K ONG Saren is around seventy years old. He does not really remember his age. "What
does it matter anyway, I'm going to die soon."
Sitting on a wooden bed at a Battambang hospital, his green army uniform confirms
what his aged face and mounds of long hair belie - that he is a soldier.
"At 18 years old, I was already a soldier in the French army. Now, I'm still
a soldier. I'll keep on fighting till my strength is useful for my country."
Saren prepares tea with some powder he keeps in his jacket pocket. He speaks slowly
and talks only about what he wants to.
"Nation, Religion and King. I have always wanted to fight for these three words,"
"I first joined the army in 1946. At that time it was the French army and we
fought against the Khmer Issarak [independence movement]."
In 1953, when King Norodom Sihanouk secured independence for Cambodia, Saren found
himself a simple civilian and decided to become a man of peace. He joined a pagoda
in Kompong Speu, staying there for more than 20 years.
"I learnt truth, good heart, happiness and humanity," he says. "I
became the chief of the monks."
In 1975, under the Pol Pot regime, Saren moved to an Ek Phnom pagoda near Battambang
where he was put to work as a cook and gardener. He does not want to talk about those
times, but notes that some local cadre allowed him some leeway from the strictly
anti-Buddhist strictures of the Khmer Rouge.
"The chief of the cooperative trusted me so he let me pray. Sometimes, he even
wanted me to pray to bring the rain," the old man recalls with a smile.
In 1978, shortly before the fall of the Khmer Rouge, he quit the monkhood. "At
that time, I thought I had accomplished my work as a monk. I wanted to teach other
people to perform good actions."
A few months after the arrival of Vietnamese troops in Cambodia, Saren went to the
Thai border and joined the first resistence forces.
"I knew that the resistence was between the two foreign armies [Vietnam and
Thailand] who wanted to occupy my country and it was also the only way to bring the
Saren - who says he was searching, but could not find, "the three words which
guide my life" - was a firm admirer of Sihanouk.
"I realized that without a King, the country was full of conflict. The King
is a necessity for our country."
In the mid-1980s, his idol visited some of the resistence fighters on the border.
Saren was among them.
"He thanked us for our fight. At that time, I was sure he would come back to
Cambodia. He is good for the people."
Even though he remains a strong supporter of the King, Saren reproaches him for some
things. "He should have waited before coming back in 1991. The situation was
not yet stable," he says.
In the 1980s, Saren regularly moved between the Site II refugee camp and the front-lines
where the resistence fighters skirmished with the soldiers of the Vietnamese-backed
Phnom Penh regime.
One night, he had a dream.
"Buddha appeared to me. He told me: If you want to have a long life, do not
cut your hair. If you want to be victorious, do not cut your hair.'
"So since then, I have not cut it... and I've always been on the victorous side."
Today, he keeps his hair in plaits, almost stretching down to his knees, rolled up
in a krama or a woollen bonnet bought in Thailand.
"It's very convenient. He uses it as a pillow," remarks his wife, aged
Saren got married when he was 55 - "she was seduced by my hair," he says
- and has six children.
He lives in Ta Poung, about 40km north of Battambang, and still serves in Battalion
No.5 of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces near Thmor Kaul. But he alternates his time
between the army camp and the Ta Poung house of his cousin.
He no longer fights, but does repairs and odd jobs for his fellow soldiers. In Ta
Poung, he still has much time for the local pagoda.
"Today, my life joins the two main jobs of my career. Part of the day, I stay
in the camp, and the other part I spend at the pagoda."
After being a soldier, altogether, for more than 15 years, Saren has never been injured
by war. His only wound came in April when he was hit by a motorcycle, breaking his
ankle. On crutches, he now regularly makes the trip to Battambang to have his leg
checked at a hospital.
Now, as an old man, he is happy to go about his business and try to teach both soldiers
and children the lessons of monks. "I want them to learn truth, humanity and
happiness," he says.
"I am not afraid of bullets or of death because I always speak the truth. The
truth protects from death," he declares.
As for his hair, he says he will keep growing it until the Royal army wins victory
of the Khmer Rouge.
A few weeks ago, one of Saren's three long plaits of hair wore thin and fell to the
"It may be a sign that victory will come soon," he says.