MENG Chhon’s Testimony
‘I hope that the Tribunal will find justice for Cambodia by accepting complaints and finding the truth, and I hope that the accused will confess their faults.’
My name is Meng Chhon. I am a 61-year-old widow, born in 1953. My father was a farmer and Buddhist teacher at a pagoda school. My mother was a farmer. My parents had four children. I was the second child. My family was part of the middle class. When I was young, I never experienced any difficulties. In 1969, I moved to Pursat town, which was far from my parents and aunties, to study. I visited home only during vacations. My father went back and forth to bring me food and money.
In 1971, when I was in grade 6, my parents arranged a marriage for me. I got married to my husband. His name is Kong Nhaun. He was 28 years old at the time. I was 19 and stopped going to Pursat town. I begged for a wedding dress instead of having to wear the black uniform of the Khmer Rouge. As vice chief of the village, my father asked permission from his superior. The Khmer Rouge did not agree. They did not want a big wedding with a traditional wedding dress at all. They said the wedding would be small and that both bride and groom had to wear the black uniform. During the wedding ceremony, a member of the Khmer Rouge, whom we did not know, came to visit my house. My husband called me to meet him about 50 metres from the wedding place. I saluted and greeted him according to Khmer tradition. He refused to accept that and mocked, ‘Don’t do that to me, I am not a monk! In a wedding like this, it’s no use wearing a traditional dress, but the black uniform instead! You are not a feudalist, are you?’ I was frightened and angry, but I could not respond.
In 1974, my father was still going back and forth to the town to visit my grandparents and uncles. One day, a group of Khmer Rouge cadres came to my house at around 6 pm and called for my father. Comrades Choeun and San told my mother that they ‘requested’ – but in fact, they ordered – my father to work for them as a soldier. My father reassured us, ‘Don’t worry! Do the planting as usual!’ Comrade Choeun added, ‘It is only for three days. I will accompany him to register.’ My father spent three days and nights with them on a mountain. They asked him and my older sister to work as soldiers for them. My father refused and begged to be allowed to support them with money instead. They allowed him to go back home after they had forced him to drink water stirred with a bayonet (1) and swear to not support Lon Nol. (2) When my father returned home, he collected money (1500 Riel) and sent it to the Khmer Rouge group.
One day, a group of Lon Nol soldiers came to my home village. The villagers escaped because they were scared, but my father didn’t. When the villagers returned, they saw that my father was getting along with the Lon Nol soldiers. The Khmer Rouge group talked badly about him, saying that ‘his body was Khmer, but his head Vietnamese’. When he came home, my father told all the children, ‘Don’t work hard. I might no longer get a chance to eat the rice you have planted.” Three days after Khmer New Year 1975, three Khmer Rouge soldiers, including comrades Choeun and San, knocked on the door of our house. As my aunt was opening the door slightly, one Khmer Rouge asked loudly, ‘Where is my friend Chhamm?’ ‘He went with his uncle to the east’, my aunt answered. While talking with his uncle, who was the village chief, my father heard many dogs barking. He knew something had happened at home, so he returned. The village chief suggested he should escape, but he didn’t.
At about 7 pm, in front of my house, the village chief and my father encountered the Khmer Rouge soldiers who were leaving our house. Comrade Choeun ordered my father to go with him to the north. My father said, ‘I am not going to the north, but to the south.’ My father was wearing short pants and a cotton scarf. The Khmer Rouge soldier tied him up with his cotton scarf. My mother was struck with panic. She ran to embrace him in tears and begged the comrades, ‘Don’t execute him, please, don’t punish him. Wait for him to get dressed…’ Comrades Choeun and San pushed her with a gun until she fell down on the ground and they said, ‘It’s not necessary for him to get dressed. He will only be away for a short time.’ I was very scared. I ran over to lift my mother up and cried loudly. I felt so hopeless and helpless and thought they would kill my father. I was very angry. I was disappointed that my father had supported them so much. Each time they had come, my father had cooked for them – pig, chicken, duck, etc. – and had helped them with money, but still the Khmer Rouge wanted to execute him. My father said to my uncle, ‘Help me by taking care of my children and wife! I will not be alive anymore to do so!’ My older sister lost consciousness and fell over.
