| "Cambodians had a better life then, compared to succeeding governments including today," Vireakso began his story, with the help of an interpreter, Sarith Ou. "What I mean is, professionals then had enough salary to survive; teachers, for example, could survive even without a spouse to help them."
This changed, Vireakso said, when Lon Nol took over, as Cambodia was forced into a war between Sihanouk's forces and Lon Nol's supporters.
Note: By mid-1960s, Cambodia had a large presence of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong logistical bases. It was apparently no longer a neutral country in the Vietnam War. Sihanouk lost the rightist support primarily because of this and the deteriorating economic condition that provided a favorable environment for the growth of communism in the rural areas.
Prime Minister Lon Nol seized power on March 18, 1970 when Sihanouk was away on a trip to Moscow and Beijing. He was supported by the middle-class and educated Khmers in Phonm Penh who welcomed the change in government. Many foreign governments, especially in the West, also recognized Lon Nol's government.
In his young mind, Vireakso knew that Sihanouk and Lon Nol distrusted each other because each one favored contending powers on the world stage. "Sihanouk thought that Lon Nol was leaning towards the United States," he said. "Lon Nol thought that Sihanouk was leaning towards China." Cambodia's economic condition then was hard to measure because they were in a civil war, Vireakso added. He believed that while Lon Nol had many supporters in the urban areas, Sihanouk, on the other hand, had many supporters in the villages.
"Cambodians had to make the best of the circumstance that faced them. As a regular, apolitical citizen, Vireakso was absorbed by the Lon Nol system that sent him to school for five years to be a medical anaesthesiologist. "I went to work at the Centre Medico-Chirurgical (Hospital Center for Surgery) in Borey Keila," he said of his work at the military hospital in Phnom Penh. "I also received medical supplies from international agencies."
Newly married with someone in the same profession and working at the same hospital but in another location, Vireakso was content with his life, full of hope that every year would give him more blessings and a step above the level of life he had in the past year. But 1975 came, the year the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh, and his dreams fell flat, as his and most other Cambodians' lives, fell apart. That moment is still fresh in Variakso's mind today.
"It was 8 a.m. on April 14, 1975 when about 50 Khmer Rouge soldiers came to the hospital," he recalled with a pained look on his face. "Everybody was ordered to stay where they were and nobody could get out of the building."
His prior knowledge of disturbing stories detailing Khmer Rouge atrocities against teachers, civil servants, and the educated class made Vireakso immediately think about how to survive. "I removed my uniform when I saw them coming, and pretended that I was not a regular nurse or a medical-team member," he recalled. "The Khmer Rouge asked who were the leaders in the institution, and when they presented themselves, the soldiers killed them right away. I saw three of them killed in front of everybody."
The fear was unimaginable. His wife, who was heavy with child, managed to join him as the group from the hospital was ordered to leave the city for Takeo province. "We were forced to walk, and it took us five days to reach Takeo," Vireakso said of their long march to their village. His wife delivered her baby, the couple's eldest daughter, during this difficult walk. "There was a nurse friend with us who helped my wife, but there was no medicine and no medical equipment."
Vireakso decided not to stay in his home province for fear someone might reveal his and his wife's true identity to the Khmer Rouge. He took his family 10 kilometers away where no one knew him. Then he decided to act like a mentally deranged man so the soldiers would not pay attention to him. The Khmer Rouge in fact "assigned" him to take care of cows and ducks every day when he intentionally "failed" a reading test to prove his lack of education.
"The people were divided into different communities, depending on whose side we were on," Vireakso said of the commune system under the Khmer Rouge. "Those who were known Lon Nol supporters disappeared two or three at a time, never to be seen again."
The Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge, he said, lived under constant fear of losing their lives for no reason at all. Vireakso and his family survived the hardships throughout the Khmer Rouge regime by pretending to be someone else.
After the Khmer Rouge was dislodged by the Vietnamese in 1979 and a new government was formed, Vireakso thought the Cambodians' lives could return to normal. He went back to the hospital where he used to work and applied to be part of the administration, but he was not accepted. "In 1981 or '82, I decided to 'escape' with my family to Thailand," he said of his frustrations with the new government. "My family and I were caught, unfortunately, and we were imprisoned for one year."
Having been jailed didn't deter Vireakso from trying to escape again, and he did succeed the second time in 1986. In Thailand, he stayed in a Buddhist temple, and taught French to earn a living. There he met an American friend who helped him tell his story and write letters about his country and the ongoing corruption that was eating the system. "My friend said that if I go back to Cambodia, I might be a target of the Hun Sen government," Vireakso said. "Indeed some Cambodian 'spies' have come to my friend's house to scare him and myself. It was then that I decided to come to the United States to tell my story. It's about time to let the world know that our present Cambodian government limits our freedom of speech and safety. No one can bad mouth the government or else he disappears. Someone may be hired to kill you, in the guise of armed robbery or something like that."
As to what he wants to happen in Cambodia, Vireakso said he hopes the United States would free his people and provide a safer society for all. When this writer asked: "Is that not tantamount to calling for another war in Cambodia?" Vireakso answered, "The system must be changed; the government must be replaced. And if I end up being killed because of what I believe in, I would be happy to die. I am no longer afraid."
Editor's Note: The people of Cambodia should be asked whether they favor foreign interference to solve their domestic problems every time a regime ends up squeezing its people. A reminder here of history must be said. The United States' Arclight missions bombed enemy troop dispositions in Cambodia in the summer of 1973, and the estimated deaths from these bombings alone range from a low of 30,000 to a high of 800,000. The missions must have delivered shattering blows to Cambodia's villages.
Lying to escape the killing fields
by Heidi M. Pascual
|Prak Vireakso is comfortable staying in a Buddhist temple, even for many years. In fact, he grew up in a Cambodian Buddhist temple where monks took care of him and sent him to school. He was five when his father passed away, and due to poverty, his mother took a seven-year old Vireakso to their local temple for adoption. He was in high school during the '60s, when Prince Norodom Sihanouk was Cambodia's strong man.|
|Prak Vireakso in Oregon's Buddhist Temple|