Paradise lost

by Sonny Thet

Above (Issue I/2019)

I was the oldest of three sons. In the royal household I was brought up with strictly Buddhist principles. The prince, Norodom Sihanouk, was very musical. He sang, danced and played accordion very nicely. He would call me, and the other young musicians who lived in the court, “his sons”.

I would often hear an old soldier playing the cello outside the palace. “Father,” I asked the prince, “where can I learn that?” In Germany of course.

The prince sent seven of us to Germany, to East Germany to be exact. He actually wanted to keep Cambodia out of the Cold War but due to some sort of desire for revenge against America, he chose to side with the Communists. It was a great honour to be chosen like that and to be sent overseas. My plan was to start an orchestra upon my return home.

When the seven of us landed at Schoenfeld airport in Berlin  on September 9, 1969, we thought it was just another stopover. But we were met there, then put on a train to Leipzig. Germany was a grey and exceedingly ugly country compared to Cambodia. Add to that a cold winter with temperatures of minus 20 degrees Celsius.

We cheered ourselves up with the thought that we only had to learn German in Leipzig. After a half year of an intensive language course we would go to different cities. Because I was one of the best pupils, I was allowed to go to Weimar to study music. For two years I was able to live on a fantastic bursary provided by the prince but when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975, I was left penniless.

The East German government paid us a scholarship of 150 Deutschmarks but it wasn’t enough. In 1971, I founded the band, Bayon, and started earning good money by performing. I was able to buy myself a cello for 30,000 Deutschmarks.

In 1975, I did my state exams and was supposed to leave the country. They gave me a plane ticket that was valid for six months but my uncle, who was living in exile in the USA, told me to stay there for as long as I could. A teacher also warned me not to come home.

Two of my fellow students, who had come here with me, did return home and were murdered. So I refused the passport that the Pol Pot regime offered me and I was left stateless. The East Germans then gave me a foreigner’s passport which also allowed me to travel into West Germany, even though my son and my German wife were not allowed to accompany me.

In the west, I produced music together with [German songwriter and dissident] Wolf Biermann and [singer] Eva-Maria Hagen. We knew that we were under surveillance from East Germany. In 1988, I could no longer extend my visa and was sent over to West Germany. After three months I was able to be reunited with my family.

It was only then that I learned the whole truth about the Khmer rouge and up until today, I do not know what happened to my parents and brothers. I have put that pain into my music, which I describe as a “happy melancholy”.

I enjoy composing and putting music to pictures. One of the first plays that I made music for was The Man Outside by Wolfgang Borchert. I always felt like Beckmann, who returned from the war: I had been travelling my whole life - in the USA, Sweden and Hungary. But I never felt like I really arrived.

In 1992, I was able to return to my homeland thanks to the UN and the German embassy. It was painful. A paradise had been lost, Cambodia had been put back 60 years. The current leader of the country isn’t interested in dancers or musicians. He thinks they are vagabonds.

Through playing my cello, I got to know a Swiss doctor who is building children’s hospitals and schools in Cambodia. So I go there for around three weeks, two times a year, to help in one of the hospitals. 

Transcribed by Stephanie von Hayek

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