April 17, 2000, the Khmer Student Association (KhSA) at the University of Washington, hosted a Candlelight Vigil. The purpose of this vigil was to commemorate the two million Cambodian lives lost during Pol Pot’s regime between 1975-1979.
April 17th, 1975, is the day the Khmer Rouge entered the capital, Phnom Penh, and forever changed Cambodian history. The Khmer Rouge evacuated the cities and forced the people to live and work in the countryside. They planned to make Cambodia a self-sufficient country forcing the people to work 12-15 hours a day. The Khmer Rouge persecuted the monks, the educated, and the wealthy. In the end, approximately 2 million Cambodians died, either of persecution, overwork, or starvation.
On April 15, 1998, Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge died. Later the Khmer Rouge defected to the government.
Student organizers of the vigil were inspired by listening to author Loung Ung speak during their spring break. She is the author of First They Killed My Father. Ung reminded them that this year marked the 25th year since the Khmer Rouge entered Cambodia.
This first annual candlelight vigil brought the Cambodian community together because April 17th, has an emotional connection to every Cambodian alive. KhSA received emails and responses from California, Washington DC to as far as the Philippines, Montreal, and Cambodia.
This vigil was also chance for people outside the Cambodian community to gain awareness that it has been 25 years and not a single Khmer Rouge leader has been punished for the killings of two million human lives.
KhSA constructed a mural to commemorate the 2 million lives lost during the war. These lost but not forgotten souls of the war had their names contributed by family members to a piece entitled “Remembering the Fallen”. During the event people lighted incense and gave prayers in remembrance of those that died.
“As a young Cambodian-American living here, I feel that a small chapter of our history has yet to be closed. Although most Cambodians of our generation did not live through those nightmarish four years, we all are affected by the corruption of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge. This first annual event has not only brought us together but also educated our generation about what happened.”
Included in the event were personal accounts of three students. Nikum Pon, a senior and KhSA’s treasurer, spoke about his near death experience when he was an infant. His father, a professor, was a target for the Khmer Rouge and was executed in front of his mother. His mother, who fled to Thailand, gave birth to him in the jungle. But malnourished he turned blue and stopped breathing. His mother who did not want to bury her son in the land where her husband died carried Pon to Thailand. On the way there, she found a plastic bag and placed him in there. When their family reached Thailand, they took him out of the plastic bag to bury him. Miraculously he started breathing. He was only saved by what he said was the “breath of the Lord.”
Student speaker, Islanda Khau, sophomore in graphic design, spoke of how joining KhSA made her question about her past. This led her to have a close conversation with her parents in understanding what happened during the war.
“My parents lost everything, to give me everything,” Khau said.
The last student speaker Many Dan, was president of the New Cambodian Generation at Tacoma Community College. Dan spoke about his struggles after the war, this included adapting to the American culture and learning the English language. Currently his organization is raising money to help landmine victims in Cambodia.
During the event an open mic was held for people to come up and speak about what they felt most comfortable sharing. It was a time for people to share what April 17th meant to them. Among the speakers was Sunaro Prom who read her poem, “The Survival of a Night String” and Sophea El who read a Khmer poem entitled “Jivit Kon Khmer Knong Songkream”.
Others like Lee Lim and San Pan, spoke about their life during the war.
Pan who lived by the Tonle Sap said, “Everyday that I stay by there [the Tonle Sap], I saw many people die along the river, from blue green river to red.”
Each and everyone who spoke during the open mic had a touching story. Many elders who attended the vigil could relate to the speakers and they themselves cried throughout the event because their stories made them remember their own.
A representative from Western Washington University said, “Kill the ignorance, but don’t kill us!”
The open mic came to a close with a prayer chant from the venerable Buddhist Monks of the Khmer Buddhist Society of Seattle.
Luong Ung, the special guest speaker for the evening also spoke about her life before and after the war. She urged us to understand where we came from. The words she uttered that evening and the evening she inspired the student organizers of the event was, “America is my home, Cambodia is my heart.”
The Candlelight Vigil came to a close with a moment of silence and the song “Imagine” by John Lennon.
“Slowly, Cambodians speak out.”