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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - My birthday(s), my problems

My birthday(s), my problems

I have created a monster - by reducing my age. During the past ten years the

monster was in my favor, but now it has turned against me.

I want to

apply for a British fellowship but legally I'm four years too young. By the

reckoning on nature though, I should only have to wait another year.

Having had their school years upset by war in the early 1970s and later

the Khmer Rouge period, many people found they were too old to attend primary

school in the early 1980s.

Teenage Khmers began changing their ages so

they were young enough to keep attending primary school, repeat classes and

avoid conscription.

Aunts and uncles soon began starting school alongside

their nieces and nephews.

Many who changed their birthdates picked easy

to remember dates - such as January 7, the day Pol Pot's regime was overthrown,

or April 13, Khmer New Year's Day.

I, too, was reborn on January 1, 1973

instead of my real birthdate of April 22, 1969. It was 1984 and I was about to

take a primary school examination I was too old for, so I gave my "new"

birthdate instead.

I don't celebrate either birthdate - or any of the

others I have given to officials at one time or another - because only rich

people celebrate birthdays. But if I were rich enough, I would celebrate my real

birthday.

But for now my counterfeit birthdate haunts me. To apply for a

Reuters Foundation scholarship, I have to be 27. I will be 27 next year but

because of my fake birthdate I will have to wait another four years to be

eligible.

Many other Khmers, whose identity cards, passports,

certificates and degrees bear birthdates which are not their real ones, face

similar problems.

Chhim Dararath, from Phnom Penh's Chatomuk school,

could not vote during the UNTAC elections because he was too young.

He

was really born in 1971 but changed that to 1979 to allow him to repeat primary

school classes.

He said it took him almost 10 years to learn the 69 Khmer

consonants and vowels, because of poor memory caused by chronic illness during

the Khmer Rouge years.

He has now graduated to secondary school, where he

studies alongside young boys and girls. He was appointed class monitor in

addition to his usual task of helping to wipe the kids' noses.

"I'm very

ashamed to be called 'uncle' by my young classmates," lamented the 24-year-old

pupil.

Sok Seng, an electrician at a Phnom Penh power plant, said he

changed his birthdate from 1966 to 1972. He was able to miss out on military

service in the 1980s "because I was still officially young."

Now, his

brother who is really two years younger than him is officially two years

older.

"I want to change back to my real age but it's too late," he

said.

He, like most Khmers, no longer have any identity papers issued

before the 1970s, and all his more recent ones bear his counterfeit date of

birth.

"I will still have to work six more years after I reach the

retiring age," he joked.

Uy Borasy, a trader at a Phnom Penh market, said

many people also changed their ages during the Khmer Rouge rule.

He

reduced his age by three years to try to avoid being sent to Khmer Rouge mobile

youth work teams, "but it was not effective because the Khmer Rouge's Angkar

would select all the big boys and girls regardless of their ages".

He

later changed his age again under the State of Cambodia regime in the 1980s so

he could study at high school.

Now, he says, he has to live with the fact

he has a "young age with an old face".

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