Growing up in Cambodia, Samrith Chap lived under the terror-filled reign of the Communist Khmer Rouge party, who killed between 1.5 million and 2.3 million people between 1975 and 1979. Among them were Chap’s father, two brothers and sister, who died of starvation after the Khmer Rouge evacuated entire cities.

Chap escaped to Thailand and eventually emigrated to the United States. His paintings, inspired by his experience, will be on display during a two-week show sponsored by Cape Elizabeth’s High School’s chapter of Amnesty International. The show will feature student work, as well as the work of prominent, local artist Christian Farnsworth. The show is honoring International Human Rights Day celebrated on Dec. 10.

The bulk of South Portland resident Samrith Chap’s work tells the story of his oppression under the Khmer Rouge, who killed between 1.5 million and 2.3 million people between 1975 and 1979.


Under the Kmer Rouge, people were forced to leave their homes under the rouse that they could return in three days time. “Go tent somewhere out in the jungle,” Chap said they were told.

There they set up camp with few supplies and scoured the earth for food. “Anything you can find, you eat,” said Samrith. Living on snakes, spiders, and insects, many perished quickly.

The Khmer Rouge envisioned an agrarian, utopian society modeled after the standard communist philosophy that no one person has more than another.

For the first year, he lived with his family in huts they built from sticks and twigs. Every few months the Khmer Rouge would uproot them without explanation, and they would start anew.

Chap believed this was a tactic to exterminate the educated. He said they began grouping people by profession and taking them away. “People started to catch on,” said Chap and then lied about their work.

After the first year, the people were divided by age, and Samrith was separated from his family. Taken out of the woods and moved near a rice field, he began like the others working the land. If he wanted to see his family, he had to ask permission, but it was infrequently granted.

“We (were) government property,” he said.

The Khmer Rouge supplied few amenities. Chap only received a new shirt when his current one was threadbare. “By the time you get a new shirt, your pants are torn,” he said.

The Escape

By 1978 the knowledge of the Cambodian genocide was widespread. The Khmer Rouge had creeped over the border into Vietnam and the Vietnamese responded by invading Cambodia.

This is when Chap and his family escaped.

The carefully-controlled farming communities were in upheaval once Vietnam waged war on the Khmer Rouge. In an attempt to escape the Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge rounded up their workers to flee. That is when Chap made his own escape.

“We don’t care who is on the other side,” he said at the time. “We’re going toward them.”

Once he realized it was another group of communists, he knew he had to go to his mother.

Chap calls what happened next “a miracle.”

Upon arriving at his mother’s camp, he discovered that the other living members of his family had done the same as he.

“We all had the same urge – to come see mom,” he said.

So with his remaining family members, they fled the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese and headed back to the town they had been forced to leave four years before.

“We picked up that night and left the communists for good,” he said.

When they arrived in the province of Battam Bong, now a ghost town, they were reunited with extended family members who had also escaped. Meeting at what was formerly Chap’s grandparents home, they discovered the Khmer Rouge had hacked down a good portion of it and used it for firewood.

For the first time in four years, Chap and his family had enough food to eat. Ironically, the rice-harvesting season coincided with the Vietnamese invasion. Since the Khmer Rouge were fighting or fleeing, the food the people had slaved for now belonged them.

Freedom Fighters

Chap’s family realized that no matter who won the war, they would live under Communist rule. “We didn’t want communist life,” he said.

A band of rebels calling themselves freedom fighters were stationed along the Cambodian/Thailand border. Chap and his uncle departed on the day-and-a-half journey by foot “to make sure it was safe for the rest of the family.”

On their first night, they were surrounded by what Chap remembers as hundreds of Vietnam soldiers charged with guarding the passageway to the border. “We walked right into them,” said Chap, “I said, ‘that’s it. My life is over.'”

Rather than kill them, the soldiers put them to work digging a ditch, and then they were released.

That night, they camped out by a pond. Chap went to the pond and collected water for dinner. In the morning, he went back to the pond and discovered dead bloated bodies floating beneath the grass. This was the origination of his painting “skulls in the grass.”

Once they reached the freedom fighters camp, they were only safe for a short time. The camp was attacked, bullets whizzed by Chap’s head and he dove into a ditch until the fighting passed. “There was no rule, no law, no regulation,” said Chap.

The camp was destroyed, and Chap and his uncle set out to find another freedom fighter camp.

Finally identifying a safe haven, they walked back to Battam Bong, collected their family and ventured out again. “The second time was easy,” said Chap.

The family arrived with no altercations but the camp was soon attacked by Thailand because of a dispute between a Thai soldier and a freedom fighter.

At that point, the United Nations stepped in and set-up refuge quarters in Thailand. Chap and his family spent time there before the United Nations relocated them to the Phillipines where he learned English.

The United States

Since then, Chap, his mother, uncle and siblings, have emigrated to the U.S. with the assistance of American sponsors.

Chap graduated from the University of Southern Maine with a bachelor’s degree in art. He is married with three children and hopes to someday pursue his art full-time.

“I would love to paint all the time if I could,” he said.

Until then, he will busy himself building his brother’s house and then put an addition on his own home, with one floor dedicated entirely to a painting space.

The show will run from Dec. 10 to 24 at Door 463 on Stevens Ave. in Portland. An opening reception will be held Dec. 9 from 5 to 8 p.m.

Samrith Chap describes his work as abstract impressionist. Through his work he tells his stories of life under the oppressive rule of the communist Khmer Rouge party in Cambodia in the late ’70’s. This work, “Skulls in the Grass” is a retelling of the time he gathered water from a pond in the dark to discover the next morning that it was infested with dead bodies. Three of Chap’s pieces will be exhibited in the first annual Amnesty International Art Exhibition celebrating Human Rights Day. Sponsored by the Cape Elizabeth High School chapter of Amnesty International, the show will run from Dec. 10 to 24 at Door 463 on Stevens Ave. in Portland.

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