Editor’s note: Although the formation of a tribunal for former Khmer Rouge leaders has stalled, The Cambodia Daily will continue with its series in which the people who lived through the Khmer Rouge regime share their stories. Other stories will appear in future issues of The Cambodia Daily.
rovieng district, Preah Vihear province – To this day teacher U Hoeur, 74, sees his old students in Tenlot Meloo village and waits for them to speak.
Sometimes they taunt him for being a part of the old regime. Sometimes they thank him for his hard work. Few of them ever mention his five colleagues killed by the Khmer Rouge.
He tells his story to a visitor in his northern Cambodia village. He didn’t know this topic would come up, and for long stretches at a time he strains to remember the names of his old friends. They come slowly.
They were the teachers who disappeared, sometimes under the eyes of former students who had joined the Khmer Rouge, which controlled the village by 1970.
“The teenagers who had a high rank in the Pol Pot regime were proud,” he remembers. “They liked to kill people. They liked to hit people—the old men, especially. They thought old men were impacted too much by the old regime.”
U Hoeur’s teaching career had made him happy before the revolution.
It began with promise. After graduating from teachers college in 1952, he taught in Siem Reap for two years before he was able to move back to his home village.
When his students started joining the Khmer Rouge, his life changed. The revolutionaries closed the school and made him a cow herder and kitchen hand, his jobs from 1970 to 1979.
His students never pointed a gun at him, but if he spoke impolitely they would force him to do additional work.
His world turned upside down, his students in charge of his life, he had no choice but to adapt.
At least 100 people were killed at regional office 103, about an hour from the school by moto, U Hoeur said. Many more died of starvation and illness.
The Khmer Rouge soldiers were little more than children. Most of them were 14 or 15 years old. The forced indoctrinations began in 1969, he said. Some students became Khmer Rouge cadre, but a lot of students were told to go to Siem Reap. They were killed on the way.
One of the teachers was found hanging by a rope. Authorities told people it was a suicide, but U Hoeur had seen his friend the day before and he had seemed fine.
Others just disappeared.
“In the Pol Pot regime no one can go close to each other,” U Hoeur said. “No one can interfere with other people’s affairs, so when someone was killed by Pol Pot, how and when we do not know.”
Ten of the teachers in Tenlot Meloo village are survivors of that time, he said. The survivors believe the other teachers were killed because they were too smart, or let people know how smart they were.
U Hoeur taught members of the Khmer Rouge for one hour a day during regime, but the books were different, not so much education as propaganda, he said.
At the Documentation Center of Cambodia, a 1977 second grade geography text from the Ministry of Education features this introduction: “We will learn about our beloved Cambodia. The more we know the more we will love our country. We have class anger toward the royal class, the capitalistic class and the suppressing powerful class for robbing, suppressing and killing our people for more than 2,000 years and for selling our country to the imperialists gradually.
“We have turned all of these sufferings to the fighting forces to fight for and defend our country under clear-sighted leadership in order to maintain our country: long, strong and happy with the great leap forward.”
Then there is this passage from a 1977 second grade literature text called “Our Collective Village is Beautiful Every Season:”
“We receive all kinds of supplies from our revolutionary organization, Angkar. We have reasonable accommodations, clean clothing and enough food to eat.”
Today, U Hoeur feels compelled to say over and over that this was a revolution of the people he was supposed to control. His students were the ones who joined the rebellion. His traditional role of authority as a teacher, second only to the Buddhist monks, was subverted to the cultural revolution, and instead of being venerated for his place in society, he was mocked.
He tells his story by lamplight. The light flickers and his tan, worn face flashes light and dark.
“I don’t know why they didn’t kill me,” he said. (Additional reporting by Ham Samnang)