February 24, 2010

Too Many People Going Underground – Chapter 12

Everybody Knows this is Nowhere!    Everybody Knows this is Nowhere! Cry of the Gecko

Chapter Twelve                Too Many People Going Underground


1979 and 1980, were years that the government did not pay that much attention to the small remnant of Christians who survived the three years, eight months and twenty days of hellish torture. They were too shorthanded and there was little of any infrastructure left to be made of much use.

World Vision invited Maurice Bauhahn to help evaluate the medical laboratory at the National Pediatric Hospital. Maurice says the request fell on receptive ears because Cambodia had been on his heart, and in his thoughts and prayers for some reason. He focused on Communism and Christianity in seminary and sought to see more outreach to this neglected part of the 10/40 window. Maurice’s work at the time had been helping Cambodian refugees in Thailand but his preference was to help those individuals and families who stayed in Cambodia in order to rebuild the country.  The burden of the genocide which had occurred in Cambodia tugged at his heart. Only Christ could heal such wounds and build lasting foundations for such a society.

Although his work at that time involved helping Cambodian refugees in Thailand, his strong preference was to serve the Cambodians who had chosen to stay behind and rebuild Kampuchea and a short visit to Cambodia made him thirsty for more. There was a particular need for someone to maintain contact with the Christians as Pastor Jean Clavaud had been expelled, put on a plane with nothing but the clothes on his back, under-shorts, t-shirt, and sandals-and Ruth Blunter was planning to leave shortly. The Lord opened the door and Maurice returned to Cambodia to begin full-time work in December of ’82 with World Vision.

In Thailand, American Mark Erickson arrived at the border camps with YWAM to begin a discipleship ministry which led him to serve in Phanat Nikom, Khao I Dang, and Site 2 camps until 1991. Mark had a great ministry and was well respected by the Cambodian’s he led to Christ and discipled in the camps. Sithan Lee, one of the founding members of the Phnom Penh Bible School and sole founder of Kampuchea for Christ, was led to faith in Christ in Kao I Dang by Pastor Sokun, a caricature artist who did work for the magazine, “Cambodge Noveau.” Pastor Sokun was a Takhmau Bible College graduate who the Lord used mightily in KID Refugee camp.  Before, he died, he asked Ngeth Saman to watch over his wife. Saman did a good job, as he married Sokun’s widow later in the eighties.[2]

Alice Compain’s input into the new Bible translation goes back to this time when the United Bible Society wanted to check the accuracy of the original Catholic version of the Cambodian New Testament which was eventually rejected as having too much Buddhist terminology. Alice worked with a consultant in Bangkok for a week, then from there, Arun Sok Nhep was appointed, along with Francois Ponchaud to produce a new Cambodian translation of the Bible and he sent Alice copies of drafts for reviewing. When Cambodia opened up in 1990, Alice moved to Phnom Penh. In Cambodia, she was too busy to do a detailed check, but helped Mrs. Yos Sithan (former director of the Cambodian Bible Society) when she was still working for the Education Ministry in the early 90’s. Since those early days, Alice has been a ‘prayer warrior’ for the effectiveness of the new translation, rather than participator.

In America, Chuck and Sally Keller began to translate the Bible into the Brao/Krung language of Ratanakiri with the help of refugees in the States.[3]

The December after Pol Pot was driven to his Thai border sanctuary there was a Christmas celebration in 1980 in a house near Psa Kandal Market, Phnom Penh. Sar Paulerk, Bun Saban, and Muth Bunthy met for the first time or became re-acquainted after many years. After that initial gathering, various Christians began meeting secretly in different locations around the city.

Muth Bunthy, also known as “Peter” began working for the Port Authority of Phnom Penh and along with Barnabas, and they’d organize the underground importation and distribution of Bibles and Christian literature.

