall. 


            From the very beginning, I noticed these photographs because I could not believe that Cambodian people were currently working so hard to preserve documents from a bitter part of Cambodian history and were able to achieve so much.  I thought that the past that all Cambodian people should continue to remember was already completely forgotten, because our Cambodian society at that time did not yet take notice of its own past.  We were only thinking about developing our country and making every effort to build peace between the people of Cambodia.  I was very proud to first enter as a volunteer and then become a full-time employee, working for the magazine “Searching for the Truth.”  My understanding and knowledge of Cambodian history related to genocide during the Khmer Rouge regime gradually developed and improved.  I write articles using confessions from the Khmer Rouge regime.  These articles are published in our magazine so that the reader can understand even more clearly what happened during this time and will know what events had passed during the Khmer Rouge regime. We already know that the Democratic Kampuchea regime that everyone recognizes as the Khmer Rouge regime achieved victory from the Khmer Republic on 17 April 1975.  This was also a time when the Cambodian people were beginning the traditional New Year festivities.  Whenever we celebrate the traditional Cambodian New Year and especially this year when we celebrated the entrance into the new millenium, we reflect on the historical events of the 17th of April that the Cambodian people cannot forget.


            17 April 1975, is the largest anniversary of national independence for the Democratic Kampuchea regime that we recognize as the Khmer Rouge regime.   When victory was achieved the Khmer Rouge considered this a symbol of freedom for our people.  This was a national and class struggle during the war.  After the war, the people challenged the regime of the U.S. imperialists that used the Khmer Republic as a scapegoat.  The celebration of this holiday of independence lasted for three days.  It lasted from the 15th to the 17th of April, which was also the day of national independence.   It was also the day for the celebration of Cambodian New Year.  The 15th was the day to pay respect to the spirit of the Cambodian men who sacrificed their lives in the war against the U.S. imperialists.  The flag was hoisted only mid-way and an announcement was made through the radio about the victory over the U.S. imperialists in order to show how many people had died.  They made an announcement almost once every hour with the national anthem playing in the background.  From the stories of the courageous men and women soldiers in the important battlefields, the 16th was the day victory was achieved. According to the  “Great Leap” documents, 17 April 1975 was the day they encouraged people to commit to building and protecting the country.  All the bases had to commit to this.  They allowed the people to stop working for three days so they could work on political education. 


I was not able to personally experience the historical events that passed during the Khmer Rouge regime on 17 April 1975.  But through my studies and from the articles I have written about the Khmer Rouge documents, especially the confession of a victim named Tiv Mei  #J00642, I understand a little more about what happened on 17 April 1975.  According to the confession of Tiv Mei, alias Santapheap, age 35, from Takeo Village, Sangkat Kor, Prey Chor District, Kampong Cham Province, Tiv Mei was a factory worker in a sugar factory in Kampong Tram, Kampong Speu Province.  Later on he worked as a CIA agent under the influence of Sobo Mel, who was also a worker in the sugar factory in Kampong Tram.  But later on he worked as a policeman in the Ministry of National Police of the Khmer Republic.  Vann Sa was a director in the Ministry of National Police and was a CIA agent.  Neou Sam Eat was also a press director in the Ministry of National Police and a CIA agent leader.  The main aim of the CIA was to necessarily challenge the opposing position of the Communist Party.  Tiv Mei and other groups of CIA agents joined together to develop activities to investigate the activities of the Khmer Rouge in order to inform the Ministry of National Police and the CIA in the Khmer Republic.  Tiv Mei carried out personal CIA activities since 1971 until 17 April 1975, but the Khmer Rouge had not yet captured him before12-15 April 1975, after Field Marshal Lon Nol left Cambodia for the United States.  The situation in Phnom Penh was still quiet and still, but North of Pochentong, the Khmer Rouge kept pushing forward even stronger than before. 


On 16 April 1975, Tiv Mei went to receive news in Ta Khmao and he discovered that south of Ta Khmao, the Khmer Rouge was waging a strong attack.  On the eastern side of Chba Ampeou Markeet the Khmer Rouge also waged a strong attack, setting on fire the houses of the people.  They also shot many bullets of shelling into the streets.  At that time, Tiv Mei removed himself from Chba Ampeou and returned to Phnom Penh.  The traffic in the city of Phnom Penh that usually ceased at 7:00 in the evening could no longer be prevented.  Even at night the people were fleeing into the city.  A throng of people traveled along the side of the roads.  No one knew that on 17 April 1975 the Khmer Rouge would liberate the city of Phnom Penh.


