Thursday, January 31, 2008

An Unsung Hero - A Cambodian Life

There are so many heart-rending stories about the people who went through the terror of the Pol Pot regime, then survived the refugee camps in Thailand, to finally make it to a new home country arranged for through a joint effort by the UN and several Western governments, most notably the U. S. and France, which two countries had had the most impact on the recent history of Cambodia. These people arrived in their new homes destitute, without speaking the language of their host countries, not knowing a whole lot about that strange new culture. Most had children who were literally thrown into a new and very different social and educational system, who had to enter school without knowing a word of English. The elders had to find jobs, mostly menial, to carve out a bare minimum of living. But eventually, they all managed to establish new lives, some with great success, some with less, some failed and remained poor, some turned to crime, but the great majority were integrated into their new societies, making their way from poor immigrant refugee to respected members of their community.

In the West we always read about these people and the hardships they went through. Their experiences must be remembered untarnished, undiminished, with respect and honor. After all, all of them were victims of a brutal regime, of two disparate political systems, of the battles these systems fought over hegemony of the world, and worst of all, it was not their fault. Ruthless ideologues subjected them to inhumane cruelty and barbarism with a whimsical, fanatical zealotry.

But there were equally affected people whose stories are seldom heard. Those are the people who lived through the same nightmares but did not flee their homeland, perhaps did not have the opportunity, means, or courage to do so, or simply did not want to. These people remained in Cambodia to work, freely or by force, under the succeeding repressive Communist governments, first Vietnamese, then Khmer. These were also survivors of the Pol Pot regime whose minds will also forever be scarred by horrible memories. These are the people who made up the population of roughly 7 million in 1993, at the time of the U.N. sponsored elections, versus the roughly 150,000 to 200,000 Khmer who fled the country (according to Marjorie Zieck in a study entitled UNHCR and Voluntary Repatriation of Refugees – A Legal Analysis).

I want to recount the story of one such survivor; a man who was not to be vanquished by the vicissitudes of geo-political power play and the unconscionable pursuit of unrealistic political goals by infamous rulers.

Born to middle-class parents in 1946 in the Northern region of Cambodia, Bun* and his parents moved to Phnom Penh as a toddler when his father got a job as a medium-ranked civil servant in the still French-run administration of Cambodia. He was the second youngest child and had two sisters and 5 brothers. The first years of his life were rather unremarkable, in no way different from many others in similar situations. He went to elementary and secondary school in Phnom Penh, where he met and made friends with many youngsters, some of whom he still knows today, 50 or so years later. He finished his secondary education with the French baccalaureate. Being of modest means his parents could not afford to send him to a college or university. His grades weren’t good enough for a scholarship either. Nonetheless, the French education he received left him with an open and inquisitive mind. His thinking was deeply influenced by his French or French-educated teachers, though he has remained to this day a firm believer in Buddhism and the traditional Khmer way of life. It also left him with one valuable asset; he learned the French language.

It was normal for many a young Khmer at that time to seek a career in the civil service, armed forces, or in law enforcement. If he became an officer this would lend considerable prestige to his social status, elevating him above his normal station in Khmer society. So he applied for a job as a police officer. He passed all necessary tests and was accepted as a cadet. According to him, the police force at that time was structured similarly to the military with the rank-and-file soldiers, the non-commissioned officers, and officers. He absolved a strict and severe training at the police officers academy and left as a junior lieutenant. But instead of being employed as a police officer in Phnom Penh, as he had hoped, he was posted with the border police in Northeast Cambodia along the border with North Vietnam, which was, as we know, Communist. He was also in charge of customs, which earned him some extra income. Little baksheeshes were as customary then as they are now. This was in the years of Sihanouk’s reign. He got married in 1967 and one year later had a baby girl, which was to be followed by 5 more baby girls until he finally had a son.

Eventually, because of his good work he was posted back to Phnom Penh where he was assigned to the secret police. Communist provocateurs and agents were omnipresent during those times, the Communist insurgency was in full swing, and the secret police was in charge of counter-intelligence. He was also promoted to the rank of 1st lieutenant.

