Three Memories in Jiro

Today my wife and I are so happy to be able to participate with our Buddhist monks and people to celebrate the groundbreaking ceremony to build the Buddhist temple for the pagoda of Kompong Russei in the commune of Jiro, Tbong Khmom district. We are indeed happy to return to this area once again. The place is full of memories of suffering and separation, and relating to the historical development of our country. Since my father is in critical health condition, he is unable to come celebrate the ceremony for the pagoda that he initiated, while HE Pen Ien and Okhna Tri Pheap aided in the construction. I have not told him that we are here today.

However, today his children are here to join with all of our Buddhist monks and people here to celebrate the groundbreaking ceremony in just fifteen days from the Khmer New Year, the Year of Snake or the year 2557 on Buddhist calendar. Also in just three days from today, according to my official birthday, I will be one year older. In fifteen days from today, it is when I lost one of my eyes in the battle.

Memories Beyond Description Even in 50 Hours

We have today the presence of former commanders, officers and non-commissioned officers from the former generation in this ceremony. We also have the presence of nieces and nephews who are youth-student volunteers in the land measuring mission. According to request from HE Chea Sophara (Minister of Rural Development), we also have here the presence of 6,760 youths who are new members of the Cambodian People’s Party. There was a heavy rain though last night throughout the country.

I flew a bit early this morning so that I could have a bird’s eye view of Kompong Treas, where I saw the already-built bridge at Prek Bat Dei and a bridge at Prek Peam Jilang. I have observed the people’s livelihood in the area. The helicopter went over Tuol Dambang and then Tuol Keo. We also got the view of Boeng Tunsaong and the Samraong isle in the Mekong River. I also viewed numerous places where I used to travel across.

In fact, I also do not know where to begin because there are so many memories that even fifty hours would not be sufficient for me to bring it out. I would like to express my deep thanks for the people in this area, Cambodian and Muslim alike, for saving my life and for taking care of me in time of great difficulties during wartime. Later there was a number of families – Cambodian and Muslim – who had also saved my wife’s and my son’s lives. The Polpotists then evacuated people, my wife and son included, to Kompong Treas and then to Boeng Pruol, Prek Ta Et, and then to Thmar Pij. They had to walk across the rubber plantation at night and stayed at Boeng Thom for their duty to make fermented fish.

My wife was then a widow because they believed that her husband was dead already. It was true that she had been a widow for over two years. It was quite fortunate that they believed I was dead so that they did not monitor her movement and life. That could have saved her life. In the song “Misery of a Bereaved Wife,” a part of the lyrics goes “picking rice panicle during the day in Tbong Khmum, weeping and embracing son at night thinking of husband, living in disguise and fear, waiting for the new day, the day sufferings no more.” The song describes indeed lives of my wife, my son and mine.

The Coup against Preah Norodom Sihanouk

As we are celebrating this ceremony, it reminds me of the former head monk of the Kompong Russei Buddhist pagoda. The head monk between 1967 and 1975 was venerable Ek Thon. In this area of Jiro and along the Mekong River, people moved out of their home villages by themselves. The army did not move them. They moved out because it was a war zone and shelling targets. Only a few chose to stay. I could recall the family of Vanna and Klok. Between the village and the pagoda, there were then a few families only. Further to the end of the dike, there were even less number of families that chose to stay. People on the islets of Jruk and Samraong also left their villages. As there was a Lon Nol’s military barrack in front of the pagoda of Jiro, it had become a place of war and people had to move out.

While talking about all this, let me tell you why that happened. I have waited to hear if any politicians from other political parties, besides those in the Cambodian People’s Party and Funcinpec, would denounce those involved in the coup on March 18, 1970, against Samdech Preah Norodom Sihanouk. Only two political parties dare declare its denouncement of the coup conducted by Lon Nol against Samdech Preah Norodom Sihanouk and the war created by them. There has been only the Cambodian People’s Party that condemns the US and then South Vietnamese bombing and aggression on the Cambodian territory.

Everything started with the coup on March 18, 1970 that brought Preah Norodom Sihanouk down. Samdech then set up the Cambodian National United Front calling on his supporters to get to the marquis to stage resistance against foreign aggression. We will soon come to the anniversary when the regime of Pol Pot replaced the regime of Lon Nol. People may condemn Pol Pot but some of them may not have fathomed the deep reason that brought about the regime of Pol Pot. It all started with the political mistake of the clan of Lon Nol, Sirik Matak, Cheng Heng, In Tam, etc., who were behind the coup. Some involved never dare talk it out as it is pertaining to the sufferings of the Cambodian people. This is a story from 43 years ago but I am sure some of you who had gone through the times must be here present as well.