On the morning of 17 April 1975, there was news that the armies were no longer fighting each other, because they had agreed to cease fighting.  Everywhere on the 17th of April, white flags were raised as a signal they would stop fighting.  Those who had fled into the city of Phnom Penh, quickly left the city again.  Around 9:00 in the morning, the Revolutionary Army entered Phnom Penh through the road near Chba Ampeou Market.  At that time, some people were scared and some were joyful, because they heard people say, “Let’s watch them clean out the corrupt officials, because these people are the Khmer Rouge.  They hate the corrupt officials.  They are clean and pure people and since the beginning they have never got along well with the corrupt officials.” Around 11:00 in the morning, the Revolutionary Army informed all the people in the city of Phnom Penh to quickly prepare their things for three days so that Angkar could reorganize the city. Everybody was startled and surprised, because no one could imagine Angkar’s plan to evacuate.   But all these people had hope that they would be able to return to Phnom Penh, because people prepared only enough food and things to last for three days.  The Revolutionary Army had told them, “Angkar only wants you to leave for three days.”  After Angkar evacuated the people living in Phnom Penh to the rural areas and to their native districts, Tiv Mei returned to live with his family in his native district in Takeo Village, Sangkat Kor, Prey Chor District, Kampong Cham in the South.  At that time the village chief recorded the occupations of each person who were evacuated from Phnom Penh or the 17th April people.  Tiv Mei was only a worker in a sugar factory in the previous regime before 17 April 1975. The villagers had also heard of him before.  Otherwise he would have already been killed at that time, because in Tiv Mei’s village, Angkar had already cleared out many people, including soldiers, policemen, and military policemen.  No one was left.


The job of the revolution at that time was very severe. The village leader had strict control over the new people or the 17 April people and the revolution’s process of purification was also very strong.  When there was a meeting, the village chief talked about the work that needed to be done in order to eliminate the enemies.  This frightened Tiv Mei so much he did not dare move.  Everyday, when Tiv Mei saw traitors of the revolution being sent to the Security Office in a region in Takeo Village, he became so scared he trembled.  But he did not dare commit activities or stage a movement.  He remained still and tried to do anything in order to stay alive.  The Revolutionary Angkar’s plan to evacuate was one potent medicine because it closed Tiv Mei’s CIA connection.  Since the evacuation until the day he was captured, Tiv Mei never met anyone who worked with him. In the cooperative, Tiv Mei worked hard to be responsible in his work.  He never did anything to offend the district leader.  Finally, on the afternoon of 11 May 1977, Tiv Mei asked the unit leader if he could soak the leaves in order to cover his house.  In the afternoon, around 4:00, while Tiv Mei was laying the leaves onto the cart, the cooperative leader and two or three other people Tiv Mei did not recognize came and told him that Angkar wanted to meet him. After that he disappeared forever.

Outside of Tiv Mei’s story about the events of 17 April 1975 I have also learned about the story of Ke Munthit who is now a reporter for the Associated Press.  His story, about his experiences during the events of 17 April 1975, was published in The Cambodia Daily newspaper.  At that time, Mr. Ke Munthit was still a child when the Khmer Rouge had entered the city of Phnom Penh 25 years earlier.  He recalled again the brutal changes that occurred within society that the Maoist guerillas supported and initiated since 17 April 1975.  When I read The Cambodia Daily that was recently published on 18April 2000, I took notice of one article entitled “A Cambodian Family Remembers the Long and Difficult Walk out of Phnom Penh.”  In this article, Mr. Ke Munthit recalled his experiences on 17 April 1975.

Mr. Ke Munthit still remembers how startled he was when he saw many young soldiers, like him, dressed in black.  In a disorderly fashion, they celebrated along the streets of Phnom Penh.  They ran barefoot with a red scarf tied to their heads.  The young soldiers yelled, “Bravo to the revolution and down with the U.S. imperialists!”  They shot their guns in the air and made the people scatter.  There was one person who whispered to him, “The Khmer Rouge.” This made him, who was only twelve years old, suddenly aware and no longer ignorant.  He understood that the arrival of these communists was the end of Lon Nol’s Khmer Republic, but he and other people did not know about the terror the leader of the country of Cambodia had in store for them.  Ke Munthit’s brothers and sisters were living with their grandparents for one week.  Their parents left to guard their house in the city of Phnom Penh, because they wanted to escape from the bullets and rockets being fired by the Khmer Rouge. 