Bun was not interested in politics and did not belong to any political party. For him police work was just a way of making a living. After Lon Nol toppled Sihanouk in 1970 the whole government and administration of the country was purged of pro-Sihanouk elements. Since Bun was apolitical he was not seen as a risk and was retained in his position in the secret police until 1975 when the Pol Pot insurgency finally achieved victory.

Since he was aware of his precarious situation due to his work in Lon Nol’s secret police he opted to flee from Phnom Penh even before the Khmer Rouge arrived there to evacuate it completely. He went into hiding in his home province but did not go to relatives or friends but went to live in the jungle. He left his wife and children in the care of friends and her family. He thought they would be safer without him. They could always claim he had died fighting with the Lon Nol forces. He also changed his name and got rid of all personal documents pointing to his true identity.

As the Khmer Rouge regime became more and more paranoid killing suspected opponents and the intelligentsia by the hundreds of thousands, he had to go ever deeper into the jungles to evade capture. Food had become scarce throughout Cambodia – a famine was ravishing the country. Altogether close to 2 million people died of starvation and by execution. Bun’s situation was even worse as he needed to survive on what nature had to offer in the jungle. Nowadays, there are reality shows on TV about survival in the wilderness. He actually lived it, and it sure wasn’t a game for him. No helicopter was waiting to evacuate him if he fell ill. He ate what the jungle would offer, insects, rats, berries, whatever he could find. He gave up hope of ever finding his family again when he learned of the scope of cruelty of the Khmer Rouge regime through his sparse contacts with villagers. Bun practically lived far from any normal civilization for most of the 4 years of the Pol Pot regime.

After the Vietnamese had invaded Cambodia in 1979 and driven out the Khmer Rouge he slowly ventured back into civilization, or what was left of it, by first going to his home town, only to find out that his parents as well as all his brothers and sisters had perished in the past 4 years. Inquiries about his wife and children did not reveal any news whether or not they were still alive or whether they had perished too.

He was a city person and couldn’t work in the fields so he decided to go back to Phnom Penh to try and find a job there. The question of his identity he thought he would be able to resolve somehow with the new authorities. Though a (different kind of) Communist of government, but an equally ferocious opponent of the Sihanouk and Lon Nol regimes, was in power, he thought he was too insignificant to be persecuted by them, especially since he had adopted a new name and shed his police past. Most of the new bureaucrats were drawn from different cadres. Previous government officials, if they still lived and had not fled Cambodia, were not employed in the civil service. We are in the year 1980 now.

After working a number of odd jobs he wanted to look for work more in line with his education. But he needed some form of identification to apply at government offices. Since many people had lost everything in the Pol Pot years, including all personal documents, it was relatively easy to get an id card in his new name. Subsequently he was able to land a government job, working in one of the ministries in various positions, ending as a special assistant to the minister in the late 1980s, even though he never joined the party nor was he ever active in politics, continuing his passivity in that respect. He had learned first-hand what it could mean working for the wrong side in a struggle for power. He wanted to rely on his expertise and experience only.

Since his return to Phnom Penh he had also frantically searched for any sign of life or whereabouts of his wife and children. He finally resigned to the fact that they were dead.

In 1982 he met another woman whom he married and with whom he had two daughters. One of the perks of being a government employee was that an apartment was assigned to him and his new family. It consisted of the ground floor of a typical Cambodian-style row house in the city.

However, shortly after getting married his first wife turned up in Phnom Penh looking for him. Now he was in a real quandary. He was married to two wives and had children with both. He loved them both, but the question of love had to be subordinated to how to take care of both families. He decided it the logical way – he believed he had a greater moral responsibility to his first wife and moved back to live with her and their children.

The second wife did understand when he explained he just could not simply leave his first wife. But he will take responsibility for his children with her as well. Thankfully, his second wife worked as a nurse and was not dependent on him for support. She also moonlighted as a first-aid station for a great number of neighbors with minor medical problems. This earned her some extra income, modest by any means, but still enough to feed and clothe herself and her children. Bun contributed whenever he could. He also divided his time between the two families.

His first wife certainly did not like the situation but couldn’t do much in the face of her husband’s resolve to live up to his two familial responsibilities.

In addition, he did find a number of his siblings’ sons and daughters, altogether eventually numbering 20. First there was one, and then a second one heard about him and joined him too. Word somehow spread to the other survivors and they all moved to Phnom Penh to live with their family.

