Letter From Cambodia

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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.

In fact, Arn had been waylaid by history. He reckons that he was perhaps 9 years old when the Khmer Rouge interned him at a Buddhist monastery called Wat Ek, where he was forced to partake in the cadres’ atrocities. He fled them three years later and ran into the jungles of Northern Cambodia with nothing to eat and only his sidearm for protection. He tracked monkeys and ate their discarded food. He lived off insects he found on the forest floor. When he stumbled across the Thai border four months later, delirious with malaria, he was taken to a refugee camp. He survived and somehow found his way to America. Now he was back home, living with his half-sister and her husband.

Among other things, genocides are wars against memory, and Cambodia’s was no exception. When the Khmer Rouge came to power in April of 1975, they promised that the past would be wiped from the people’s minds like chalk off a blackboard. The new state would be a collectivized, agrarian utopia. A history of defeat—the country had been invaded by Thailand and Vietnam, colonized by the French, occupied by Japan during World War II and bombed by American B-52s during the Vietnam conflict—would be purged. The Khmer Rouge called their government “Angkar” (the organization) and sought out urban dwellers, students, intellectuals, professionals, teachers—all those who had a relationship to the written word. These “new people,” were identified, reduced to something less than human, then destroyed either through execution, forced labor or starvation. Soon, the dead piled up, the regime’s failures mounted and Angkar began to gnaw at itself with purges and counter purges. In a span of four years, the country was transformed into a mass graveyard filled with the bodies of 1.7 million.

When it was over, people were caught between the fact of memory and the need to forget. These struggles with remembrance did not emanate from some need for "truth" or "reconciliation." As the nation hurdled from an era of atrocity into an era of globalization, very few wanted to remember. To remember was to look back on the myriad reasons why they were afraid, why they were poor, why they could not compete, why no one was educated, why they suffered. To remember was to remember who and what had been sacrificed. The loss spanned several generations and looking into the future will span several more. Memory invoked a space filled with a nauseating terror that could safely exist only as something unmentionable. The unmentionable lingered everywhere, in politics, in villages and in cities. It didn’t act in opposition to that which was spoken but rather, like a shadow, accompanied it.


But everyone remembers. One cannot escape it. A village elder told me that memories of Angkar arrive in dreams as a looming darkness that overtakes him. An old monk told me he dreams of empty bowls of rice. At night, Arn dreams he is running from the cadres. He runs toward a group of children and is shot. Everyone remembers. And they have transformed their memories. They have become a different kind of “new people”—people who have declared new lives. They carry on in the space between who they are and who they were. They have assaulted memory with a clear-minded dreaming.

Arn traverses his past with music. He plays a klim—a dulcimer-like instrument that resembles a Japanese koto. He was about 9 years old when he was taught the instrument by an old man at Wat Ek. The cadres there had already killed a number of musicians before they realized that they needed songs to feed the vanity of the party leaders. The old man taught Arn and one other boy for several hours each day. When the lessons were completed and they were sure that Arn could play, the cadres killed the old man. They said he had been sent off, but Arn knew he was killed. Arn was then made to perform revolutionary songs for the cadres who, in turn, gave him a gun and said that he was a child soldier in Pol Pot’s army. Arn played, and the music created a space where something resembling sanity could reside. Nowadays, Arn spends his time finding work for master musicians who survived the Khmer Rouge.


There is no mention of survivors like Arn in Cambodian schoolbooks. In fact, there is no mention of the genocide at all. In primary school, students study history until the Angkor period. In secondary school, they study history until the Second World War. Teachers make no reference to the period between April of 1975 and 1979. It is simply a void. History begins again in the 1980s. At the country’s newest cultural school, the curriculum depicts the post Khmer Rouge period in terms of the arrival of “the happiness family.” In the schoolbooks, it is shown as a mother lying on a sofa watching television, children playing with a dog and a father on a cell phone.

Part II of Greg Beals’ experience in Cambodia will run tomorrow.

Gregory Beals is a political analyst based out of the Middle East. He has worked for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and for the U.N. Security Council Somalia Monitoring Group. You contact him here.