Two Khmer Rouge soldiers confronted each other outside of a temple, when the Khmer Rouge leaders transformed the city of Phnom Penh into a region controlled by armies.  After they confronted each other, they finally decided to order the people outside of the city.  The Khmer Rouge told the people that they absolutely had to leave because the Americans had a plan to drop bombs on the city. 


Ke Munthit’s father remembered the time of panic and frenzy when people quickly tried to gather their family members together so they could evacuate.  Ke Munthit’s family was very fortunate because one Khmer Rouge leader, who was a relative of a neighbor, was responsible for their area.  This Khmer Rouge leader was kind.  After the Khmer Rouge leader met with his older sister, he helped Ke Munthit’s father gather all their family members so they could be united.  Ke Munthit’s father’s name was Ke Sauth.  Now he is 63 years old.  He heard his older neighbors say, “If there are no women we will definitely never see each other again.” The Khmer Rouge leader and his two soldiers drank Pepsi that they had taken from the factory nearby and escorted Ke Munthit’s uncle.  He crossed the city to the temple in order to receive the members in his family.  Ke Munthit’s family reunited in joy.  But that time demonstrated that it was the beginning of a tragic life that would last for four years.  The Khmer Rouge plan to transform Democratic Kampuchea into a communist country of peasants began at this time.  Everyone either lived or died inside within an equal society.  When Ke Munthit’s family fled from the city, they saw one group of ethnic Chinese who were carrying small bags pleading with the Khmer Rouge to permit them to stay in Phnom Penh.  The Khmer Rouge soldiers were angry and said, “Who wants to return to Phnom Penh?”  Each person there raised their hands and walked forward.  The soldier then shot them on the head from a close distance.  Ke Munthit’s father said, “One ought to be frightened.  They scare the people into following their orders.”  The throng of people continued traveling forward and Ke Munthit still believed that three days afterwards the Khmer Rouge would allow the people to return to the city of Phnom Penh. 


The execution he witnessed was only one terrifying sight among many along the road.  Screams and cries intermingled with the voices of the people searching for their families and relatives who had disappeared into the crowd of people.  The sick and the injured slept on the stretcher in pain along the road, abandoned by their families or relatives because they had lost all hope. 


Underneath one tent, was a woman who had just given birth.  The Khmer Rouge soldier would not permit her to rest there and forced her to join the others in the evacuation out of Phnom Penh.  Her husband placed her in a cart and pushed her forward underneath the scorching heat of the sun.  After the birth, the baby was stained with blood.  It was wrapped in a cloth and laid next to its mother.  Corpses of the soldiers of the Khmer Republic lay scattered and bloated along the national road.  Some of the corpses were flattened by Khmer Rouge tanks.  In one place one woman who was separated from her husband, walked into the flowing traffic and grabbed on to Ke Munthit’s car.  As the car came to a halt, the woman opened her purse, shining with diamonds and gold that she had brought with her.  She asked Ke Munthit’s family to take some of the gold and diamonds and allow her to ride in the car with them.  But they would not allow her because eleven people were already crowded in the car.  Two days later Ke Munthit discovered that this woman was found dead along the river. 


Many people decided that they needed to carry enough food to eat, at least enough for three days.  But some wealthy families only brought money stuffed into pillows or rice bags.  When they discovered that the Khmer Rouge had abolished money, all the money they had saved lost value.  They became disappointed and went mad.  Four days later, when they could hear the sound of American bombing, Ke Munthit’s father realized the people had been deceived into evacuating.  Two or three days later the Khmer Rouge took away Ke Munthit’s family’s car.  Ke Munthit’s father said, “I knew it was going to be like this. I began to prepare myself to forget everything that we have left behind.  Everyone is encountering the same destiny, not only us.  In front of us lies the question: Will we live or die?”


