Posts Tagged 'khmer rouge'

Not So Past Tense

Sit at a Western cafe. Your favorite cafe. Order a fish filet salad, pour the caper dressing from a little porcelain pitcher, watch the waiter fill your water glass from a thick green bottle. Read the day’s paper.

The photo: front page, full color. Two smiling boys in black pajamas, red Krama scarves around their necks. They’re posed with bamboo bayonets, beside Cham girls sitting in folding chairs, round faces glowing beneath their head scarves. Follow the jump, thumbing inside, page 21. Headline: “Politicking Mixes With ‘Day of Anger’ Atrocity Re-enactment.”


About 2,000 monks, students, teachers and government officials flocked yesterday to the site of some of the most horrific crimes of the Khmer Rouge era to reenact barbaric torture and execution scenes for the annual “Day of Anger” remembrance.

Spill dressing on the page.

It stains in little green dots, oil leaking through the white paper that isn’t newsprint, but white, like a school newsletter. Furrow your brow as you read on.

It’s campaign season. With elections coming next month, the ruling CPP party has been gearing up. Posters have appeared in storefronts throughout the city; campaign trucks have rumbled past your balcony, blasting slogans distorted by cheap speakers. Reports of bribery and repression have been popping up. Propaganda everywhere.

And now this. Day of Anger, once called “Day of Hate”—founded by the Vietnamese during their post-KR occupation of Cambodia. A time when people gather at the Killing Fields. Instead of mourning or remembering, lighting incense and raising in their foreheads, bowing—instead of that, the article says, teenagers dress up in Khmer Rouge uniforms and do historical reenactments of brutal torture: skull-smashing and rapes.

Remember, a year ago, at a different Western cafe, reading a report from Rwanda of their Genocide Memorial Holiday. It was a good piece. Remember squinting at your iPhone, zooming and scrolling, wondering why Cambodia didn’t have one of those.

You found later that it does, but it’s not as widespread as the one in Rwanda. You were here for the last one. You didn’t notice anything going on in the city.

Look up from the article, consider the difference in the very names: Forgiveness versus Anger.

Chew your salad and keep reading.

It sounds as though the reenactment was being used as propaganda. Ruling party members were on hand to remind attendees of how much the CPP has done for Cambodia, how much development has taken place since the real crimes happened—the real killings in the Killing Fields.

Remember going there. There were still scraps of clothes and bits of bones in the dirt. Imagine briefly these young men, marching in crisp clothes in yesterday’s heat, rubber sandals stepping over those fragmented remains of the victims.

Of course, there are some complaints—quotes criticizing the CPP for exploiting the Killing Fields and the Day of Anger for their own benefit. And more than even that, a threat:

Yim Sovann, SRP spokesman, said mixing political messages at a remembrance to the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime was intentional.

“They know the people are afraid of war so they want to show this [Khmer Rouge atrocities] again to remind people and spread [the idea] around the country that if they vote of other parties there will be a war,” Mr. Sovann said.

Look up again. Think of the conversation you had with S last week, on the terrace of a wine bar overlooking the Tonle Sap river. “It’s always there,” S had said. “They’re always threatening genocide, in this veiled way.” S’s Khmerican, cleaved in that space between expats and locals, forever the hyphen. “And with all the same people still in power, it’s easy to understand why people are scared.”

S had looked up from her mojito and stared out, at the street below you.

Look out at the street before you now—a coconut cart, a moto driver picking his teeth in his side mirror. Pavement giving way to rubble.

You’ve been thinking this for awhile: that it’s not all so past tense. You came here to write about trauma, as though it were something that had stopped happening. As though it were just the psychological ricochets to deal with. As if it weren’t all still here. As if there weren’t still bones and scraps of clothing in the dirt.

How do you tease it apart? How do you write about one part with getting into it all? Is there even a “one part”? And how do you write about if you only ever hear about this shit the day after it happens, when you’re having your foofy lunch at your favorite foofy cafe?

You don’t. Or I don’t. I can’t.

The salad dressing stains spread across the page, turning the paper a soggy green transparent. The newsprint bleeds a bit.

You keep chewing and chewing.

