Episode 14: Losing Your Humanity
Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we review and discuss the firsthand testimony of those who lived through the horrors of Communism over the past century. This is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda, recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.
Today we shift our focus to one of the most brutal Communist regimes of the 20th century, the Khmer Rouge rule of Cambodia in the 1970s. We will be learning about this period through the memoir of Chhalith Ou, who was a young teenager when the Khmer Rouge took over, and eventually made his way to the United States. He wrote a memoir of his experiences under Communism, called “Spare Them? No Profit— Remove Them? No Loss”. As you can guess from the title, the Khmer Rouge basically considered all human lives disposable, in the pursuit of the greater good of a fully Communist society. Let’s take a look at Chhalith’s story.
In April 1975, Chhalith and his family lived in Battambang City in Cambodia. His father worked for the American embassy in Phnom Penh, so the family was mostly prosperous, middle-class and urban. Life was relatively normal, though there had been some disturbing signs in the city, such as an influx of refugees and skyrocketing prices. When the Khmer Rouge suddenly entered Phnom Penh, Chhalith’s father fled just in time and joined his family in Battambang, desperately trying to arrange a flight out of the country. He didn’t manage to get his family away, however, before the airport was closed, and soon the Khmer Rouge army was marching into the city. As often happens in Communist revolutions, many of their new subjects cheered their entry— there had been serious problems with the previous government, and the new rulers promised a new era of peace and justice. Chhalith’s father was not fooled, and quickly got the family to work burning anything that could connect him to the Americans. The next day at school, soldiers escorted all the children into a meeting.
Here in this meeting the Khmer Rouge speaker told us that all of the people had to get out of the city and out onto the farms. … He outlined the master plan in which all the people in the city had to work on farms to produce rice so that weapons could be purchased with the rice to defend Cambodia against its enemies. “This war will last a long time,” the speaker said. “Everybody in the country will now be equal. There are no longer any rich. There are no longer any poor. We will all live in equality.”
This all seemed unreal, crazy really. I didn’t know what to believe, but these speakers were deadly serious, and for the first time, I was hearing the sayings that would become the mantras by which the Communist Khmer Rouge controlled the people, …
While the speaker was talking to us, the teacher on the stage was pointing at certain teachers in the audience that had voiced opinions against the revolution, and these were quietly removed and did not come back.
Halleson, R. Z. . Spare Them? No Profit. Remove Them? No Loss. (Kindle Locations 373-383). Kindle Edition.
Chhalith didn’t see what happened next to the removed teachers, but from his father’s description of the Khmer Rouge’s murderous rampage in Phnom Penh, it was pretty clear that they were executed. The next day soldiers arrived at the family home to enforce the evacuation order, and the family had to pack up whatever they could carry and leave the city. Since they could not take farm animals with them, the neighbors who had animals immediately began to kill them all— this made it easy to buy and barter for meat before leaving, but of course would have disastrous long-term effects on the food supply, as we will later see. The family joined a gigantic march of citizens out of the city, escorted by the Khmer Rouge soldiers.
The streets were jammed with thousands of stunned, scared people, leaving the city, men and women, children getting lost from their parents, and crying babies and toddlers. It was so crowded that we were bumping into each other and it seemed sometimes as if we were hardly moving. …Khmer Rouge soldiers were stationed all along the road and at checkpoints making sure that no one turned back. Everyone had to walk or ride in a single direction. If anyone tried to turn back for any reason, they were shot, sometimes just as an example to scare the people into obedience.
(Kindle Locations 415-419).
Chhalith’s family was actually in a somewhat better position than most of the other urban families being evacuated, in that they were only one generation removed from the agrarian life— his father had grown up on a farm in the area where they were being directed. Thus, they were able to move onto the farm of his father’s sister and her family, and their relatives helped them to build a bamboo hut and learn about living off the land. The accommodations were primitive, but at least it looked for the moment like they could survive. They were in much better shape that the majority of city-dwellers, who were confused by the new situation, had no idea how to handle themselves outside the city, and were sleeping in open fields. It was a terrifying change, and when soldiers killed a local man named Cheet who had been nice to his family, Chhalith began to fully understand the nature of the new leaders.