Eight days later, Ke Munthit’s family reached a village about 55 kilometers northeast of Phnom Penh.  They were considered the 17th of April people.  Ke Munthit’s family struggled as members of the lowest class inside a society that considered itself classless.  Their livelihood quickly deteriorated and became increasingly difficult.  After being accustomed to living in a large and luxurious home, Ke Munthit’s family had to force themselves to live in a small hut only 4m X 6m wide and with a leaking roof.  Privacy within the house was removed.  Families could not have the same kind of privacy they enjoyed in their own homes. They were continuously watched and spied on.  Whenever Ke Munthit’s family acted arrogant, Ke Munthit’s was called to a meeting to be discipline.  The families who were evacuated from the city lived in constant fear.  At one time when Ke Munthit’s father was suffering from such heavy diarrhea he could not stand, the village chief told Ke Munthit’s mother, “We will probably have to eliminate him if someone finds out that he is lying or that he is pretending to be ill.”


The Khmer Rouge were most kind to the young people.  The Khmer Rouge believed their mind was still blank.  It would be easy to indoctrinate them with the ideology of the Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot.  The children of the “old people” who were country peasants and had already lived under the control of the Khmer Rouge for three or four years were accorded a position in the militia unit.  Cultivated and nurtured in the mind of the Khmer Rouge, the children were considered the strength that would transform society.  Ke Munthit remembers one boy beating his own mother, without understanding the consequences of stealing potatoes from the collective garden.  The teachings the Khmer Rouge indoctrinated him with challenged the life he led with this family.  This young boy spoke proudly, “I am beating the thief.  I am not beating my mother.” 


Ke Munthit’s father, who had studied accounting with the French and was able to work with the Ministry of Industry, was sent to a center to be re-educated.  All the members of Ke Munthit’s family, except his youngest brother who was only four years old, was forced to endure heavy labor.  In the evening, Ke Munthit’s youngest brother caught small frogs so he could fill his empty stomach.  Many children died from lack of food, nutrition, and starvation.  Ke Munthit’s mother always cried, feeling pity for her children who had to work so hard but did not have enough food to eat.  This was one of the reasons why over 1.7 million victims were killed during the Khmer Rouge regime.  Ke Munthit’s father said, “The people transformed into true slaves.  The people had to work according to the command of their leaders. No had the right to argue or criticize.  We could only work for watery rice porridge.”


Among the nearly 200 families who lived in the outskirts of the city who had come to live in the village, there were only about 50 families who survived when the Khmer Rouge were removed from power during the Vietnamese invasion on 7 April 1979.  There was not one family who survived that did not lose a family member.  Ke Munthit lost his grandfather.  This was only one small loss compared to the losses of other families.  Even Ke Munthit’s father was still alive.  He was one person among a small number of people who was able to survive the re-education centers posted throughout the country.  He said that, “When I think about my patience and the heavy labor I endured, I’m very pleased that I was able to save my own life.”  Everyone in Ke Munthit’s family joined in the heavy work without complaint.  This probably convinced the Khmer Rouge that Ke Munthit’s family had successfully integrated into the revolution.  This family had effectively sacrificed their lives for the policies of a collectivized society.  This is why Ke Munthit and his family were able to live until now. 


With the historical events of 17 April 1975, I honestly believe that we cannot forget the past, because the past continues to cast a shadow over us.  This is an experience or a life lesson that everyone ought to remember always, whether or not these past experiences are bitter or sweet.  If a person has a good experience in their life we should follow this.  But if each person has a bad past or life experience, no matter how bad this past is, we should continue to remember and do whatever we can so that this experience does not happen again.  If we do not recognize our own past, we can not really know ourselves and who we are.  We do not understand our own history and we do not know where we come from.  And if we commit good things or bad things to ourselves, it is also as if we has committed these things to our nation’s society.  Born as a human who dares to commit, one must also be willing to bear the consequences.  It doesn’t matter if the act committed is right or wrong.  When a person is willing to bear the consequences of their own brutal, barbaric, and inhumane actions against innocent victims, this person will remain a good person for society. This person has recognized their own mistakes and has acknowledged that they have committed wrong and have violated innocent people.  This will be kept as an example of a crime one ought to be ashamed of and that everyone should avoid.  Born as a human, we all make mistakes, whether more or less or serious or light. No one can avoid making mistakes.  However, it is most important, when these mistakes are committed, whether or not the person dares to accept the punishment.  Therefore, all historical events should always be recorded and remembered in order to preserve as a legacy for future Cambodian children to understand. 17 April 1975 is one example of an event that all the people of Cambodia continue to remember and cannot forget.








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Ten Years of Independently Searching for the Truth: 1997-2007


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