“The River That Empties Into The Ocean”: Glimpse Piece #2

Wax refugees from Khao Lan

So. Finally, finally, nearly a year after I originally landed on this continent, the second piece for my Glimpse project was published. You can check it out here.

The piece depicts my trip to the Thai border, where I searched for the remains for an old refugee camp my friends’ family passed through. If you’ve been following this blog for awhile, you’ll recognize part of the journey. What I didn’t write about at the time—because I knew I wanted to save it for this piece—was the strangely fortuitous meeting that occurred after I’d returned to Cambodia, made entirely possible by this blog. (Hey, I still may not have monetized this thing, but at least I’m getting something out of it!)

With the publication of this piece, I’ve officially completed the Glimpse Correspondent program. As such, I was asked to write a few words about my experience. What I basically told him was how incredibly valuable the program was to me. Getting the clips was nice, getting a stipend was nice, but what it really came down to was the editorial guidance. Sarah hashed through some insanely deep-level edits with me, giving me the kind of feedback you usually have to pay a lot of fucking money for.

I was gonna come out here and do the project regardless—I’d already booked my tickets when I’d heard my project was accepted—but it would have ended up being a much different project if it hadn’t been for all the support and guidance I received. I think the process pushed me to grow a lot, both creatively and personally. And I secretly kind of doubt I’d be back out here now if that hadn’t happened.

So read up! It’s mega long, so grab some coffee and get comfy. Then tell me what you think—and what you for real think, not what you polite think. [Insert smiley face]

Voices of the Khmer Rouge: The Exhibition and the Mystery

I never heard the term “Khmer Rouge” growing up. We didn’t learn about Cambodia in school, didn’t hear about it in TV or the movies. I must have been a teenager when I first heard those specific words, and I remember it sounding terribly exotic and glamorous: “Khmer,” smooth, black, still as glass; “Rouge,” like lipstick, like burlesque, Paris in the 20s. (Cambodia, Cambodia—where even the genocides have beautiful names.)

I did hear about Pol Pot. Not all the time—quite rarely, actually, and only in passing, but in a way that made in stand out in your mind, that made it tuck into some cramped little corner of your brain where nothing much else goes. How did you learn to make fire from two sticks? “I learn during Pol Pot.” Why were you running, pregnant, through waist-deep water in the middle of a monsoon? “To escape Pol Pot.” Who hung you upside down for days when you were caught stealing food? “Pol Pot.”

It was never the Khmer Rouge, but instead always this person, this invisible man, a dark silhouette that you could perhaps see passing, passing, passing through the house at night—like a ghost or a phantom or something even realer than that: Pol Pot.

So it was a type of linguistic division—responsibility placed not on a mass of people, a movement (ie: Nazis), but on a single person. Not a war, a genocide, but a man.

I kept thinking about that last night. I chanced upon—as I’ve been “chancing” upon everything in this project, so that you can’t really call it chance at all—the exhibition “Voices of the Khmer Rouge.” A massive audiovideo installation, “Voices of the Khmer Rouge” features 30 interviews with former low-ranking Khmer Rouge soliders, displayed with multi-lingual subtitles on some dozen computer monitors/headsets. It’s being shown at the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, an historical archive center with free, open access to the public. The exhibition opening happened to be last night. So I went.

It was sweltering hot in Bophana’s main floor, a space that was meant to have air-conditioning but didn’t. There were well-dressed Westerners and well-dressed Cambodians—lots of younger Cambodians, too: teens and twenties, what’s referred to as “the next generation,” all wearing the same type of short-leeve button-up top and slacks, conservative skirts. At a certain point, a herd of younger children filtered through, chattering softly; they were thin and dark and put on the headphones and stared.

The opening speeches were being translated into 3 languages—Khmer, English and French—and proceeded at a painstaking pace. I stood in the breeze of a fan and read the subtitles flashing on the screen.

All of the interviewees were poor villagers from a Northern province. Many of them had been young when they joined the Khmer Rouge—teenagers or even children. I’d read about that, accounts of that: the Khmer Rouge’s use of child soliders. Some had been arrested and forced to join, others felt they’d had no choice, and still others joined voluntarily, zealously.

