Report on 2019 Project Activity

With the year 2020, the Cambodian Oral History Project enters its fifth year. The project is now approaching the 5000-interview milestone with contributions from 16 of the 25 Cambodian provinces. We have received interviews from 110 different local peer leaders. The BYU team has six student team members and various volunteers. The tables figures below summarize some of the work of the project work in the past four years. Since the outset the project has involved 15 student team members and  nice BYU interns in Cambodia.

2016 1 198
2017 373 589
2018 710 2342
2019 408 1352
TOTAL 1562 4608


Phnom Penh 1725
Kandal 1044
Battambang 604
Kampong Cham 511
Siem Reap 469
Kampong Thom 85
Kampong Speu 78
Ta Keo 46
Tboung Khmum 25

Current Activities

In the past year we have implemented a number of processes that have helped manage the growing number of interviews and transcriptions, including:

  1. Adaptation of the BYU library’s Transcribe system that allows a type of crowd sourcing of translation by US based volunteers
  2. Jotform plugin that lets Cambodian peer leaders to upload to a cloud interview data
  3. Created online training materials for peer leaders and BYU volunteers
  4. Created a Word Press based database that allows user searches via key words

Challenges and Needs

The in-country collection of interviews and transcription continues to be strong, though at a somewhat slower pace in 2019 (political issues and changes in local staff were a short-term hindrance to collection activity). Toward our aim making the stories broadly accessible, we are striving to populate the new database, provide keywords for texts, and translate more interviews. The College of Humanities provides a base support and the college’s Office of Digital Humanities (ODH) gives support in the form of faculty time and technical assistance. Two outside donors have provided funds that are earmarked for student salaries, which continue to be our greatest need.

University Connections and Public Exposure

Recently the project has garnered attention in media, including the following pieces:

“The Cambodian Oral History Project.” The Power of Preserving Oral HistoryWith Brian Croxall. RootsTech 2019. Salt Lake City, Utah. March 1, 2019.

Saving Cambodian Stories” BYU Magazine. Winter 2019.

The Cambodia Oral History Project” Constant Wonder with Marcus Smith. KBYU Radio.  (Original airdate: 9/19/2018).

BYU Cambodian Oral History Project connects generations” Daily Universe. August 7, 2018

Khmer Rouge Survivors Speak.” Top of Mind with Julie Rose. KBYU Radio. (Original airdate: March 20, 2018).

 Giving Voice to Cambodia’s Silent Past. Brigham Young University, College of Humanities Newsletter.


Thanks to the many people who have made the project’s remarkable progress possible!


Submitted by Dana Scott Bourgerie, Project Director Continue reading

Introducing New COHP Cambodia Coordinator

With profound thanks to Keo Somaly for her service as the COHP Cambodia coordinator, we are pleased to introduce Vanna Roth as the new coordinator. She has been a peer leader for some time and we welcome her now in this new role. -Dana Bourgerie, COHP director

“Hi! I am Vannaroth. I’m a student of BYU pathways connect online and Cambodia is my home country. I’ve always wanted to know about the history of my own country from my parents or my family relatives. I love to listen to all of their experiences from their life. I am very grateful that I have the opportunity to be the new coordinator for the BYU Cambodian Oral History Project. I had the experience to interview both of my parents and my grandparents through the Cambodian Oral History Project. I learned all about their personal experiences from their life. When I listened to what they had to share with me, I felt that they always had hope in every thing that they did. I love how this project helps my country preserve the history of the Cambodian people. It helps all the young people involved in the project, to hear from their ancestors about how they persevered and worked so hard for each of them. I look forward to working to help COHP grow!”

