My Long Journey From Life and Death in Cambodia
AS TOLD BY WATHANA MEAS
IT WAS 1974, and I was fighting the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. I was an officer in the Cambodian army. In one battle we captured a Khmer Rouge soldier. What he told me about Pol Pot’s plans for the future changed my life and started me on a long journey, both literally and spiritually.*
But allow me to take you to the beginning of my odyssey. I was born in 1945, in Phnom Penh, in what is known in the Khmer language as Kampuchea (Cambodia). My mother eventually held an important post in the secret police. She was a special agent for Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the ruler of the country. Since she was left alone with me and her schedule was busy, she felt obliged to leave me at a Buddhist temple to be educated.
My Buddhist Background
I was eight years old when I went to live with the chief Buddhist monk. From that year until 1969, I divided my time between the temple and home. The monk I served was Chuon Nat, the highest Buddhist authority in Cambodia at that time. For a while, I worked as his secretary and assisted him in the translation of the Buddhist holy book “The Three Baskets” (Tipitaka, or Sanskrit Tripitaka) from an ancient Indian language into Cambodian.
I was inducted as a monk in 1964 and served as such until 1969. During this period there were many questions that bothered me, such as, Why is there so much suffering in the world, and how did it start? I saw people try in many ways to please their gods, but they did not know how their gods could solve their problems. I could not find a satisfactory answer in the Buddhist writings, and the other monks couldn’t either. I became so disillusioned that I decided to quit the temple, and I gave up being a monk.
Finally, in 1971, I joined the Cambodian army. I was sent to Vietnam about 1971, and because of my educational background, I was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant and was assigned to special forces. We were fighting against the Communist Khmer Rouge and Vietcong forces.
War and Changes in Cambodia
I became a war-hardened veteran. I got used to seeing death almost on a daily basis. I personally engaged in 157 battles. One time, deep in the jungle, we were surrounded for over a month by the Khmer Rouge. More than 700 men died. We were left with about 15 survivors—I was one of them, and I was wounded. But I got out alive.
On another occasion, in 1974, we captured a Khmer Rouge soldier. As I interrogated him, he told me that Pol Pot planned to exterminate all former government officials, including those in the army. He told me to drop everything and run away. He said: “Keep changing your name. Don’t let anyone know who you are. Act ignorant and uneducated. Don’t tell anyone about your previous life.” After I let him go back to his home, that warning stuck in my mind.
We soldiers had been told that we were fighting for our country, and yet, we were killing Cambodians. The Khmer Rouge, a Communist faction seeking power, were from our own people. In fact, the majority of the nine million inhabitants of Cambodia are Khmer, although most of them do not belong to the Khmer Rouge. It didn’t make any sense to me. We were killing innocent farmers who had no guns and had no interest in the war.
Returning from battle was always a heartrending experience. Wives and children would be there, waiting anxiously to see if the husband or father had returned. I had to tell many of them that their family member had been killed. In all of this, my understanding of Buddhism provided me with no comfort.
I think back now on how things changed in Cambodia. Before 1970, there was relative peace and security. Most people did not possess a gun; it was illegal unless you had a license. There was very little robbery or theft. But after the civil war started with the rebellion of Pol Pot and his forces, everything changed. Guns were everywhere. Even youngsters of 12 and 13 were being trained for military service, learning how to shoot and kill. Pol Pot’s people convinced some children to kill their own parents. The soldiers would tell the children, “If you love your country, you have to hate your enemies. If your parents work for the government, they are our enemies and you must kill them—or be killed yourself.”
Pol Pot and the Purge
In 1975, Pol Pot won the war and Cambodia became a Communist nation. Pol Pot started a purge of all students, teachers, government officials, and anyone else with an education. If you wore glasses, you could be killed because it was assumed that you were educated! The Pol Pot regime forced most people out of the cities and towns and moved them to the countryside to work as farmers. Everybody had to dress in the same style. We had to work 15 hours a day, with insufficient food, no medicine, no clothes, and just 2 or 3 hours of sleep. I decided to leave my homeland before it was too late.
I remembered the advice of that Khmer Rouge soldier. I threw away all photos, papers, and anything that could incriminate me. I dug a hole and buried some of my documents. Then I traveled westward toward Thailand. It was dangerous. I had to avoid roadblocks and be really careful during curfew hours, since only Khmer Rouge soldiers could travel, with official permission.
I went to one area and lived with a friend for a while. Then the Khmer Rouge moved everyone from that place to a new location. They started to kill off the teachers and the doctors. I escaped with three friends. We hid in the jungle and ate what fruit we could find on the trees. Eventually, I came to a small village in the province of Battambang, where a friend of mine lived. To my surprise, there I also found the former soldier who had advised me on how to escape! Since I had set him free, he hid me in a pit for three months. He directed a child to drop food to me but not to look in the pit.
