History books at odds with local coolies
September 17, 2007, 3:07 am
Filed under: History

History books at odds with local coolies

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the end of Japanese wartime occupation of Cambodia. The history books say it was bad. However, Moeun Chhean Nariddh discovers that those who were meant to be downtrodden tell a very different story.

Srok keut sangkream heuy(the country is at war now), Keo Hiek’s father told him the night the first Japanese troops arrived in his village 50 years ago.

But, like many young Cambodians, Hiek did not understand what sangkream, or war, meant then.

Keo Hiek, now 69 in Sangke Bangve village, in Kampot’s Angko Chey district, recalls three Japanese soldiers coming there in mid-1945 and putting up a canvas tent.

That night he called a friend and, with fighting sticks in hand, walked to the strangers’ tent.

Hiek says they were treated well by the Japanese soldiers who gave them biscuits and cigarettes. The next day, before Hiek went to back to see his new friends as promised, his father warned him of war and not to go out at night.

Japanese soldiers were stationed in Cambodia, content to cooperate with the Vichy French from 1940 till seizing full control in March 1945.

Hiek remembers Japanese troops not venturing into his backwater district till mid-1945, and staying only a few months more before Allied troops came to enforce the Japanese surrender.

When the Japanese arrived in Kampot the conscription of Khmer coolies to work camps began.

Hiek says the Japanese troops built a guard post and put up several big guns to prevent “the French resistance”. He says the French were ordered to drive trucks carrying rocks for the Khmers for a big building project – an airport.

Hiek reckoned there were “a bit less than 10,000 coolies”, most of whom were volunteers, from different places and “hundreds of trucks” working on six adjacent airports in the area – two in Kampot and four in Takeo.

He says the coolies were arranged in teams of about twenty with a Japanese supervising each. They worked between 7:30am and 11am and 2-4:30pm.

Hiek says they just did light work. The Japanese did not care about how much work the coolies did “as long as they saw us working.”

The Japanese were only strict in controlling the movement of coolies, according to Hiek.

At 5pm the Japanese supervisors would take the coolies to get their daily wages which Hiek says was enough for food. One day they were told that they would have to work between 7pm and 10pm as well “but we got extra payment,” he says.

After just one month the airport of crushed rocks was finished – and immediately the following morning Japanese aircraft began landing. Hiek remembers the airport being very busy, though it only operated a month or so before the Japanese left.

Hiek says the only time he saw coolies beaten were when the Japanese caught them stealing things.

Prak Prum, 72, in Krom village, Traing district 30km south of Takeo, says he can hardly remember his coolie days. He recalled happy moments when Japanese soldiers wrestled with young Khmer men.

Prum says his friends who practiced Khmer martial arts would always beat the Japanese.

“But, they were not angry, just happy to play with us,” Prum says.

Ex-coolie Oum Puth, 71, in Thbong Kdei village, Kandal Stung district in Kandal, worked as a coolie on Potchentong airport and also describes conditions as “not too difficult”.

“There were three pieces of rock in one basket for two people to carry,” he says.

He says they were constructing a wooden house when the Japanese supervisor said “kugi” – telling the Khmer coolie to pass some nails up to him. But, Puth says, the Khmer coolie could not understand this language which sounded like the Khmer word “konhi” (female cow) and gave him the wrong things several times.

He says the Japanese supervisor became very angry and hit the coolie with a saw. But, in return, Puth says, the Japanese supervisor was beaten by his boss who saw the incident.

Puth says the boss sent the coolie to the hospital and picked up a shovel and hit the supervisor three times. He says the supervisor fell to the ground and stood up again to salute his boss.

69-year-old Koy Uth in Kompong Chhnang can still speak some Japanese words he learned half a century ago. He can remember his supervisor saying “Yuto” or “Yutonai” to praise or correct his work.

He can still remember giving one kak to the treasurer to get a riel note back every evening for his daily wage. He says wistfully “tveu kar dai muoy, totuol luy dai pee” – a rhyming joke meaning “working with one hand, while getting money with two hands” to refer to the ease of the work.

Besides the coolies who were conscripted to the work camps, according to Uth there were also other volunteers who came after finishing their farming. He says the volunteers numbered “more than half” of the coolies and were also paid the same wage.

He says some coolies even managed to save some money.

In Kompong Chhnang, there were three airfields built by the Japanese during the World War II. Two became ruined, but one – in Sre Thmei commune at Rolea Pa’ea district – was used up till 1975.

Koy Uth says in Kompong Chhnang, the Japanese also brought in “hundreds” of foreign coolies, Malaysians and Indians. They worked in separate teams from the Khmers, he says.

The Japanese used “not so modern” planes which needed a truck to help jumpstart the engine, Uth says. He says some planes needed two people to move the propellers, which took the same time to start as he took to finish a cigarette.

Uth says the Japanese, though strict, were more friendly than the French who were “snobby”. Like those in Takeo, he says some soldiers wrestled with Khmer men for fun.

Both the Japanese and Cambodian onlookers would cheer and laugh regardless of whether their side won or lost, Uth says.

However, Uth admits that there were also unhappy moments when some Japanese soldiers were angry and punished coolies who had done something wrong.

Uth says a Japanese supervisor beat one of his friends after finding out that he had been cheated. He says while they were told to collect rocks on ox-carts from a mountain ten kilometers away, his friend had collected the same rocks at the work camp ten times for ten nights.

He says the Japanese supervisor noticed that the piles of rocks had not increased for a few days and waited to see what happened. His friend was therefore caught red handed with the tenth cart of rocks, Uth says.

