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A personal reflection: life during the Khmer Rouge

A personal reflection: life during the Khmer Rouge

When the coup d'etat took place in Cambodia on 18 March 1970, I was a diplomat in

Paris. Following the coup and with the 23 March 1970 appeal by Samdech Preah Bat

Norodom Sihanouk, who was then the head of state of Cambodia, along with four or

five other Cambodian diplomats, as the followers of his policy of peace, neutrality

and socioeconomic progress, we decided to join the National United Front of Kampuchea

which was funded by Samdech Preah Bat Sihanouk himself.

On the Khmer Rouge's victorious day of 17 April 1975, I was Ambassador of the Royal

Government of the National Union of Cambodia (GRUNC) to Cuba. In December 1975, the

KR recalled all of the GRUNC's diplomats to return to Cambodia in order to receive

"rean soth dorp thyai" or "training for ten days."

This was the Khmer Rouge's first act of deceit.

Once back in the country, all of the GRUNC's diplomats were transferred from one

camp to another, and all of us were subjected to forced hard labor as we had to work

more than ten hours a day. We also were subjected to starvation and forced to die

as medicine was not provided when someone was sick.

Every camp under the KR was also a prison: no one was allowed to leave or go anywhere.

The Khmer Rouge's prison camp also served as an indoctrination center where people

were compelled to think, believe and obey consistently in the KR ideology. In each

camp, the Khmer Rouge set up a committee of prisoners supervised by their own members.

The Khmer Rouge justified their action by telling the people that they had to undergo

"Iut dom", or "forced training." This was the Khmer Rouge's second

act of deceit.

Actually, it was the Khmer Rouge's systematic plan of killing the Cambodian people.

Every time the Khmer Rouge came to pick up someone from the camp, they always said

that the person "teov konleng sroul" or "goes to an easy place. "

For example, Chau Seng and Van Piny - who were assigned as chiefs of the committee

of prisoners at Camp B-32 at Boeung Trabek, one after the other, respectively - were

told by the Khmer Rouge, like others, that they were taken to the easy place. In

fact, each person that was taken away was to be killed.

I, personally, knew this fact only after the 1979 liberation. Therefore, this was

the Khmer Rouge's third act of deceit. Thus, without the 1979 liberation, I myself

that the Khmer Rouge later assigned me to replace Chau Seng and Van Piny would have

been killed just like them.

Therefore, the Khmer Rouge undoubtedly had a clear and systematic plan of massacring

the people. It appeared that they had two ways of murdering the people. One was simply

just plain slaughtering. Another was through natural selection. This meant that the

survivors of the KR were the ones who endured forced hard labor, starvation and diseases.

There was no more sense of patriotism, as I had when I joined the FUNK-GRUNC back

in 1970. Everyone had become like a robot, no longer a human being. Life was so dehumanized

in every possible way. Everyone did everything obediently, whatever the KR wanted

them to do, including nightly self-criticisms and criticisms of others. The Khmer

Rouge forced the people to "jum ros ay ars", or "give up everything"

that they had; that is, to give up anything we had, including our own names, our

thoughts in the past, such as our sentiments of our parents, wives and children.

The Khmer Rouge regime had left behind a number of legacies for the country as a

whole as well as for individual Cambodians.

The first legacy is that the KR succeeded in annihilating the entire country. After

1979, Cambodia was completely annihilated. Cambodia was no longer a state, as recognized

by any conventional ways. The country had nothing at all: no government, no institutions

of any kind, and no system of whatsoever. Accordingly, Cambodia was a nation without

a functional state of any kind.

The second legacy is that, psychologically, every survivor of the KR's murderous

revolution was "tel torl" ("a loss of a sense of purpose") or

"bak-sbat" ("completely traumatized"). There was a real profound

moral traumatism. Many Cambodian people still suffer from mental troubles and psychological


The third legacy is that every Cambodian lost many family members or their entire

family. For example, I had two sisters, whose husbands and children returned to Cambodia

from France in 1976. They were taken to Boeung Trabek initially and then were taken

away to be killed. In addition, I had three other siblings; my wife also had the

same number of brothers and sisters. In total, including their spouses and children,

we had nearly thirty of them, who were executed by the Khmer Rouge. Even now, we

never wanted to count the exact number of family members who were killed by the Khmer


The fourth KR legacy is to some extent the violence that we have today in our society.

The nature of violence in Cambodia and the moral decline in the society could be

the by-product of the Khmer Rouge.

Another legacy is the fact that Cambodia has had many widows and orphans, particularly

after 1979. Even today, the number of families which are headed by females is still

very high. Cambodia also has a high number of orphans.

One other legacy of the Khmer Rouge era is the lack of human resources in the country.

The Khmer Rouge selectively murdered many educated and intellectual Cambodians. Today,

Cambodia continues to face human resource challenges.

In short, life under the Khmer Rouge regime was completely dehumanized for those

who were not killed. The people were treated worse than animals. In essence, "life

was brutal, nasty and short," to borrow Thomas Hobbes' words.


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