My aunt coaxed a monk, who was conducting a ceremony nearby, into following them to beg for my father’s life. It happened about one kilometer from the house. I heard the sound of many guns from about 50 meters from the shooting place. Actually, my father and another villager, Nget Heang, were shot near a tree along the road at Tuol Tapeng (Tapeng Hillock). Soon after that, they fired at us a few times. We escaped and fell from the hillock into a small cave. We then returned home. That night nobody could sleep. We waited to see the truth the next morning. A neighbour whose name was Nga, warned us to stay calm, otherwise they might come back to kill us all. At dawn, a villager named Chheang informed us that my father had really been killed. Remembering this, I feel angry and sorry for myself for being alone. At the time, I took on the role of a woman and a man at the same time to be able to feed the younger siblings.
Around 7 am, my niece Peach asked permission from the Khmer Rouge to bring my dead father back to be cremated according to Buddhist ceremonial practice. They warned us not to have a big ceremony. That morning, many people attended and helped to make two coffins for my father and Mr. Nget Heang, who had been shot at the same time. One of the Khmer Rouge chiefs was also there. He said, ‘There will be two more young women and a few more.’ When the people who attended the ceremony heard this, they snuck out one by one and disappeared. It was around 11 o’clock when the corpses came and my mother lost consciousness again. I hugged her and wept in sorrow. There were only a few people: my uncle and aunt, my mother and four monks. At 1 pm, the time the corpses were to be burnt, it was raining heavily. We decided to bury them instead. My husband was not there. He had escaped with other villagers. That night, my sister and I also escaped to my uncle’s house in Pursat town. Everyone feared the Khmer Rouge would be chasing us.
Six days after they killed my father, a Khmer Rouge chief deported me, my mother, my sisters and my aunt to Por Takuoy village, Lolok Sor commune, Bakan district, Pursat province. It was my uncle’s home village. Only one night later, the Khmer Rouge declared, ‘Our country now has peace. We will be happy. Everyone can go wherever they want to go.’ My family and I decided to return to my homeland Srah Mkak. We had just finished organising our belongings when my friend Mak approached me and asked, ‘Do you know teacher Nhong?’ I answered, ‘Yes, I do.’ I asked my husband to accompany Mak to the teacher’s house. Later, after my family was forced to live at a cooperative, Prey Krabao, I heard that teacher Nhong and his family had been transported by truck ‘to study’ (3) at Wat Po Chrey. I was not sure whether Mak was part of a Khmer Rouge group or not. However, I feel guilty and I regret that I have told the Khmer Rouge about teacher Nhong.
In 1976, we were separated from each other to go work in different places. My younger sister was ordered to work in a group of children, my older sister in a mobile youth team, and my mother had to cut tobacco and take care of the small children. My husband, aunt and I were ordered to work in a ploughing group (4).
We had to work very hard, but had not enough food to eat. About two weeks later, Ta Nha, the chief of the unit, said to my husband, ‘You have your wife in tow!’ After that, they sent my husband away from me to work in a transport team at another cooperative, Tuol Mtes, in Region 7.
