Coming To America: After the Khmer Rouge

Cambodia, many years after the Khmer Rouge

Interview with Leroy Carson DDS conducted March 2021.
Kathleen S. Roos Ph.D.

This is installment eight to the series: “Coming to America.”

“Experience matters more than your opinion” John Rich

Although Dr. Leroy Carson DDS is not an immigrant, he experienced the atrocities many Cambodians were subjected to, especially those with higher education or professional careers. He experienced first-hand stories during his professional work as an advisor to Cambodia’s dental schools and as a practicing dentist working throughout Cambodia and with NGOs within the Cambodian Prison System.

Dr. Carson visited Cambodia years after the Khmer Rouge, a brutal regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. At first a tourist, he became enamored with Asia. Then with his advanced practices in dentistry he found he could help train Cambodian dental schools in the more advanced practices such as IV (intravenous) sedation. During his long-term work with Cambodia’s top dentists and dental schools, he experienced many amazing stories especially while volunteering to work in the prisons. He was captured by how much the Khmer Rouge Regime and the Communist mentality still pervades much of Cambodia.

 

I met Dr. Leroy Carson through my own dentist Dr. Derek Carson, his son.
I mentioned to Dr. Derek Carson, about the project I was working on to interview immigrants and share their stories; the horrors and impacts suffered by peoples that escaped communist and/or socialists’ countries. I told him I don’t think many Americans are aware of what many of our legal immigrants have experienced and why they wanted to come to the U.S. This is my purpose. These real stories of people immigrating to the U.S. to flee their home countries seem to be often jaded by today’s politics and often manipulated by the press with their own agenda.

I had just conducted a rather emotional interview the night before with Vanchhat Toch from Cambodia (Installment 1). He had shared some of the horrors of fighting the Communists in Cambodia, the camps, the tortures in the prisons, the children being bayoneted or swung overhead like a toy until their head hit a tree, and the relatives who had disappeared. While under the influence of Nitrous Oxide, I shared some of that interview with my dentist. This is all while I was reciting the “Pledge of Allegiance.” I think that was my subconscious patriotism being shared that I was in denial that these atrocities could have happened in

Cambodia. Derek is puzzled and tells me, “My father can tell you all about Cambodia and what happened there. He has been there many times and shared many of his stories with me”. I asked if I could possibly interview Dr. Carson’s dad, Leroy, and he said he would ask. Dr. Leroy Carson agreed and called me and this is his story. *Several names have been changed to protect any remaining professionals still remaining in Cambodia.
Dr. Carson immediately began his story without my asking questions.
It was 1970 and I was a dental school graduate. Though I loved dentistry I really loved to travel and wanted to help others in the world. I had studied history of China, Asia and Japan and fell in love with that part of the world. I volunteered to go into the Air Force as a practicing dentist and so I could travel.
I got in contact with a Dental Facility in Cambodia and invested more than 200K into the A&Z Royal Bank which had ties to banks in Australia and New Zealand.

In 2008, I gave two weeks’ notice to my kids and informed my current established dental practice that I was going to Cambodia. I gave my family everything I had. I gave my son, also a dentist, half of my dentistry practice.
I had made contact with a Cambodian named Samut*. Samut was his first name. The agreement was that I could practice dentistry with him and be able to teach. Cambodia did not have experienced dentists especially in anesthesiology and other more advanced dentistry techniques. I could bring my Intravenous (IV) sedation license, something they were really interested in learning about.
While over there (in Thailand) I would fly to Hong Kong and transfer to Dragon Air. This was 2008. I didn’t know if Samut was meeting me at the airport or not. Communication was difficult. It was hot and very humid. I stayed in Korat (Nakhon Ratchasima) Thailand, the palace where my wife Beverly and I would go frequently.
Asia was ingrained into my system. I wanted to stay in this part of the world. I wanted to do more than just make money. My wife Beverly felt the same way and wanted to go with me. She was told she could teach English, which (Beverly told me) she never got to do.
I loved the history of the Thai and Thailand as well. The Thai had been squeezed out of South China. They came about the time of Christ. They had an aggressive culture, were good fighters and dominated many kingdoms. This is a major reason Thailand has never been invaded by another country. (While I lived in Thailand (1984-86), I had asked the Thai about never being invaded or taken over by any country. They were very proud of this fact. The Thai, with their typical sense of humor would say to me, the Vietnamese Communists would get lost in traffic!)

In Cambodia, I helped set up all the dental school meetings to create the teaching facility and did most of the teaching on anesthesiology. We all did lectures on other parts of dentistry as well.
During the Khmer Rouge reign, the party in power wanted to destroy all intellectuals. The results of this “cleansing’ were evident while I was there and Samut, and others, would share their stories which were rather frightening. Samut was a Chinese born Cambodian. He was not favored by the Khmer Rouge and he and his family experienced the Khmer Rouge Regime.