So they’d mostly all been extremely vulnerable. They all spoke of experiencing hardship during Lon Nol’s regime and the American B-52 bombings: hunger, death, loss. They were angry, young, uneducated and desperate. These are dangerous conditions.

Their thoughts about the Khmer Rouge now ran the gamut. One man lauded Pol Pot as a hero who’d fought imperalism. He thought of him as a teacher and kept repeating that he couldn’t say Pol Pot is bad because, “If the student says the teacher is bad, then the student is bad too”—a logic steeped in the Cambodian brand of Buddhism.

There was a marked clarity when it came to the US’s involvement in the development of the war. One woman summed up: “Americans paid Khmers to fight other Khmer, and that’s what we were fighting: Khmer puppets.” Another man, with piercing eyes and deep wrinkles, spoke of how the power of the Khmer Rouge was set up by the “greater powers” of the world. He cited the US, China, Vietnam, Cuba, the Soviet Union—how they supplied money, guns, mines. “It was the greater powers that incited war. How could they have afforded it otherwise?”

He said that he was for the trying for former Khmer Rouge leaders, but that it wouldn’t be a proper trial if it was only trying them. “America must pay compensation too,” he said.

When I was at Tuol Sleng, my tour guide had said something about the Khmer Rouge that stood out to me. He said that they had “the trauma” just like the victims. Some of them killed, but they had to; if they didn’t, they’d be killed. “So they are victims too,” he said. “Indirect victims, but victims too.” That sense of division echoed in me: Pol Pot vs. the Khmer Rouge.

One woman, old and thin now, spoke of how she’d felt sorry for the people in the camps, but how there was nothing she could do. “That is war.” Mostly, she felt sorry for her Khmer Rouge comrades. She said how, when one would die, they would mourn them like a sibling. And I imagined an army of children in black pajamas, in the jungle with their semi-automatic weapons, stripped of their families, with nothing but each other.

Another man had been sent to be a solider as a child. During the fighting, he said, he’d lost his thumb, an eye, had a leg cut off; he didn’t even mention his missing front teeth. “I became a disabled person,” and he said it with a smile, a well-what’re-you-gonna-do smile—a battered little shell of a man.

Another man had a broad smile and smooth dark skin. He spoke of being afraid. “Maybe they will see this and come arrest me and execute me.” I thought of what my tour guide had said, how he’s still easily frightened, all these years later. “This would be very unfortunate for me,” said the man on the screen, and he smiled still, laughed. “It may sound like I’m joking, but I’m not.”

The project’s producers were on hand to discuss the work—two Danish dudes. They insisted that this was an art installation, because it wasn’t attempting to answer questions, only raise them. They refused to tell viewers what to think of the interviews; they wanted you to look at them and make your own conclusions.

“There are no conclusions,” I thought.

I waited around to speak with one of them. I was curious about a point he’d made—that he felt there were different levels of Khmer Rouge, the “really bad guys,” as it was convenient to phrase, and the other people, who existed in shades of grey—so many shades of grey, I’d thought, that you hadn’t knew existed before, like looking at one of those charts of the light spectrum in science class and realizing that all you’d ever seen was this small sliver of what was out there.

Another American girl had him cornered; I eavesdropped and they seemed to be talking about the same thing. She was debating that point fiercely, the kind guilty-by-compliance logic that had always made sense to me, before this. She was young, unwrinkled skin and braces, and kept shaking her head.

I finally got my chance to ask him. I told him my linguistic childhood ancedote. He spoke about the shades of grey, how he didn’t think it was as simple as just Pol Pot or all the Khmer Rouge. He again urged me to find my own answers.

“I think maybe there aren’t answers,” I said.

Which I think didn’t sound the way I’d intended. It wasn’t to say that the search was futile—because, after all, what the hell am I doing? (What the hell am I doing?)

No, I think the search is one of the most worthwhile things we can do. But I keep feeling like every layer I peel back, the further I look into it, the more complex it gets; it only opens the door to new questions. So we can look at it and we can tease it apart and try to know it, but I feel that at the center of it all is a great mystery, an un-understandability—the same mystery that’s at the center of everything, only maybe a little darker.

It’s a fact I feel I keep coming back to and keep coming back to, that all of seems to orbit around: the impenetrable mystery—smooth, black, still as glass.

Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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