Although the church was careful about meeting publicly and openly, there was no imminent threat from the Peoples Republic of Kampuchea until the end of 1980. At that time, the government was emphatic about the cessation of all Christian activities. There were no real leaders of the ‘underground’ church at the time but the believers gathered anyway and Sar Paulerk began to attend meetings where he first met ‘Timothy’ who was associated with the KEC (Sovandy Hang or Sovandy Him), and eventually Barnabas and others (Timothy would later flee for his life to the border in late 1986). At the end of 1980, the Peoples Republic tightened its grip on the small church and caught up with Yorng Soth and his brother Yorng Kosal, and accused them of being agents of the Khmer Rouge who were planning to spread political propaganda throughout the city. After a full week in a Phnom Penh jail, Soth and Kosal’s mother came to their rescue, explaining to the government that, “yes, they are Christians, not underground political activists working for the Khmer Rouge.” She had to assure them that the small group of Christians meeting here and there, had no political agenda and when they asked her what Christians did, she replied: “Worship God, read our Bibles, and memorize scripture.” After their mother recited some verses, sang some songs and prayed for the PRK officials, they released her sons. Soth saw this as a wake up call for a remnant that was trying to get on its feet. He and his brothers decided it was time to quit their farming project in the Tumnop Tek area and go to work for the government so that the government could see a real Christian witness on a daily basis. It would save the government some time, not having to follow them around all the time, and since the PRK was very short on human resources, they were happy to have them. Soth got a job in the government as an official in Civil Security and Order and later worked as an official in the Ministry of Commerce. His brother Kosal, along with his brother-in-law, Khieu Vanlorng got jobs as construction engineers working for the government. Meanwhile they met at Soth’s house in Tumnop Tek for fellowship. Others like Maurice Bauhahn, Jean Clavaud, Ngeth Marene, and Muth Bunthy met in Ban Sam Ol’s house near Psa Chjah Market. Toward the end of the year, the government would begin to monitor Soth and the other Christians who worked in the government quite closely.

Uong Rien and Lim Savoeun (Savouen married Seang Ang’s youngest daughter) were apprentice goldsmiths who attended Seang Ang’s church. Uong Rien studied music with Barnabas. Yorng Soth was working for the government at that time in Kaun Daun Penh, sorting out who should live in Phnom Penh. The government decreed that only people who had work in Phnom Penh could live there. If you your spouse, parents or children worked in the city, you also had the privilege to stay as well. Pastor Khiev Vanlorng, brother-in-law of Yorng Soth also worked in the government as well as Ngeth Marene.

At the time, there were two main underground meeting places; Psa Chjah, where Meak Sam Ol (cousin of Yorng Soth and Yorng Kosal, also known as ‘Ban’) from the Takhmau group met together. The other location was at Seang Ang’s church where Barnabas was the musician. The meetings at the house at Psa Chjah went on until the death of Ban’s wife.  She was a shaker and mover for the Psa Chjah fellowship.

Veteran Pastor and former Takhmau Bible College graduate, Ngov Vonn returned to Phnom Penh because in 1980, because when he returned to his home village in Kompong Thom, he found that no other Christians had survived. He and his family were the only Kompong Thom Christians that made it through the holocaust. He bicycled throughout Kompong Thom and Siem Reap to search for any believing remnants from before 1975, and eventually met a handful of believers in Siem Reap. He worshiped God in his own house, but then went to Phnom Penh in the early eighties to contact other Christians.  He also cycled to Kompong Cham and met with some Christians there.

Swiss national Michele Jean Richard had introduced Barnabas to the three people who later became his closest friends during the eighties; Muth Bunthy from the Bethlehem church, who they called “Peter”, and “Timothy” (Hang Sovandy) who was from the Bethany Church, and who was also a friend of Yos Anti Po. Timothy is now in California Pastoring a church in Signal Hill, just outside of Long Beach. Barnabas was introduced to Sar Paulerk called “Paul”, the following year.

The Flower Girl

Ms. Setha, or ‘Bong Eang’ as she was nicknamed during the Pol Pot times, was born in 1954 in the village of Svay Chhrorn, L’vea Ime District, Kandal Province.  She had two older brothers, one older sister and one younger sister.  When she was a little older [MI1] she moved to Trang Lurr in Arey Ksach Commune, a village on the peninsula across the Tonle Sap River from the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh.

She stopped her studies in Arey Ksach briefly in 1971, but picked them up again in 1972, this time in Phnom Penh where she met Molly Yos at the Bung Trabek High School. Each day she had to take a small boat across the Tonle Sap River to get to Phnom Penh.  When she arrived on the Phnom Penh side of the river she always noticed a little display of tracts and other Christian literature but did not take much interest because she did not understand much of what she read.

