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.
This is Theary Leng! She is from Kampong Cham, Cambodia. She served an LDS mission in
the Hawaii Honolulu Mission and will be studying Master of Public Administration at Brigham Young University in the Fall. She has been working for several months as the project Khmer language editor and is serving in Cambodia this summer term as an intern and assistant to the project. She notes: “I love listening and learning about peoples’ lives and stories. That’s why I am working for Cambodian Oral History.”
One of the main aims of this project is to preserve stories that might otherwise disapear. Since the project was launched in January 2017, we have sadly lost several participants. Yet, the families’ grief has been softened some by the preservation of the family members’ memories–––especially their voices. LDS church leader Bunhuoch ENG expressed his sentiment in a note on the recent loss of 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 of people to keep for their generations to learn about. Once again thank you for this program.”
Phnom Penh North Stake
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
As part of my work with the Cambodia Oral History Project, I review interviews and tag them for keywords. As I have listened to the different interviews I have noticed a distinct difference among the age groups. I listened to an older woman named Chan Thearin who was 74 at the time of her interview. When the interviewer asked her if she had ever had dreams or goals in her life that she had once wanted to achieve, she blankly stated “no.” Her response shocked me. Thearin grew up without the luxury of ever hoping for anything beyond her means. Having more was beyond imagination. A no-nonsense woman, she simply lives to survive. She doesn’t like playing games, listening to music, and doesn’t even have a favorite food.
To someone of my background, whose culture encourages dreaming big and accomplishing more, understanding this woman is difficult. She may appear callous and distant from her own life. But the most poignant part of her interview was where she said that her only hope in life was that she would be a good person and pass that onto her children. Despite unimaginable challenges, she still finds fulfillment in her life. Her experiences should have stripped her of any type of hope or confidence in the future, and yet she looks to that hope in the future generations. She only wants to pass on the good that she has left in her
In contrast to this delightful grandmother, I listened to a young woman who was 30 years old. For Chanthy, she wouldn’t have directly lived through the Khmer Rouge regime, but would have still experienced many of the damages that it caused to families and homes. Her perspective of life is quite different. She talks of her grandparents with much adoration. She gets emotional speaking about her brother who is suffering with a drug addiction. Also, in contrast to Thearin, Chanthy does have many dreams. She dreams to make a good living for herself, and to help pay back to her parents who have done so much good for her. She shares a story of her dad making a living riding a bicycle through the streets of Phnom Penh when she was a young girl and seeing his exhaustion. She now wants to keep working hard so that he will be able to rest from his burdens. Chanthy has grown up with the effects of the war, but the perspective of the future. Her hope is relatable to us all, and bridges the gap across cultures.
These two examples from two different generations highlights the importance of knowing our histories in order to build our futures. This project continues to inspire the young and the old to tell their stories.
*Sarah Collins is a project assistant and a former Cambodia LDS missionary majoring in Communications.
Whitney Haddock grew up in Heber City, Utah and has been a student at BYU since 2014. She is currently applying to the Marriott School of Management with sights set on the marketing and supply chain operations programs. From 2015-2017, Whitney served a full-time LDS mission to Cambodia where she met remarkable people and enjoyed learning the Khmer language. One of her favorite projects involved organizing music classes in Cambodia. With a desire to help her Cambodian friends find relief and hope through music, she created and translated a program to teach the Khmer people the fundamentals of music. Whitney is excited to continue her efforts in helping her friends across the globe through the Cambodia Oral History Project.She will especially be working with social media and volunteer coordination. Let her know if you can help translate or if you want to get involved in any way.
During the fall of 2014, while my husband, Ken Hollenzer, and I served in Cambodia as Family History missionaries, a middle aged Cambodian church member of a local LDS branch, walked into the Family History office. He didn’t speak English, but through the interpreter he brought with him, we learned that he had felt a compelling urge over the previous days to submit his family names to the temple. He told us that he was the sole survivor of his family after the Khmer Rouge. I sensed the deep pain he carried at the loss of his family so many years before and gently asked him how many brothers and sisters he had.
Once he understood my question, he closed his eyes as tears slowly dropped onto his cheeks. He raised his hands and began to count his fingers: one, two, three, four…. I saw the hurt in his face as he pictured their faces, one by one, in his mind; dear faces he had not –––due to the grief of such an incredible loss––– been able to allow himself to picture for decades.
