SEATTLE, Washington — Cambodia is a beautiful country in Southeast Asia known for its friendly inhabitants and tourist destinations, such as the ancient Buddhist temple Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. What some may not realize, however, is that under all that beauty lies a dark past. That is why the Cambodian Oral History Project is working to help heal the nation’s scars.
Less than 50 years ago, Cambodia experienced “one of the worst mass killings of the 20th century.” From 1975-1979, communist leader Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime terrorized the kingdom of Cambodia in an attempt to create an agrarian socialist society. During that period, nearly two million Cambodians — one-fourth of the country’s population at the time — were killed or died of starvation, disease or overwork.
The regime targeted anyone seen as a potential threat, specifically intellectuals, including doctors, teachers and even those who wore glasses. The Khmer Rouge forced many to labor long days in the rice fields without adequate food or rest. They imprisoned thousands in detention centers. The bones of the millions who died filled mass graves throughout the country, now called “the killing fields.”
On January 7, 1979, the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia and overthrew Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Though eventually removed from power, the Pol Pot regime’s crimes impacted the lives of millions and changed the country forever.
Cambodia is still in the process of recovering from the numerous travesties of the genocide. The Khmer Rouge period, and the years of violence and political instability that followed, contributed to Cambodia’s enduring major issues. One such issue is the extreme poverty throughout the country.
Uncovering the Past and Connecting Generations
Cambodians rarely speak openly about the Khmer Rouge period, owing to the topic’s painful nature. Consequently, as more Khmer Rouge survivors pass each year without ever speaking about their experience, their stories are inevitably lost.
One project started by Brigham Young University (BYU) in Utah has been helping uncover this tragic past by documenting the stories of those who lived through the Khmer Rouge. Launched in 2016, the BYU Cambodian Oral History Project (COHP) aims to capture family histories. In order to do this, they encourage local youth and young adults in Cambodia to interview family members about their experiences.
Following her 18-month mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Cambodia, Allison Lasswell started volunteering as a translator for the COHP. Later, she would return to Cambodia as the project’s first non-native female intern. There, she worked as the project manager and peer leader coordinator for five months.
Peer leaders are Cambodian volunteers that the COHP trains to conduct interviews with family members and others. They ask basic demographic questions like birth date and hometown, but also ask what interviewees remember about the Khmer Rouge. The group records the interviews and then native Cambodians transcribe them. Volunteers, many of whom learned the Khmer language through serving religious missions, then translate the interviews into English. As of July 2020, they have conducted 4,762 interviews.
Volunteers Recollect on Their Experience
As an in-country intern for the project, Lasswell worked in Phnom Penh and surrounding provinces. She conducted interviews, trained volunteers, met one-on-one with peer leaders and documented Cambodian culture.
“This was a time where I could learn more about the culture and the history of Cambodia,” Lasswell reflected. “I tried to interview as many people as I could, so as to better understand their trials and their victories. They are a diverse people with so much resilience and love. They welcomed me with open arms into their homes and villages.”
The Khmer Rouge destroyed many records. Some Cambodians no longer even remember the day they were born. The Cambodian Oral History Project gives a copy of the printed and audio interviews to all of the participant families. This will help families preserve their histories.
“I felt a lot of satisfaction in knowing that I helped people preserve their personal histories for their children and grandchildren to remember them by,” Lasswell said. “Each interview I conducted was moving and inspirational (and almost spiritual) for me. I could tell it also brought joy to each interviewee — knowing that their stories would live on and that they were being listened to by someone who cared.”
How the Project Helps
Vanna Roth lives in Phnom Penh and is the Cambodia coordinator for the project. She had the opportunity to interview both of her parents and her grandparents to learn more about their life experiences.
“I love how this project helps my country preserve the history of the Cambodian people,” she said in a blog post on COHP’s website. “It helps all the young people involved in the project to hear from their ancestors about how they persevered and worked so hard for each of them.”
Lasswell said the most rewarding part of the Cambodian Oral History Project has been watching young Cambodians grow more comfortable interviewing their family members. Especially since these are important, often difficult, moments in their lives.
“Many of the younger peer leaders have expressed gratitude and joy for the fact that they were brave enough to ask their parents and grandparents about their life experiences,” she said. “They learned things about their ancestors — both living and deceased — that they would have never known to ask about had they not given their interviewees a chance to speak openly about their history.”
– Emma Benson