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KR memoir writer says leaders should be executed

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Sophal Leng Stagg: “There has been no education on the genocide in Cambodian schools for 15 years – these kids don’t even believe their grandmothers’ stories anymore.”

Sophal Leng Stagg

believes she is among the luckiest of Khmer Rouge survivors. Despite her father

being a former police investigator for the Lon Nol regime, her parents and her

seven brothers and sisters all survived the Killing Fields. To her this is a

miracle since she has never met another family that “managed to stay intact.”

Sophal Leng Stagg

believes she is among the luckiest of Khmer Rouge survivors. Despite her father

being a former police investigator for the Lon Nol regime, her parents and her

seven brothers and sisters all survived the Killing Fields. To her this is a

miracle since she has never met another family that “managed to stay intact.”

The family immigrated to the US

in 1980 and in 1985, Stagg, pregnant with her first child, began to write her

book Hear Me Now, a platform she uses

to lecture in schools throughout the United States. The popularity of

the book led to the funding of the Southeast Asian Children’s Mercy Fund, which

she established with her American husband William Stagg. The foundation

provides assistance and training to poor families in the region and includes an

“adopt a family project” that has inspired many Americans to help. On a visit

to Cambodia

this month, Stagg spoke to the Post’s Tracey

Shelton about her childhood under the

KR, her teaching and her desire for the Khmer Rouge tribunal to get on with

trials and find the defendants guilty. She says: "They should be executed

right away."

 

What made you decide

to write the book?

My children. Once it was published it became a tool to

educate other American kids and to raise money to help the people of Cambodia –

I’m very proud of that.

 

You are very

passionate about the need for Khmer Rouge history to be incorporated into

Cambodian school curriculum. Why is this so important to you?

Writing the book and talking in the schools became a form of

healing for me. I want to pass that on to Khmer people. There has been no

education on the genocide in Cambodian schools for 15 years – these kids don’t

even believe their grandmothers’ stories anymore. I work very hard in the US to educate

American kids so the people that suffered are not forgotten. It makes me upset

that Khmer kids have forgotten. Education will open up dialogue between the

generations. Teach the children in school and the whole country can get

therapy.

 

What do you remember

about the KR period? 

I was nine years old on April 17, 1975 when the KR took

over. I remember the soldiers riding on tanks and marching through the streets,

but my mother would not let me watch. A bullhorn announcement on every street

corner announced that we had to leave by nightfall because the Americans were

going to bomb the city. We were told to bring just enough clothes for three

days as once the city was cleared up we could return to our homes. I remember

my mother trying to go to the market for food supplies but the city was in

chaos. By 4pm the

announcements began to show intense force and anger. “You must leave now or we

will consider you the resistance and you will be shot.” There was only one road

to leave by. We were wedged in the crowd and everyone was pushing. Soldiers lined

the roadsides shooting into the air telling us to move faster but it was

impossible. There was a frightening sad fear in everyone. I looked back to see

the city on fire. By that time I had the sense that I would never return home.

 

How did your family

manage to survive?

My brother and father were military. As we walked my mother

whispered to us not to tell anyone what they did. She told me to say my father

was a taxi driver and to speak in lower class terms so no one would know I was

educated. She said if I did not adapt, if did not change, they were going to

kill my father. I understood enough to change my way faster than other people.

I don’t know how she got that information but this saved my family.

We walked to Kompong Cham. There were pro Khmer Rouge signs

on every house. The old people despised us! Even the children. They believed

the new people had exploited them. They blamed us for everything – their hard

lives, their fathers having to fight in the jungle – literally everything from

A-Z. Now they had privileges and power over the educated. It was so hard to

hold my tongue. The KR soldiers had taken all our valuables so they were

wearing our watches but they didn’t know how to read the time. So many times I

wanted to scream at them, “You’re a bunch of morons! I’m better than you.”

 

Last week you went to

the Khmer Rouge courts. Do you think the trials will bring some justice and

satisfaction to the victims?

I think the trials should be short. I’m all for the trials

but the most important thing is educating the kids. Money and time needs to go

into that. Enough money spent on this already. Everyone knows they are guilty.

They should be executed right away. If they were executed on national TV, maybe

that could provide some satisfaction.   

 

What do you think

would happen if one of the defendants was found not guilty?

A riot. And I would be right there among them. The anger is

buried deep but it is there – the pain people suffered won’t go away. I thought

I was dealing with it just fine. Then I saw the courts – the money they are

spending, the way they treat the defendants – if I had fangs they would have

come out. It’s ludicrous! Where were international standards in the way they

treated us. We were treated like animals. A doctor each, three meals a day, Western

toilets at their request – they’re treated like royalty. It sends the wrong

message. Normal Cambodians that live outside that gate aren’t living that way.

 

How much of an impact

do you feel the Khmer Rouge reign has had on Cambodian society today?

Every place I look – in the eyes of every person – the KR

have left behind a trace. In everything I see the damage. What have they done

to their people? Crippled them. Instilled fear and dishonesty. The brave and

the educated are dead, and a lot died along with them. During my first trip

back in 2000, I asked my mother why did people always lie and cheat like this.

I felt like all the good people had died. They taught us to lie and cheat. We

were starving constantly. We were forced to become thieves, liars. It seems

like many Cambodian people lost themselves back then and they never got their

souls back. Like a dog, when you are pushed into a corner you bite back. The KR

instilled these things in people and now they are trapped. All this goodness

has been lost. Corruption and chaos are the legacy they have left behind.

 

How do you see the

future for Cambodia?

I think the government is trying to do the best they can

with what they have to work with. But how can you cap greed in a human being?

 

And Reconciliation?

The international community has put their money in the wrong

place – education is equally if not more important than the trials. Kids should

have been educated about what happened to their father. Now they need to be

educated about who killed their grandfather. Is it going to be, “they killed my

great grandfather” before you start educating these kids! By then it will be

too late. It will just be history for them.

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