February 22, 2010

Rumors of War and the Shape of Things – chapter 6

Cry of the Gecko

Chapter Six                Rumors of War and the Shape of Things

Massacre of Vietnamese (1970)

In 1970, World Vision (WVI) first entered Cambodia in response to the Cambodian government’s international appeals for assistance. WV International President, Dr. Stan Mooneyham, led a convoy of trucks carrying US$100,000 worth of medicine and supplies from Saigon to Phnom Penh.”[1]

WV stayed in Cambodia and, in the following five years, carried out various relief and development activities. This included building the National Pediatric Hospital, constructing schools, sponsoring children, building housing units for refugees, remodeling and staffing medical clinics, conducting emergency feeding and distribution programs for refugees and holding leadership training seminars for the Khmer Evangelical Church.”[2]

Two thousand Vietnamese were massacred by Lon Nol’s troops in Takeo, Kompot, Phnom Penh and Chhba Ampov (just southeast of Phnom Penh). Those slaughtered in Phnom Penh apparently included many Catholic believers from Chroy Changvar including seven priests (5 French and 2 Vietnamese), who were not only suspected of being Viet Cong, but those who   brought the war into Cambodia through the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They were gathered to internment camps where they were lined up, tied together and shot. Where camps were on the Mekong, Vietnamese were lined up on the river banks, shot and they fell into the river. Witnesses say the Mekong ran red during the massacre. All Vietnamese were expelled by Lon Nol during that time. It decimated the Catholic Church, leaving only a few Cambodian Catholics. In spite of the tragedy, it did ultimately help “Cambodianize” the Catholic Church here in Cambodia.

The arrival of evangelical Christian NGOs seemed to be a great boost for the evangelical church, but many were skeptical of the motives of those who become Christians through the hiring and work of those NGOs.

When Reverend Heng Cheng was ready to graduate from High School in 1970-71 he went, like all provincial High School students who wanted to graduate, to Phnom Penh to take exams. After passing his exams, he went back to Kampot because he didn’t have the money or place to stay to continue his studies in Phnom Penh. (Cheng’s [M1] oldest cousin died in 1978 in a refugee camp in Song Be of Vietnam’s Central Highlands).

A more compelling reason for Cheng leaving Phnom Penh was the fighting between FANK and the Khmer Rouge, which no one could successfully avoid. Ironically, he became a soldier in the Special Forces of Lon Nol’s Republic, fighting against the Viet Cong and Khmer Rouge. He served as a Captain in Mike Force until 1973, when he was wounded in the lower calf. [Mike Force consisted of Cambodians trained by American Special Forces units, who rode around in trucks with “Tomorrow We Die” signs pasted on the sides. In one particular battle Cheng lost all but twenty men out of the one hundred and twenty in his company.] That same year, just before his stepmother died in Kampot during an artillery barrage between the Khmer Rouge and Lon Nol’s FANK troops, she told him his whole family history and said he should look up his real father in Phnom Penh.  Cheng’s father, she said, had checked up on him a few times a year until he was grown, but had agreed not to get involved in the situation. He was remarried and had four other children

Around that time Heng Cheng quit soldiering because he was sick of war and because his eldest cousin, who had raised him after his uncle died, wanted him to continue his studies.  He began studying at the Faculty of Medicine in Phnom Penh.  He did meet his birth father in the city on one occasion but did not pursue a relationship, refusing to live with him and bitter at not being brought back to be raised in his father’s family.

On September 19th, 1970, Jean Clavaud and his 12 year old son Oliver were traveling to Takeo to visit a church there, and while on their way they were kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge and taken to a nearby village not too far away, where they were accused of being agents of the American C.I.A. They gave the French missionary captives clues as to what becomes of the enemies of the Khmer Rouge. According to Helen Penfold in Remember Cambodia, Jean and his son prayed and sang. They had no Bible but remembered and quoted the words of Psalm 50; “call on me in the days of your distress and I will deliver you, and you will glorify me.”

Oliver made friends with some local Cambodians, and they wanted to help him to escape but were afraid of the Khmer Rouge. On January 3rd, 1971, they were released due to the intervention of one their guards who had once been a student of Jean’s. Many had prayed for their release, as in the case of Melissa Himes[3], and were grateful to God for their safe return.

