Letter From Cambodia

It's been 30 years since the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror. Some things you just can't forget.

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PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA—Arn and I watched the rain from a sweaty cafeteria in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where we talked about the peculiar habits of our dead fathers. Mine never ate at the dining room table. He came home from his grocery store and took his meals in bed where he called his three children to gather around for a night of blackjack or baccarat. We used food stamps collected from customers as chips and ate black-eyed peas, steak or pork chops on paper plates. He dealt the cards and told us of how he grew up with two pairs of pants—one for today and one for tomorrow; how the family traveled from Texas to Chicago to escape a lynching; the first time he lived in a house with electric lights; his first knife fight; Nat King Cole.

Arn’s father loved music. One of his first memories was of his father putting him on the stage of the basat opera that he ran with his four wives in the city of Battambang. There were Aspra dancers and singers everywhere in and around the old wooden house, and after the spring rains, they gave performances in the countryside. The troupe rumbled along in an old pickup truck and his father followed on a blue Vespa. His trick was stand on the seat of the motorbike and while still driving, take down his pants and pee. It was effective publicity for the arriving theater, but Arn told me that his father peed from his motorbike because it was his peculiar pleasure—one in which he could claim both a sense of freedom and a peculiar technical expertise. We talked for hours. My father died when I was 15 years old of a stroke induced by overwork. Arn does not know his own age and couldn’t tell me how old he was when his father passed. But he remembered the funeral—he was too small to see into his coffin and a man had to lift him up. He saw his father’s hands. They were pinned together by sticks meant to give the appearance of prayer. We talked until the daylight gave way to dusk, and our voices grew more subdued as the darkness arrived. “I am still a child,” he finally told me. “I still live my life around the things that happened to me when I was a little boy.”

He is referring, of course, to the reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge, when nearly 2 million people, like Arn’s father, died from starvation, overwork, torture or execution between 1975 and ‘79. Just last week, Cambodia saw the conclusion of a nine-month trial of Kaing Guek Eav, known as Comrade Duch, a notorious Khmer Rouge official. In the next year or so, the four highest-ranking members of the Communist guerilla group will also be tried. But these trials bring no sentencing, and as such, no real sense of closure.

I first met Arn Chorn Pond at a dinner party I threw for a friend. He arrived about an hour late to the little wooden house just off of Norodom Street where I lived, apologizing a mile a minute. There were a number of musicians at the party, and after a bit of prodding, Arn admitted that he played several instruments and loved very much to sing. Then he dreamt aloud of how he would do a feature film—a musical love story based on the period in which the great temples of Angkor were built. He said that it was just one of the things he wanted to do in the coming years. He wanted to start a television station. He wanted to start a radio station. Of course, I took this kind of ambition for insecure bravado.