Eav Sareoun

Eav Sareoun, a Cambodian refugee now living in America, shares how he escaped death four times and what life was like for him in the Khmer Rouge. Follow this link to see the video:

“[When] Pol Pot’s time began, I went to their village and then I did not have anything to say. And I didn’t have any clothes, I wore whatever they gave me and I never said anything, because they owned everything and they destroyed everything. It made me want to hope, hope that someday Cambodia would be happy. One day the country would be happy, even though Pol Pot stopped everything”

“I had a hard life from the age of 4, even up until today. I was always close to dying. The first time was when I was working on the lighting systems. I was supposed to die. And the second was when I was sent to the forest, and all of the others around me were killed. The third time was when I was sent to die falling from the palm trees. I almost died a fourth time when they sent me to carry the rice in my cart, and then that old man helped me fix it when it was broken and I thought myself dead already.”

-Eav Sareoun

Welcome to the Team!

We are excited to have Seyon Pen joining our staff as a Khmer Editor!

“My name is Seyon. I used to live in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, but I moved to Siem Reap for a while, and now I am in Provo Utah. I love hiking and doing outdoor activities. I have heard about the project for a long time. In fact, I’ve even helped some people find their ancestors through it! It’s an exciting project and I am very happy that BYU is doing that because it will be a great source to all the Khmer people to reconnect with their relatives. I am excited to be involved in the project.” – Seyon Pen

Welcome to the project Seyon!

Welcome to Our New Team Member

Introducing Jeremy Hills, one of the new employees on our project. Here are a few words from him:

“I’m 22 years old from Woods Cross, UT. I’m an Information Systems major at BYU and preparing for dental school. From 2015 to 2017 I served an LDS mission in Cambodia and I have looked for opportunities to stay connected since. I returned in 2018 to intern for Moo Moo Farms and I have had several interpreting/translating jobs. I am excited to be a part of the project and help in any way possible.” – Jeremy

Thanks Jeremy, we’re excited to have you on our staff! Jeremy will help in managing our impressive flow of interviews and uploading audio transcriptions to the website. He keeps our project connected across the globe!

The project continues to seek out possible interns for upcoming semesters. If you are interested, fill out the contact form on this website or contract project director Prof. Dana Bourgerie.

A Visit to The Killing Fields

Killing Fields Visit
by Allison McIllece

What are the Killing Fields?

Choeung Ek (Khmer: ជើងឯក) is the site of what once was an orchard and Chinese graveyard, but is now a mass grave of victims from the Khmer Rouge located about 17 kilometers (11 mi) south of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Victims of this slaughter were killed between the years of 1975 and 1979. It is where the Khmer Rouge regime executed more than one million innocent people; men, women, and children alike.

Who went?

I took a few Peer Leaders with me to the Killing fields memorial site on March 19th 2019.

Why did we go?

We decided to visit the memorial site, because so many of the elderly people that we had interviewed had mentioned that either a family member or friend had visited or been executed there during the Khmer rouge. There were even one or two interviewees whom had been there personally, during wartime executions, and had miraculously lived to tell the tale. One such story was told to me by Sokunthea Nhem, a Peer Leader of 3 years now. She was one of the first peer Leaders to encourage me to visit the memorial site, if I had not already done so (which I hadn’t yet.) She explained to me that her most memorable interview experience was involving a woman who had a nightmarish encounter with soldiers and victims at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. This woman (I will call her Ming Vanna, for I can’t remember her name), Ming Vanna, was taken to the killing fields late at night. She was in a large group of young women and men, as well as a few young children. She remembers being forced into the back of a truck and driven to a dark field. She was escorted out of the truck and brought to the mouth of a wide, but shallow pit (not quite so deep as she was tall.) Then soldiers took bamboo rods and gun barrels and started to beat in the heads and bodies of those held captive. Once they were presumed dead, they were cast into the pit and left to rot. Ming Vanna was beaten and thrown into the pit too, but much to her surprise, she woke up to find that she was not yet dead. She described her fear at smelling and laying amongst so many dead bodies as one of indescribable power. Although she was bruised and sore, she was so frightened that she found the strength to climb out of the pit, and run into the night. She escaped with her life, but has always remembered those that were not so lucky as she was.