1971 –Pentagon Papers became just another piece of evidence of the folly of the American ‘police action’ in Vietnam along with the trial of Lt. Calley for the murders of twenty-two Vietnamese civilians in the hamlet of My Lai in 1968. While such news further alienated the American people toward the war, the Kellers found themselves spending yet another summer at SIL in North Dakota in 1971 in order to return to the source of the country’s unrest. The director of the course was Dick Pittman, who was also SIL Asia Area Director. He knew the Kellers were accepted for work in Vietnam and he asked them if they could go via France to see if they could learn anything about Hank Blood by seeking out Vietnamese contacts in Paris. They arrived in France in November 1971. After a year of exhausting every lead they had and making every possible attempt to contact Vietnamese government officials who might be able to give them some information, they wrapped it up and prepared to move on to Vietnam.

Yorng Soth met Jean Clavaud in Phnom Penh shortly after Clavaud’s experience of being captured by the Khmer Rouge. He brought Soth some books on evangelism. Clavaud began to work with Son Sonne and Father Francois Ponchaud on a new translation of the Bible. Ith Chhun of the C&MA, who was also an expert in Bible translations, did not see the need for a new translation and declined the offer to join these men. Ith Chhun was one of earlier members of Bethany Church. Pastor Jean Clavaud bought Christian books and literature in the Khmer language for Yorng Soth and Yorng Kosal to sell in their travels. They had booklets about Daniel, Genesis, Acts, Psalms, Proverbs, the Gospels, etc.

In Christmas of 1971, Khmer church leaders (Chhirc Taing, Minh Thien Voan) wanted to take the opportunity to share the good news with their countrymen, so they planned a large meeting in the new Chatamok[4] Theatre where surprisingly government permission was secured. Most western missionaries had been gone for the last five years and the KEC leaders felt capable of doing the outreach themselves, as they had grown over the years. They also were tired of being accused of not serving Jesus, but instead, their American masters. According to Jean Lockerbie, the banners hanging in front of Chatamok theatre proclaimed; “The Great One Has Been Born, The Great One has Come” which reminded Cambodians of an ancient prophecy that said; “During a time of war, a great one, a god would come to the place where the four rivers meet, with scars on his hands, feet, and side.” This combined with the proverb that Lockerbie chose for her book; “When the Blood Flows, the Heart Grows Softer,” made the timing rather remarkable, especially as the Cambodian people had just lost their king. They felt like sheep without a shepherd.[5]


On February 17,th while US President Nixon departed on his historic trip to China, Pastor Yorng Soth began a three-year course of study at the Takhmau Bible College and later became an assistant pastor at Sereptha Church, helping with the youth and evangelism. 

Known by Christians for his concern for Cambodians on his previous visits, the church invited Dr. Mooneyham lead a crusades in 1972.  In these two crusades, one in April and one in November, over 3,000 people gave their lives to Christ. Some of today’s national church leaders and Cambodian expatriate church leaders both inside Cambodia, and overseas are the fruit of that ministry. Also, many of those who led the church in the border camps and during the days of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) were born of that campaign

In April, Dr. Stan Mooneyham conducted his first three-day evangelistic crusade in Phnom Penh. 300 Christians attended the pre-evangelistic meeting, and 6000 people were turned away at the 1,200 seat Psal Chatamouk Theater. At the three-day crusade began on April 14th where Son Sonne interpreted for Stan Mooneyham.  Dr. Mooneyham introduced a western Christian soul group called the Danniebelles[6], who sang, and then Dr. Mooneyham gave a simple message about who Jesus is and what He came to accomplish and perhaps 400 to 500 Cambodians gave their lives to Jesus. On the second and third days, Mooneyham preached to some 2000 people outside the auditorium.  “Mooneyham’s crusade was a boost for the C&MA missionaries as they labored many years without a lot of visible fruit for their efforts. The crusade with Mooneyham gave Christianity in Cambodia some credibility.”[7]

This crusade started a real ‘evangelism explosion’ in Phnom Penh. Mam Barnabas, former Khmer folk healer and fortune teller, who entered the crusade as a spy for a communist intellectual group ended up converting to Christianity in this crusade. He then began to attend Bethany Church which at that time was run by an autonomous group of elders made up of Minh Thien Voan, acting Director of World Vision, Tanvan Jean, a banker, Nouth Chenda, a University lecturer, Chea Thai Seng, Dean of the School of Archeology, and Men Ny Borin, Supreme Court Justice. Men Ny Borin was the person who helped the church secure permits for baptisms, crusades and public events. The Bethany Church, since it had such a host of academics and professionals, appealed to a more intellectual and educated crowd.  C&MA missionary Norman Ens, husband of Marie Ens who still ministers in Cambodia, led the International Christian Church which met at Bethany in the evenings along with other C&MA missionaries Gene Hall, and John Kwang from China. The Bethlehem church which received a lot of support from Bethany at that time was led by Sem Bun, head of the Khmer Evangelical Church. Sem Bun was replaced by Chau Uth, who was later replaced by Yea Reach, the senior leader of the KEC who was one of the most dynamic speakers in that era.[8]

On May 8th, 1972, the United States dropped thousands of tons of bombs on Haiphong harbor in Hanoi, set up a naval blockade of North Vietnam, and carried out extensive bombing campaigns until Christmas.

