B UDDHIST monk Ven So Mieng left Phnom Penh's Ounnaloam pagoda for the
countryside in the afternoon of April 18, 1975 with only a little rice, a pot
and a kettle.
Four years later, he returned, the only survivor of a band
of 28 monks who had found themselves together under Khmer Rouge rule at a small
Today, at age 81 and still a venerated monk, he puts his
survival down to his strong faith.
It was a faith which was not easily
worshipped during the years of the strongly anti-religious Khmer
From the moment he was forced out of Ounnaloam Pagoda at the
insistence of Khmer Rouge guerrillas the day after they seized Phnom Penh, Mieng
had to risk his life every time he wanted to pray.
He went to his
birthplace of Prek Tamek in Kandal province, where, after two days, Khmer Rouge
cadre told him he had to "retire" as a monk.
"You have to decide," they
told him. "If you want to stay a monk, you have to go and see Angkar. Or else
you must retire."
The cadre compared monks to birds which perched on a
tree to suck the juice from it.
"The tree will die, so we cannot keep
these people," he was told. "We must kill them all."
Refusing to give up
the monkhood, Mieng - along with 27 other monks who had found their way to the
village - fled to Ksach Kandal Island for five months.
deciding that to retire was the best choice, they returned to Prek Tamek, where
Mieng had relatives and friends.
He found that all of the Khmer Rouge
militia in the village were former students of his, some even his grandchildren,
but that meant little.
"You are not our teacher anymore," he says some
told him. "We are all the same. If you don't work, we won't give you food to
eat. Anyone who is stubborn must be killed."
Though aged in his 60s,
Mieng was set to work day after day. He farmed, tended cows and helped to
demolish big houses - symbols of wealth the Khmer Rouge could not abide
Publicly, he gave up religion but privately he remained devoutly
At night, he would whisper his prayers before he slept. Once,
cadre sneaked up to his house and overheard him. The next morning, they
threatened him with death.
He was spared only when one militia supervisor
- who still had some respect for him - decided he could live.
Mieng, together with 13 relatives and others, were taken from the village and
told they were to be beaten to death.
They awaited their fate, but again
he survived. In an internal Khmer Rouge purge, all the local cadre were killed
by another group of militia from outside, and their prisoners allowed back to
By 1979, when the Khmer Rouge regime was toppled, all the
other 27 monks, along with 20 of his relatives, were dead.
to Phnom Penh. In 1980, Mieng - who had first become a monk when aged 14 -
formally returned to the monkhood at Ounnaloam Pagoda.
Last year, he was
appointed head monk at the pagoda by King Norodom Sihanouk.