He was almost put to death. He was a professional and most often anyone in a professional career or considered an intellectual, even wearing glasses, was justification to be put to death (see Installments 1, 2 and 3, 5, and 6 for a common theme). However, Samut was put to work by Khmer Rouge to guard and maintain cattle. He is a professional dentist, not a cattle man. The cattle he was in charge of destroyed crops and he was charged of this as a crime. He came very close to being put to death. When the Khmer Rouge was going to sentence someone to death or punish them, the observers would all clap their hands. They would clap! The louder they clapped the more chance your sentence was death. If the Chinese Communists knew he was a dentist he knew he was dead.
Samut’s father escaped and survived the Khmer Rouge also by hiding in the Mekong Delta. He was sentenced to death primarily because he was Chinese/ Cambodian and not communist.

Many in Cambodia prior to the Khmer Rouge ate French food. The French had a major influence in this part of the world. When the Khmer Rouge came to power, they killed all the French chefs, lawyers, doctors, teachers and anyone who wore glasses were put to death. The wearing of glasses, as mentioned in Vanchhat’s story (Installment 1), designated that one was educated and immediate grounds for execution.
Vietnam went to war against the Communist Vietnamese. During the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge was liquidating anyone who had western contacts. They were so cruel. They would take little children by the legs and twirl them around until their heads struck something, a building, a tree anything to kill them. Photos of this practice exist in the Tuol Sleng Prison, in Cambodia to this day. The Vietnamese could not stand this level of cruelty either. Nor could the Communists Vietnamese stand the Khmer Rouge’s cruelty. Khmer Rouge stands for Khmer (Cambodia) Rouge (Red). I admit because of this I was upset when Trump chose Red for his MAGA hats. It is just that some these things stay with you.

Kaleem*, another dentist, invited me to go to many dentistry training events and lectures throughout Asia. I would get letters of appreciation since I would lecture on a yearly basis. I became well known. I did lectures on implants, aspirations, and taking skin cells from hips to use in grafts so you could avoid people having to wear dentures. This was all beyond ‘state of the art’ for the Cambodians.
I often went alone to Cambodia, without Beverly, from 2008 to 2011. By this time, there was a lot of stealing. They steal from you all the time. At first it seemed not a big deal as only minor things were stolen. But then it got to be frightening. Their approach was to only steal half of what you had thinking it was OK that they left you with half. It was their unwritten law that it was OK. (I experienced this same practice in Thailand).
I saw a huge change in behaviors and attitudes towards foreigners from 2008-2011. In Cambodia they use a method of transportation called Tut Tuts (similar Tuk Tuks in Thailand). It was more a carriage than Thai Tuk Tuks and they could spin on a dime.

Australians, Malaysians and many from Singapore travel to Cambodia so English is a required language. Americans do not go as often to Cambodia. To Cambodians, Australians are the equivalent of Americans. (In Thailand we are called Forangs).
I would see cops standing on a corner. None wore helmets. Often
you would see a family of five riding on a small motorcycle driving
by grassy meridians where many were practicing Thai Chi. Traffic moved both ways on both sides and was very scary and confusing.
People were friendly while I first was going to Cambodia on a regular basis, however the longer I stayed, as communism spread throughout the country, it was feeling less and less safe. (Similar observations were made by Rolando Chinea in
 Photos of the Killing fields of the Khmer Rouge and depicted tortures told by Dr. Carson and Vanchhat, Mony and Olivia Toch.

A Cambodian boy, in front of mass quantity of human bones from the Khmer Rouge killing fields

 

The photos (above and below) are from Tuol Sleng Prison Museum (Almay Stock Cuba and Vanchhat Toch in Cambodia years earlier as Communism began its reach in those countries).

 

A man walks through a mass of human bones in the killing fields, Cambodia

Refugee Camp. “A prions without walls.”

View inside Cambodian border refugee camp.

The European Union sent people to help Cambodia. German dentists came there and I was invited by Samut to join them. The Dean of the International Dental School was helpful to me. He actually helped get me out of trouble. Kalam*, the director who helped me, was gay and that is not accepted in Cambodia. I accompanied him to the Dental Angel Project. The Project consisted of a bunch of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) working in the Cambodian Prison System. They would enlist people from all the dental schools to help out in shifts. The prisons made up of cinder block buildings surrounded with chain link fencing and barbed wire. There were steel steps you had to step over and the prisoners were all in chains so that made it impossible to escape.
Early in my time in Cambodia, I had no dental drills to practice dentistry. We were provided only the bare bones in materials. I would attempt to lean the chairs back so I could work on a patient. The Cambodians refused any sit-down dentistry. All had to be done while standing up. They just all stood up. It was difficult to practice and have any leverage which one needs in dentistry.