Stan Mooneyham led a second crusade in November of 1972 and over 10,000 people came to this crusade. Over 4000 gave their lives to Christ, both contemporary church leaders Mam Barnabas and Sar Paulerk came to Christ as young men in different Mooneyham crusades during that year.

Cambodia’s Second Crusade

In November, a second Stan Mooneyham crusade was planned in the Psal Moha Srap at Tonle Basaac (which burned down in the late 90’s). There were over 10,000 people in attendance over the days that the crusade was held. The Palermo Brothers sang on television and President Lon Nol had called the station to have them continue singing. Again, Mooneyham’s crusade lent further credibility to the gospel being preached by national Christians and missionaries. Jean Lockerbie wrote that after that crusade, Cambodian Christians were even invited, along with representatives from other religions in Cambodia, by the UN to present position papers for a peace resolution.

Mooneyham then went on to initiate the building of medical clinics & shelters for refugees and war orphans. The missionaries of the C&MA through financial support of WVI actually helped start and staff those clinics. Dr. Dean and Esther Kroh, Mary Lou Rorabaugh, Barbara Neath, Lynn Walsh, and Carol Weston were helping at that time. Dr. Mooneyham made plans for the building of the National Pediatric Hospital which was inaugurated only days before the Khmer Rouge came in to take over the city. WVI built the building and the C&MA were to staff the hospital. The dedication of the hospital was to be the day the country fell, April 17th

Father Francois Ponchaud and the United Bible Society began work on a new translation of the Bible.

The KEC sent Rev. Seang Ang to Kampuchea Krom where they see 700 Cambodians come to faith. This area was more Buddhist than most areas in Cambodia, but Seang Ang’s early Buddhist training enabled him to understand and reach the Buddhist people of Kampuchea Krom. American missionary David Ellison, working there a few years before Seang Ang’s arrival saw only 36 converts during his time, and this is mentioned in this way only to highlight the effectiveness of nationals doing the work of evangelists. Seang Ang was a graduate of C&MA’s Takhmau Bible School.

The Keller family arrived in Vietnam with some additional luggage, a son, John, who was born to them in France on New Year’s Day 1972. On the way to the South Vietnam, they made a pit stop in Phnom Penh in early December 1972, where they met with Tim and Barbara Freiberg, also of Wycliffe, who were doing linguistic research and work on the Western Cham[9] language. The Freiberg’s had chosen to come to Cambodia after Tim met the Cambodian Minister of Education, Mr. Pan Sothy. He asked Tim why SIL was not in Cambodia and Tim told him the organization had never been invited. Mr. Pan Sothy told him to consider SIL invited to work in his country.

By the end of this year 1972, two million Cambodians have made homeless by the war.

A Brief History of Minh Thien Voan

In early 1970, when American Missionaries were allowed to return to Cambodia after a five0 year hiatus, C&MA missionary Gene Hall touched down at Pochentong Airport. Not too long after, Gene Hall, along with Son Sonne, Lim Chheoung (San Hay Seng), and Minh Thien Voan stood together in an open field and had been filled with a great sense of burden for the Cambodian people.

Minh Thien Voan was a an extremely zealous man who had become a believer through a Campus Crusade for Christ Bible study while studying at the University of Georgia in 1962. In 1968, after earning his MA degree in engineering, he returned to Cambodia. Upon his return home, he became an outspoken witness for the gospel, and was unable to re-coup his job with the government and so he worked as an executive with Shell Oil before eventually going to work with World Vision. During the time he worked for Shell Oil, he began to attend one of older Evangelical churches in Phnom Penh, the Evangelical Church, where he was able to attract some college students and government leaders.  Later he began an English language school where many government officials, college students, and others got a glimpse of Christ through his witness.  He then took over the leadership of one of the evangelical churches in Phnom Penh which immediately began to see rapid growth.

