Life in the Communist Regime
During the first few months of our stay in Prek Rumdeng, we saw a steady stream of evacuating people walking along the dirt road passing through the village. Some of those evacuees came from as far as Phnom Penh. One day, as my father walked up onto the sidewalk to look at people who were passing by, just in case he might find someone he knew, he saw a young man who looked like my oldest brother, Hong. At that point, the young man had already walked pass him. So my father decided to call out his name. Sure enough, it was Hong. The two men were overcome with excitement. Neither one of them was expected to have come across each other. Their chance encounter was truly a godsend, the kind of luck that could only happen once in a blue moon.
After his defeat in 1973, Hong was reassigned to work as a security guard at the Chatomuk Conference Center in Phnom Penh. He remained there until the Khmer Rouge took ever Phnom Penh. While the people in Phnom Penh were being evacuated, Hong found a couple to whom he was introduced by a friend of his and eventually joined them in the exodus. He traveled along with them by disguising himself as one of their children. It was a rather smart move on his part given the fact that the Khmer Rouge had been setting up checkpoints around the country to round up single men whom they suspected of being soldiers of the former regime. When my father met him, Hong was still traveling with the couple along with one of his friends. Upon learning that my brother, Hong, had found his family, the couple was so happy for him and our reunion. My father asked them to stay with us for a few days before continuing on their journey, but the couple declined because they wanted to pushed on to reach their destination at Mount Pean Jeang, which was located only about a half day’s walk from where we were. After a brief exchange of gratitude, my brother bade farewell to his surrogate parents.
A few days later, Om Voan’s children arrived from Phnom Penh as well. They were among the last trickle of people to have crisscrossed the country to resettle in their former hometown or other places of preference. Soon after, no one was allowed to travel from place to place without written permission (traveling pass) from local or regional Khmer Rouge cadres. Those who were caught traveling without proper permission papers could be arrested and jailed or, in some cases, executed by the Khmer Rouge’s authority. Such was the rule that we had to learn very quickly. However, restriction on traveling was just the beginning. There were a lot more rules that we had to obey without question.
Angkar’s Viney or the Organization’s rules (in short, the Khmer Rouge’s rules), were absolute, and they were not something to be questioned. As we soon learned, those who disobeyed or committed infractions against the Khmer Rouge’s rules would usually pay with their lives. Thus, we began to take great care regarding our daily conduct in order to avoid being seen as not obeying the organization’s rules. One dilemma for us and the rest of the evacuees was that those rules were not written. They were what local Khmer Rouge’s cadres and villagers told us. As a result, we had to follow whatever directions the local Khmer Rouge cadres and villagers ordered us to do.
One of the first steps we took to comply with the Khmer Rouge’s rules was to transform ourselves into farmers, for the new society envisioned by the Khmer Rouge was supposed to be classless. Unlike industrialized countries, Cambodia’s economy was largely based on agriculture; and the so-called proletarian class in Cambodia was composed mostly of farmers and peasants. Therefore, joining the ranks of farmers and peasants would be a good first step in integrating into and becoming members of the Khmer Rouge’s classless society. At first, we were rather confused as to what the term classless meant. But we soon realized that by classless the Khmer Rouge meant that people were no longer allowed to have options in making decisions regarding matters concerning their lives. Everything would be decided upon by the organization or Angkar, the almighty monster representing the collective Khmer Rouge’s leadership, from village’s chiefs to the head of state.
As we transformed ourselves into members of a classless society, one of the most vivid and enduring memories was following the Khmer Rouge’s dress code: black. To adhere to the spirit of a classless society, the Khmer Rouge made everyone dress in black uniform. There was no exception to the rule. Also, no fashionable clothes were allowed. Every black uniform had to be modeled after peasant’s pajama garb. Hence in a frenzy to rid ourselves of the outlawed clothes, we pulled out every piece of our clothing and tried to figure out how to make them comply with the Khmer Rouge’s uniform regulation. As city dwellers, we didn’t usually wear black clothes. Most of our clothes were in various colors. Furthermore, our dress-code dilemma was compounded by the fact that we couldn’t find black clothes to replace our colorful ones, for the Khmer Rouge had already abolished money and market.
While we were pondering how to find a solution to our predicament, Om Voan broached an idea that we could dye our clothes black by using a tree fruit called makloeur which, to our relief, was found in Prek Rumdeng. One of the makloeur trees even grew amid other fruit trees in Om Voan’s garden. So my older brothers went up its branches and collected enough of its fruit to dye our clothes black. Thanks to the magic power of makloeur fruit, once we soaked our clothes in their crushed-up solution, they all turned black. Our clothes were transformed, and so were we, reluctantly!
After dyeing our clothes black, we were able to solve only half of our predicament, for a number of those clothes were considered too stylish to meet the taste of the Khmer Rouge’s classless society. Thus, we had to re-tailor some of our clothes to make them look more like peasant’s pajama garb. I remembered helping my mother undo the original sewing of a number of our clothes, and she had to cut them into the shape of a peasant’s pajama uniform and re-sew them by hand because there were no sewing machines available. My poor mother spent many days re-tailoring and re-sewing our clothes in order to comply with the Khmer Rouge’s dress code. She occasionally got pricked by the needle and her finger bled as a result. Despite the pain and the bleeding, my mother never gave up on re-tailoring our clothes to meet the Khmer Rouge’s dress code requirement. It was as if she knew that to survive under the Khmer Rouge’s rule, one must endure the pain being inflicted upon.
During our stay in Prek Rumdeng, we were required to participate in agricultural work activities with local villagers so as to acquaint ourselves with the new lifestyle to which we would be subjected. By that point, the Khmer Rouge had classified the population into two categories: base people, and new people (Projeajun Moulathan ning Projeajun Thmey). Base people were those who lived in the countryside or under the Khmer Rouge’s control areas during the civil war. As for the new people, anyone who did not live under the Khmer Rouge’s control areas prior to their victory would fall into this category. All new people had to learn from and listen to base people in order to assimilate and integrate into the new society which would be based on socialism and communism. As we were to learn later on, the Khmer Rouge’s classification of our status was a cynical ploy to subjugate one group of people under the whim of another. In reality, this classification was a form of collective physical and mental punishment meted out to the new people whom the Khmer Rouge considered tainted with capitalist influences. So much for a classless society!
In addition to learning from and listening to base people, all new people were also subjected to weekly political indoctrination sessions on socialism and communism. Though these political indoctrination sessions appeared to be designed to help orient and integrate new people into the new society, the underlying rhetoric of the sessions was unmistakably aimed at persecuting them. The word enemy (khmang) had been prominently featured in every political indoctrination session. In the Khmer Rouge rhetorical jargon, enemy existed everywhere. Therefore, everyone must be vigilant and actively seek to rid himself or herself of this enemy. And what were the criteria for consideration as an enemy? Nobody knew for sure. But as we were to learn later, any infraction, be it going to work late or failing to attend a meeting, could be considered enemy of the organization or Angkar, which was the worst situation to be in since being considered Angkar’s enemy was like being put on death row.
(To be continued)