During the first six months, we still had food and were living together. At the end of 1976, we experienced famine. We received only one can of rice for 20 people. I was sick and asked to return and work at home. About ten days later, my older sister fell severely ill. She asked permission to go to the health center, but she returned home instead. She could not walk. She stayed in bed the whole day and I took care of her. Because she was hungry she asked me to boil the strong cord made of buffalo skin for a long time, to make it soft enough for her to eat. One week later, my aunty also fell ill. Both stayed at home. The chief of the unit, Ta Nha, often came to say that the daily share of food for my older sister and aunt was kept at the health center, so they could not get it. At that time, only two people, my mother and I, had food from the village organization. We shared this with four other people. Each break, my mother spent time in the fields collecting rice that was left there, to get enough for our daily needs. Two weeks later, my mother also fell severely ill. She could not go to work anymore. As I recall it, one morning in August, my older sister begged me for food. She said, ‘My God! How hungry am I! How savage is this regime!’ I felt very sad for her and asked her, ‘What can I find for you?’ She whispered, ‘Born in any life, I don’t want to encounter these conditions again.’ She was thinking of my youngest brother and wondered whether he was experiencing similar conditions. She wanted to see him, but she died before she had a chance. My aunt begged me to keep taking care of her and whispered that she had asked for rice, but that the Khmer Rouge had not given her anything. ‘I am very angry. I have worked very hard for them. Now that I am sick, no one cares about me’ she mumbled often before she died at 4 pm, on the same day as my older sister. I slept next to them the whole night. The next morning, an ox cart came and the driver asked, ‘How many corpses are there?’ I answered, ‘There are two.’ They collected the dead as if they did not care about the people at all. I carried both of them myself and put them on the cart. After that, my mother’s illness became very severe. She whispered to me that, if she died, I shouldn’t forget to pick up the valuable things under the stove. She died at around 10 am. I felt overwhelmed. I tried not to cry, but the tears were flowing uncontrollably. A little later, my husband came. I asked him to wait until the ox cart came to carry my dead mother. He said, ‘I came without permission. I must go back to ask permission.’ I said, ‘I have no more hope to live. Please go collect the valuable things my mum gave us and take them with you.’ He returned to get the inheritance. At the time I was disappointed with him. I thought he would not want to do this because my mother was not his birth mother. When my husband left, my youngest brother arrived. A little later, an ox cart came along. My brother carried our mother and put her on the cart. My husband didn’t come back that night. The next morning, my younger brother-in-law, Kum Nhoeun, told me that, the night before, my husband had been beaten on the head until he died because he had stripped grains off the rice plants in the field. I felt very sad for him and stopped being angry with him.
A few days later, my brother-in-law whispered to me, ‘The Khmer Rouge are planning to kill you.’ I was very frightened and fainted when I heard this. I felt weightless and lost all hope. My younger brother and I escaped to another cooperative, Chroab. My younger sister was ordered to work elsewhere at a barrage named Boeng Kak, at Tuol Akaeng cooperative. My brother and I walked off and fell many times along the road. We encountered an ox cart, which helped us get to Chroab village. My brother asked the Khmer Rouge to work in a transport team, but he was put with the children because he was only seven or eight years old. I was put in a mobile team and later in a harvest team. I had to harvest 90 square meters per day. I was very thin. I could not accomplish this, so I hired a colleague, Ney, to work for me. I spent a ring for that help. (5) Three days later Ney was sent ‘to study’ and never came back.
Later, a unit leader called Ep, told me that the Khmer Rouge cadres were chasing me. He persuaded me to work even harder to survive. When I heard that, I was very frightened. I could not cope. I felt hopeless and also wanted to die because almost all my family members had passed away. I asked to work in a front line team because I expected to get more food there, but they didn’t allow it. They wanted me to be extinguished. Becasue I received so little food, my health declined over time. I passed bleeding stools, but still went to work. Each time I collected water hyacinth to catch fish, I prayed to my parents to help me get a few fishes to eat. The Khmer Rouge cadres followed me for three days and accused me of betraying Angkar.(6) They destroyed my cooking pot to deprive me. My sister-in-law brought her daughter to live with me. Only three days later, the Khmer Rouge took her away from me to the orphanage.
In 1978, they arranged marriages for widows. The head of the unit, Ta Sorn, told me, ‘Stop braiding thatch! Get ready for tomorrow’s wedding! Angkar has arranged it for 30 couples!’ I refused as I didn’t want to accept anybody. He replied, ‘Do you want to die? If you refuse, they will kill you!’ I thought it was not important anymore to live, because my parents had already died. On the wedding day, I escaped. When I returned, I was told that they had been looking for me and two other widows, my friends Chhuon and Touk. They had said that whenever we would get back, they would force us to accept the marriage. That night, the three of us were very scared. We slept in the one place, holding our hands and praying to our parents. Fortunately, nothing happened that night.
Later, I was displaced again to build another barrage. At the new place, I made a hat of palm leaves for myself to wear. My senior liked it and ordered me to make one for her. Later, she stopped me from working in the fields to produce hats for them. I made two hats a day. There were also some requests from teachers to make hats for the children. About one year later, the head of the unit, Ta Chheang, said to me, ‘Chhonn, you have been working with children for a long time and you now have gained meat and blood! (7)
You must go work in the dry-season rice field at Neakta Tvear cooperative.’ So I worked there as a cook.