Setha had a relative who was a policeman.  He told her about a free English class at the “Jesus School.” He told her; “They won’t charge you any money but they will try to tell you about Jesus.  Go ahead and learn English but don’t pay any attention to what they tell you about Jesus.”

She remembers Molly’s brother, Yos Antipo, who was doing his stint as a monk at a local temple.  Antipo used to see the older monks sneak in prostitutes, which caused him to be disillusioned with Buddhism. He confronted the monks and they got into a fierce argument, rationalizing their behavior.  After Antipo left the temple disgusted, he grew his hair long and they called him a Cambodian hippie.  He was still disgruntled about religion in general, so when he heard about Bethany church, he went there to confront the pastor, Taing Chhirc, several times asking him, “You’re Cambodian! Why are you being used as a lackey to import this foreign religion into Cambodia? Why are you betraying your Buddhist Cambodian brothers and sisters?”

Each time, Taing Chhirc and the other Christians patiently explained to him why they became Christians, who Jesus was, and what He came to do. Not long after that Antipo began to change.  They saw him reading his Bible and he was apparently a much happier and fulfilled person.  He cut his hair and everyone saw an improvement in him. Molly reported the change in him to Setha.  Molly asked Antipo about the changes in his life and he shared the gospel with her and then with all his family members. Setha [M2] remembers the witness of Molly’s brother Antipo as a disillusioned student monk who pestered Pastor Taing Chhirc with questions about Christianity until he received Christ into his life. Setha stopped going to school because the students at the University of Law were demonstrating and 10 or 12 already had already been shot and killed by the police. So, some time in 1974, Setha enrolled in English classes at the OMF Youth Centre. She started to learn English through the Bible but paid little attention to what she was learning, just gleaning words and phrases that she could apply in every day conversational English.  Molly soon joined her at the Youth Centre but Molly became a believer before Setha, through the English Bible classes and the witness of her brother Antipo. Eang asked Molly about this Christian business and Molly explained as well as she was able about the Christian faith.

One month in 1974, a group of missionaries from India and some other countries came and showed films on comparative religions.  Each night they gave an invitation.  On the last night, they gave it again and some Christian students who mixed in with the yet-to-become-believers class asked Eang if she wanted to respond to the invitation.  Soon the others had left and she was alone with students who were intent on her becoming a Christian.  She prayed with them to receive Christ but really had no idea what she was doing.  She thought they were a little bit off the wall.  She continued to learn English Bible as usual until Triev Sary, a Takhmau Bible College graduate from Kampuchea Krom and the Khmer director of the Youth Centre, offered a Khmer Bible study for the students studying English.  Molly and Eang enrolled.  It was then that Eang began to understand what faith in Christ was all about, and over a period of time she became a Christian.  It was also during that time that Eang moved to Phnom Penh because of the intense fighting across the river in her village.  Just behind her village the Khmer Rouge had set up an artillery battery in order to shell Phnom Penh.

Triev Sary brought some of the girls from the Youth Centre, including Eang, [M3] to Bethany Church where Molly attended and Antipo served as youth pastor. While they were there, some believers from Bethany asked Eang and Molly to help out a small church for poor and displaced people called the ‘Respect for God Church.’ They asked them to come to teach the Bible to children.  After the lesson, the children usually gave an offering.  Eang asked the assistant, Pastor Sok, what to do with the money, and he said that she should hold on to it and give it to him later.  Shortly after that, he accused her and Molly of stealing God’s money.  Eang was furious that she gave her time and risked dangerous travel to help a small church that in turn accused her of something she did not do.  She decided to quit being a Christian.  She went to the Youth Centre to say goodbye to her friends and let them know she wouldn’t be around anymore, but instead she ran into Antipo who encouraged her not to quit the race and shared with her from Hebrews 12 about how Jesus kept going in spite of the horrendous treatment he received for doing good.  Eang decided not to abandon ship after all.

