Chet’s Story. Cambodia.

12 Dec

Boy with No Bottoms Riding down Village Road.

December 2, 2010

Before we go into Chet’s life and surviving the Khmer Rouge, I want to share what I learned about Cambodia’s education system.  I found it fascinating, to say the least…

First, kids go to school Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Thursdays they go to school to clean. Schools are so poor that they don’t have janitors that have placed cleaning as part of the curriculum… Think about it…Our kids don’t like cleaning their room.  Try cleaning the entire school!

There are two school day shifts. Young kids go from 7 am to 11 am. And, the older kids go from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm. This way, the older kids can work in the fields, slaughter pigs or help sell pineapple or shampoo at their family’s shop. Life is much harder on girls than boys. By the age of seven or eight, the little girl is cooking for the family, washing clothes and raising the younger brothers or sisters. According to Chet, boys are lazy. They have limited chores, compared to girls. In the city, it is worse for boys. No farms, means boys play on the streets… Not good for Cambodia.

About grades: To make a good grade or pass a class, the child brings the teacher money everyday. Teachers are poor. Wages are very, very low. If you miss a day, then you don’t pass the test or are punted from school activities. Talk about learning corruption at an early age! Got to “pay to play.”

If you are rich and want to go to University, you buy the entrance exam from teachers.  If you are poor, then you have to study. Higher the test score means you get a better scholarship.  So, rich kids get more scholarship than poor kids.

Rich don’t study.  Drive nice cars. Pay teachers to graduate.  Many do meth or other drugs, like opium.  Can buy meth behind hospitals.  Pay cops if busted…Not good for Cambodia…

Chet’s Story begins in late 1980’s.

Background: Below is his story about fleeing Cambodia, navigating land mines and learning to farm in a small village. Before April 17, 1975, Chet’s family lived in Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia.

Chet had one older brother and five sisters. His dad was an engineer, per se, and worked for the Cambodia military, under General Lon Nol, who was seen as a US puppet. From what Chet told me, his father helped the US military and South Vietnamese in their fight against Ho Chi.

Chet’s Mom and Dad were originally from Southern Vietnam and fled to Cambodia in the 1960’s when Ho Chi was kicking things up into high gear.

All of his brothers and sisters were born in Cambodia. Cambodians and Vietnamese look very similar, and it is hard to differentiate the two. Meaning, he/she is “true” Cambodian or “true” Vietnamese.

Also, one thing to point out, even though the Vietnamese army overthrew Pol Pot in 1978/1979, the Khmer Rouge political party/regime maintained power during the 80s and 90s. I tell you this because his story gets confusing.  Well, confusing for me for I assumed when Pol Pot was kicked-to-the curb, then the country was stable again.  Not true.

After 1979, Khmer Rouge changed their name to the National Army of Democratic Kampuchea and actually grew in power by focusing  their conflict on the Vietnamese, an ethnic conflict that has existed for over 500 years.

Moving forward, the KR announcements were prefaced with the fact no one would rest until all Vietnamese and/or Cambodian Vietnamese supporters were eliminated.   This fear led to a civil war between the KR supporters and the new government regime, imposed by Vietnam.

The civil war displaced another 600,000+ Cambodians to refugee camps along the Thai border and the planting over 4 million mines to kill the traitors (Cambodians) or encroaching Vietnamese.

Chet’s Story.

It was 1988/1989. Civil war in Cambodia.  Khmer Rouge very powerful.

I was ten. Had to carry my sister to the Thai border. She was barely two. I’m now the only son.

Brother killed by KR. Sister starved to death. Family goes to refugee camp in Thailand.  Heard if we make it to Thailand, we safe. New life.


You ask how it started?  Ok…. On April 17, 1975,  family left Phnom Penh for countryside with rest of city people. Pol Pot and KR tells all people must leave homes.  Leave capital city and go to countryside.  Everyone leaves.  Everyone believes Pol Pot’s lie that Americans will bomb city.  We flee.

My mom takes kids. We go one way.  Dad goes other way.  He knew bad things will happen.  Dad no want to live near us for fear KR found out he military and civil servant.

KR stop him one day on road.  Asked if he capitalist, he said “no.  I farmer.” They looked at is hands. His hands have callous. His hands look like farmer’s hands. They let him go. Let him live because of callous. If Khmer Rouge found out he military, they would kill him and find us to kill too.  Kill us because one day, when we older, Khmer Rouge fear of revenge.  So, always kill whole family.

Mom and my brothers and sisters go to a small village. Mom was school teacher, now she harvest rice for Khmer Rouge everyday. People harvest rice to sell to China.

If farmers found eating rice, then KR would kill them and family. Rice only for China. Mom sewed a pocket inside her shirt. She would put little rice in there everyday. At night. Very late, she cook rice for her me. Not enough food. At this time, I was three. I had older sisters and one older brother.

My brother very hungry. One day, he stole a potato from a farm. Khmer Rouge found out. Wanted to make an example. They took my brother. Brought him to center of village in front of all the people. And, took out his stomach in front of all the people. He was alive. Much screaming by my brother. KR wanted to show the people that stealing his bad. KR will kill if you steal. KR will kill children if you steal. Brother died.

My sister was very hungry. She cried a lot. She had no food. Got real sick. Died too from starvation. Mom could not find enough food for her. I was the only one left. That is why she stole rice. To feed me. She did not want me to die too. After brother and sister died, I now was oldest. Mom had more children. I got four sisters.


Fast forward….

In 1989, we have civil war.  For last 10 years, Vietnamese ruled Cambodia.  Cambodia people tired.  Vietnamese military leave in 1989.  We now have new government.  But, KR said new Cambodian government is run by Vietnamese.  KR now has a new enemy. The enemy is government.  Now, KR wages a war with its own people.  It gets bad.  Cambodian people frightening each other.