In 1978, many people were sent from Svay Rieng to Neakta Tvear. They whispered to me that the radio had announced that Phnom Penh people were getting peace now. The next day, about 40 Svay Rieng people prepared their belongings to go back to their home village. They said loudly, ‘The country is in peace! We have now been liberated!’ Suddenly, around 30 Khmer Rouge cadres arrived and dissuaded them, ‘Don’t believe them! Stay where you are for a while!’ Then, the Svay Rieng people were killed – one by one.
At Neakta Tvear cooperative, I slept in a warehouse with around 50 families. At night, I saw that the Khmer Rouge cadres woke up the people next to my net, tied them up and took them away on ox carts – two carts at a time, and five people on each ox cart. The next morning, I was cooking next to the head of the unit, who was distinguishable by a top with short, rolled-up sleeves and a scarf around the neck. He was playing with his sword moving it up and down. He asked me, ‘Do you want a scarf?’ ‘No, I don’t. It belongs to death’, I replied. The next morning, I heard the head of the unit – he was called Yim – tell his subordinates, ‘Ah! That lady was very pretty. I pounded her with a bamboo stick and she still smiled at me!’ They took the gallbladders of the dead to dry them on trees. I trembled when I saw that. My heart was racing and my whole body felt empty. I worried that one day it would be my turn. The killings went on for about ten days. The remaining five Svay Rieng villagers attempted to escape. They asked me to go with them. I didn’t, because I had lost geographic orientation. I hope those five people escaped successfully and survived.
When they were finished with the Svay Rieng people, they took me along to Phnom Bak (Broken Mountain) by foot, but the head of the unit rode in a cart. There were about 20 carts. Reaching Boeung Rung Lake, they ordered everyone to hide, because they saw planes flying over us in the sky. It took us months to reach the Boeng Kantuot barrage. They brought people to work harder for them, but I and ten other people didn’t follow and escaped from the mountain.
Returning to Bat Koki, the head of the unit, Sorn, ordered me to dig a trench to hide from Vietnamese soldiers. Two days later, the head of another unit, Chhuon, called us over to tell us to run and escape from the Khmer Rouge. (8)
He shouted, ‘Let’s run! Do you want to die? If so, continue digging!’ I replied, ‘I won’t go! I don’t know where my sisters are!’ The others packed rice and other materials, but I didn’t. The head, Chhuon, told me that we would leave Bat Koki Thmey the next day and go towards Siem Reap. Chhuon persuaded me to run away with them, as I was the only one of my family who had survived. The next morning at 6 o’clock, we left via a canal.
In a flooded forest at Kbal Taor (Lion Head), we encountered a group of ten Khmer Rouge cadres, who pointed their guns at us and asked, ‘Who permitted you to run?’ We were scattered in all directions. Some ran back, some stayed still, and some continued walking. My team of ten people, who were all in the middle of the chain of people who had escaped, sat down. Two Khmer Rouge cadres shouted at my team, ‘Are you going back or not?’ We closed our eyes, prayed to Buddha and were ready to be shot all at once. When they aimed their guns to shoot, there was a whistle calling them back. They ran away from us. At that time, I was in shock and didn’t know what was happening. I was scared, trembling and unable to move.
After a while we opened our eyes and continued walking towards Mong Russey. Ta Chhuon and three other colleagues rode horses ahead to check the situation. Ta Chhuon told us that it was impossible to go to Mong Russey. We had to turn to Daun Try instead because a lot of shooting coming from Mong Russey could be heard. At Daun Try, I saw many graves and stinking corpses. I was frightened and scared. I wanted to leave but dared not because it was sunny. I thought I would die this way.