When the Khmer Rouge succeeded in conquering the country, they held all the power and could take revenge on whomever they wished. This was the first time that the meaning of what revenge could look like became clear to me. I had liked Cheet. He was a nice man, and now he was dead. In remembering this incident, I wonder now if the Khmer Rouge had left the wife and children alive because it was so early in the revolution and the soldiers had not yet become the murderous killers that they would become as the years wore on. Later, nobody connected to targeted victims would survive. If someone was even suspected of being a traitor to Angkar (the “organization”) the Khmer Rouge murdered the entire family and anyone else suspected of having had ties to the traitor whether related or not.
(Kindle Locations 498-503).
This began a long period of subsistence living on the farm, where his family tried their best to produce, forage, hunt, or trade for enough food to survive, while staying out of the way of the soldiers as much as possible. They were hungry all the time, but managed to stay alive and together, except for the unfortunate death of his 4 year old sister Vilei in a farming accident. Of the rice that was produced on the farm, the government confiscated the majority— they were afraid that if anyone had even a little food to spare, they would stock up provisions for a counter-revolutionary army. During the rainy season, things got even harder, but Chhalith realized how relatively lucky his family was.
Rain fell day and night. It was a difficult time for my family emotionally. We didn’t have enough food, not enough medicine, and the place where we slept was not secure enough to keep the water out. The walls of our hut were made of poles and leaves, and when the wind blew and the rains came, the entire interior of our hut became drenched.
Sometimes we were so scared, in a panic really, but we looked at the other people, many of whom slept in the wet fields, the people from the city, and we knew we were more fortunate…
(Kindle Locations 684-691).
…death from exposure and hunger was widespread throughout all of Cambodia, especially among the evacuees from Battambang City, Phnom Penn and other larger towns and cities. These had been the shopkeepers, the taxi drivers, the teachers, nurses, factory workers, housewives, and all the others who had been born and raised in the city and knew nothing about foraging for food in the country, and who had no knowledge at all of planting and harvesting. Many had spent months staying in waterlogged fields and in the forest under bushes and trees competing for shelter and food with thousands of others.
(Kindle Locations 1038-1042). Kindle Edition.
Those who survived learned various tricks to gain extra food and supplies and stay alive. For example, they could trap fish and crabs and sometimes catch rats, satisfying their need for meat. But poisonous snakes were a constant danger when poking around holes and animal burrows. The Communists didn’t produce any shoes, so many went barefoot, but Chhalith learned how to make sandals from the tires of abandoned cars.
Soon new challenges arrived: the Khmer Rouge soldiers started recruiting village “volunteers” to join collective work teams. It was clear that if they did not get enough volunteers, the soldiers would be angry, and Chhalith knew what the consequences of that would be— so he and a friend agreed to volunteer together. Their first assignment was to help with the harvest in areas where there were not enough villagers to do the job.
One day after we had eaten our lunch, I went to visit the village to talk to the people. I asked the villagers, “Why did you put the seedlings in the ground, but you didn’t have enough people to do the harvest?” They answered that when they were finished planting, some people moved to other places, and some people died of disease, but others were taken away by Angkar. They didn’t know what happened to them.
(Kindle Locations 1016-1019).
Later Chhalith’s work teams were assigned to even more difficult tasks, such as building dikes, constructing buildings, and removing trees. Even in the hot sun or pouring rain, the soldiers forced the constantly hungry work teams to continue at the assigned pace. As you might guess, this caused the supply of volunteers to dwindle— but the soldiers soon solved that problem by declaring that every single citizen between the ages of 15 and 45 must join the work teams. The requirements to be loyal only to the State became even more draconian:
“You are the front line working force. You will eat together, work together, and sleep together. None of you will go back to live with your family ever again. You may be able to go back and see them from time to time, but your group is your family now.
“Get rid of the enemy that lurks inside you. The old regime taught you to be too individualistic. From now on, you can only be one with your group. Destroy the old way so that we can all be equal under Angkar.” We heard these sayings again and again….
