Like so many other parts of the Kingdom, the Khnar Korkoh pagoda bears the scars of the terrible years of the so-called Democratic Kampuchea, when Cambodia fell under the tyrannical rule of Pol Pot’s radical Marxist Khmer Rouge regime.
The chief monk of the pagoda, Soy Sothy, has preserved the ruins of the original temple, so the young will see evidence of the hated regime’s abuse of the Kingdom’s Buddhist beliefs.
He told The Post that he had been chief monk there for more than 15 years, and is the 15th man to hold the post. The pagoda – almost 100km from Phnom Penh, in Doung Khpos commune’s Ta Sai village of Takeo province’s Borei Cholsar district – is 217 years old.
The remote pagoda has limited funds, and just seven monks reside there. The abandoned brick temple in the pagoda is 15m by 12m in size, and was used as a salt warehouse during the Khmer Rouge period. The effect of the salt on the building’s structure has made it liable to collapse at any time, and it has not been a place of worship for the past decade and a half.
“We are building a new temple to replace it, but as our funds are limited, we are building it in stages. We estimate the total cost will be around $400,000 by the time it is completed. We will keep the old temple as it is, because it serves as a symbol of how the Khmer Rouge tried to erase the Kingdom’s deeply held Buddhist beliefs,” said Sothy.
Because of the pagoda’s links to the darkest chapter of Cambodian history, Pheng Pong Rasy, director of Takeo Documentation Centre, under the umbrella of The Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam), chose it as the location for a series of public forums.
Held in late 2022, the most recent forum educated more than 120 families about the history of the Khmer Rouge.
“As well as discussing the atrocities of that time, we discussed human rights and strategies to eliminate violence in our society,” said Sothy, who attended the forum.
Doung Khpos commune chief Chhim Chheng told The Post that although the temple was not used as a place of killing, it remained an important link to history.
“There are bullet holes and scars from explosions, but the fact that an important temple was used as a salt warehouse really shows young people what the Khmer Rouge tried to do. The dilapidated state of the temple serves as evidence for how devastated the Kingdom and its people were by those terrible years,” he said.
He added that DC-Cam had run annual forums there for some time. It provided non-violent dispute resolution strategies and promoted human rights and mutual respect.
“As a result, the people of Ta Sai village are peaceful and we receive no complaints about domestic violence,” he continued.
Pheng Pong Rasy told The Post that the pagoda was selected because of its close links to the modern history of the province.
“From 1970 to 1975, it was used to treat wounded guerillas who were fighting with the soldiers of Lon Nol. Later it was used as temporary shelter for people who had been evacuated from Phnom Penh. From 1976 to 1978, this centuries old temple was used as a salt warehouse,” he said.
He added that one of the main purposes of the forums was to provide an opportunity for survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime to share their bitter history with the younger generation – often their own grandchildren and great grandchildren.
“We want to make sure that the youngest Khmer people are aware of what took place, as every day, more and more of the survivors pass away. We do not want their stories to be buried with them,” he said.
“Grassroots community education forums ensure that these memories will live on in the minds of the next generation,” he added.
Pong Rasy explained that the psychological trauma inflicted by the Khmer Rouge regime remains very much an issue, and one which affects the generations that follow.
“The elderly use the forum as an opportunity to speak about their experiences and share them with others, it may help to heal some of their emotional wounds,” he said.
“We have found that this is effective and also enlightening for the younger participants. While many of them had heard stories from that time, they had learnt them from teachers and books, so what took place became almost abstract to them. Hearing it directly from people they know brings it home to them,” he added.
This year, DC-Cam Takeo plans to hold public forums in six communities in Borei Cholsar and Tram Kak districts.
Tram Kak district was chosen for its close links to Ta Mok, one of the highest ranking members of the Khmer Rouge. He based himself there while he was the administrator of the province during the Khmer Rouge rule. Evidence remains of many bridges dams, canals and even houses constructed during the period.
“The people of Tram Kak knew Ta Mok well, but those in Borei Cholsar district are mostly migrants from other parts of the country. It will be interesting to hear the differences between their experiences,” he said.