Surviving Four Regimes
Lessons of God’s provision from a time of starvation and pain
by Brad Miller
Phon Khiev is the grandfather of my host family and the pastor of a local church here in Battambang. One evening he mentioned casually that in his seventy-four years he had lived through four different regimes – French rule, independence, Khmer Rouge, and democracy. I had been reading about Cambodia’s history, and suddenly here it was right in front of me! I knew I wanted to learn more, so I asked if he would be willing for me to interview him. He agreed.
I sat down with him on a sunny Thursday afternoon. We met in the office of the guest home his family runs – three walls with a fourth side open to the outside air and the cool breezes of the courtyard. As we began the interview, I expected to hear about a tragedy that challenged his belief or trust in God. It turns out I had it completely backwards.
He poured me a glass of green tea and began telling me about growing up in Cambodia in the 1950s, the difficulties of growing up as an orphan and struggling through school, as well as growing up Christian – quite a rarity at that time.
With tireless, stubborn dedication to his dream of being a teacher, Phon finished school and began working. He got married and started a family. Then in 1970, everything changed.
“1970 is the year that the king was betrayed. The king left the country and the general proclaimed himself to be the president of the republic of Cambodia. At that time I was learning in the faculty… at night I had to wear my army clothes and gun… to protect the country.”
I was stunned. Phon sat across from me, with a mop of wispy grey hair and a paisley shirt, quietly describing the order for all the faculty and students to take armed shifts patrolling the capital at night.
Despite the drama of a coup, life eventually returned to normal. Phon returned to work as an educator and even started his own school. But this sense of normalcy didn’t last long. The new government held an election and the now-infamous Pol Pot was declared leader. The regime of the Khmer Rouge had begun.
Under the Khmer Rouge, Phon’s community was required to write their work history as proof of loyalty. A few days after submitting their forms, soldiers returned. One by one, villagers were chosen to “go and learn” at special training facilities. None of the chosen were ever seen again.
Phon and his family, however, were not chosen. Along with others who remained, they were then forced out of their home to a remote forest village. Phon described a hellish world of forced labor, near starvation, and the constant threat of arbitrary execution.
Everything Phon worked for had been lost: his home, his job, his money and possessions were all gone. And now he and his family were in constant danger, powerless to escape. If there were ever a time and place to doubt God, this would seem to be it. But when I asked Phon if he ever felt God had abandoned him, he only looked confused.
It had never truly crossed his mind.
I couldn’t image how this was possible. I asked Phon how he stayed so constant, what he did or thought about that got him through. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know why, but we just prayed.”
Everyday they prayed. In secret they continued to practice their faith. And instead of having his faith broken, Phon discovered his faith growing stronger every day. Instead of feeling like God had abandoned him, each day brought new evidence of His protection.
I was speechless. To me, prayer was always the extra thing I neglected, or it was something I did for someone else. I never imagined it could turn genocide into a faith-building experience.
But in every situation, Phon prayed. Three times he was at risk for execution, the third time a soldier actually marched him out to an abandoned rice field.
“I was so scared. So I just prayed. I didn’t know what to say or what to do. I had nothing, so I just prayed.”
Miraculously, Phon was protected. And when liberation came in 1979 he and his family were able to flee the village and escape the pursuing soldiers. After many years of terror and starvation, they finally came home.
But Phon returned a different man. Before the Khmer Rouge he was hardworking, ambitious, and tireless in the pursuit of his dreams and his goals. But now Phon had seen the power of prayer, he had experience the provision of God, and he wasn’t going back to a life without it. He decided to start using his talents to serve God.
He helped his community rebuild. As Christianity began to spread after the Khmer Rouge, there was a desperate need for native Cambodian preachers. Phon stepped into this gap and began preaching, later becoming a pastor.
And suddenly, a great number of “coincidences” started happening: open jobs, a new home, opportunities to witness, provision for his family… In the wake of tragedy, Phon discovered a life of blessings he never expected.
“I saw that when you try to do everything by yourself, you have nothing. From the beginning of my life I was a teacher, a principal. I even had a lot of money. Then everything was gone, destroyed by Pol Pot. I came back only skin and bones and clutching a stick. But when I promised to serve God and I began to preach and help the church I saw God provide for me in way He never had before.”
I could understand lessons about the cruelty of humans, or about justice and forgiveness, but I never expected to learn about God’s provision from a man who once faced starvation.
But after seven decades and four regimes, Phon Khiev sat across his wooden desk and smiled at me. The story he tells is not about the evils of the Khmer Rouge, but about the bountiful provision of God.
“From that time on, whenever I try to serve God, He gives me back everything I need. As an orphan I had nothing. But now you can see a house like this. I didn’t believe it myself,” Phon chuckled. “Our God is good.”