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Checking in with the Cambodian Oral History Project

Eight years in, Professor Dana Bourgerie highlights the progress of The Cambodian Oral History Project at Humanities Center Colloquium.

Logo with Text: BYU Cambodian Oral History Project above stylized letters COHP, with Khmer script below.
Photo by The Cambodian Oral History Project

Can you imagine not knowing anything about your grandparents’ lives? Because of the genocide and destruction caused by the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s, many Cambodians know very little about their family histories. For the last eight years, The Cambodian Oral History Project (COHP) has been working to bridge the generational gap so that as many Cambodians as possible will have a resource to learn about their family histories. At the Humanities Center Colloquium on October 5, 2023, Professor Dana Bourgerie (Chinese Dialectology, Sociolinguistics), director of COHP, described the project’s progress.

COHP records, preserves, and translates the stories of the Cambodian people, especially those who lived through the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge era. Officially called the Communist Party of Kampuchea, the regime outlawed most forms of higher education beyond basic literacy and frequently destroyed Cambodian historical and cultural records. The resulting deficit of written records makes family history research difficult for many Cambodians. COHP coordinators have tried to restore some of the lost information by conducting interviews, asking members of the older generation about their lives and then transcribing those interviews and sharing them online so the rising generation can access their ancestors’ stories for years to come. At this point, the project team has recorded over 5,200 interviews on video or audio.

Most of the interviews are conducted by the interviewee’s younger family members and recorded by Cambodian peer leaders—young people living in Cambodia who receive training on conducting interviews and a stipend for their work. Bourgerie said, “We've had some peer leaders where COHP helped their chances in higher ed because they've been attached to an international project. They get some bilingual experience, some technology experience. And that's really been close to my heart.” The project currently employs seven peer leaders in Cambodia, and Bourgerie hopes to expand by hiring local coordinators for each major province to facilitate more interviews.

Over the last couple years, in large part due to COVID-19, the project has broadened in scope to include interviews with members of various Cambodian heritage communities in California, Massachusetts, and Washington state. Returned missionaries who served Khmer-speaking missions comprise most of the team in the US, not only doing interviews but also working on improving the website and coordinating translators. For them, working on the project provides a rare opportunity to continue using their language skills.

One of the biggest challenges for the project is translating the interviews into English because not many people speak Khmer well enough—even returned missionaries do not always have a broad enough vocabulary. So far, they’ve only translated about 50 of the interviews. While they hope to find more translators, COHP coordinators will continue to focus on collecting interviews. Bourgerie said, “The stories come first because they have to be preserved. Somebody 20 years from now can say, ‘Hey, those need to be translated,’ and they will get translated. But when people pass away, their stories are gone; their voices are gone. And that's a tragedy. We can't get them all, but we’ll get as many as we can.”

Get involved and learn more about the incredible work of the Cambodian Oral History Project.