BYU Cambodian Oral History Project connects generations

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Three generations of Cambodians pose for a photo: interviewee Him Hen with his daughter, Him Sophea and his grandchild. The family is part of the Cambodian Oral History Project. (Matt Boyd)

Chea Raet, an 83-year-old woman who lives in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, clearly remembers the horrific events surrounding the Cambodian genocide under the Khmer Rouge regime.

Her husband, a soldier during the French period, died under the demanding work of maneuvering motorboats to help soldiers cross the river.

“I just cried and cried,” she said. She remembers moaning, “My husband is dead. If my kids die, I will too.”

Her children were taken from her under false pretenses and deceitful government officials told her they would be going to school. But she soon saw them giving her kids’ clothes out to others, and she knew they had been killed.     

She recalls being taken by Khmer Rouge soldiers, hit in the head with a farming tool and thrown into a deep pit on top of a pile of bodies. But, unlike so many others, she lived to tell her story.         

From 1975 to 1979, Raet and the country of Cambodia lived in terror under the reign of the Khmer Rouge communist party and its leader, Pol Pot. Millions of Cambodians were kicked out of their homes, forced to labor in rice fields without adequate food or rest and dragged to treacherous prisons where they were tortured and later executed.

Those seen as potential threats, specifically educated people, were targeted: teachers, doctors, even those who wore glasses. Nearly two million Cambodian lives, one-fourth of the country’s population at that time, were destroyed.

For various reasons, including a lack of records and especially painful and traumatic memories, some of the survivors have never shared the stories of their past.

Until now.

The Cambodian Oral History Project, formally launched in 2016, aims to capture stories like those of Chea Raet and others who lived through the Khmer Rouge regime and keep them from fading, according to director of the project Dana Scott Bourgerie, a BYU professor and chair of the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages. 

According to the Cambodian Oral History Project website, “ one-third of the adult population (was) killed during the purges,” and many records were destroyed. Because the remainder of Khmer Rouge survivors are currently dying off, their stories are inevitably lost, and “many of Cambodia’s younger generation hardly know their families’ backgrounds.”

To document these stories, Bourgerie created a specific approach to the project. “We have young people (natives in Cambodia) do interviews with their parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts,” he said.

Peer mentors in Cambodia train the youth in interview skills and techniques, which they use to interview their family members. The interview protocol includes basic demographic questions, such as birth date and hometown, although some don’t even remember when they were born.

Youth also ask interviewees about the hardest time in their lives, what they remember about the Khmer Rouge period and what they want their children and grandchildren to know. Most of them want their posterity to be “good,” “happy” and “have hope,” even though life is difficult. 

Slowly survivors are opening up and sharing their experiences, and youth are learning more about their family history.

Bourgerie explained that several people think this project is solely about the Khmer Rouge. “But it’s not all about that,” he said. “It’s about their daily lives too. Where they grew up, where they got married, how they met their spouse, what’s important to them. It’s about getting to know what their life was about.”

The interviews are recorded and then uploaded to the cloud. “Some are short, some are long, but they are (all) important in their own way,” said Bourgerie.  

Bourgerie acknowledged the difficulty of transcribing languages that aren’t your own, especially in a foreign language like Khmer. Consequently, only native Cambodians transcribe the interviews. Many local Cambodians and BYU volunteers, including those who served LDS missions in Khmer-speaking areas, assist in the translation from Khmer to English. So far, over 1,700 interviews have been recorded and are in the process of transcription and translation.

The audio and visual interview transcripts are located on the project’s website, and the family of the interviewee receives a copy as well.

The project has not only affected those in Cambodia and those working on translations but has sparked the interest of others as well.

Bourgerie said he’s had a number of contacts intrigued by the academic side of the project, including journalists, folklorists, oral historians and people involved in trauma studies.

Additionally, the project has also caught the attention of LDS genealogy website FamilySearch, which collects stories and information to make them accessible for family history purposes.

Bourgerie also said he and project members have even made a proposal for the coming year to RootsTech, a family history conference held annually in Salt Lake City.

“People ask me all the time why I (direct the project). How it’s going to help my promotions. But sometimes you don’t do things for promotions. It just seemed like the right thing to do,” Bourgerie said.

Recently Bourgerie and project members have reached out to Cambodians in Long Beach, California, which is the largest Cambodian refugee community in the United States. Those people want their stories told, too.

The results of the on-going project have already made a considerable impact. The project not only preserves Cambodian history but connects families and generations.

Keo Somaly, who lives in Phnom Penh and is the current project coordinator in Cambodia, works directly with in-country interns to advance the goals of the project. Through the project, she has learned more about Cambodian history. “I love listening to people’s stories,” she said in a blog post. “I hope this work will get more and more people to share their family histories.”

Somaly explained that through the project, youth can learn more about their own family history. “This project strengthens the relationships between youth and their ancestors,” she said. When she works on the project and interviews her own family members, Somaly said she feels close to her ancestors even though she has never met them.

A blog post on the project’s website related the experience of Cambodian LDS Church leader Eng Bunhuoch, who interviewed his mother.

“I want to express my gratitude for the oral history (project) … My mother passed away recently, and I really miss her. Listening to her voice that I recorded for your program really makes me feel that she is still with me. I can listen to her voice as much as I want to. I can learn and know more about her history and my great-grandparents’ and my grandparents’ history. I am so grateful for this thoughtful program to record voice to keep for their generations to learn about. Once again, thank you for this program.”

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