I had known about the Killing Fields as a full time missionary, but didn’t feel that I had the emotional strength to endure such a taxing visit as a missionary. I had never been before. After hearing this experience and so many others as an Interviewer for the Cambodian Oral History Project, I decided that it was time that I went and learned more about the difficult history behind the Khmer Rouge, first hand. I knew that many of the volunteers working with me were young and inexperienced. I decided to invite some Volunteers to accompany me so that we could all learn together, and support each other through this emotional visit to a place of so much horror and loss.

What did we learn?

I learned a lot about the difficulty and sorrow surrounding the Khmer Rouge that I didn’t understand before I made time to visit the Killing Fields. Although I had heard stories about the horrors and the pain that these Cambodian people experienced, I was always distanced from it. Although I believed their experiences (and certainly the pain at the memory from these experiences) to be real, I could never bring myself to dwell on these stories or imagine them happening in real life. Many of the Peer Leaders that I went with expressed the same kind of disbelief at the fact that these stories were, in fact, real. We never questioned them, but it was so easy to dismiss these experiences as part of the past, something distant and intangible. After visiting such a reverent place and seeing the bones and clothes of real people, who have been through this tragedy it seemed so much more real to me. I know that I can’t fix what happened, and I know that I can never really understand what these people went through during the Khmer Rouge; but I know that I am better off with an understanding that these stories are part of someone’s reality. It gives me a greater sense of empathy and a desire to help alleviate some of the pain and loss accompanied with  these interviews. I can be Kind and show greater interest in the elderly and their lives. When they talk, I can listen. I can show them that their lives mattered back then, and have meaning now. I can help them to remember those whom they have lost, and give them the opportunity to express love and to show love back to them. I am forever changed by my experiences both at the Killing Fields, and as an intern for the Cambodian Oral History Project.




Preserving My History

By Nhem Sokunthea, Cambodia Project Coordinator

My name is Nhem Sokunthea. I’ve been a project peer leader for three years. I got involved with the project right after I returned from missionary service for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I first learned about the project from former missionary Tyler Jorgensen when he was serving as an intern in Cambodia.

As a peer leader I interview Cambodian people, my siblings, and sometimes people I don’t know as well. However, I mostly interview those I do know well like my mom, dad, and older brother as well as those with many life experiences such as my grandfather, grandmother, and their family members. I try to keep it in the family. I also transcribe interviews into Cambodian script.

Besides my work as a peer leader, I am learning the violin. I’m not very good at it and find it SO HARD, but I do like it. I also like to visit farming areas and would like to have a farm of my own one day, to grow my own fruits and plants. I also love the province of Mondul Kiri, and I want to buy a farm that looks like something there. Although I’ve interviewed people that grow rice, I really want to learn from people who have grown other things, like cashew nuts. I did interview a cashew farmer once, and they had so much life experience and wisdom.

I’ve had many experiences interviewing people who had overcome great trials. They’ve seen the sun rise before we did. The older people I have interviewed have all been through the war. In fact, of 100 people I interviewed, every single interviewee lived through the Khmer Rouge period. They tell me their life stories, struggles, and challenges. Of course, we have our own problems, but really, we have it comparatively easy. We have the chance to be with our families. They didn’t have that privilege. They were separated and often killed off. They even had bombs dropped on them and they had a hard time running away. I’ve heard it said that the Cambodian people had eyes in the back of their head. That means they have their normal eyes facing forward, and then they had more eyes facing backwards. That means that at that time they had to be aware of their surroundings, if they dropped bombs and grenades, and you weren’t watching, you would die. You would be blown to pieces.

Through the project, the Cambodian people learn how savage their history is and can learn from it. They can understand that people died because they had no food to eat at all as they worked. They see that people used serrated palm fronds to cut people’s throats, or beat people to death with bamboo rods. I’ve heard stories about people who were executed and I’ve interviewed one person who was beaten and thrown into a pit of dead bodies. She was so frightened that it gave her the strength to climb out of the pit and escape. It’s something that I’ll never forget hearing. What’s important is that I can understand a little about their burdens. For my interviews, I ask a lot about the war experiences of my family members, though It’s difficult to hear about that unjust time in my people’s history, where we killed our own people.