If anybody was seen to be independent, trying to get more for himself, they would be killed because their behavior was not according to the philosophy of the Communists. If anyone was caught stealing, they were taking something just for themselves, and if they were caught, they were killed. No mercy. The same was true about other rules.
(Kindle Locations 1193-1202).
Amazingly, despite this constant atmosphere of fear, Chhalith and some of his work group colleagues still retained a spark of defiance, and took incredible risks to retain some element of their old lives. At one point, they managed to get an old cassette player working, and spent a few minutes listening to tapes of popular music from a few years before. Just as they were enjoying their accomplishment, a local Khmer Rouge guard known for his murderous rages, nicknamed Moe, walked in on them. Fortunately, there were ten people in Chhalith’s group and Moe was alone— afraid for their lives and having nothing to lose, they might possibly have rushed him, sacrificing a few lives to seize his gun. After sizing up the situation, Moe decided to accept a bribe of food and let the group off with a warning. But each member of the group was afraid afterwards that Moe would find some other pretext to execute them, and Chhalith made an extra effort to volunteer for work assignments outside the village.
We were scared all the time, all the time. We trusted no one, but still we had to work together in structured groups for the preservation of ourselves as individuals. There was no other way… In the first year, the Khmer Rouge killed any soldiers from any factions that had fought against them. Then they killed all the family members of these soldiers who had come into the villages. Next they killed anyone that they thought might start a revolution against them.
(Kindle Locations 1453-1461).
As the population grew sicker and weaker, the soldiers got angrier and angrier at the lack of production. They tried to hold entire groups accountable when any individual failed to do enough work, but in many cases this was futile:
…only two people in a group of ten had shown up to work in the field. The rest stayed home sick, and these two people had to try and complete the work that ten should have done. When they went home at the end of the day, they were killed because their group as a whole had failed to perform. The next day, the rest of the group was still sick, but they had to go out to work anyway.
(Kindle Locations 1577-1579).
All around us, the situation was deteriorating. Nobody had enough energy, but Angkar made them work more and more to meet its deadlines. People died in the rice fields, at the building sites, and walking to and from work. They forced sick people to work. Whole families died and the dead could not be buried so they just lay there. We could smell the bodies from a long way away. People were trying to run away, but the soldiers caught them and killed them. The people had no more sympathy for the Khmer Rouge or its revolution. All they wanted was food to eat.
(Kindle Locations 1495-1499).
Chhalith continued to labor on the work crews, his youth and vigor enabling him to survive numerous work assignments that were fatal to the weak and starving. He had to get used to the constant hunger and disease, the looming threats from the Khmer Rouge soldiers, and the continuous atmosphere of death all around him. He survived for four years like this, until eventually being felled by a combination of a foot infection and malaria. Luckily, he was previously known as a good worker, so the Khmer Rouge recognized that he was seriously ill, and sent him to recover with his parents in his village.
By this time, after four years of Khmer Rouge rule, the regime was beginning to deteriorate in the midst of corruption and factional fighting. In addition, war began with the neighboring Vietnam. Incidentally, Vietnamese occupation was not any kind of real deliverance from Khmer Rouge brutality— they were another Communist regime and only slightly less brutal, having murdered about 1 million of their countrymen, as opposed to the Khmer Rouge’s 2 million. However, with all this chaos going on, families living in the villages were able to go back to their old homes in the cities. Chhalith and his family returned to Battambang, but soon realized that there was no food coming into the city, so there was no way to survive there long-term.
Chhalith and his family once again packed all the supplies they could carry, and this time headed to the Thai border. It was quite a struggle to get across, but eventually they made it to a refugee camp run by the UN, and his father was able to get in contact with Americans who remembered him from his work in Phnom Penh. Due to this connection, they were able to get accelerated immigration visas, and his family soon began their new life in America. Chhalith eventually grew up and became a successful banker. Hopefully this left some of his former Khmer Rouge oppressors spinning in their graves.
<closing conversation with Manuel>
If you want to learn more about what it was like to live firsthand under one of the most brutal Communist regimes of the 20th century, be sure to check out Chhalith Ou’s memoir, “Spare Them? No Profit. Remove Them? No Loss”, linked in the show notes.
And this has been your Story of Communism for today.