In 1973, Voan left Shell Oil to take a job with World Vision as their deputy director. His Cambodian boss, described Voan as a patient man, one of great endurance, and equal honesty and one in whom one could place absolute trust in.

Taing Chhirc, a young man who had been sent to a French military academy  had returned as a major to the serve in the Federal Army Republic Kampuchea, later to be tapped as Deputy Minister of Defense. He was a third generation Christian, and Chhirc himself had become a believer by reading a Bible that his Christian parents had stowed in his suitcase when he left for the military academy. While Chhirc tended to his military duties, he also was very busy is his spare time with the church, making sure people had places to worship. Sometime after Voan’s return, they became reacquainted and were both concerned about being upfront about their faith and being able to worship openly.

As mentioned previously, in February of 1970, World Vision President Stan Mooneyham made a hazardous trip into Cambodia through mined and Khmer Rouge held territory with medical supplies for the war victims. He made a similar trip in July of that same year. He would help the Cambodian church leaders in their outreach to refugees both with medical supplies and the good news of Christ.

Chhirc and Voan met a new convert named Chea Thay Seng who was the Director of the National Art Museum, and one of Cambodia’s better educated people. He would later go on to become the ‘Inspector of the Ministry of Culture.’  In Christmas of 1971, whey desired to see the name of Christ proclaimed openly so the rented a 700 seat theatre, probably the Chenla, and held a celebration/event where the gospel was preached.

In April of 1972, Stanley Mooneyham came back to lead a three day crusade in Phnom Penh. 6000 people were turned away the first night and city burst out in a frenzy of personal evangelism. Mooneyham’s plans for a pediatric hospital were also given permission during that trip. Minh Thien Voan had himself tried to get into the crusade and a young man latched onto him and wouldn’t let him go. Voan tried to tell him there were no more seats but the man didn’t listen but said, “I just want to become a Christian.” So Voan led him to Christ right there on the spot. Shortly after, a man who did attend the meeting came up to Voan and told him; “I want to become a Christian before I leave here tonight.”  Voan and the man knelt where they were and man prayed to receive Jesus before the meeting was finished.

In 1973, Barnabas Mam and Ngeth Saman (now pastoring a Cambodian Methodist Church in Long Beach, California) joined the staff of World Vision with the help of Minh Thien Voan. Under Country Director, Cal Harris, Barnabas began as a cleaner, then he went to work for the relief department, and then into the accounting office where he compared receipts with expenditures.

In 1974, the United Bible Society had given a workshop in translation principles in Phnom Penh led by David Clarke and Howard Hatten. A local committee had been formed to do a new translation in Khmer[MI2] . The committee included Son Sonne, Minh Thien Voan and Father Francois Ponchaud.

World Vision then had plans to build a pediatric hospital in Cambodia, and Chhirc Taing and Minh Thien Voan helped them get it off the ground in spite of the criticism they received. On the day the contract was signed, a doctor gave his life to Christ and they took this as confirmation that the hospital would be built as an expression of the love and compassion of Christ.

A survey done in Phnom Penh showed that their were 7,000 orphans there during October of 1973 when Stan Mooneyham and Minh Thien Voan visited a group of 123 boys who were living in a barbed wire enclosure. Gunfire was heard close by to the premises. Both Voan and Mooneyham could see the situation deteriorate as the war intensified.

The pediatric hospital committee, Sonne Son, Minh Thien Voan and Chhirc Taing once were excited to talk about the future plans of the hospital, but now it was February 27th, 1975. The hospital was almost completed but it seemed if it would be no use as Lon Nol’s Army grew weaker. On March 2, 1975, Stan Mooneyham made his last visit to Cambodia for many years.  Soon all the missionaries were packing up to leave. In those last few days before the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh, Minh Thien Voan saw his family come to Christ. Minh Thien Voan, whose name means; “heavenly messenger”, saw his mother come to Christ after she had a dream where she saw Jesus and heard the words, “Jesus died to save you.” His father and sister also gave their lives to Christ as well before the fall of Phnom Penh.

When it was obvious that Cambodia would not survive the onslaught of the Khmer Rouge, Voan wrote to his young wife who was with their children in the United States, “I might have to die in Cambodia, but it is worth dying when my parents and sisters have turned to Christ. The next time we meet may be in heaven.”

On March 19th of 1974, Minh Thien Voan and his cousin Chhirc Taing met OMF’s Andrew Way at Pochentong airport as he was arriving to team up with the C&MA to reach the young people and refugees of war-torn Phnom Penh. Voan seemed to greet many missionaries arriving to Cambodia.