I remember hearing my uncle’s story (as told through my father) more than anyone else’s. He Is the older brother to my father and had a wife and two children,  But Pol Pot took them and killed them all even though his wife was pregnant with a child. My father told me that they took my uncle, a learned man, and put him in a cage. It was similar to a cell in a prison. His family tried to come and visit him in this cage, but the guards wouldn’t allow it. So, they walked past him and could only spare a glance out of the corner of their eye to see if it was him. It was such a pitiful story. When I think about that story, I feel so frustrated, but I can now understand just how hard their lives were at that time. When my family heard this story felt like they couldn’t accept it.

My mother told me about when she was starving and had no food and how my father was the most skinny and gaunt man you had ever seen. When I go back to my parent’s home town a few times every year, I see two large trees near my home where I’m told is the place of my grandmother’s greatest loss and sorrow. It was in that place where Pol Pot took her children away and killed them, and it was in that place where she saw people starve to death. It is so difficult to think about those stories.

I think that after carrying out these interviews, I have a greater love for people. Each person’s life, has such value. Although I am a Christian and learned to love people serving as a missionary, I can now help in another way through this project. When I go to church I love to focus on family history. Our ancestors struggled in this life–– especially throughout the war––but we can help them to find peace in the next life through the temple. We can help them receive ordinances, be baptized, and live together and be clean and worthy from sin forever. I am so grateful for this project, which is helping to preserve the Cambodian history that we lost in the war. I love that this history is recorded by voice because anciently we didn’t have people’s voices, just a few books and written memories. As I go through these interviews I have an increased desire to learn and know about my country’s history and help my ancestors.

To view this article in Khmer, click this link: អត្ថបទសម្ភាសsokunthea.blogpost.pdf


4000 Interviews and Counting: A Mid-Year Report

Dana Scott Bourgerie, Project Director*

It has been over three years since we launched the Cambodian Oral History Project. Its progress has been both rapid and somewhat surprising. We are pleased to announce that the project has recently surpassed 4000 interviews.

In addition to the interview milestone, we have processed more than 1300 Khmer language transcripts involving students and volunteers in the US and Cambodia:

  • 8 BYU interns
  • 12 BYU team members
  • 30 + Peer leaders

To help make the large numbers of interviews accessible, we have recently launched a new online system that allows volunteers to translate Khmer to English in small chunks. We continue to receive interest from many forums and have been featured in various media:

As always, with success comes challenges. Our funds are limited but we continue to receive support directly from Brigham Young University through our sponsor, the BYU College of Humanities. In addition, we have received funds from several generous, anonymous donors. We need volunteers to translate our large backlog of interviews. Please contact us if you are able to help––even a little.

I am frequently asked why I created and continue this project, which is only peripherally related to my main academic work in Chinese linguistics.  I am reminded of the preface to the seminal French-Canadian genealogical work the Tanguay. Priest and genealogist, Father Cyprien Tanguay, responded to a question about why he devoted a large part of his life to chronicling early families of New France. He responded simply: Je n’ai aucune idée or, ‘I have no idea at all.’

I am sure that Father Tanguay was inspired to compile those early genealogies of New France. What he probably meant by his remark was that there was no obvious earthly reason to do it. My response is similar; I can only say that the work of preserving Cambodian voices is something we can and should do. And, yes, it seems to me providential. So many pieces have fallen into place and continue to fall into place. A group of local peer leaders also asked me “Why Cambodia?” My response to them was, “Why not Cambodia?” The stories are inspiring, poignant, and deserve to be heard.

To all those who have supported the project in various ways, I offer my gratitude. To those who feel stirred to lend a hand to the project, we welcome your participation.