The shelling in Phnom Penh was already pretty intense so Eang didn’t stray too far from home, just to the Youth Centre which was not far from her house in Phnom Penh.  During that time, she saw how God began to work in her life.  Her neighbors were a big problem for her.  They moved the boundaries of her property and built a cement fence right up against her house.  They also raised pigs for income generation and threw the pig manure into what little bit of a yard they left her.  She had many questions for Triev Sary and he kept telling her: PRAY! She prayed and not long after that the pig died and so did the smell of rancid manure.  God answered many other prayers for Eang.

The Pol Pot Regime

After Eang and her family were forced to evacuate from Phnom Penh on April 17th, 1975, they were made to go back to the village of Eang’s childhood[MI4] in Trang Lurr, across the river from Phnom Penh. While there they had no salt or cooking oil, and hardly anything to keep them alive.  Eang decided to venture up the river to a new place, Prek Liep, where she could trade some of her family’s clothes for the items she needed.  So she threw her bicycle in a small wooden ferry and they made their way to the place where she could do some bartering.  On the way back, they ran into an intense storm and everyone in the boat was extremely frightened as the boat was being thrashed back and forth by the wind and the waves, and came close to capsizing a number of times.  The lady across from Eang couldn’t swim and grabbed Eang around the neck and would not let go. Eang could barely breathe or swallow; the lady was grabbing her so hard that she was crushing her windpipe.  Eang yelled, screamed, poked her finger in the lady’s ribs, and pinched her in the stomach but the woman was as solid as a tree trunk. Eang poked her again and she let go only long enough to grab Eang’s shirt instead.  The storm grew worse and Eang cried while everyone else shouted out in fear.  Eang focused on a half empty water jug she could use to keep herself afloat if they did capsize.  She became weary from fear and the struggle with the woman and fell asleep on the woman who was holding her.  As she slept, she had a vision of a bearded man who she knew was Jesus, standing tall in the bow of another boat in the midst of the same storm, with his hand raised high toward Eang’s boat, showing that He would protect the boat and its occupants from the storm.

She woke up to the voice of the boat pilot saying; “Hey, who forgot to take their bicycle?” They were now on bank near her village and no one but Eang was in the boat.  She hadn’t prayed, and she hadn’t sought God, or cried out for His help, but he saved her.

Not long after, she was forced to relocate to Battambang.  In the beginning it was not so bad but in 1977 there was no food whatsoever and many died of starvation. The Pol Pot agricultural experiments were failing. Eang was extremely thin and hungry and she had no food.  As she walked aimlessly along the path in front of her house, she began to hatch a plan to steal some rice from the community store house, but she kept imagining herself being caught, her hands tied behind her back, and sent off to be executed.  She sat there on a stone, head hung low, wondering [M5] where she could get some food.  When she looked up, there was a palm leaf with some fish and rice in it. “Where did this come from?” she asked herself. She looked around and saw an old grandmother watching her. “Yay,” (grandma), yelled down from the window to where Eang was sitting in front of the house next door, “Go on, granddaughter. Eat!” Eang was used to the idea people hiding and hoarding their food, not sharing it with anybody but their immediate family members. “How did this lady come to know she needed food so badly and why is she giving it up to me?” Eang lay awake at night trying to figure it out.  The only answer she could come up with was that God was in control of her situation.

Later in 1977, things got even worse as more people were dying of starvation, overwork, and death by execution, especially for those who were too sick and too weak to work.  Eang was too thin and hungry to work so she refused to go plant rice.  She gathered up her clothes, mosquito net, and some personal items, and put them a basket.  She put a piece of tarp over the top and secured it with a strip of rubber like a homemade bungee cord.  She carried the basket on her head, sneaking away to visit her mother a couple of kilometers away where there was more food.  Halfway there, as she was nearing a well, a group of workers who were coming to take a break at the well saw her.  They said to her, “It looks like you gathered enough cow manure.  Why don’t you sit down and eat, and take a rest for a while?”  Eang was puzzled.  It should have been quite clear that she was not toting cow manure in her basket but moving to a new location. God was watching out for her.

Farther along on her journey, she ran into some mid-level Khmer Rouge cadre. She thought she was finished when they asked her where she thought she was going.  She told them she was going to bring the supplies that were in the basket to her relatives who had nothing.  The cadre then helped her carry the basket and escorted her to her mother’s house.

