Once a student and loyal follower of Khieu Samphan, Tran Sab’s passion for books nearly cost him his life under the Khmer Rouge
When a young woman comes to Tran Sab’s hole-in-the-wall bookstore in downtown Battambang in search of a translated Korean novel, the elderly owner begins dispensing his wisdom.
“You read Korean novels, you are supporting Korean writers; you read Khmer novels, you are supporting the writers with the same Khmer blood,” the 79-year-old says.
His shop, just south of Battambang’s Phsar Nath, contains hundreds of old books on shelves and hung on walls – some yellow with age. Above the door hangs a placard that says: Grandpa Apsara – Book Rental Service.
For Sab, books have been the most valuable things in a life turned upside down by the ideological draw of the Khmer Rouge and the regime’s subsequent betrayal.
They are not just a means to make a living but are his life-long friends and teachers.
“My eyes are now too bad for reading, which really upsets me. But, I am still happy I have helped so many people to be able to read books, although they cannot afford to buy them,” he says.
Born in Kampuchea Krom, an area now part of Vietnam that used to belong to Cambodia, Sab is a fierce proponent of Khmer culture. Two years after coming to Cambodia in 1958, he attended Phnom Penh Municipal Pedagogy School with the hopes of becoming a primary school teacher. He soon met Khieu Samphan, the future head of state of the Khmer Rouge, who introduced him to communist ideology and its focus on class struggle.
“I found Khieu Samphan to be a good person and speaker,” Sab says. “He helped me become a communist.”
Sab was quickly embroiled in the politics of the era and even claims he was one of the leaders of a protest at the United States Embassy in 1965 – suspected to have taken place on the orders of then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk – in which thousands of students gathered ostensibly in response to American air attacks and an article about the prince and his wife Monineath in Newsweek magazine.
Sab says his radical politics prevented him from finding a job after graduation in 1963. His only capital at the time was in the books he had collected, so he decided to start a book rental business in Phnom Penh. His stall was located in front of the Chao Ponhea Yat High School, later known as the notorious S-21 prison and interrogation centre under the Khmer Rouge. His stand, he contends, was the first in the capital.
“Book prices at that time were exorbitant,” Sab says. “So my service was popular among students, especially those from poor families or the provinces. I was also happy because I could read books and make money at the same time.”
When the Khmer Rouge came into power in 1975, Sab was among those delighted with the communist victory. In the afternoon of April 17, while Khmer Rouge soldiers were entering Phnom Penh, Sab put on his best clothes, grabbed a white flag and took to the streets to welcome them. His excitement, however, quickly turned to desperation.
“They suddenly forced me to leave Phnom Penh, although I did not have anything on me,” he says. “They forced me to leave thousands of my books, which was the worst event in my life.”
Although Sab was a supporter, the Khmer Rouge treated him like one of the “new people”, who were targeted in purges. Like many others, Sab was moved from one place to another before eventually stopping in Battambang. In every location, he was subjected to hard labour, starvation and the threat of execution.
Yet, despite his ordeal, Sab still views Samphan – who is currently facing charges of genocide and was previously convicted of crimes against humanity at the Khmer Rouge tribunal – in a positive light.“Samphan wanted to do good by the people,” he says.
On his forced journeys, Sab says he would look for books in old houses and bring them along with him. One day, a Khmer Rouge cadre found them and accused him of being an “enemy”.
“They tied me up and wanted to kill me with a hoe,” Sab says. “To save myself, I pretended to be crazy, and performed comedic acts to make them laugh. By that, I escaped my death.”
Youk Chhang, the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, says the Khmer Rouge viewed books as a symbol of education, and a product of the lifestyle and mindset left over from the era of Lon Nol’s republic. Being caught with them would result in death. “The Khmer Rouge destroyed anything from the previous regime, not only books but also human lives,” he says. “But they created their own.”
Under the Khmer Rouge, the only reading allowed was from Pol Pot’s Little Red Book and the Democratic Kampuchea magazine. After their fall in 1979, Sab learned that all his books in the capital had been burned or repurposed.
“They destroyed my collection, and turned the school where students were my customers into a prison,” Sab says, his voice quivering. “I was wrong to support them.”
He set up shop as a barber in Battambang, but memories of all he had lost never left him.
In 2002, after many years replenishing his book supply, Sab reopened his business in Battambang. Where once he cut hair, he now stands surrounded by books. His obstacle this time was the spread of the internet and a lack of interest in reading.
Today, only four or five people come each day to rent a book, most for less than $1 for a week, whereas before the Khmer Rouge, business was brisk. Despite his financial struggles, he insists this is where he’ll be found until his death.
“Young people today would rather play on their smartphones than read books, which can provide a lot of information and moral value in their life,” Sab says. “But please bear in mind that at one time in history, you could not even look at a book, or you would die.”