Soldiers under Command Laid to Rest in Jiro

We must put every piece of the puzzle altogether. We cannot leave any piece ignored. All did start from 17 April 1975. I was wounded on 16 April 1975, one day before the liberation of Phnom Penh. Thousands of Cambodian youth participated in the national liberation. We did not know then about Pol Pot. All we knew was to respond to the call of Samdech Preah Norodom Sihanouk. Everyone I met did the same thing. Today we have here two former nurses – Bren and Phal, who then were so busy taking care of the wound in the battles. Phal was always in good military uniform and Bren was then the head of the hospital. I will get back on this later.

I am so grateful to the monks and people for allowing me to have a place to stay. Please allow me also to pay my respect to the souls of former soldiers under my command who were laid to rest in this pagoda. May soldiers died and some were lucky as either they had proper burials here in this pagoda or were taken away by their families. In those days, we buried our dead soldiers with a closed-up bottle in which we placed a piece of paper with his/her name written on it so that it would be easier for us to identify them later. We have a stupa here marking our national liberation from the US supported Lon Nol regime.

Along the river, those who had been living in less fear were perhaps people who settled far from the wooden bridge up to the lake of Boeng Kambao and Boeng Pruol. However, the relatively calm situation for them happened because the Lon Nol army withdrew from the islets of Koh Jruk and Koh Samraong. Still, their artillery could reach Boeng Kambao causing some casualties to some of my friends. People settling from Boeng Pruol and Prek Batdei to the upstream could be safe from the Lon Nol artillery.

1973 Paris Agreement – A Huge Psychological Gain

I came to settle in this area since when I reported to the marquis in Snuol of Kratie province. I then came down to Memot district to fight against the (former President of South Vietnam) Nguyen Van Thieu’s forces along the national road 7 with brother Sok Saroen. In those days, there was only one B40 for a platoon. I had my first three shots because I was in the frontline at the village of Sa Am. I arrived somewhere in this region in late 1972. I first stayed in Kompong Treas and then to Peam Jilang. Later, we moved the army down here and most of the time I lived in Kompong Russei. We launched the fight along the national road 7, where the Lon Nol forces came as far as Moat Khmumng bridge. We also met with the Lon Nol forces in the barracks of Svay, Toek Kruoch, Tonle Bet from one side, and from the downstream, we met at Prek Jik Don Tei, Banteay Korng and to Tonle Bet. As for this area, we had engagements from Jiro and Roka Thom through to Tonle Bet.

Later, from Jiro through to Tonle Bet there were only two barracks – one in Jiro and another in Rokar. When the Paris Agreement was reached in 1973 requiring for the US withdrawal, and there was no more air strikes from August 1973, the Lon Nol soldiers fled from the barrack of Jiro. It was a huge psychological gain. I was relieved. There was only one barrack at Rokar and there had not one at Prek Touj. They withdrew and the flood was high so we moved our troops to stay at Boeng Pruol, Kompong Janloh, Prek Ta It. We always rowed the boats to observe the situation in the battle. As the flood was in its full swing, my colleagues and I tied our boat and stayed here overnight. We had in those day boats for four rowers and two rowers since we were soldiers stationing along the river. We stayed in an old temple. I think they pulled it down and build a new one in place already.

Until February 1974, the Lon Nol forces opened attack aimed at regaining the Jiro barrack. Brother Sok Saroen may remember that they pushed their cannons of 12.7 mm into the the water and we took them all. To be frank, we retook the Jiro barrack later as the first capture because the Lon Nol soldiers fled. We did not take them militarily. There was then a soldier left in the barrack. He was high on marijuana. He did not flee. He did not swim. We asked him to come join us for meal. Nobody did any harm on him. There was a good morale in those days.

As the dry season started, the Lon Nol forces opened attack on D 15 barrack, which was just established. D 15 was my phone number. After we took Jiro, along with D 15, we also set up a new barrack called A 80. We called it A 80 because we positioned A 80 millimeters artillery there. We also had another barrack named after Svay (mango) because there were so many mango trees. It was close to Rokar Thom and positioned in a small mosque by the forest. Another barrack established then was the one at the tower opposite the city of Kompong Cham on another side of the Mekong River. I had my eye wounded there.