Her mother’s village did have more food to eat so she petitioned the village chief to let her stay there with her mother but he said no.  He gave her fifteen days to visit before she had to go back.  On the fifteenth day, she asked again but was denied her request.  Her mother told her to pray to her Jesus: maybe He would help.  She prayed but to no avail so her mother said, “Let’s try my religion,” and went to the ‘Kru Kamae’ (Khmer fortune teller / spirit medium) upstairs. He advised Eang to tell the village chief she was pregnant and could not survive in her own village.  Eang said, “No, I am a Christian and I won’t lie.” The ‘Kru’ became very angry and said, “Suit yourself—go ahead and die.” Eang ended up following the advice from the fortune teller: she lied and was allowed to stay in her mother’s village.  Now the ‘Kru’ demanded his fee, which was more than Eang and her mother could deliver.  They gave him what they had: a bunch of bananas, a small chicken, and some incense sticks.  Eang was ashamed that she had trusted the advice of the fortune teller so she had her mother deliver the payment.  The ‘Kru Kamae’ refused it and would only take it from the hands of Eang.  Now, fully realizing how wrong she was by not trusting God after all the times he delivered her, Eang humbly delivered her payment to the fortune teller.

After the village chief found out she wasn’t pregnant and that she had lied, he sent her to the fields for the rice harvest.  All the women, who     were assigned to harvest rice from 6 a.m. until dark camped out together with their mosquito nets all attached.  One night, related to her recent dealing with the ‘Kru Kamae,’ Eang dreamt about the two houses she lived in across the river.  The one at Arey Ksach had an altar to the spirits with gold and red cloth, incense, and other things.  In the other house at Trang Lurr, she saw a foreign missionary standing there, asking her if she wanted to buy some medicine for her headache.  She thought to herself that foreigners always ask a high price for whatever they sell so she made a mental note to buy medicine in Phnom Penh instead, where she could get it cheaper.  She noticed he wasn’t leaving, and she also noticed he held a big club in his hand that was hanging down by his leg.  Eang backed up when she saw it. The foreign missionary asked her, “Why do you claim to be a follower of Jesus and still make offerings to the spirits like you did in your house in Arey Ksach?” She argued with him that she did not arrange offerings to the spirits in the Trang Lurr house. “I didn’t set them up; they were already there!” The missionary told her; “No, you did it and now you need to be punished”.  As he grew bigger, Eang yelled out in her sleep, waking all the other girls.  They all began to ask what the dream was about.  “Is it something about Cambodia? Is our situation going to change?” they asked.  Eang was crying and begged them to back off, promising to tell them about the dream the next morning.  The next morning she told them about the dream and explained what it meant to follow Christ and why Christians should not have anything to do with the spirit world. She begged them not to tell the cadre.

Liberation 1979-80

Back in Phnom Penh after a hellish four years, Eang arranged for herself a job selling cloth in the Old Market.  There she would occasionally run into believers from before 1975.  Mr. Ban, a nephew of Pastor Yorng Soth, gathered together some of these believers to worship secretly near the market.  They had about fifteen people in those days, including Barnabas Mam, Yorng Soth, Ban (Sam Ol), Eang, Yay Hin and other Christians whose names escape her.  There was one foreigner who came when he could, a Frenchman by the name of Jean Clavaud with the World Council of Churches, who was later expelled for evangelizing.

They moved their worship service to the home of Pastor Seang Ang in Takhmau.  The local authorities asked for bribes in beer to keep secret the fact that the underground church was meeting there. Eang and some others were baptized at the house of Pastor Seang Ang sometime in late 1980. That year, Eang saw Molly’s father drive by in a vehicle, and they recognized each other and waved.  Molly was soon visiting Eang, and Eang invited Molly to worship at Takhmau, but Molly’s father would not allow it because it was too dangerous for those working directly in the government.

Ban would run information to Eang at her cloth shop if he got any tips that the authorities were on to them, and she would get the information out as others stopped by her shop.  They had their first Christmas celebration in Takhmau at Ban’s house.  Eight to ten people showed up to sing, using one hymnbook that was falling apart at the seams. There were one or two Bibles that were in the same state of disrepair–ripped, cover falling off, pages missing, etc.  In the next few years she would worship with Barnabas Mam, Sar Paulerk, Muth Bunthy, Ban (Sam Ol) and Vandy (alias Timothy).