Slowly, he was able to communicate to me that he had had four brothers and four sisters ––– and that he, himself, was the youngest child. All his siblings, as well as his mother and his father, had perished during the genocide years of Pol Pot. He was the only surviving member of his family.
And now, more than 30 years later, after finding the gospel of Jesus Christ, and learning of the eternal nature of the family, he had come to begin the process of sealing his precious family together forever!
*Salli Hollenzer and her husband Ken served as family history missionaries in Cambodia for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints from September 2013 to August 2015 Both have continued to play lead roles in the project since returning to their home in Oregon.
January 2018 marked the second anniversary of the Cambodian Oral History Project. We are gratified to report some of the new achievements made possible by all those who have contributed in so many ways–as peer leaders, project assistants, volunteers, transcribers, translators, and as interns. Thanks especially to those willing to share their stories. In addition to the support of the BYU Humanities Center a BYU Mentoring Environment Grant (MEG), we have received a generous financial support from several anonymous donors.
We are set to surpass 1000 interviews early this year, but we have just begun! With the continued support of benefactors in and out of the University, we are poised for an even more productive two more years as we add more resources to the northern provinces, including near Battambang and Siem Reap. We also are reaching out to Cambodian refugee/immigrant communities in the U.S.
Benchmarks and accomplishments (since formal project launch in January 2016)
- 800+ audio interviews in Cambodia
- 25 video interviews in Cambodia
- 3 US refugee video interviews
- 6 student interns (5 BYU Cambodia RMs and 1 other RM)
- Approximately 150 local Cambodian peer leaders
- A local Cambodian project assistant
- ~50 volunteers (BYU and outside)
- Creation of a Youtube channel
- Creation and development of project website
- Launch of Facebook Page
- Outreach to and involvement with BYU faculty and students interested in personal histories (e.g., folklore, family history, anthropology, and History)
- Coordination with LDS Family History missionaries
- Linking with Family Search
Current Project Foci and Aims
- Continue with interview collection (2018 interview goal of reaching at least 1500 interviews)
- Expand work of transcriptions and translations
- Increase number of video interviews
- Tagging for topics and search functions
- Revamp of website to include search function
- Adding a second intern in Northern Cambodia
- Hiring of two more local Cambodia assistants to service the outlying provinces
- More cooperation with US refugee/immigrant communities (SLC, Oakland, and Long Beach, CA)
- Video and photo documentation of the projects
*Dana Scott Bourgerie is the director of Cambodia Oral History Project.
There are few lands in which the past bleeds so much into the present. People follow traditions that no one can tell you the origin of, handed down in an esoteric language that few people in the rest of the world care to learn. Temple ruins are cradled and preserved by monstrous trees. You imagine these trees were once seeds blown in between stones as the ancient Cambodians carved away at the structures. You could walk out of a malfunctioning time machine and not know if you really did travel back the thousand years you inputted, or if you’re still in the present
And the genocide. It’s right there. Although it ended nearly forty years ago, it still feels fresh. It was in this context that I was sent out to work on the Cambodian Oral History Project.
I suppose the reason I had for undertaking this project was partly selfish. I have spent a considerable amount of time thinking about pain and its role in life. I read the book Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis before going, which helped me understand more clearly about the role of pain in the path to perfection, but I still felt that there were things I didn’t understand. I couldn’t justify the incredible amount of pain in God’s plan. There seemed to be so much wasted pain that didn’t aid in sanctifying at all. Only crushing, destroying, and killing. How was this part of the plan?
When I arrived in the country, I quickly met up with a lighthearted, hardworking native Cambodian woman who helps manage the project. We were able to interview quite a few people together. One of the first people we interviewed was an older woman, a mother of a member of the LDS Church. Her house was supported by stilts like most houses, and we met in the shade below her house. Her children and a few grandchildren lived there as well, bringing a total of about twelve sharing the small space. When she talked about her experiences during the Khmer Rouge, she seemed calm, collected, even somewhat apathetic. I realized that it was a kind of defense mechanism to cope with the horrible atrocities. It wasn’t until we asked her about raising her children right after the Khmer Rouge that she changed. “After their father left us, I had to raise them all on my own. We had no money, sometimes I didn’t even have enough to buy salt….” In an instant, her hands shot up to her face, covering it as she tried to dampen the sound of her crying. She had been able to mask years of pain and solitude under the Pol Pot regime with detachment, but when she mentioned her inability to support these children that she loved, the mother in her could not hold back the tears. That was a moment when I realized that in Cambodia, the resurgence of past pain was only a sincere question away.
