Mormon Oral History Project Records Everyday Tales of Khmer Rouge

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Mormon Oral History Project Records Everyday Tales of Khmer Rouge

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Long read:
Cambodian Oral History Project
How the Cambodian Oral History Project is Healing the Nation
on November 1, 2020 The Good News

SEATTLE, Washington — Cambodia is a beautiful country in Southeast Asia known for its friendly inhabitants and tourist destinations, such as the ancient Buddhist temple Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. What some may not realize, however, is that under all that beauty lies a dark past. That is why the Cambodian Oral History Project is working to help heal the nation’s scars.

Cambodia’s History

Less than 50 years ago, Cambodia experienced “one of the worst mass killings of the 20th century.” From 1975-1979, communist leader Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime terrorized the kingdom of Cambodia in an attempt to create an agrarian socialist society. During that period, nearly two million Cambodians — one-fourth of the country’s population at the time — were killed or died of starvation, disease or overwork.

The regime targeted anyone seen as a potential threat, specifically intellectuals, including doctors, teachers and even those who wore glasses. The Khmer Rouge forced many to labor long days in the rice fields without adequate food or rest. They imprisoned thousands in detention centers. The bones of the millions who died filled mass graves throughout the country, now called “the killing fields.”

On January 7, 1979, the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia and overthrew Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Though eventually removed from power, the Pol Pot regime’s crimes impacted the lives of millions and changed the country forever.

Cambodia is still in the process of recovering from the numerous travesties of the genocide. The Khmer Rouge period, and the years of violence and political instability that followed, contributed to Cambodia’s enduring major issues. One such issue is the extreme poverty throughout the country.

Uncovering the Past and Connecting Generations

Cambodians rarely speak openly about the Khmer Rouge period, owing to the topic’s painful nature. Consequently, as more Khmer Rouge survivors pass each year without ever speaking about their experience, their stories are inevitably lost.

One project started by Brigham Young University (BYU) in Utah has been helping uncover this tragic past by documenting the stories of those who lived through the Khmer Rouge. Launched in 2016, the BYU Cambodian Oral History Project (COHP) aims to capture family histories. In order to do this, they encourage local youth and young adults in Cambodia to interview family members about their experiences.

Following her 18-month mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Cambodia, Allison Lasswell started volunteering as a translator for the COHP. Later, she would return to Cambodia as the project’s first non-native female intern. There, she worked as the project manager and peer leader coordinator for five months.

Peer leaders are Cambodian volunteers that the COHP trains to conduct interviews with family members and others. They ask basic demographic questions like birth date and hometown, but also ask what interviewees remember about the Khmer Rouge. The group records the interviews and then native Cambodians transcribe them. Volunteers, many of whom learned the Khmer language through serving religious missions, then translate the interviews into English. As of July 2020, they have conducted 4,762 interviews.
Full article: https://www.borgenmagazine.com/cambodia ... t-healing/
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Re: Mormon Oral History Project Records Everyday Tales of Khmer Rouge

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CEOCambodiaNews wrote: Mon Nov 02, 2020 1:28 am Cambodians rarely speak openly about the Khmer Rouge period, owing to the topic’s painful nature. Consequently, as more Khmer Rouge survivors pass each year without ever speaking about their experience, their stories are inevitably lost.
Not in my experience, the Cambodians I have known are quite straightforward about what their roles were in the 70s. One local guy I knew was constantly derided and ostracized because the other locals called him a "Lon Nol" soldier. When I talked to him he said he had never been one, he was a Heng Samrin soldier like all the others around. One time a former Khmer Rouge soldier from Phnom Voar came and joined us, he was treated much better than the other guy. I talked to him a bit about the foreigners who were kidnapped and murdered there, he was very informative until I asked him where he was when they were executed. Of course he knew nothing and was on the other side of the mountain when that happened. Poor kids. 8-)
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Re: Mormon Oral History Project Records Everyday Tales of Khmer Rouge

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BYU students, creator of Alexa develop software to preserve Cambodian stories
By Christie Allen, December 09, 2020

By recording nearly 5,000 life stories during the past few years, BYU’s Cambodian Oral History Project has brought to light many narratives long suppressed by the trauma of the late 1970s Khmer Rouge regime, during which nearly two million Cambodians were killed or died.

When BYU alum and speech recognition expert Jeff Adams—who was the lead designer of Amazon’s Alexa before starting Cobalt Speech and Language—saw BYU’s story about the project this past summer, he reached out to the team to see if they were interested in interviewing the Cambodian people he had served with in his Latter-day Saint church congregation in Massachusetts.

During the conversation, Adams learned that 2,000 of the recordings had already been laboriously transcribed by hand, with 3,000 to go, and “a light bulb went off.”

Adams knew that a large database of quality recordings and accurate transcriptions are the two essential ingredients to train a computer to understand a new language: BYU’s collection provided the perfect foundation to create the first-ever automatic speech recognition tool specifically designed to transcribe Khmer, the language of Cambodia.

“It was one of these things where you wonder how much divine intervention was involved,” said Adams. He suggested a collaboration between Cobalt and BYU students to create the new software, which will make the transcription process almost instantaneous and lay the groundwork for more efficient English translations that scholars of Cambodian history and culture can study.

“Increased access to these stories will be a gift for the Cambodian people who treasure having written copies for their family records,” said BYU linguistics student Allison Lasswell, who is developing the software along with information systems student Jeremy Hills and with mentorship from Cobalt. “For the first time, many in the rising Cambodian generation are hearing about what grandma’s wedding day was like or how their uncle died.”


Saving Cambodia's lost stories, connecting generations, aims of BYU project

Lasswell and Hills both gained fluency in Khmer through missionary service and became involved with the Cambodian Oral History Project to maintain a connection to the culture.

Hills is creating and debugging a model to teach the computer to interpret Khmer sounds. Features of Khmer present unique challenges for automatic speech recognition, including the absence of spaces between words. This space is a feature Western languages have but most Asian languages do not, one reason generic programs like Google Voice have been less useful for Khmer.

To that end, Lasswell is using her background in Khmer and her knowledge from linguistics coursework to perform analysis that will help the new software “hear” Khmer correctly, including by distinguishing between multiple speakers through speech patterns and accurately identifying Khmer phonemes and words in a recording.
https://news.byu.edu/character/byu-stud ... an-stories
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