In 1985, Ms. Eang switched over to the O’Russei Market to sell flowers.  She was worshipping at Um Yan’s house near the New Market.

One Sunday in 1987, Sally Rymer, a World Vision staff person, came to buy some flowers from Eang at the New Market and asked her; “Only one of you here today?” wondering if it was safe to approach Eang. Eang told her, “No, there are two of us but the other one is not here at the moment.” Sally had been tipped off by fellow WV staff Maurice Bauhahn, who had made a brief visit to Eang in late 1980. She said, “Oh, where is your friend?” Eang answered honestly and told Sally she was at a Christian worship service. “Are you a Christian?” Sally asked her. Eang admitted that she was. This began a three-year relationship through which Sally and other World Vision staff would supply the church with Bibles, hymnbooks, tracts, and cassettes through Eang.  Sally’s only requirement was that the scarce material went only to mature Christians who would make good use of it.  A friend of Sally’s ended up marrying Antipo, and from England they would send things for Molly’s family through Eang.  Eang was the main contact to the underground church.

Eang was spooked when Vandy was discovered as a Christian.  He was severely beaten by the police.  Pastor Sar Paulerk got him to the border where he was eventually repatriated to the US.  Sally, Jane, Luchie, and other World Vision staff continued to use Eang as a conduit to deliver messages, Bibles, cassettes, tracts and hymnbooks to the underground church.  Sally would fill a basket with innocuous items, put tracts, cassettes and other materials on the bottom and, bit by bit, shove the basket under Eang’s table with her foot.  Jane once delivered a case of soda pop to Eang with tracts and materials hidden under the soda cans.  Maurice once bought some flowers and paid with a riel note, attached to which was a small piece of paper listing the broadcasting times of Far East Broadcasting out of the Philippines.  The broadcasts were in the Khmer language twice a day.  Eang passed the word on to the church and many began to tune in to FEBC for spiritual nourishment.

When World Vision’s country director, Jai Sankar Sarma, learned of Eang’s covert contact work for the church in the late eighties, he went to meet her at the flower shop where he slipped her a Bible underneath another book. Whenever Jai thinks about Cambodia, he remembers Eang’s ten-year risky mission to the church as the go-between for the church and World Vision.

Eang stayed with Um Yan’s fellowship, which became the New Market I Church (Psa Tmei 1), just north of the New Market.  They had a pastor, Mr. Im Chhrorn. In 1991, Eang brought Jane, Sally, and Luchie to worship at New Market III Church, which met in World Vision staff person Srey Hem’s house. Uong Rein was the pastor of the New Market III Church. They changed their name to Open Gate Fellowship in 1993. Eang has been at Open Gate Fellowship ever since 1992.  Open Gate Fellowship Church used to be able to boast of having more World Vision national staff than any other church in Phnom Penh.

In October of 1993, Eang applied to World Vision. Jai recognized Eang when she came to apply.  No one is sure if Jai put any grease on the skids for Eang but she was hired and worked in the AIDS awareness project. Eang and Molly were once again united, as Molly was also working at World Vision. Eang became the person in charge of HIV education, moved to training coordinator, and was most recently serving as the behavioral change communication advisor.  She is a great staff person and has a wonderful [M6] testimony among the WVC staff community.  She worshiped at Open Gate Christian Fellowship for many years.

Many [M7] Cambodians, in whom former World Vision expatriates invested in their lives, have become effective WV staff who are active in the local church, and who make it a point to help World Vision relate well and relevantly to the church.


Yorng, Setha. Personal Interview by Brian Maher, at World Vision Cambodia, Phnom Penh. 2002.

Yos, Im Sitha, Personal Interview by Debbi Maher, at the United Bible Society, Phnom Penh. 2002.

Yos, Molly. Personal Interview by Brian Maher, at World Vision Cambodia, Phnom Penh. 2002.

Written by: Cambodianchristian.Com

Filed Under: Chapter 12, Cry of the Gecko - By Brian Maher

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