Every Cambodian who survived the brutal Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979) has a story to tell about their experience during the dark period in the country’s history known as “Year Zero”. While many would rather avoid talking about the painful memories, others have chosen to share their experiences through memoirs to remind the world about their suffering under the regime. The most well-known example is perhaps Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father, which was adapted into a movie directed by Hollywood A-lister Angelina Jolie. Yet the first ground-breaking memoir was actually Stay Alive, My Son, penned by Cambodian engineer Pin Yathay. Besides drawing the world’s attention to the tragedies suffered by his nation, there was another poignant reason for writing the book: Yathay hoped to find his lost son. Taing Rinith documents his quest.
It was one morning in late May 1977 when a painfully thin man in worn-out clothes staggered, barefoot, through the dense jungle covering the mountain range which separates Cambodia’s Pursat province and Thailand’s Chanthaburi province.
While it could have been the day that saw the release of the soon-to-be-cult-movie Star Wars or daredevil George Willig making headline news for climbing the South Tower of the World Trade Centre in the US, it marked the moment that Pin Yathay tasted sweet freedom. His daring escape followed two years of ruthless oppression by the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge when Cambodia had been completely cut off from the outside world.
During his journey “out of the hell on earth”, Yathay had to live on wild fruits and small animals he hunted. When the two lighters he’d brought from the village ran out of gas, he had no choice but to eat the animals he killed in their raw state.
“Looking back, it scares me – eating living mountain turtles, snakes and bats,” Yathay, now in his seventies, tells GT2 in an interview 43 years later after his incredible bid to survive. “But I didn’t feel anything apart from hunger. It was their lives or mine.”
“In fact, living under the Khmer Rouge, I was almost used to eating food like that. Everyone in my village, except for the cadres, were starving. Some even became cannibals, eating the meat from dead bodies.”
If an outsider had seen Yathay during his escape from Cambodia, they would never have guessed that this undernourished, traumatised man had once been an accomplished engineer with a degree from the École Polytechnique de Montréal in Canada.
Before April 1975, Yathay was working for the Ministry of Public Works as the head of the New Projects and Equipment Department. He had been living happily with his wife Anny and his three sons in Phnom Penh until the Khmer Rouge defeated the US-backed Khmer Republic’s army and occupied the capital. Like most Phnom Penh residents, they, along with a further 13 members of their extended family, were evicted to the countryside, a march that claimed countless lives and for survivors, led to a life of forced labour and fear under the watchful eye of the Angkar. Despite leaving their home with plentiful food supplies and valuable things to barter, the family soon faced desperate hunger after being forced to move so many times from one place in the country to another.
By 1977, most of Yathay’s family members, including his eldest and youngest son, had perished from malnutrition, overwork or sickness. Yathay himself was under the shadow of death every day because he was a scholar and a former official of the old regime, which meant he was in the two groups of people targeted by the Khmer Rouge for execution. Despite his attempt to hide his educated background, Yathay was eventually discovered by a Khmer Rouge cadre who used to work under him as a road worker. Fearing a cruel death, he made a bid for freedom by walking over the mountains that separated Cambodia from Thailand.
“We had to leave Nawath, our second and only surviving son, with a woman who worked in the Khmer Rouge’s village hospital,” Yathay recalls. “It was very painful for my wife and me, but we didn’t have any other choice. Taking him with us would have been very hard and if we had stayed, we would have surely died.”
Yathay reached Thailand safely two months later, on Oct 22, 1977, becoming one of the very few survivors who escaped the Khmer Rouge occupation. Tragically, his wife had perished in a forest fire during the precarious journey.
“When I reached Thailand, I was imprisoned for one week, although I was awarded my refugee status for illegal immigration,” Yathay explains.
“But I was more than happy to walk into Thai prison. With a roof over my head and enough food to eat, it was so much better than the Khmer Rouge prison without walls.”
Recording the truth
After his release from prison, Yathay was sent to live at a refugee camp in Mai Ruth. Reporters from around the world came to the settlement to interview him about Cambodian people’s lives under the Khmer Rouge, which at that time was lying to the world about its “agrarian utopia”. Yathay’s testimony gave a true insight into the brutal reality and his people’s suffering. Later, he travelled to Europe, Canada and the United States to speak publicly about his country’s plight, but was disheartened by their lack of action.
“I wanted the Western world to help Cambodia, but those countries did not do anything, saying that the right of Democratic Kampuchea as a government could not be violated,” Yathay says. “But the truth is that even the right to live was taken away from the innocent people in Cambodia.
They were left to help themselves.”
Yathay found a home in France and began to rebuild his life and re-establish his career, working first as a project engineer in France, then with the Asian Development Bank based in Manila, before joining the French Development Agency in Paris. He also remarried and had three further sons.
Despite living a good life in Paris, Yathay was haunted by his decision to abandon his son so that he and his wife could live. Meanwhile, many of his friends and the reporters he met suggested he write a book about his life with Khmer Rouge: this led to the publication of his best-selling memoir Stay Alive, My Son in 1987.
“The title comes from the words my late father uttered when I told him that I wanted to leave the country,” Yathay says. “It was also my last words to Nawath before I left him.”
Initially published in English by London-based Cornell University Press, Stay Alive, My Son, was the first memoir written by a Khmer Rouge survivor and doubled up as one of the first official testimonies against the brutal regime.
Historian and Cambodian expert David Chandlers, who wrote the foreword for Stay Alive, My Son, says that Yathay’s book stands apart from other well-known works, such as First They Killed My Father and When Broken Glass Floats by Chanrithy Him (both published afterwards) because of his age and insight.
“Nearly all of the later memoirs were written by people who had been children or teenagers under the Khmer Rouge. Pin Yathay, however, was in his early thirties in 1975 and married with three children,” Chandler explains. “When he started writing, the Khmer Rouge was still in power and the movement drew scattered but vehement support from radicals in France and elsewhere. Also, as a mature, alert professional, Yathay could scrutinise and evaluate the movement in ways that children or teenagers could not.”
The book was so popular that it was translated into many languages. However, the Khmer version was not available in Cambodia until 2003, and continuing high demand meant it was republished in 2006 and 2009.
While Yathay was delighted with his success as a writer, he still hopes that his son Nawath may be alive and the book will one day lead to their reunion.
“If he is still alive, Nawath would be in his fifties now,” Yathay says. “I miss him whenever I read my book and I hope he will come back to me if he ever reads the same book.”
Keeping the memories alive
However, as times goes by and Yathay’s hope to meet his lost son shrinks, he hopes his book will be be a great historical account for people in future generations.
“Many people said we should forget the Khmer Rouge and look forward, but such memories should not be forgotten,” Yathay said during the launch of the fourth edition of Stay Alive, My Son at the French Institute of Cambodia on Thursday last week.
“If we stop talking about it, what the survivors have witnessed would someday become a myth. Besides, young people need to learn about it to prevent it from happening again.”
The new edition of the book comes with Yathay’s new foreword, which highlights the testimony he gave as a witness at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal on February 7, 2013, where he asked the accused to confess to their crimes.
“I also called for all survivors to pass their memories to their children and young children in any way possible,” Yathay says. “At least it means that those memories will still be alive when we die.”