Monday 5 June 2023

"I used to steal small amounts of rice just to survive" - Stories from Cambodia

Phnom Penh in May is not hot. It's very hot, and very humid. Residents and visitors alike seek respite from the soupy atmosphere by spending time on the riverside walk, just a few blocks away from some of the city's main streets and the old market known locally as Phsar Chas

The riverside area has been cleaned up in recent years and now hosts good quality restaurants, bars and hotels. There are also many informal stalls close to the river. I stopped to buy cold water from one of the vendors, a smiling, silver haired woman wearing a brightly patterned blouse. As she handed me the bottle, I asked  how she came to be doing this work. Song Yeun said she had been selling goods in the street for many years. I asked her if she lived with her family, and unprompted, she began to tell her story. "I am 68 now but I became a widow at 21" she said. "My husband was an educated man and was killed very soon after the Khmer Rouge took over. My own family were farmers. I grew up in a village and managed to convince them that I could work in the fields. So I was spared". 

She referred to the Khmer Rouge as "the Angkar" a Khmer language word meaning "organisation" and the term that the Pol Pot led communists used to describe themselves. The regime held power between 1975 and 1979, dismantling civil society and brutalising the population with forced labour and summary executions. Estimates vary but the Khmer Rouge caused the deaths of up to two million people through starvation, exhaustion or outright killing. Educated people were seen as particular enemies and many teachers, professors, doctors, writers and artists were murdered. 

Song Yeun's experience of agricultural work was no guarantee of being spared or surviving, but it gave her a better chance than many of those forcibly evacuated from Phnom Penh a few days after the Khmer Rouge entered the city. She continued "There were famous people in the work camps. The singer Pan Ron was there. I tried to help her but they killed her too". Pan Ron (also known as Pen Ran) was a prominent singer and songwriter who had great success in the 1960's and early 1970's. Her music was influenced by western rock and soul styles and some of her lyrics were deemed risqué for their time. As all things western were deemed unacceptable, this made her. particular target. She is remembered in a series of murals outside the Space Four Zero gallery in Palace Lane, Phnom Penh. Several of her recordings have been uploaded onto YouTube. 

Song Yeun went on to describe some small acts of resistance. "At night they would put spies under our huts to listen to our conversations. You could be executed for any criticism of the regime. We knew they were there and we used to pee through a whole in the floor above where they would be laying. They couldn't say anything or move as they'd give themselves away". She laughed at the memory, but then grew serious and said "We were starving and I used to steal small amounts of rice just to survive. If they'd caught me I wouldn't be alive now." 

The Khmer Rouge regime was ousted in 1979 when Cambodia was invaded by Vietnam, although fighting between various factions continued into the 1990's. After being released from the work camp, Song Yeun somehow made her way back to Phnom Penh, discovered that she had lost most of her family and had to find a way of supporting herself. "Some men asked me to be a prostitute" she said, "But I refused. I knew I could work. These days I have trouble with my legs and people say 'you are old, stop doing this job and just beg' but I won't do that. I want to keep working". 

I bought an extra bottle from her and continued along the promenade. A group of overweight western men in shorts and vests sat drinking outside a bar. On the opposite side of the river, close to the shore, I could see the makeshift homes of the Muslim fishing families. I looked back at Song Yeun. She sat waiting for customers and smiling at passers-by.

1 comment:

  1. Those were terrible times, I am glad she survived