The family with his first wife grew to 7 children, 6 girls and one son, and his one older sister who had also survived the genocide.

Now, this man supported two families numbering a total of 12 people plus an assortment of 20 nephews and nieces. Some of them were able to contribute to the family as soon as they had reached working age. But nonetheless, Bun’s tireless efforts sustained all these people throughout the eighties and early nineties.

Again, the government had helped him tremendously when it assigned him a two-story house in a nowadays very elite section of town, with enough rooms to house his large family.

He sent them all to school for at least a basic education. Some of them fared better than others, but eventually they all found jobs to support themselves. He was their surrogate father. According to Cambodian tradition his nephews and nieces all considered him their father. Traditionally, Cambodian families are very close-knit and children show extreme loyalty to fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, and grandparents. In the same vein, cousins are considered more like brothers and sisters.

On account of his work he traveled quite extensively as part of Cambodian delegations to ‘brother’ Communist countries like East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary, which left him a man with a rather worldly, sophisticated outlook.

In 1988 Cambodia was slowly opening its borders to Western people following Vietnam’s example, which had introduced its own kind of glasnost and perestroika, called Doi Moi (renovation). This was when the writer met Bun the first time. Bun had seen the change in Cambodia’s path coming. He, like many people, did some side business trading goods, initially mostly from Vietnam. But when he came in contact with Westerners, he decided there probably was more of a future in business than continued civil service with a meager income.

In 1989 he did his first business deals with the writer importing goods from Europe. The writer, in turn, saw opportunities there with rising demand for Western goods, as this country virtually needed everything. Money was in short supply, though, which created some sort of natural restrictions on those opportunities. But nonetheless, Bun and the writer set up a joint business importing all kinds of goods, ranging from cement, to batteries, to light machinery.

During the nineties Bun continued raising his big family. This had its benefits too. Whenever we needed some special service, he had someone handy to help with the work. I asked him, ‘Where do you find these people?’ He said, ‘Oh, this is one of my nephews and his friends.’ When I needed a business visa with a longer validity he turned to one of the older nephews who was an officer with the immigration police. I promptly got a business visa for 5 years for only a nominal fee.

As if he hadn’t enough dependents already, his second wife adopted a newborn foundling who had been left on the doorstep of the hospital where she worked. He got this youngest son at the age of 49. Of course, this is not old age for Cambodian men to have children. But normally they are grandpas at that age, which he was too.

He was blessed with good luck in that all his daughters found good husbands once they had reached marrying age. Being a semi-traditional Khmer he did not mind his daughters seeking their husbands on their own. But naturally, he had to approve the match.

His business ventures did not turn out to be so successful since many other people seeing the same opportunities just hopped on the same bandwagon. So eventually, you had 5 or 6 companies importing batteries, for instance, which led to a rapid decline in prices, oftentimes shrinking profits to zero or even a loss.

At the turn of the century he didn’t have much to show for all his business efforts. Eventually he stopped doing business altogether as bigger companies started taking over all sectors of business. He just made enough money to sustain his immediate family.

He renovated his house and rented it to foreign businesspeople. He himself rented a simple apartment for his family for under $100 a month. He lived on the rent income of $500 a month and the little money he earned as an interpreter for French companies who had come to Cambodia. For a time he worked for a French tour operator and made $600 per month. But this was short-lived as the anti-Thai riots in 2003 killed the tourist business.

He then went to work for South Korean entrepreneurs setting up garment processing factories. There he also made $600 a month. In the end he practically ran the factory, but the owners did not show their appreciation by raising his salary. He was too timid to ask for more despite my urging him to do so. He was afraid they might lay him off. In the end he did lose that job when the garment factory went bankrupt leaving behind unpaid wages of about $1 million (which debt the government assumed and paid the workers).

He then turned to on-call free-lance work for other South Korean businessmen. He made $50 each time they needed him for some service. But those calls were not frequent. It was just enough money to pay for the basic necessities. He was in dire straits again, but he plodded on.

I had always told him to sell his house and use the money to start a real business. He always rejected this idea saying that the house was the only thing he owned, and he didn’t want to lose it.