In 1974, Mam Barnabas became good friends with Andrew Way from OMF, who came to set up the OMF Youth Centre. Barnabas helped him orient himself to life in Phnom Penh, working at World Vision during the day and translating for Andrew in the evenings. Initially he lived with Andrew and then [M3] lived at the house of Taing Vek Houng’s[10] aunt Nay Kim until the fall of Cambodia.  [Nay Kim’s son, Praht Chan was a nurse who also served as the musician at Bethany church.] .

Chhirc Taing and Mam Barnabas led a seminar for 60 pastors [M4] and lay leaders from April 13th to 15th, 1975 at the Takhmau Bible College. On the last day of the seminar the Khmer Rouge attacked the FANK troops who crossed the river and took refuge at the Bible School. A deadly battle began and mortar rounds were [M5] falling among them like rain.

Chhirc Taing contacted Min Thien Voan, then Cambodian Country Director of World Vision and told them of their grave predicament. Voan called the Presidential Office but Lon Nol had already been evacuated to Hawaii. Nonetheless, they were given permission for the 60 participants to travel back north to Phnom Penh—through many security checkpoints manned by nervous and trigger-happy FANK soldiers. Chhirc laid hands on Barnabas and prayed for him and the participants and a successful trip to Phnom Penh.  There were many checkpoints but the soldiers recognized the World Vision vehicle Barnabas was driving. They also recognized him because, as a World Vision employee, he had made the trip many times before. They knew he was no communist spy (this time). Many of the participants made it home and Barnabas met again with Chhirc Taing (who was also a WV staff member, third down from director, Voan) at the World Vision child care office near the Olympic Stadium where they spent the night of April 16th. The next morning, April 17th, Chhirc kissed Barnabas goodbye and challenged him with Romans 13:1, about always respecting your leaders. That was the last Barnabas saw of Chhirc Taing. World Vision in Monrovia, California had been urging both Minh Thien Voan and Chhirc Taing to evacuate to the states but they refused.  The three known World Vision surviving staff of pre-Pol Pot Cambodia to have survived are Mam Barnabas, Lay Kunthol (nephew of Sang Hay Seng) and Norng Pakheang (Minh Thien Voan’s cousin). Lay Kunthol survived the Pol Pot regime only to be shot to death in early 1980.

When the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh by storm, Chhirc Taing and Minh Thien Voan were taking refuge in the French embassy but on April 21st, the Khmer Rouge would demand that all Cambodians leave the safety of the embassy. Nellie, a Christian whose father was French and mother was Cambodian, also staying at the French embassy, saw the two cousins, Chhirc and Voan tied up and tossed into the back of a truck which sped away. It was the last time she saw them.

The next time Chhirc and Voan were heard of was in Neak Loung, just after the fall of Phnom Penh. They were walking down a road among people full of panic, and the two tried to comfort the terrified people with the message of Christ. They handed out tracts and the desperate people took them and read them. Suddenly, Chhirc and Voan were surrounded by black clad figures, grabbed from behind and before the eyes of many witnesses, were clubbed to death with a hoe. Many wondered what had happened to them but after Cambodia was liberated, a Christian witness of the murders met the World Vision President in Kompong Cham doing an aid assessment survey. The believer relayed this information to the World Vision president who took the burden of relaying the news to Chhirc’s wife and children in England and to the remaining members of Minh Thien Voan’s family.[11]


Cormack, Don, Killing Fields, Living Fields. London. Monarch books, 1997

Ellison, Paul, CCS Conference Notes, San Jose, CA. March 1991

Heng, Cheng, Personal Interview, EFC Youth Commission Office, Toul Kork, 2004.

Irvine, Graham. Best of Things In the worst of Times

Keller, Chuck, Interview by Brian Maher, 2004, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Lockerbie, Janet. When the Blood Flows, the Heart Grows Softer. Wheaton. Tyndale.1976

Penfold, Helen, Remembering Cambodia. Trent. OMF Books, October, 1979.

Mam, Barnabas, Personal Interview, Swang Dara, Toul Kork, 2004

Sar, Paulerk, Personal Interview, EFC-Youth Commission Office, Toul Kork, 2004.

Yorng, Soth, Personal Interview, EFC-Youth Commission Office, Toul Kork, 2004.

Written by: Cambodianchristian.Com

Filed Under: Book, Chapter 6, Cry of the Gecko - By Brian Maher

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