When the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975, the population of Cambodia was in the neighborhood of seven-and-a-half million people. The number of people who died over the next four years, until the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and ended the Khmer Rouge genocide, varies from study to study; but most estimates point to the death of a quarter of the population.
Today, the population of Cambodia is about fifteen million. Khmers born after the Khmer Rouge regime are the majority, outnumbering those who lived through the genocide by two-to-one. This is the post-Pol Pot generation. Here are some of its members.
Dara’s family was on the victim side of the Khmer Rouge era. His mother had ten brothers and sisters when Pol Pot seized power; four years later, only one was still alive. Her mother and father also perished.
Dara was raised in Siem Reap during the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. He remembers gunfights in the streets between the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge, whose remaining forces would occasionally launch incursions into the city. Hiding in the attic was a normal part of family routine.
Dara attended college in New Zealand, and then lived in Sydney, Australia, where he worked in the information technology field. After returning to Cambodia, he built a hotel in Siem Reap that is now operated by his sister, built another hotel in Battambang that he currently operates, and also built a tour business. He now has a third hotel under construction, and is planning a fourth. Not bad for someone only three decades old.
Sayan’s family was on the opposite side of the conflict – both of his parents where Khmer Rouge soldiers.
When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, thousands of Khmers fled to Thailand, where they lived in refugee camps. That is what happened to Sayan’s parents. They lived in the camps for fourteen years, during which time they met each other, married, and gave birth to Sayan and his sister. When they returned to Cambodia, Sayan’s parents settled in Pailin Province, an area essentially given over to former Khmer Rouge as part of the government’s reconciliation efforts.
Sayan’s parents survived the Pol Pot regime by joining with the Khmer Rouge, but that did not grant their families any immunity from the four-year genocide. Sayan’s mother lost both parents, four brothers, and a sister. His father also lost both parents, his four brothers, and two sisters.
While Dara grew up hiding in the attic to avoid gunfights, Sayan grew up avoiding minefields. The Pailin area still has one of the highest concentrations of land mines in Cambodia, and many of Sayan’s neighbors have lost life and limb as a result.
Sayan is now twenty-two years of age, and works at Dara’s hotel in Battambang, where he has attained management status. He is also in his senior year of college, majoring in finance. He’s undecided on what to pursue after graduation, torn between a new banking career and continuing to work at the hotel.
Khena’s parents were married before Pol Pot seized power, and were forcibly separated by the Khmer Rouge. Both survived the next four years, but their one male child did not. After the Khmer Rouge were ousted, the two managed to find each other again. They settled in Battambang, and built a family of two sons and four daughters.
Khena is now twenty-three years of age. She’s a senior in college, majoring in finance and banking. She also works part time as a translator for a medical NGO, and as a language tutor. After graduation, she plans to work at a bank in Phnom Penh.
Vicheka’s mother survived the Khmer Rouge, but all of her children were killed – two sons, two daughters. She is now a single woman, and owns a corner store in Battambang.
Vicheka is twenty-six years of age. Ten years ago, he began attending a Chinese school in Cambodia, where he learned to speak both Chinese and English. After graduation, he moved to Siem Reap and worked in the tourism industry. Then his mother asked for his help. Now he lives in Battambang, where he runs her corner store.
The stories of the parents of these four young people reflect some of the key elements of the Pol Pot era – the death of parents and siblings and children, the forced separations of those who lived, the years spent in refugee camps by tens of thousands. Any conversation with a young Khmer eventually reveals a tragedy under the Khmer Rouge. No family was untouched.
If the parents’ stories offer a good retrospective on Cambodia’s recent past, then perhaps their children’s stories offer a good indicator of Cambodia’s near-term future. If so, then it will be shaped by young Khmers who are ambitious, intelligent, reasonably educated, and knowledgable of the Western world. They are also knowledgable of the flaws in their current government, and desire the reforms necessary to realize the potential of the country and its people. They are looking forward, not backward; neither ignoring their parents’ stories, nor allowing themselves to be defined by them.