But in 2003 and 2004 his numerous South Korean acquaintances had started to invest heavily in real estate and made a lot of money. The land speculation boom had begun. Now he decided to sell his house and go into real estate to try and finally make some real money.

So he bought a small piece of land and ‘flipped’ it after a short time. With this money he bought a bigger piece of land and developed it and sold half of it. He is currently keeping the other half for prices to rise even higher to increase his profit.

Since he didn’t have enough money he asked his meanwhile grown daughters for loans, $5000 here, $10,000 there. So all his family will participate in the profits. (One son is still in college, the other still in school.)

Additionally, he became a partner with one of his French acquaintances who had opened a couple of boutique hotels in Phnom Penh. They are building another boutique hotel banking on the growing tourist business. This turned out to be a very profitable investment.

Except for his son, the second daughter with his second wife, and his adopted son, all his children, nephews and nieces are married now and have their own children. They all have good jobs (by Cambodian standards) or successful small businesses. One daughter met a Khmer-American on his visit to the land of his parents. They eventually got married and she now lives in the U. S. and has two children.

Thanks to Bun they all turned out well and are honest, hard-working and good family people.

It looks as though at the tender age of 61 success and a modest prosperity has finally come his way. He built a new house for his wife and the family of one of his daughters with her husband and two children live there too. He owns a big second-hand Mercedes limousine; his son drives a small Korean import. He has a live-in maid who looks after the grandchildren.

Every Friday the family gathers at his house to eat and chat and simply have fun. They all get along well with one another. After all the hardships in his life, Cambodia is finally good to him.

When I asked him why he has his daughter and her family living with him, because I personally can’t wait until my 4 children have left the house, he replied, “Oh, I can’t just live alone with my wife, it would be too boring. I just love when the grand children run all over the house, like when I am lying on the floor and they trample all over me. I need this.”

This is the story of an average Cambodian. This is the story of a hero. By his actions and what he did that many people would not do, Bun exemplifies the spirit of the people of Cambodia of the time that truly loved their country. He took charge of his own fate showing courage, bravery, and patience. He had an unwavering, indomitable belief in survival.

People meeting Bun would never guess what this man went through; and he doesn’t tell this story to anybody. I am a rare exception having been his close friend for almost 20 years.

When he met old school friends, some of whom have reached a high position in government, he can explain away his name change, because people in Cambodia understand what it was like in the late seventies.

When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, a large wave of refugees left the country. A lot but not all feared for their lives because of the threat of persecution by the Vietnamese authorities. Among them were followers or members of the coalition government that had been formed to oppose the Vietnamese forces in Cambodia. They felt they had no choice but to leave Cambodia to save their own lives.

Bun on the other hand elected to stay and tough it out. He may have done so instinctively, without much thought to politics, motivation or whether any other options were available. He believed that his family was still alive. He fervently hoped to be reunited with them. That may have played the decisive role in his subconscious decision-making process.

He made sure that over 30 people for whom he assumed responsibility over the years made it through those hard times to build a new life for themselves. This alone was a Herculean task in itself. He had a will not to be defeated by the circumstances in his country. He showed tenacity and perseverance. But most of all, he was of firm and steadfast character when it came to helping his family survive. He is one of a generation that built the foundation of today’s Cambodia. They cannot be given enough credit for their contribution in building a new and free Cambodia. They are the ones making it possible for erstwhile refugees to come back and possibly retire in their homeland. And they are the ones that will pass on to their children a country worth living in again and to be proud of. A country that has a long way to go but there is this proverbial silver lining on the horizon, not the least thanks to him and his contemporaries.

*Name changed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Someone left this comment in the wrong place:

I could not agress more. Because I myself, 45, an atrocity survivor had countless indelible experiences and memories during the Khmer Rouge's regime.

The vast majority of the Khmer Rouge atrocity survivors abroad are reluctant to discuss their past indelible experiences and memories during the genocidal regime, even with their intimate friends, relatives.

Fortunately, many Cambodian-Americans are holding various positions in the US. government respectively, because this great land is full of opportunities, dreams, and privileges. Newly opened of FBI's office in the US. Embassy in Cambodia is headed by Cambodian-American, Mr. Laro Tan.

February 1, 2008 4:25 AM