The Cambodians would freak out if you turned them upside down or tilted them back even slightly as we practice in the states. I used elevators and forceps. We would use a spoon to scrape out decay and cement for a temporary restoration. As I mentioned, I did not have access to more current tools of the trade especially while practicing in the prisons. In the prisons, you were forbidden to take photographs. I snuck in a camera once. When I went to the bathroom, there was a swarm of mosquitos and while dealing with them, I dropped my camera into the toilet. Though I tried to hold onto it, it slipped out of my pocket. The Camp director, Kaleem*, got the camera back for me. Good thing this it was an Asian toilet and not a western flush style!
I visited and practiced in many prisons. The prisoners would tell me all these stories of how they got there. One guy was a devoted Christian. He was a missionary and he was imprisoned for that! He was in an awful room. They paid him a meager salary as a dentist, and fed him even less. He shared a lot with me. I volunteered to help him in training. A large portion of the prisoners were European or from Singapore and ran into the Cambodian system, through often no fault of their own. One guy didn’t have his seat belt on and was imprisoned for it. If you didn’t pay a bribe or know what was happening, as many westerners did not, you often went to prisons until you could pay up. If they considered you wealthy, that bribe could be very high! One time I didn’t have my seat belt on and that is exactly what the cops were looking for that day. My friend gave the cop $10 U.S. dollars which is a lot of korona in Cambodia. The cop just pocketed it and I didn’t go to prison.

If you have connections you can afford to stay in Cambodia at a local hotel rather inexpensively. It is very expensive otherwise. For example, with connections you can stay at the best Cambodian hotel for $70 a night. If you aren’t connected it would cost you $200 a night. They have their own version of the ‘Mafia’. This is common knowledge for those who travel here. Corporation was the big term used at this time in lieu of the term mafia. You were part of ‘the corporation’. The corruption (like syndicate) became more and more rampant.
One night someone set off a bomb at a hotel where I was staying. It was at a Vietnamese hotel. Every hotel in Cambodia has girls. Prostitution is big business. Cambodia built factories so the girls would have a place to work and stay during the day, thus the sweat shop. The girls had the choice to either work in the rice paddies or in the factories or as prostitutes at the hotels and restaurants and bars. The rural areas flood badly so working in the rice paddies can be very unhealthy.

Beverly and I went everywhere in Asia. We finally stopped going to Cambodia in about 2011. There was a very severe influenza virus outbreak at the time. It was bad. I was invited back to lecture. But my wife got very sick and I told them I could not come.
When I did return, I started feeling this aura of ‘Mafia’ again, as though I was being watched similar to all the people in the prisons. There were doctors, lawyers, pharmacists all in the prisons and they were extorted for money. They would remain in prison for the rest of their lives if they could not find someone to pay. Even when some did pay, they did not get out.

I had brought drugs legally into Cambodia to support my dentistry practice and teaching. I did this for many years with no problem. I had to disclose all this and I always did. I gave this information to Samut*. The medication I brought in included oral sedation, IV (intravenous) sedation, and each time I had to go through customs. Each time I disassembled all my dental carts to travel. The Chinese got a hold of these carts and thought they must have thought they were bomb making equipment. I became a marked person after that. I could just feel the change.

At one time I went to the airport to retrieve my equipment. There was an international fight going on between Thailand and Cambodia. There was no one at the airport. I mean no one! I identified my suitcase, grabbed it, and flew the first Business Class flight I could find out of there. I used every mile I could to get out. I was that frightened.

The Cambodians wanted to split Beverly and me up on travel back; to take different flights. She would fly one day, me the next. I didn’t want that to happen. I knew I was being targeted. Many Chinese said I was a drug dealer. Many had no knowledge of sedation so this was their perception. No education or sharing knowledge seemed to change their perspective.

There were only about 200 dentists for the entire country of Cambodia and about 2/3 either just did not use sedation or felt it was wrong to use. Samut stopped answering my phone calls. We had used Skype all the time, but all that stopped suddenly. That is when I knew for sure I was a target. I had invested $200K in their banks. My calls were monitored because this is a Communist Country. Using my cell phone one time I pick up a police officer. They were tracking my calls even when in the U.S.

The situation was not limited to the police. They aren’t wearing helmets or shields. Now no one is talking. Cops take money as pay offs to not send you to jail or prison. Tut tuts are removed from transporting people so there is no way to get around. They don’t want people to get around or communicate. The police want taxes back on the transportation so they can get their kickbacks. Very convoluted but all about corruption and bribery.
I stopped going there.

 

The Opposition Party was outlawed. Total dictatorship now that China has bought out the Country. South Korea tried to help but they were bullied out by China also. You see much of this going on in the South China Seas as well as in Australia.
I got the Cambodian dentistry schools set up with their first digitalized system. You could take x-rays digitally. This was a huge benefit to them. My name was on the door. The Cambodian dental technique was called the Australian Injection (Goo Gals) hitting the nerve that goes directly into the brain. If you needed to have all your teeth removed, Cambodian practice took them out the side of your mouth. Common to have dry sockets by extracting all wisdom teeth in less than an hour. These were the barbaric practices I tried to educate them to change with proper techniques, medicines and equipment.
Did you hear about Temples or Churches being destroyed?
I do not know of the Khmer Rouge destroying temples but the government made it unpleasant to attend while I was there. Vanchhat Toch said churches and temples were destroyed during his time in the 1970s.

 


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David Lunn

Very inspiring article showing the evil roots of the CCP and communism. It really helps illustrate what’s at risk the the current evil regime in DC

Maria Finney

Wonderfull write up and so appreciative to live in the USA!

Joy Swift

I love reading these stories! They make me feel so lucky to have been born in the US. The Khmer Rouge were horrific!