Sunday, 3 June 2012

Cambodia - The Final Word

A summary of the themes

It’s time to say goodbye to Cambodia.  It’s been a great learning experience and I hope I get to visit Cambodia again sometime in the future. During the past couple of months, I’ve learned about Norodom Sihamoni, Cambodia’s Czech-speaking King and an unusual role-model for the country, as it moves through the 21st century.  I learnt about Chaul Chnam Thmey, the Cambodian New Year, which took place in April.  I learned about the Cambodian script and its influence on other writing systems in South East Asia.  I learned about the Cham people of Cambodia and Vietnam and I learned how to make Somla Machou, or Sour Fish soup, one of Cambodia’s national dishes.

Tools for research

I read three books as part of my research into Cambodia. 

Research for this blog
Writing and Script: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Robinson

First they killed my Father by Loung Ung

River of Time by Jon Swain

I used the Insight Guide to Cambodia and Laos for some of my background research

I watched two films about Cambodia:

The Killing Fields

Voices of the Killing Fields (a documentary about the work of the Cambodian reporter Thet Sambath.

To provide some background for my research and studies, I’ve been listening to lots of Cambodian music.  I’ve become a bit obsessed by Dengue Fever, the US group who sing in Cambodian and English.  I’ve also been listening to traditional Cambodian music, which is an acquired taste, but I find it really beautiful and, strangely, some of the songs remind me a bit on Bob Dylan!  I’m sharing a video from YouTube below which shows Dengue Fever's track Seeing Hands.

Other themes

And of course, there were plenty of other themes I would like to have explored, if I’d had more time to do so.  Some of these were:

The French in Asia
Ieng Sary, Brother Number Two
Children and war
Mt Meru, the holy mountain of Hinduism
War photography
The Irrawaddy dolphins
Casinos in Cambodia
Cambodian classical ballet
The Reamker – Cambodia’s version of the Ramayana
Artists who disappeared under the Khmer Rouge, eg. Ros Sereysothea and Sinn Sisamouth

Dinner Party trivia

And for those of you who are regular readers – here are some lesser-known facts about Cambodia that you can use to impress people at your next dinner party!

Tourist taking photo of Angkor Wat
Cambodia became independent in 1953.
There has been a long-running dispute between Cambodia and Thailand in relation to a temple complex, Preah Vihear, which sits directly on the border of the two countries.
‘New people’ was the term the Khmer Rouge used to describe Cambodians from the towns and cities, ie. Those who weren’t from a peasant background.  The famous Khmer Rouge slogan about the New People was ‘To keep you is no benefit.  To destroy you is no loss.’
The leaders of the Khmer Rouge were very well-educated, eg. Pol Pot studied in Paris. 

The US, Britain and Thailand continued to fund the Khmer Rouge, even after the Vietnamese had ousted them from power. 
Cambodia’s main ecological threats are from logging and shrimp farming.

The Sap river, which fills central Cambodia to form the lake Tonle Sap, reverses its flow every half-year, a very unusual phenomenon.
Cambodians count in blocks of 5.
The main entrance to Angkor Wat faces west, towards the setting sun, rather than east, which has led to speculation that the temple was somehow associated with death. 
The French use an expression called Le Mal Jaune (the yellow sickness) to describe nostalgia. 

Kaj Bjork, Sweden’s ambassador to the Beijing, was the only foreigner allowed to visit Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.

The Final Word

Of course, the ‘Elephant in the Room’ when it comes to Cambodia, is the period between 1975 and 1979, when Cambodia was controlled by the Khmer Rouge.  The Khmer Rouge regime was brutal in its attempts to turn Cambodia into an Agrarian Socialist state and it’s distressing to read the stories of those who lived through that time.  As a ‘national trauma’, the Khmer Rouge regime has left scars that are barely healed today.  Loung Ung’s story, as told in her book, ‘First they killed my Father’ is the second first-hand account I’ve read about life under the Khmer Rouge.  Loung Ung was a young girl when, in April 1975, the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh.  Shortly after the arrival of the Khmer Rouge, the entire city was evacuated and sent to work in the countryside.  Ung’s father had been an official in the old regime and they were particularly vulnerable, living in fear of discovery.  What really touched me about the book was the sense of anger Ung had as a young girl.  That a child would have to suffer so much and become so angry is saddening, in her own words, ‘My hate empowers and scares me, for with hate in my heart, I have no room for sadness’. 

Like many other Cambodians, Ung managed to escape Cambodia, first to Vietnam, then Thailand and the United States.  I was unaware of the suffering that many refugees experienced at the hands of (mostly Thai) pirates, as they crossed the Gulf of Thailand in small boats from Vietnam. 

Sunlight catches dancing Apsara at Angkor Wat
Jon Swain’s book, The River of Time, was also really interesting – although from a completely different perspective, ie. Through the eyes of a Western journalist living in Cambodia and Vietnam.  By all accounts, Swain was the last foreigner to be granted a visa under the Lol Non regime (ie before the Khmer Rouge gained power).  He was also one of the first Westerners to return to Cambodia, after the Vietnamese invaded in 1979.  He took great personal risks to report what was going on, both in Cambodia and Vietnam and his passion for ‘French Indochina’ is infectious.

I watched The Killing Fields again, which is a great movie and I also came across a fascinating documentary called, Voices of the Killing Fields – by the Cambodian journalist, Thet Sambaht.  Sambath lost most of his family under the Khmer Rouge regime and spent ten years as an adult, making contact with surviving Khmer Rouge members, most notably with Nuon Chea (Brother number 2), but also with minor Khmer Rouge officials who he records, quite shockingly, talking about the people they killed ‘under orders’ from above.  There has been a real desire from the survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime, to get some kind of justice for those who were murdered by the regime.  Sambaht’s documentary is an attempt to establish the power structures involved and prove that the order to kill came from the top of the Khmer Rouge leadership. 

The Khmer Rouge officials he interviewed seemed distressed and regretful of their role in the killings.  It also seems as though there was a lot of ‘peer pressure’ to kill and that, somehow, once a person had broken the taboo of taking another human being’s life, the only way they could feel better about it was by forcing others to do the same. 

I just can’t imagine what it would be like to be in a situation like that.  Cambodia is slowly recovering from the intense revolution of those four years, but it could take another generation before the violence of that period is finally put to rest.  Here’s hoping the future for this small nation is much happier than it’s more recent past. 

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