In time, I was able to escape, and I found my mother, my aunt, and my sister, who were also fleeing toward the Thai border. It was a sad time for me. My mother was sick, and eventually she died from disease and lack of food, in a refugee camp. However, one ray of light and hope came into my life. I met Sopheap Um, the woman who became my wife. We escaped, together with my aunt and my sister, across the Thai border and into a United Nations refugee camp. Our family paid a high price in Cambodia’s civil war. We lost 18 family members, including my brother and my sister-in-law.
A New Life in the United States
Our background was checked at the refugee camp, and the UN tried to find a sponsor for us so that we could go to the United States. Finally, success! In 1980, we arrived in St. Paul, Minnesota. I knew that I needed to learn English as soon as possible if I was going to progress in my new country. My sponsor sent me to school for only a few months, although I was supposed to study longer. Instead, he got me a job as a janitor in a hotel. But with my limited English, it became a comedy of errors. The owner would ask me to get a ladder, and I would bring back the trash!
A Scary Visit
In 1984, I was working the night shift and sleeping during the day. We lived in an area where there was a lot of tension between Asians and blacks. Crime and drugs were common. One morning, my wife woke me up at ten o’clock to tell me that there was a black man at the door. She was scared because she thought he had come to rob us. I peeked through the door, and there stood a well-dressed black man with a briefcase, and a white man was with him. It seemed to me that nothing was amiss.
I asked him what he was selling. He showed me copies of the Watchtower and Awake! magazines. I did not understand anything. I tried to refuse them because a couple of months before, I had been deceived into paying $165 for a set of five books from a Protestant salesman. However, the black man showed me the illustrations in the magazines. The pictures were so pleasant and beautiful! And the man had a big, friendly smile. So I donated $1 and took them.
About two weeks later, he came back and asked me if I had a Cambodian Bible. As it happened, I did have one that I had got at a Nazarene church, although I did not understand it. But I was impressed that two men of different races had come to my door. Then he asked me, “Do you want to learn English?” Of course I did, but I explained that I did not have money to pay for lessons. He told me that he would teach me without charge, using a Bible-based publication. Even though I did not know what religion he represented, I thought to myself, ‘At least I don’t have to pay, and I will learn to read and write English.’
Learning English and the Bible
It was a slow process. He would show me the first book of the Bible, Genesis, and then I would say it in Cambodian, “Lo ca bat.” He would say, “Bible,” and I would say, “Compee.” I began to make progress, and I was motivated. I used to take my English-Cambodian dictionary, a Watchtower magazine, the New World Translation of the Bible, and my Cambodian Bible to work. During my break, I studied and learned English, word by word, by comparing the publications. This slow process, along with weekly lessons, took over three years. But, at last, I could read English!
My wife was still attending the Buddhist temple, and she was leaving food out for the ancestors. Of course, the only ones who benefited were the flies! I had many deeply ingrained bad habits that went back to my days in the army and in Buddhism. When I was a monk, the people used to bring offerings, including cigarettes. They believed that if the monk smoked the cigarettes, it was as if their ancestors were smoking. Thus, I became a victim of nicotine addiction. Then, too, in the army I drank very heavily and smoked opium to give me courage for the battles. Thus, when I started to study the Bible, I had to make a lot of changes. That is when I discovered that prayer is a great help. In a matter of a few months, I overcame my bad habits. How that pleased the rest of the family!
I got baptized as a Witness in 1989, in Minnesota. About that time I learned that there was a Cambodian-speaking group of Witnesses and also a large Cambodian population in Long Beach, California. After my wife and I discussed it, we decided to move to Long Beach. It was a change that made all the difference! My sister was baptized first, then my aunt (who is now 85 years old) and my wife. My three children followed. Eventually, my sister married a Witness, who now serves as an elder in the congregation.
Here in the United States, we have gone through many trials. We have experienced severe financial difficulties and some health problems, but by adhering to Bible principles, we have maintained our trust in Jehovah. He has blessed my efforts in the spiritual field. In 1992, I was appointed to serve as a ministerial servant in the congregation, and in 1995, I became an elder here in Long Beach.
For now, the long journey that started when I was a Buddhist monk and then an officer in the battlefields of war-torn Cambodia has ended with peace and happiness in our new home and country. And we have our newfound faith in Jehovah God and Christ Jesus. It pains me to know that people are still killing one another in Cambodia. All the more reason for my family and me to await and to announce the promised new world, where all wars will cease and all people will truly love their neighbors as themselves!—Isaiah 2:2-4; Matthew 22:37-39; Revelation 21:1-4.
Pol Pot was then the Communist leader of the Khmer Rouge army, which won the war and took over Cambodia.
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During my years as a Buddhist monk
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With my family, at the Kingdom Hall