Mom and Dad want to leave Cambodia.  We want to go to Thailand.  We can be free there.  Thai border open, if you can get there, and we can be free. But, need to get through land mines first.

Dad hire a guide to take family to Thai border. Guide knows where mines are. Knows where not to walk. Can gets us to Thai border. This is when I carry my little sister. She cries a lot. Other people in our group wants to kill her because she is loud. She cries. If KR finds us in jungle with guide, they will kill us. We don’t kill my sister.

We pay $1,000 in gold to guide to take family. A lot of money. We only carry gold. We have gold made into rings and swallow them when KR comes to village. Only way to have money. To survive. Gold goes to poo in 2 days. You can see it very easy.

We walked for days and days. Hungry. It is hot in jungle.  We look for roots to eat. Poison in roots. We get sick. Vomit. Diarrhea. We eat wrong things. We walk for one week. It rained. Flooded in jungle. No can see in jungle. We close to border. But, Thai people want no more Cambodia people. They open the damn and it floods the border jungle area. Guide now confused where mines are. We ran out of food.

It was midnight. Guide said he knows new way. We walk through field. Guide blows up in front of us. He walk on mine. He dies. We stuck. We had to turn back and run fast. Loud noise will alert KR and police. If find us, we die.

We go to a new village. Mom and Dad very upset. New village people don’t like us. We are new. They want to kill us. We tell them we are farmers. KR Military people in village say we are rich because we have light skin. But, Dad has a friend in village that saves us. Said, no we are poor and farmers.

We build a house. Roof. No walls. We start a new life in new village. I find job and look after cows. I fish for food for village. Every night, KR comes to village to bomb and kill people. They kill my teacher one night. Put her on fire.

We build a bunker that is 4 by 4 meters under house. We sleep there every night. During rainy season, we sleep on roof or in trees.

One day, KR comes to cow field. I work. They ask about situation in village. They ask if my family is “Vietnamese, Chinese or a Capitalist?” I tell them none. Just a farmer. I tell them that village is good. They give me candy, medicine and food. They come and help my family with the rice harvest. They like us. Give my family milk too. Now, I have four sisters. Big family.


When walk from village to village, you see many dead people on road. Burn people. Everyday. Behind our house and around village, KR planted mines. Cows died. Friend from school died because he play in cow field one day. When people die, we are happy. They go to good place. Next life will be better. People are very sad when have children. Can’t provide for children. Many parents kill children. This is not a good world. Poor people believe in magic. Voodoo. We use this to protect us. And, to put bad spirits on KR.

KR kept killing people in our village until mid 1990s until United Nations comes to Cambodia. They give KR amnesty – soldiers money, house and everything to stop killing. Many KR soldiers take amnesty others go to jungle to kill more.

I did not feel safe until I was 16 or 17.


My parents divorced only few years ago. I think seven years. They went through soo much. One day, my mom lost motor-bike. Dad very mad. Dad beat her. Dad kicked her out. She left her family. Fled to a Thai camp. Met a new man. And, went to live in Southern Vietnam. She farmer in Vietnam.

Dad very violent. He was solider. Now, he has new wife. Young. She wants to take my family’s property. Me and my sisters’ property. I don’t trust new wife. Dad has more children by new wife. He is nice to children. His children don’t work. They watch TV and eat candy. I get very mad.

My father beat us. One day, he tried to kill us with an AK47. We went to house to talk about property. He said we disturb him. He was very drunk. He grabbed gun and started shooting me and my sisters. We ran to pond and jumped in. Hid in the water. People in the village just watched. He is evil. And, will not talk to that animal.


I learn English from UN. When UN came, we had teachers. I work very hard. I want to leave village and work. I help UN find mines. I help UN. I get scholarship and go to college. I still take classes in marketing at night. I read a lot. Want to learn. Feel like I need to know more.

I got married. My wife is an accountant. We have two girls. They learn English. I put in private school now. I become guide six years ago. Money is good in tourist season.

In not tourist season, I do other jobs. I buy warehouses, repair them, and sell them. I buy old cars, repair them, sell them. I started a computer repair business, but went bankrupt. I gave money to company in US to help me – Company run by Cambodians. They took all my money. I saved $15,000. Lost everything. Had to start over. It’s ok. I learn about contracts.  I now have contracts.  No more shaking hands.

I want better life for my girls. But, this government is very corrupt. Very corrupt. We have problems with drugs. Rich people do opium. Everyone else does meth. Meth comes from Thailand and China. Twain big supplier of drugs to China too.  It is easy to make. We have problem with human trafficking and sex. Moms sell daughters for $100 per night. If Virgin, then can get up to $2,500 for the weekend. A broker will take daughter. They go see doctor to check for Aids and disease and to make sure she is Virgin. She stays with man. Mom gets the money. Mom sells boys too.  Gay is big business too with small boys.  Mom can get a lot of money.

Many Cambodia women see Chinese and foreigner as way out. See money. They have sex for money. You see a lot in capital city.

Normally, old man comes to Phnom Penh and rents apartment for $160 per month. He is retired. Stays here and has sex with women for a few months – until money gone. Then, goes home.  Girl is happy.  She has food, bed and nice clothes for few months.


Our elections are in 2013. Very corrupt. Party buys votes. There are 11 parties in Cambodia. In 1998, election corrupt and we had bombs. Kill people. Government can’t trust. Can’t trust police. They take bribes.

I have hope.  Cambodia come far since killings.  Very far.  Our people need education.  To learn.  We build.  I have hope for my daughters…They will have better Cambodia than me…

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