I was wounded three times. In 1973 I was wounded at Vanna’s home. They shelled 105 mm from Jroy Thmar and it fell on the house. Two were wounded. I had a wound in my thigh. I did not go to the hospital then or I could have met my wife there. What was more shocking was that one of the two medical assistants who just arrived from regional military hospital in the evening was wounded in the morning and had to be transferred to hospital. He was hit in his abdomen. We had nothing to help him with but to prevent his intestine from coming out with a bowl wrapped by a scarf around his waist and transferred him by an engine boat under the command of Math Ly, who was in charge of logistics, to a hospital in Kroj Chmar. He died when he arrived at the hospital.

At Zero Hour January 1, 1975 – Nationwide Battle

The second battle was when we assaulted the D 15 barrack at zero hour on January 1, 1975. It was a nationwide battle. I had a wound in my shoulder. For the third time, on 16 April 1975, we also had a battle here one day before the liberation of Phnom Penh. It was unbelievable that the whole war led to nationwide destruction and the Khmer Rouge came to power. Whom should we blame? I bring this matter up to you because we have many young people present, among them 6,000 Cambodian People’s Party youth from fourteen communes in the district of Tbong Khmom. They are new members of the Cambodian People’s Party.

It is important that we have brought this up so that our youth could differentiate their times and situations between our two different generations – one with chance and one without. Youth who have involved voluntarily in measuring land for people, the scout and the Red Cross youth could draw conclusion and analysis on this matter. As I said elsewhere, we, youth in the former generation, had no other chance than taking up arms not pen or pencils in either urban or rural area. I had an uncle who was then governor of Kompong Cham province – Mr Nou Tho. He was the one who met with then my superior brother Sok Saroeun on April 17 at the tower area opposite Kompong Cham city. It was after I was wounded.

In was since 1974 that I could say that I lost my belief in the national liberation movement. It was well known to everyone that Samdech Preah Norodom Sihanouk was the top leader and Samdech Pen Nuth was the Prime Minister. We all were of that belief. However, we found that certain instructions came from the man with 87 as his pseudonym. For some circulars, we even saw the name in short ‘Pol’ but we could not account for the fact. It was till after the liberation that the complete pseudonym appeared ‘Pol Pot’ and the former number 87 has taken one more zero after it to become 870. In later circumstances, Samdech Preah Norodomk Sihanouk was placed under house arrest in the Royal Palace and many of his children and relatives were killed.

Between region 203 and 304 then, the separated line was at Koh Samraong (isle in the Mekong opposite Kompong Cham city). Koh Jrouk was in the responsibility of region 304 under the control of Koy Thuon and Ke Pork. In defense of Koh Samraong from possible military assault from Lon Nol to regain it, they sent in our forces. It was to my shock that every time the Lon Nol soldiers aimed their canons at us soldiers of region 203, people’s homes in the centre of Koh Samraong village went ablaze. It was not one or twice but every time the Lon Nol soldiers fired upon us. This frequency had made us to collect information and figured out that someone put people’s homes on fire. We could do nothing. It was not in our military region. I brought my notice to my superior and what I got back was “that is good, after the liberation, there will be no rich and poor, big or small house.”

I was shocked. My instinct brought me to a suspicion whether that was a mistake committed at operational or leadership level. Such acts of no virtue happened in region 304 but not yet in region 203. I once asked brother Ek at Boeng Pruol “I do not understand, the Lon Nol soldier fired upon my troops at Koh Samraong, but why they put people’s homes on fire?” He gave me the answer I told you earlier. It has brought me more questions than answers. I was a low-rank solder. It was hard to understand what was going on. I could have betrayed the movement since then and it was not difficult for me to swim across the river to join the uncle who was then governor of Kompong Cham. I did not do that because I loved my country and I had no idea what Pol Pot had planned and done. Again, no matter on what side I was at the time, I had nothing to choose from but being soldier. There was a difference though. You had to decide between being a soldier for Lon Nol or for Samdech Preah Norodom Sihanouk.