*Dana Scott Bourgerie is the director of the Cambodia Oral History Project. He is also Professor and chair of  the Department of Near Eastern Languages at Brigham Young University.




New Intern for Winter 2019

Allison McIllece served a missionary  for the he Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the Phnom Penh, Cambodia Mission from Dec 2016 – June 2018.
“After coming home from my mission, I was eager to stay involved in preserving the Cambodian culture and language. I was so excited to hear about the Oral History Foundation and the steps they were taking forward to bring life and love to the world from my favorite people. Every time I read the words of the interviews that my friends and I are translating, I feel such a strong connection to these people and their stories. I feel the Love that our Heavenly Father has for his children. I feel so honored to think that I will have the opportunity to help preserve such an important part of history, and help build lasting relationships in Cambodia, as an intern for this upcoming winter semester. I am thankful that the words of such a strong generation of Cambodian survivors will not go unheard. The elderly have such wisdom and such love to share with all of us. Their stories are so rich with struggle and emotion. They help us to more fully appreciate and understand the meaning of life here on earth. I am filled with happiness to know that these stories will live on to help teach and protect the rising generation of Cambodia. We can do so much, if we work together to build bridges of open communication and tear down barriers of doubt. I love Cambodia; and I know, you will too!”

Impacting Lives Through the Project Work

*Thomas Anthony

I began working with the Cambodia Oral History Project in December 2016. I started out as the Volunteer Coordinator at BYU and quickly learned the importance of the project. I began listening to interviews and came across a woman that I had met while I served and LDS Church missionary in Cambodia. This woman told stories that I had heard before, but I also heard stories that she never told me. Feelings of nostalgia came over me as I was reminded of her difficult life upbringing in Cambodia. I immediately knew that I wanted to be more involved with this project.

Months went by and I was able to head to Cambodia as the project intern. Being in Cambodia, meeting all of the Project staff, and seeing the effect that we were having in the lives of the people in Cambodia was amazing. I was able to travel throughout Cambodia and meet different peer leaders who all had different experiences with the project. I learned that this project was not only rewarding for those that were able to share their stories, but also to the peer leaders. The peer leaders love to work with the Cambodia Oral History Project. They see it as an opportunity to grow in many different ways. They develop countless skills working with the project, which will serve them for the rest of their lives. I saw people who didn’t have very strong people skills grow to love talking with others and begin to care for those around them. I saw people who had never used a computer before learn to type in both Khmer and English, and even learn the essentials of email. These skills seemed so simple to me, but this is because I have been using computers since I was a small child. The project is helping Cambodians in numerous ways that seem trivial, but have a lasting impact.

The project is special in that we are interviewing the older generation of Cambodia. Some of these people are well stricken in age and some have even passed away after we have interviewed them. The interviews of those that have passed away have become small miracles for their families. Families are able to listen to their mom, dad, grandpa, grandma, brother, or sister. It’s a rare experience for anyone. But listening to the stories of these people brings a unique feeling of comfort and joy.

I was able to see this blessing first hand. I had recently found a new peer leader and she began interviewing family and friends that she felt comfortable with. The peer leader interviewed a woman of about 38 years old, who was also one of her best friends. The peer leader felt that it was important to interview her, even though she was relatively young. Sadly, just two weeks after the interview, this woman became very ill and suddenly died. It was tragic for all those around her. However, the family was grateful to have her life story in an audible interview. Immediately we were able to take the interview to the family. The interview was simple, but everyone felt joy and comfort in hearing her voice again.

The experiences I had and the friends I made through my internship in Cambodia are unforgettable. I grew as an individual in many different ways. I’ll always be grateful for my experience there. And now, I am continuously grateful for a job where I can work with Cambodians and learn from their touching and valuable experiences.

* Thomas Anthony is a BYU student majoring in Geography (Geospatial Intelligence) and served previously as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Cambodia. He also served as a project intern in Phnom Penh.