The long journey: from the battlefields of KR to the commune chief in times of peace

It was an afternoon in 1970 in a dense jungle in Cambodia’s Stung Treng province, a group of young Khmer Rouge soldiers were resting after a long day of gunfights with a Khmer Republic army unit, which was trying to take back the province which a few months ago fell into the hands of the ultra-Maoists.

Some of them ate cold rice with their dry rations while others, like 17-year-old Eh Savoeun, tried to get some sleep to have the energy to fight another day. Holding his rifle firmly, as if ready for use as the enemy approached, Savoeun slept soundly; even the deafening sound of flying bullets wouldn’t bother him.

At the time, Cambodia was at the start of a devastating civil war between the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge, who relied on guerrilla tactics, and the Khmer Republic led by Lon Nol, who was backed by the West. .

Less than a year earlier, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who had just been removed from his position as Cambodian head of state in a coup led by General Lon Nol, called on the Cambodian people by radio to rise up against the Lon Nol government and to support the Khmer Rouge.

The message inspired tens of thousands of young men and women, many of whom had not even reached the age of 18, to join the Khmer Rouge guerrilla forces. However, Savoeun, who had been an 8th grade student at Stung Treng before he was captured by the Khmer Rouge in 1970, said he was forced to become a soldier.

Eh Savoeun (right), former Khmer Rouge soldier and current chief of O’Dar commune in Battambang province, speaking to reporters from the Khmer Times. KT/Chor Sokunthea

“You couldn’t decide or refuse,” said Savoeun, now 68. Khmer time. “For the Khmer Rouge, young people are at the heart of their ‘revolution’, and if someone over the age of 14 or 15 and holding a gun should become a soldier.”

As a student, a knife was the only weapon Savoeun ever used, and he used it to kill small animals for food. Yet when he became a soldier, he was taught to use all kinds of weapons, from a pistol to a B-40 rocket launcher, and his superintendent’s only order was to “kill the enemies”.

“After a bit of training, we were sent to the battlefield, and each of us never knew whether today or tomorrow would be our last,” he said.

“Many of my comrades were killed in the war, but probably thanks to my mother’s sacred breast milk, I survived the war without even a scratch.”

From time to time, some senior executives gave him lectures on Khmer Rouge ideology, characterized by class conflict, anti-capitalist sentiment and sweeping reforms. The lessons, however, did not have a strong impact on Savoeun, who worked hard on the battlefields simply because he was on “their side” to survive.

“From the beginning, I hated war, but refusing to fight means defying the Khmer Rouge and being killed,” Savoeun added. “But as a soldier, you faced either death on the battlefields or capture by enemies, who would later kill you (after long torture).”

When the Khmer Rouge won their notorious victory in 1975, which was followed by the mass and deadly expulsion of people from Phnom Penh and other cities to rural areas in a bid to establish the “agrarian utopia” of Khmer Rouge, Savoeun was appointed head of a cotton plantation. collective in the northeast region of the country.

While in this position, Savoeun had the opportunity to meet several Khmer Rouge leaders, and of these he was most impressed by Son Sen, aka Comrade Khieu or “Brother number 89”, the Minister of Defense in the ruthless Democratic Kampuchea.

“He was very handsome and charismatic,” Savoeun said. “He was also gentle and modest, and a very persuasive leader,” he added.

For those who adored him, it is almost unbelievable that Son Sen was the man behind the massacre of over 100,000 people in the Eastern Zone of Cambodia during the last six months of 1978.

As the Khmer Rouge lost the war against the Vietnam-backed United Front for National Salvation, Savoeun escaped with Son Sen to Battambang province, where he was assigned to a senior military post despite hating always war.

Savoeun said every day that he prays for the fighting between Cambodians to stop. This is why he immediately decided to join the government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen when the latter called in 1996 on all Khmer Rouge forces to integrate into the government alongside what was known as the “win-win policy”.

“We were told that our lives, our jobs and our wealth would be guaranteed if we defected from the government, which was absolutely correct,” he said, adding that even Son Sen had apparently motivated his subordinates to join the government.

“Before being killed on Pol Pot’s orders in 1997, Son Sen told us to go to the side of the strongest,” Savoeun added.

After his integration, Savoeun was invited by the former Khmer Rouge soldiers and their families with whom he worked and protected to retire from the army and help them as a civil servant. For the past 16 years, he has served as the first and second Deputy Commune Leader of O’dar Commune.

In 2012, after the death of the commune chief, he was elected to become the new chief, a position he still holds today.

Living through war and bloodshed for more than three decades made Savoeun worship peace, and he strongly supported Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government, which maintained peace in the Kingdom for more than 30 years.

“I’ve been through all kinds of hardships, but it’s only today that I really know prosperity and a real good life, and I have enough experience to say that I want to trust the future of my children and grandchildren in the current government,” he said.

Although he is almost 70 years old, Savoeun is running in the June 5 communal elections as the candidate of the Cambodian People’s Party. He said there were still a lot of problems in his territory today, which he wanted to solve.

“At this time, we should not talk about anything that could cause violence or war, but rather we should focus on improving our society and people’s lives,” he said. added. “I went through the war and I don’t want anyone to feel today what I felt during the hard times.”

Joan D. Boling