In Pol Pot’s time, there was completely no choice at all. The whole country had turned into torturing camps. The Buddhist pagodas became fertilizer warehouses. People in the whole country had no choices at all. They could not even choose who they want to get married with. At present, our youth have every right, including the right for political inclination and political party. In February 2013, the Ministry of Interior reported that there are over 50 political parties, down from 58, and over 3,000 non-governmental organizations. This has also shown people of my generation have no choice at all. We were hostages to the war and soon later to the regime of Pol Pot.

Land of My Love

I am so glad to have participated in liberating our country from the regime of Pol Pot’s genocide. Furthermore, I had served the cause against the coup makers and foreign aggression and bombardments too. I should say that this area also brought me to know my wife as well. Things happened unexpectedly. Brother Sok Saroeun may have remembered. We went together for a meeting between Tuol Kandal and Kompong Russei along the Mekong river. You, me, Huot (already deceased) and Kompha, all four stood there and Jen in logistics came from Kroj Chmar. It must be in 1973 since it was after we attacked the barrack at Tonle Bet on March 23, 1973 to commemorate the third anniversary of the establishment of the National United Front. We came here after joining the military exercise at Tuol Sophi, where I recently presided over the inauguration ceremony of the Buddhist pagoda.

Parking his bike, Jen asked me: ‘Bunnal, have you asked the hand of Rany, a nurse in Kroj Chmar?’ I was so surprised and responded I did not know her or hear about her how could I do that? From then on rumors were going on. When Sar Hao took over Kompong Cham, he did his best with the marine forces in between June and July, before the seasonal flooding. Some of my comrades in arms who did the matchmaking died. Rumors went on for almost a year. They spread the news that my wife and I were in love while I did not even know if she existed. I then asked brother Sok Saroen to lead me to see her. On her side, I remember were Chhunleng, Bren, Chan, Khemara and Rany, my wife. On my side, there were only brother Sok Saroeun and me.

In the hospital, we had food. Brother Sok Saroeun knew many people working in the hospital and I knew a few because most of the time I was in the battle. I ran my eyes for anyone who could be Rany. She did not come out. After lunch, I took my ride on a motorbike to see my cousin in Prek Jam. My cousin made fried banana and I took some for brother Sok Saroeun. It was already late evening. Standing the motorbike, I pulled the pistol from my waist to hang down my shoulder. I noticed a woman writing a prescription by a kerosene lamp. I approached and asked where could Rany could be at this time. She said Rany had gone to fetch the water.

Placing my backpack and pistol in the room, I came back down and walked to meet nurse Mom. Nurse Mom was older than I was and I addressed her ‘Elder sister Mom, where could Rany be at this hour?’ Nurse Mom responded to me ‘Rany was the woman you just asked.’ I felt very sorry that I did not look fully at her when asking the question. The discussion came at night. Looking at her I was talking to myself, if I were to know that she was this beautiful, why having to spend time discussing the problem, it is better asking her hand since yesterday. That was how things happened. Finally, we could marry. I spent my time in hospital P 2 with brother Bren. This was a place where I was carried on April 16 from the tower by the current Kizuna bridge to Boeng Ansaong, Boeng Kambaor and on to Prey Ta Ith. My wounded eye was removed in Orain Ov district.

Development and Religious Harmonization

Those are a few things about this area. I thank everyone, my relatives included, for coming today. I cannot see you all today. I was just a ten-year old kid when I lived here. Now I have some bad teeth already because I am in my late 50 already. Just now I have the chance to see the school at Boeng Kombaor, Boeng Pruol, which were built higher above flood level. I thank Oknha Tri Pheap for paying 248,000 USD for the construction of this Buddhist temple.

As far as development is concerned, we have more to do. We will continue to build more roads from the Tonle Bet river at Kizuna to the bridge of Peam Jilang, according to plan. We will have asphalted roads to Kroj Chmar, and downstream to Boeng Kombao, Baat Dei, Boeng Pruol, Kompong Janloh, Prey Pdao and Peam Jilang. I am also sending a message today to the people in Peam Jilang about the fact that I have not been here more frequent, especially after I have become a leader of the country now. I am present everywhere and I need to do everything for everyone. In Peam Jilang, the Buddhist pagoda of Kompong Janloh is so beautiful and so is the mosque. I noted that instead of one mosque, now there are more in Boeng Pruol. It is good for our country that Buddhism and Islam coexist harmoniously.