When the interview was over, we comforted her and talked with her daughter who had sat in the interview. Her daughter is happily married, works for the LDS Church, and seems to always have a smile on her face.
Another interview was with a man who was one of the members of the Church I had seen. During the Khmer Rouge he had nearly starved to death. One day he found a rope and kept it. The people around him asked if he got it to hang himself. He shook his head. “No, it’s just that in the morning I’m so hungry that I don’t have the strength to get up. I’m hanging this to the ceiling so I can pull myself out of bed.” One thing I noticed about stories during the Khmer Rouge was the emphasis on starvation. There were killings, beatings, torturing, but it was the hunger and thirst that never abated during those years. There were breaks in between people being suffocated by plastic bags. The sound of gunshots wasn’t constant, but during those brutal years, the hunger never stopped. Just enough food was given to keep the soul from ripping off the body. Some would even would tie ropes around their stomachs at night, compressing their stomachs to curb the hunger.
Another man told of his experiences during the genocide. He mentioned a phrase the soldiers used that I had often heard: Tuk min jomneny. Dok min kat. This roughly translates to ‘Keeping you isn’t profitable. Loosing you isn’t a loss.’ He talked about the hunger, how the soldiers kept track of every potato planted and fruit grown so that no one would steal them. What amazed me was the apparent uniformity of all these peoples’ experiences. Trying to keep something like church doctrine consistent throughout the entire world would require an army of missionaries, trainings, conferences, reading, and lots of teaching. How was it that this regime could be so pervasive and homogenous during this time period and throughout the entire country? I was receiving interviews from all around the country from different peer leaders, all telling similar stories. The methods for killing, the organization, the philosophy, it was so consistent throughout the entire country. It was organized chaos. And it caused so much pain.
After the man finished sharing his experiences about the genocide and post-Khmer Rouge life, we asked him if there was anything else he wanted to tell his future descendants. He looked straight at us. “I just want them to know what I’ve been through, and to never stop working hard. I want them to know what I’ve done for them, and that I love them.” We looked over to his son to see if he had any more questions to ask, but he was in tears with his head down. Instead, we thanked the father for the interview, and ended it.
I heard countless other stories in my time in Cambodia, I wrote often, and still didn’t feel that I had solved my question by the time I had to leave. After returning home, my mind was still on the topic, until one night I had a thought. If everyone was experiencing the perfect amount of pain to obtain perfection, no one could ever help anyone. God would stop them and say, “No! Don’t help! This is just the right amount of pain!” I’m not convinced Cambodians are somehow worse, and therefore in need of more pain to “polish their souls.” There is such thing as excess suffering. Why else would Christ us to alleviate others’ pain? It’s the state of this fallen world. But it gives us the opportunity to help. And excess pain doesn’t mean the sufferer can’t learn more. I saw people rise above the most extreme pain and grow “brighter and brighter,” until they very nearly became “the perfect day.”
The people I interviewed were kind, selfless, and so sincere. But most of the elderly have little ambition for themselves in this life, have few dreams, and feel entitled to nothing but perhaps the air they breathe, a small plot of earth to watch over, and peace. You can give them struggles, financial instability, poor living conditions, but they’ll be content with peace, defined as nothing but the lack of bloodshed and tyranny.
They’ve sacrificed much of their hope, but not in vain. Their hope lies in their children. The opportunities the elderly could have had––– the wishes that were replaced by bullets and bombs––– they now plant in their children. And through this oral history project that hope will be delivered. Behind nearly every story was an interviewee’s child who learned something from all of the story of their family member.
Cambodia will grow and progress. Their children are educating themselves and moving forward. But because of these stories, they will never forget what happened to get them there. They will never forget what it really means to be Cambodian. And maybe that’s worth the pain.
* Bryan Brittain served as project intern in Cambodia from May to August 2017. Originally from Camas, Washington, he served as a volunteer missionary in Cambodia for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-days Saints from January 2013- February 2015. Bryan is currently a student at Brigham Young University studying Entrepreneurial Management. He has also worked as an intern with the Cambodia Job Foundation, taught art and piano, co-founded a social venture in Uganda, and started an on-line publishing company.