At night we moved to Ream Chakrey, where we spent a night. I also saw a lot of stinking corpses along the way. By radio, Ta Chhoun told us that we would go to Battambang. There were Vietnamese soldiers waiting there. At 7 pm, we again moved on trying not to make any sound, so that even the babies or the cocks would keep quiet. We stayed at Veal Sre Muoy Roy (One Hundred Rice Fields) and left again at 7pm. At 4 am we realized that we were at the same location again. Ta Chhuon explained we were lost. We believed it might have been because we said the wrong things to the forest spirits. He burned incense sticks and prayed to get out of the forest. We finally found a way out and encountered Vietnamese soldiers at a huge lake. It took us seven days and nights to reach Battambang because we could only travel at night and had to hide during the daytime. The Vietnamese soldiers asked for volunteers who could guide them to liberate other civilians.
I stayed at Wat Pahna for ten days and later moved to Svay Chumnis. I looked for my sister at Boeung Knar, but I couldn’t find her. I was told that she had escaped to O Treal and joined the Serey Kar (9) group when the Khmer Rouge had fought each other. Fortunately, I found my younger brother at Thnal Bat, living with my uncle Soeun. I asked my uncle to let my brother live with me. Later, I moved to live with my aunt-in-law at Mong Russey for one year.
In 1981, I returned to my native village Bat Koki. My father’s land was occupied by five families already. Fortunately, they moved to refugee camps, where they could get rice, and I could get my land back. With help from some relatives, I managed to get 2.5 hectares of land to grow rice. I worked hard for the new government and also planted rice to feed my siblings. From 1983 to 1985, I faced a financial crisis due to flooding. I borrowed money from others to solve my problems and it took a long time to pay them back.
Later I developed a gynaecological disorder due to the hard work and lack of nutrition and hygiene during the Khmer Rouge time. Therefore, I could not remarry. Currently I live happily because I do not have the additional burden of raising children or grandchildren, but I am worried because if I fall ill, I will have no one to take care of me. I care very much about the business. I want to avoid borrowing money from others.
After all this, I hope that the Khmer Rouge Tribunal will provide collective reparations such as building a stupa, and producing historical materials for the next generation to learn. I hope that the Tribunal will find justice for Cambodia by accepting complaints and finding the truth, and I hope that the accused will confess their faults. I am disappointed by the death of the accused Eang Sary before the judgment and that he had not confessed anything yet.
I would like to dedicate this testimony to my family members who died during the events of the past:
- My dad Meng Chham
- My mum Khiev Dim
- My husband Kong Nhaun
- My older sister Meng Chhoeun
- My aunt Khiev May
- My uncle Khiev Nga
- My brother-in-law Peach
- My brother-in-law Kong Nhean and his family
- My brother-in-law Hem Hach and his family
- My brother-in-law Kong Nhaun and his family
- My uncle Meng Chhoeun and his family
- My uncle Meng Chhem and his family
- My uncle Tol Nhong and his wife
- My uncle Khiev Phoeurk and his wife
- And to all Cambodians who died, in particular during Khmer Rouge times. I wish that they all recognize this story and get peace forever.
Testifier: Meng Chhon
TPO Counselor: Hoy Vathana
Phnom Penh, 18 July 2013
1 This is a type of symbolic act to swear an oath.
2 She is referring to the Republicans. Lon Nol was the President of the Khmer Republic which preceded the Khmer Rouge regime. He fled the country in 1975.
3 During the time of the Khmer Rouge, people knew that this term referred to being punished, most likely killed. The Khmer Rouge didn’t say directly that they were going to kill someone, but used other words instead, such as ‘to study’. However, people knew what was coming when this expression was used.
4 A ploughing group is a special task force brought over to reinforce work happening already, but which is running late. They used to be brought in when it was almost too late to do a particular type of work, for example, help with ploughing when the season for ploughing was as good as over.
5 She exchanged a ring for some help. There was no money under the Khmer Rouge. It was common to exchange whatever little possession or goods one had, to secure help from someone to get the labor imposed by the Khmer Rouge done.
6 The CPK (Communist Party of Kampuchea) referred to itself as ‘Angkar’ which is the Khmer word for ‘Organization’.
7 ‘To have gained meat and blood’ means to be healthy again. ‘Gaining meat’ refers to ‘putting on weight’ whereas ‘gaining blood’ indicates ‘having a healthier skin tone’.
8 This head of the unit did not want to follow the Khmer Rouge any longer.
9 A liberation group.