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General of the Army Bou Thoong

The former Cambodian officer received us at the headquarters of the Cambodian People's Party in Phnom Penh. He was both excited and moved talking about Cambodia-Vietnam friendship. Sometimes, he cited Vietnamese people’s folk verses to show his feelings for the close relationship of the two countries and for Vietnam. One of the verses literally means that regardless of all slanderous allegation, we still stand firm. Here are his stories about his experiences of the Vietnamese people’s Lunar New Year (Tet) Festival.

Born into a Tam Puon ethnic minority family in 1939, my childhood closely attached to mountains and forests in Ratanakiri, a northeastern province of Cambodia. In 1950, I was sent to a pagoda to study for three years. At the age of 15, I met Ba Tum, a Vietnamese volunteer soldier who taught me many things which were quite new to me. Thanks to his teaching, my queries about my homeland, my nation and the ruling feudal colonialism in Cambodia had become clear, so I decided to follow him and then joined the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cambodia.

Staying with Vietnamese soldiers, I for the first time knew about the atmosphere of traditional Lunar New Year (Tet) of the Vietnamese people. That was days in mid-February, 1953, Vietnamese soldiers went to forests to find dong (phrynium) leaves and bought ingredients, including glutinous rice and pork to make Chung cake (a cake made from glutinous rice traditionally dedicated to Tet). It was strange to me because the Vietnamese New Year festival came two months earlier than the Cambodian people’s New Year festival. Vietnamese soldiers explained that the Vietnamese people celebrated New Year annually based on the lunar calendar. Joining the cozy celebration with Vietnamese soldiers, I felt that they treated each other like brothers.

After months fighting in Laos, I was sent to Vietnam to attend a military and cultural training course in Mission 900B. During the time in Vietnam, I had an opportunity to celebrate the Year of the Goat with locals in Duc Tho district in 1955. At night, we had artistic exchanges with local leadership and people. Up to now, the melody of the song, “Ket doan” (solidarity), sang by soldiers, local leaders, and people remains fresh in my mind. I always wanted to sing the song when I experienced both ups and downs in my life.

In 1955 we began to study Vietnamese even though at that time I could listen and speak some Vietnamese. People said that I was good at languages because I could listen and speak languages of ethnic minority groups in Northeastern Cambodia, including Gia Rai and Tam Puon. I could also speak a little  Lao and Thai languages. In 1957, I finished the fifth grade. A solemn but friendly ceremony was held in the presence of the then Permanent Head of National Assembly (present Chairman of National Assembly) Ton Duc Thang. He presented me and my classmates with certificates of the illiteracy eradication course. We were so excited at the visit of the Vietnamese senior leader who later became President of Vietnam.

Also in the year, I officially joined the Vietnam People’s Army. My unit was stationed in Xuan Vien commune, Nghi Xuan district, Ha Tinh province, and I studied at non-commissioned officer training school for one year. During the time in Ha Tinh province, I had another happy New Year celebration with local people in 1958. Local damsels often asked me whether I was a Vietnamese soldier from the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Because of my fluent command of Vietnamese, they believed that I was a Vietnamese soldier. While staying there, I had a chance to visit Nghi Xuan – hometown of Vietnamese great poet Nguyen Du and read his masterpiece, “The Tale of Kieu” for the first time.  

From 1963 to 1970, I celebrated the Lunar New Year many times with Vietnamese troops in the North. To me, the most memorable thing was the sentiment of the Vietnamese troops for me. They all treated me like their family. To help me overcome homesickness, they gave me delicious food and best things to me, especially during the Lunar New Year festival.

On May 30, 1970, I was ordered to come back to Cambodian battlefields. Before the departure, we had a simple but cozy and friendly gathering in Hanoi. I remembered the first night after returning to Cambodia. I tossed and turned and could not fall asleep. The talking eyes and smiling faces of Vietnamese mothers and damsels from different localities of Vietnam and the cozy atmosphere of Lunar New Year festivals have always been in my heart. I did not know whether I could come back to the country where I had studied and had trained to become a mature person.

Having returned to Cambodia, I was appointed to head of a committee for road research of Northeastern Cambodia and then Assistant of the Northeastern Military Region in charge of training and education for troops.

In the following years from 1971 to 1973, I could celebrated New Year festivals with my compatriotic troops and people, but I could not forget the times when I celebrated the Lunar New Year in Vietnam during my entire youth from 17 years old to 32.

The New Year festival 1974, the Cambodian people were not in the mood of organizing New Year celebration as the Pol Pot regime started a brutal genocidal policy. They denied all impartial support of Vietnam and used Cambodians to kill Cambodians and used Cambodian troops who used to be friends of the Vietnamese people to kill innocent Vietnamese people. 

In late 1974, I decided to leave Pot Pot’s army to come back to Vietnam which I considered my second home country. I went through forests to Gia Lai province where I met a group of Cambodian ethnic minority rebels who were against Pol Pot. Instead of going to Thailand or America, I decided to stay in Vietnam because I knew that Vietnamese people were reliable friends of the genuine Cambodian revolutionaries. My feelings and thoughts about Vietnam remained unchanged.   

In the following years, as a leader of a rebel group from 12 different villages, I contacted high-ranking officials of the Communist Party of Vietnam. During the time, I had a chance to meet Nam Vinh, my former Vietnamese comrade. Having briefed him on the urgent situation in Cambodia, I asked him to report the situation to Vietnamese leaders. A year later, as a leader of the Gia Poc station, I was given a chance to meet leaders of the Party Central Committee of Vietnam. I put forward six proposals and received supports from the Vietnamese side. We asked Vietnam to help Cambodian troops and people liberate their country; allow us to meet Chea Sim, Heng Samrin, and Hun Sen who were in the South; help the Cambodian revolutionary forces form bases; assist the Cambodian revolutionary forces in building a military; help the Cambodian revolutionary forces establish a radio station; help the Cambodian revolutionary forces to call for more support and assistance from the outside world.

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General of the Army Bou Thoong and delegates of the Communist Party of Vietnam Central Committee's Commission for Information and Education in January, 2014.

Cambodia experienced the most difficult period in its contemporary history during 1975-78. The Cambodian people could only have a chance to celebrate New Year after the Vietnam-Cambodia joint victory over the Pol Pot genocidal regime on January 7, 1979. On the Lunar New Year 1979, a cozy and happy celebration was held in Phnom Penh by Vietnamese volunteer troops. That was considered a Tet of victory and deep-rooted sentiments of those who together freed the country from French colonialists, American invaders, and Pol Pot genocidal regime. That year, although Vietnam was economically difficult, the Vietnamese people tried their best to send pork, pickled onions, chung cakes, and parallel sentences to help Vietnamese advisors in Cambodia have an adequate Tet.

The happy Lunar New Year celebration with Vietnamese advisors in Phnom Penh that year made me very much miss the Tets which I had a chance to enjoy with the Vietnamese comrades in my young age.

Translated by Tran Hoai