Take for instance we are organizing the ceremony to welcome the Buddhist achievements but we also have here the presence of our Muslim community and other religious groups as well. Religious harmony is one fact but love, pity and hardship that we shared altogether from after the time when we liberated our country from the US aggression that supported the Lon Nol regime and from the genocidal regime, and the restoration of the country from scratch. These are facts that help improve our people’s livelihood from day to day and that provide more chances for our people as well as younger generation to be able to do whatever they should and could.

New Members of the Cambodian People’s Party

It seems that we have here the presence of the youth student volunteers too. Reasmey, who formerly worked in Kep and could not spent a night without missing his father, is now working as deputy head of the team that works in Stoeng Trang. We have here those in Stoeng Trang, Tbong Khmum and Dambe districts Khim Srey Peo, Jea Van Than, Duj Sothea. You know that in Trapeang Pring, where Duj Sothea is now measuring land for the people, I had my training as special commando there. Jia Sophat is now deputy team leader in Kompuan of Mehmot district. This place used to have many snakes. I am sending to everyone in your team my best wishes and through you to people for whom you are measuring land for. The work you do for the people has been so great and will be bringing about achievements for the country too.

Today we also have some 6,760 new members of the Cambodian People’s Party from 14 communes. We also have one more project to connect Sre Siem through Tbong Khmum to Kroj Chmar and to Prek Aki of Stoeng Trang. We need to build a bridge across the Mekong River there too. Since there are many members of the Cambodian People’s Party, I wish to speak a few things for them and hope things are not hard for them to fulfill. What are they? You need to make effort to study in order to make yourselves competent. You need to reap the chance you have. We have even more schools and schools are moving accessibly close to students. Make effort to study, continue to study and urge other people to go to school too. I am sure this is what you can do.

Secondly, you need to do good things for people. People would not respond with love to bad action. Members of the Cambodian People’s Party should know how to serve the people. You definitely can do that. It is not so hard. Your good action will be well responded with love from the people. By the way you need to stay away from drug while make yourselves good example for others. Those with motorcycles need to wear helmets while driving. Observing the traffic law could also help save our lives as well.

Last, but not least, when you go to vote, you should vote for the Party. Each member of the Party has his vote it will count for. This is not hard too. You see the Party’s deity sign, which is on your t-shirt and cap, so you really know where to tick on the ballot. I am reminding you again that this is the national election. It is way different from the communal election. The national election will decide the destiny of the Prime Minister. It is true this is the legislative election but the elected members of the National Assembly will vote to choose the Prime Minister or to form the Royal Government. Please do not venge your anger on wrong person. Please do not vote off Hun Sen for your anger on village heads or police. This election is about whether you want Hun Sen to go on or someone else from another party to take over. If you want Hun Sen to go on, you need to vote for the Cambodian People’s Party.

Past Destruction, Wrong Political Decision

I have four words – love, pity, satisfaction and trust of Hun Sen, please vote for the Cambodian People’s Party. I already mentioned about destruction in the past. How did it happen? It happened when top politicians – Lon Nol, Sirik Matak, In Tam, Cheng Heng, etc. made wrong decision. They removed Samdech Preah Norodom Sihanouk and war broke out in the country. Pol Pot made wrong decision, his policy moved people out of the city, made them overworked and killed them directly or indirectly. Over 3 million people died. Under the leadership of the Cambodian People’s Party, we have brought our country back to life. There have been some voices of change and let’s see what people decide on the forthcoming 28 July 2013.

When I said if people have pity, love, satisfaction and trust in Hun Sen, they should vote for the Cambodian People’s Party, some have said this has indicated personal interest of the Prime Minister. Let me clarify that the role of individual defines destiny of the country. It is after these individual that sits behind the wheel. They said I am holding on to power. The problem is I already am in power. When people vote for me to continue, I will have to go on. What is wrong about that? I am in power already. If it is for my personal interest, I had better look after my wife, children, grandchildren, etc.

I wanted to show you my three sons. Hun Manet is Head of the Kompong Cham Youth. Hun Manith is the coordinator of Kolbot Khmer Youth, which includes also those who involved in land measuring activities. If you have something to do with the Union of Youth Federation, you can go to Hun Mani. The eldest son, Hun Manet, used to live in Boeng Kajab. He called me uncle for two months. He holds Ph D and his wife does too. Born under harsh condition, with physical fitness he went to the US Military Academy at West Point. I do not bring them here for propaganda but they are proofs of how hard their parents were in those days. I also wanted to show them where their father and mother lived and worked./.