Giving Voice to Cambodia’s Silent Past

Dana Bourgerie, professor of Asian and Near Eastern Languages, discusses his work collecting life stories of Cambodians for the Cambodian Oral History Project.

PROVO, Utah (Oct.20, 2017)—Many young Cambodians have no idea where their grandparents are from, and even their parents’ history is frequently unknown. These men and women are dying and taking their stories with them, leaving their children and grandchildrenwithout records, family lines, or stories. But recently, thanks to Dana Bourgerie and dedicated volunteers in America and Cambodia, those young people are getting the opportunity to hear and record those stories of their own family and preserve them for generations to come.

In 2014, Dana Bourgerie, professor of Asian and Near Eastern Languages, took a sabbatical to research the language of Chinese diaspora communities in Cambodia. In the course of his research, he uncovered a large lack of demographic knowledge among the people in Cambodia. This was the very beginning of what is now the Cambodian Oral History Project, an interdisciplinary BYU project that has expanded to involve numerous volunteers from the US and Cambodia, LDS missionaries in Cambodia, students, and a few paid Cambodian employees.

Bourgerie explained that as part of the survey research he did on his sabbatical, he had to conduct demographic background interviews with each person that participated. But over the course of the interviews, he quickly noticed that many of the people he was interviewing “didn’t have any idea about their parents or their grandparents. They mostly didn’t know.”

The Communist Party of Kampuchea, commonly known as the Khmer Rouge, ruled Cambodia from 1975–1979. During that time, citizens were forced out of cities into the countryside to become farmers; made to work long hours without rest, food, or pay; and anyone seen as an enemy to the group was tortured and executed. Of the people he interviewed, Bourgerie said “A lot of their parents and grandparents were the ones suffering through that period, and it’s not something they like to talk about, it’s too painful.” He explained that the younger generation “just [has] this vague idea that it . . . was a bad time in Cambodia.”

Bourgerie quickly realized the potential impact of this dearth of intergenerational knowledge. “So many of them didn’t know anything about their family . . . it occurred to me that we’re losing all these stories. A lot of people are dying in that [older] generation, and there’s no understanding of who they were.” When he returned to BYU, he proposed the idea for what would become the Cambodian Oral History Project to the Humanities Center, where it was accepted and funded. Because the project works closely with the LDS Church structure in Cambodia, Bourgerie emphasized that before starting the project, he “made a real point of talking to everyone. FamilySearch, church history people . . . We’ve talked to both mission presidents, and they’re very positive [about it].”

Peer leaders in Cambodia recruit and train youth in interviewing techniques, which the youth use to interview their parents and grandparents. Interviews vary from person to person but always include demographic information questions, such as place of birth. The interviews are mostly done on smartphones and uploaded to cloud storage. Bourgerie explained that although transcription in any foreign language is difficult, it is particularly complicated in Khmer, so the transcription is done in Cambodia by native speakers. The interview transcriptions are then translated into English by volunteers in Utah, mostly returned missionaries from Cambodia and a few Cambodians living in the area, and are in the process of being posted on their website.

Bourgerie was proud to report that they had gathered over 700 interviews. The project is going so well that instead of sending out only one intern per semester to participate in the project in Cambodia, they might be able to send two, thanks to the Mentoring Environment Grant that helps cover the cost of sending a student to Cambodia. To preserve continuity, interns are often chosen from the existing student volunteers. “About eight months ago I hired a local Cambodian,” Bourgerie added, “She is a member there and is very, very capable. That’s been very helpful because when the interns come they work with her. She ensures continuity [and] knows everybody.”

In addition to collecting stories, Bourgerie sees huge potential for the project. “This is cross-disciplinary,” he explained. “There’s potentially all sorts of academic sides to this . . . local histories, folklore, trauma studies, [the study of] local dialects, and family history, obviously . . . it’s a big set of data that could be used for years to come.” Bourgerie works hard to give project members both in Utah and Cambodia the chance to increase their work experience, practice their language skills, and be involved in something that matters—professionally and spiritually.

In addition, he and the Stake Presidents in Phnom Penh share the hope that the project will instill a love of family history in Cambodian youth. Bourgerie remembers that when one of the Stake Presidents was first introduced to the project, he said “Well this is fantastic. This could be the basis of the first ever youth temple trip to Thailand,” Until the Bangkok temple was announced, most Cambodians could not afford a plane ticket to the Philippines or Hong Kong to visit the temple. “It could allow a lot of the younger people who were involved in collecting these histories [to] then bring those names and go to the temple for the first time with their own families’ names that they helped find.”

“In some ways, I have no business even doing this,” Bourgerie admitted frankly. “If you were asking me what I should be doing for my research, it wouldn’t be this . . . but it just felt right, so I pursued it.” Before the project, his main interest in Cambodia was the Chinese diaspora there, but the project “really does feel providential because things just keep falling into place.” Bourgerie has fully accepted the challenge of bringing the stories of a silent generation to light, to remember their lives and to bless their families over the many generations to follow.


Olivia Madsen (B.A. French language ’18)

Olivia covers news from the Humanities Center, part of the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in French language with a minor in international development.