He says the Japanese supervisor then slapped him on his face, but was counter-attacked by his friend who beat him till he fell unconscious, and then he ran away.

DESPITE these claims by former coolies in four provinces, history books and some Cambodian nationalists argue that the Japanese treatment towards Cambodia and its people was “unbearable” and “unforgivable.”

A school book The Conscripted Coolies tells of suffering and hardship under the Japanese in Cambodia during World War II.

The book was published by Khmer newspaper publisher Im Thok in 1956 and is has been used in the current school curriculum since the early 1980s.

The book criticizes the ceding of Khmer soil to Thailand; the conscription of Cambodians to the work camps; and the bombing of Phnom Penh by the Americans because of the Japanese presence.

The Japanese supported Thailand and forced the French to sign an agreement to cede a number of Khmer provinces such as Sisophon town, Siem Reap, Kompong Thom and Stung Treng to Thailand on May 9,1941, according to Brief History of Cambodia published by the former USSR’s Institute of the Oriental Studies in 1981.

“When the fascist Japanese came, (commune leader) Phan brutally separated husbands from wives to work as coolies for the Japanese troops at Pochentong,” Im Thok wrote.

“He knew that I would get married next month, but he closed his eyes and conscripted me to work as a coolie for the Japanese,” Thok wrote about a villager in Kandal Stung district.

“During the previous conscription, Phan even forced (a villager named) In, who was sick, to work at Pochentong till he died there,” the book reads.

“One hundred coolies were conscripted at a time from each commune… if anybody refused to go, the commune heads would shackle and send them to the district or provincial headquarters.”

“All the conscripted coolies, wearing torn clothes, sat on the ground and treated as if they were guilty of robbery or theft,” it says.

“The coolies were detained by the Japanese soldiers to work on the airport in the base surrounded by barbed wire.”

“The coolies told each other about the bad treatment… some were angry with the Japanese who had hit them on the heads.”

“Almost all Cambodians covered themselves with sacks… some families only had on skirt for three or four people.”

Meanwhile, former Cambodian Prime Minister Pen Sovann told the Post he was very critical of the treatment meted out by the Japanese. He was not old enough to be conscripted as a coolie.

In an interview at his residence in Takeo last month, the 59-year-old former head of state said before the Japanese came to Cambodia they ordered the people to pull out all the food crops, and to grow castor-bean plants, jute and kapok trees instead.

“If we didn’t pull out the crops, they would arrest and punish us. And people would sometimes disappear,” he said.

“At the demand of the Japanese administration, the French forced the Khmer to use their land to technical crops to supply the Japanese economy” History of Cambodia agrees with Sovann.

The book says Japan’s policy for Cambodia was to use this country as a military base and abstract raw materials from its agriculture at “a very low price.”

During this period, according to the recorded history, important irrigation systems were damaged and arable land abandoned. Cambodia’s agricultural production decreased by 20-30 percent between 1941-48, it says.

Cambodia’s foreign trade was almost entirely under the Japanese control with 90% export and 70% import, according to the book.

The deterioration of the economy, the devaluation of the currency and the people’s living standard turned “critical,” it says.
Sovann said people would eat whatever they could chew to survive such as stems of banana and papaya trees. And there was no salt, he said.

He said people used rice sacks, hand woven kapok cloth and straw mats to dress themselves.

He spoke of bad treatment in Takeo, where his father was conscripted as a coolie till he fell sick and died.

“Their aim was to eradicate the Khmer race and bring in the Japanese,” said Sovann.

“The Japanese control made people from all walks of life in the Khmer society – both in the countryside and town – very angry,” Brief History of Cambodia reads.

The former Prime Minister said that the affects were even more critical when the Japanese left Cambodia.

He said the aftermath was that there were people dying from malnutrition.

“We could say that it was even more serious than during the Khmer Rouge,” Sovann claimed. “During the Khmer Rouge time, we had black clothes to wear and rice porridge to eat,” he said. “The Khmer Rouge urged us to grow crops.”

The ex-Premier said that the Japanese government must compensate for all these bad treatment on the Cambodian people.

“The Japanese government should review what they had done to our people,” Sovann said.

However, all the former coolies, ex-monks and old villagers interviewed by the Post strongly disagreed with the former Premier’s comparison – and the history books – of the Japanese occupation.

They agree that the situation was “a bit” more difficult than under the French, but that it was “a world better” than during the Khmer Rouge.

While the Khmer Rouge accused the sick of pretending to be ill and not giving them any medicine, former coolie Hiek says there were Japanese doctors at the construction sites who would constantly take care of the coolies.

“Even if we cut our hands a little bit, they would come and cure it,” he says.

Puth in Kandal Stung adds that the Khmer Rouge would not let him see his sick mother “and they would insult us and ask if we were physicians.”

Though they agree with Sovann that there was a shortage of clothes and goods on sale at the markets, the coolies did not agree that the Japanese forced people to pull out their crops.

They said most people had enough food to eat under the Japanese, while the Khmer Rouge only gave people “watery rice porridge” to eat after a day of hard work.

“For three years, eight months and 20 days [under the Khmer Rouge], nobody smiled; we knew only tears,” says Koy Uth in Kompong Chhnang.

Phnom Penh Post, Issue 4/19, September 22 – October 5, 1995
© Michael Hayes, 2000. All rights revert to authors and artists on publication.
For permission to publish any part of this publication, contact
Michael Hayes, Editor-in-Chief
http://www.PhnomPenhPost.com – Any comments on the website to


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