What is common to most survivors stories from Takeo and Kampot regions1

Work in the fields or labouring – almost everyone was forced to work in the rice fields or join labour gangs (chalats) that labored on irrigation projects. Most started work before sunrise, had a break in the middle of the day for 1 or 2 hours, at which gruel was served, and worked until sunset at least, often well into the night. Some had to return and tend to vegetables when they got back to their quarters.

Food – the standard unit of measurement is a half size condensed milk can (about 7 cm tall). Distribution was by family initially then by individual when communal eating was introduced, almost everywhere by early 1976. This was initially decided by the subdistrict authorities who decided how much of the harvest would be taken away and how much made available to the people. Then it was up to the powers at the village level to decide how much the workers would get. Amounts varied from 2 cans per person per day in the early days, all the way to a watery gruel with no rice at all.

Communal eating – this was brought in everywhere during 1976 at the latest, and applied to both old and new people, though often they were separated, allowing food to be given out in different quantities. Old people did not like this and even led to a riot and murder of a KR cadre in Tram Kak in 1974 when it was brought in (by a Ta Mok relative).

Foraging rights – this was arguably one of the most ideological of practices and certainly directly contributed to starvation of many people. It was also rigidly enforced as it was presented as “attempts to survive individually”(183) when others could not. Fishing and foraging in jungle and woodlands could have saved the lives of many. There are stories in all areas of executions of people trying to forage. Old people, exempt in the early days, were eventually caught up in the same net and met the same end as new people.

The 'old people' were families such as this one from Kompong Speu who already lived in villages and 'hosted' the new people who arrived from the urban locations

Photo: Document Centre (Stilled Lives), Cambodia

Children – by early 1977 children in Kampong Trach were separated from their mothers at three years old, so releasing them to work in the fields. At ten they would be recruited into a chalat and sent anywhere required. They may not see their parents for months at a time. This applied to old people as well and generated resentment against the KR. This did not appear to be the case in one village in Kampong Trach (see case study in this section)

Categorising of people - there were three broad categories in the Southwest Zone. “Full rights” people were true villagers with no relatives amongst the new people. At the other end were “depositees”, which comprised all new people and any doubtful old people. In the middle were “candidates”. The category reflected trustworthiness partly judged by who you were related to. Within this people were also classified by how hard they worked; “vigorous, medium or weak” (176)

Working hours and targets – one survivor, Sum, from Tram Kak reported hourly work targets from late 1975 in either moving soil or working in the fields. Most people reported daily targets, which had to be met individually, then as a group, of maybe ten workers. Targets varied with anything from 2.5 to 5 cubic metres of soil to be moved in a day and failure to meet them moved an individual or group down the classification ladder, and often meant less food.

Executions – total numbers of people killed and the system that implemented this is reported elsewhere on this site. All of the interviewees reported executions of Lon Nol officials, teachers and others with links to the previous regime and way of life in 1975 and 1976. Over this time there were regional and local variations depending on the local cadres and old people. By 1977 purges took place and executions across all classifications increased dramatically, as more extreme cadres took over and ethnic pogroms became official policy, especially against any Vietnamese people still there. Eng and Seth (case study from Kampong Trach) confirmed the new more intolerant arrivals were Chhuk and Tram Kak (Takeo)

 Skulls of the victims gathered from one of the many mass graves of victims of the Khmer Rouge


1. Most of this article is based on interviews with survivors recounted in Ben Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79, 2nd Ed, Silkworm, Bangkok, 2002