By Greg Young
Northwest Asian Weekly
On August 29th, the Seattle-Sihanoukville Sister City Association held an event at North Seattle Community College, “Remembering the Past & Welcoming the Future: 40 Years Since the Killing Fields.” This year marks the 40th anniversary since the breakout of the Cambodian genocide conducted by the Khmer Rouge, a period of time which saw the deaths of nearly two million people. After 1979, over 140,000 refugees relocated to the United States, predominately in the Northwest; Washington State is the home of a third of the nation’s Cambodian population. Representatives of Washington State, including Governor Jay Inslee and Seattle Mayor Edward Murray, declared August 29th 2015 as a Cambodian Day of Remembrance.
Cambodians gathered to the community college to remember the past, and some of the older
gentlemen agreed to speak out about their experiences. These speakers included Sameth Mom and Buntham Oum. They spoke to an audience in the North Star room of the Baxter Center about their experiences as victims of the killing fields. When Sameth told his story, he spoke with passion, with a fire in his voice that remained lit after so many years.
The event had a number of notable speakers, including Councilmember Tom Rassmussen, who spoke about his efforts with civil rights in Seattle, and Councilmember Larry Gossett, who said, “There’s also been no other people who have gathered the confidence and exuded the spirit necessary to figure out of that kind of situation.” There was also a very special guest who spoke for the audience via Skype: American actor Sam Waterston.
Telling their story: Sameth’s Mom
Sameth remembered the Khmer Rouge when he was a young man and his father was in the military, involved with the Hok Teng operation. In the beginning, they look at the Khmer Rouge with high hopes, that they would bring happiness, “food, freedom, and unity.”
Soon, he and his family were separated and given various relocation assignments; the elderly were separated from the middle aged and the young. Sameth was assigned to build automobiles. But still, at this time Sameth had high hopes. He saw the new burgeoning auto industry as “a driving force of the new economy.” But soon he longed to reunite with his family, only to discover that only a few of his 56 known members had been murdered.
Very soon after, he found himself in the army, fighting against the Khmer Rouge and later against Vietnamese occupation. He received asylum in the United States in 1994.
Telling their story: Bunthan Oum
Bunthan was an elementary school teacher in the province of Battamband when the Khmer Rouge took him and his family away. At the time he was an idealistic, enthusiastic, young man, looking forward to the future. Over the period of a few months, cities slowly emptied out, and schools and private property were eradicated. The religious voice of the country was extinguished.
Bunthan was assigned to the rice fields and spent 12 to 16 hours per day in the fields. When he wasn’t harvesting rice, he dug canals and built dams.
One day, Buntham was sent away to see the commune leaders. He was so certain of his fate that he said his goodbyes that night. He was interrogated for an hour. He was lucky to have been sent free; not many were so lucky.
Buntham applied for asylum in various countries; USA, France, Australia, and Sweden. He arrived in the US July 31, 1980.
A special guest speaker: Sam Waterston
Sam Waterston is an American actor who played the leading role in “The Killing Fields,” the 1984 drama about a New York Times correspondent and his translator and friend, a Cambodian citizen who is later sucked into the titular killing fields Waterston played opposite the Cambodian actor Dr. Haing S. Ngor, a survivor of the genocide. Waterston appeared for a brief talk about his experiences working with Dr. Ngor and his attitudes towards war and genocide. (end)