Life under the Khmer Rouge regime was brutal for many and every person who lived through it has their own unique tale to tell about how they managed to survive the massacres, purges, famines and upheaval that characterised those years.
One such person, still living today more than 40 years later, is a woman who was one of the most famous singers in the country during those dark years. Many singers know what it’s like to have to fight to keep their music careers alive, but in her case it was the career keeping the singer alive.
That singer is 67-year-old San Yoeun. Her skin darkened and wrinkled by the sun, she sits under her house with its half-tiles, half-zinc roof and swings a baby to-and-fro in a hammock until he stops crying and falls asleep.
“Oh my dear children, please listen, I will tell you the story... your father reminds you daily... You are all living peacefully under the new flag of Cambodia....,” she sang a song she remembered from the Khmer Rouge time.
These days Yoeun lives in Prek Tanong commune’s Village 6 of Kampong Cham province’s Koh Sotin district where she often sings for her 20-month-old grandson while his parents are working in Phnom Penh.
Though the child is blissfully ignorant of such things, the song that Yoeun sang to her grandson makes obvious its communist roots with the title “Please Children, Do Not Forget the Freshly-Shed Blood of Our Comrades!” It was recorded as a duet with a male singer.
It is one of more than 300 songs recorded and released by the state-run media under Pol Pot between April 17, 1975 and January 7, 1979. The songs were compiled and produced as tapes to be played over the public address systems at the canals, dam sites and rice fields throughout Cambodia during that time in which most people – young and old, men and women – were forced to labour endlessly against their will, like animals.
Today, very few people who remember them will acknowledge having heard these songs or seen the singers perform and there are fewer people around with those memories with every passing year. The names of the singers are already mostly forgotten.
Those who are familiar with the music of the Khmer Rouge era have often heard of it through a documentary about life in Democratic Kampuchea produced by the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-CAM), while others have come across the music on YouTube or heard it in certain cafes in Phnom Penh.
Although Yoeun is now 67, her voice remains beautiful and sounds exactly the same as it did when she was in her twenties. Many of her fellow villagers were surprised to hear her how well she could sing when she sang this song to put her grandchildren to sleep they said that “she sounds just like the original singer”, not knowing the simple but unexpected explanation as to why.
In an interview with The Post last week, Yoeun talked about her life during the Khmer Rouge era, a period in Cambodian history so dark that it has achieved global infamy for the brutality, torture and killing that took place. Up to a quarter of the entire population was killed – some purged outright by the Khmer Rouge, while many others starved to death due to the regime’s incompetence.
“At the end of 1973, I was recruited by the leadership of the Khmer National Liberation Movement [Khmer Rouge] to begin training in the arts, when I was just 17 years old,” she said.
According to Yoeun, in late 1973 and early 1974 her hometown in Koh Sotin district and commune were under the control of the Khmer Rouge who at that time were fighting the government led by General Lon Nol.
About a month after she was selected, Yoeun was sent to Prey Veng province’s Sithor Kandal district to study with a group of other artists selected from the eastern regions of Cambodia. She was given a new nickname “Sim”. In fact, everybody was given a new name on arrival – over a 100 people, around 30 of them women.
“I do not know why they changed our names like that,” Yoeun said, though one might guess it was just a gesture towards Pol Pot’s “year zero” philosophy and his belief that the old civilisation had to be destroyed to make way for the building of a new one.
After the Khmer Rouge were driven from power and she reunited with her parents, they told her that in 1975 they had asked some Khmer Rouge cadres about news of her, but no
one ever knew who they meant. Thus the practical purpose for it became apparent: To make it easier to split up families and dissolve their bonds.
“In fact, our names were changed so that our parents and relatives could not find us or find out about the terrible situation we were facing at the time. Because besides learning to sing and about performing arts during the day, we were assigned to help deliver ammunition to the Khmer National Liberation Movement at night while they fought against Lon Nol’s soldiers,” she said.
She said that after the Lon Nol government was overthrown on April 17, 1975, her group was divided up and sent to different regions. Fortunately, she was not moved to a new place and continued to practice her acting and singing traditional and contemporary songs.
In 1977, she was sent by Khmer Rouge cadres to perform in Kampong Cham province’s Cheung Prey district and she met her uncle there. He was a well-known drama teacher and illustrator in Koh Sotin district during the Sangkum Reastr Niyum-era [Norodom Sihanouk’s Popular Socialist Community government that was overthrown by Lon Nol].
“When I first saw my uncle, I ran to him excitedly. But before I could reach him, a few guards knocked him down and kicked him until he was bleeding from his mouth. Then they threw him on a cart and drove him away.
“At the time, I was shocked because I had never seen the revolutionary guerrillas do this sort of thing to anyone before in the four years I had been around them,” Yoeun said.
After witnessing her uncle’s beating she tried to find a way to escape from the artist brigade she was assigned to and find her parents and siblings.
Finally, one night, while it was raining heavily, she ran away from their encampment and travelled to her home village in Kampong Cham province’s Koh Sotin district, disguised as a farmer.
“I walked for three days and arrived at my parents’ house in the evening. They were very happy to see me, but they told me I could no longer go anywhere, not even outside. They said my uncle and his family had been taken away and killed,” she said.
From that day forward, Yoeun hid inside the house with her grandmother until the day of liberation on January 7, 1979, when she could finally breathe a sigh of relief, but her days as an artist were effectively over with when she ran away to visit her parents without leave.
Later that year, she married a soldier named Sok Mao from Pursat province’s Phnom Kravanh district and together they had a large family with nine children – three boys and six girls.
In 2003, Yoeun and Sok Mao divorced and she continued to care for her younger children on her own, farming or working as a massage therapist.
Despite the divorce she made sure that her children remained in contact with their father and today eight of her nine children are married with their own families. None of them ever considered a career on the stage.
According to Yoeun, during the Khmer Rouge years she recorded as many as 200 songs for them which were all commissioned by the Ministry of Propaganda and the Arts.
Some of them she sang alone, others were duets with male singers such as on “Please Children, Do Not Forget the Freshly-Shed Blood of Our Comrades!”
In addition to recording all of those songs, she also performed around 300 concerts of varying size in the eastern zone of Cambodia, and she also sometimes acted in the Yike and Ayai.
“My feelings at that time up on stage were very happy. There was applause and cheering by the people who came to see my performances who seemed excited and emotional about the songs I was singing.
“But now I think of their applause bitterly because they had no other choice and their lives were very difficult because they did not get enough food to eat, unlike us artists up on stage. We were always fed well,” she said.
In the end, Yoeun says she’s glad she was able to live the quiet life of a farmer and massage therapist because her special status under the Khmer Rouge came at the expense of so many others and they all got the ability to make choices in their lives back when the regime ended.
“Better a farmer than a singer if the only songs allowed are blind praise for those damned fool revolutionaries,” she said.