Strangio’s Hun Sen’s Cambodia

I’ve been delaying writing this review, and the reasons were obscure to me until this morning, when I suddenly realized what was blocking me: the review is unnecessary.

You see, I usually write up reviews of books that few people read, or know about, because they are on relatively obscure topics, or from particularly academic perspectives. As a consequence, there are few other reviews of the books I occasionally cover out there.

That is not the case with Sebastian Strangio’s Hun Sen’s Cambodia. The book has been a bit of a justified sensation in Cambodian-watching circles, going beyond the narrow sets of watchers, academics, NGO people, and Foreign Service officers. It’s received a lot of attention, and it has deserved it. So a review from me is unnecessary.

But here is a very short one, followed by a set of links that I think indicate an interesting, curated set of reviews, interviews, and extensions focused on the book. Continue reading

May Day – Choose Your May Day

May Day and the Creation of a New World

[Note: this was written for the 2006 MayDay march, which was organized around the direct action strikes taken by Latino workers in the USA – A “Day Without An immigrant.”]

Like anything else, May Day is at least partly what we make of it, and partly what it has been to other people in the past. Before Europe began its relentless conquest of the world, it was a celebration of Spring. During these ancient May Day celebrations, work was abolished in favor of play, dance, music, feasting, and love. The grim missionaries of early Christianity condemned the celebrations as pagan celebrations of vice, especially those of idleness and lust. They banned May Day and attempted to guilt and shame their subjects into postures of hard work and celibacy.

The modern celebrations of May Day as International Worker’s Day began in the United States at the turn of the Twentieth Century. Peasants from Europe forced off their traditional lands sought refuge and new chances in the United States; many immigrated to Chicago and found work in the factories there.

Being an immigrant demands the recreation of the world. An immigrant must carry her past with her, if she refuses to deny it. She must create a new world out of the memories of the old one, in the place of the new one. Because of their experience with different real societies, and in creating new worlds to live in, immigrants understand better than almost anyone that not all societies are the same, and that change is possible.

The immigrants who made Chicago the center of Midwestern America’s industrial belt had this practical experience in creating a new society, and maybe this is what made them see possibilities beyond the limits of what they were told was ‘possible.’ Injustice was not limited to the lands from which they came, but was rampant in the United States as well.

Workers were told to choose between working unbearably long hours for dismal compensation under cruel managers, or starving. They were told that their world was a world of hard work and celibacy, in which idleness necessarily meant starvation, and love was a waste of time.

But these immigrants, like those of today, refused this logic and insisted on the revolutionary possibilities of love and idleness.  They founded the mass movement that won the eight-hour day. The state responded with deadly violence, murdering four innocent men. Without these Chicago martyrs the eight-hour workday might never have been established.

The Chicago martyrs were Anarchist and socialist immigrants who fought for their rights by choosing their values: idleness and love,  instead of labor, shame, and isolation. And they didn’t stop by choosing  their values – they seized the power to make their values a reality. They forced the bosses and the state to accept less work from each worker. Radical workers have followed in their tradition ever since. We choose the May Day of love and life, where our relationships with our families, friends, and fellow workers are the yardstick against  which the value of hard work must be measured.

The United States insists that “Labor Day” happens in September, and renamed May 1st as both “Law Day” and “Loyalty Day.” The missionaries never left: they are still calling us to hard work and celibacy, away from our games, our society, and our love. They tell us that  unless we allow them to isolate us and treat us as machines in their never- ending quest for more, our lives will have no meaning. But we choose our May Day, not theirs, and we have the power to make our values a reality.

A Garland of Alev Stories

I’ve decided to post my translation of the Khmer language “A Garland of Alev Stories” that I helped collect as part of a group folklore and publication project out of the Buddhist Institute of Cambodia, which resulted in four illustrated, published volumes, that we worked hard to make affordable to everyday Cambodians (about $1 each at the time of publication, which isn’t ‘affordable’ but better than the alternative of publishing one single volume primarily aimed at non-Cambodians). Those volumes are also available for free PDF downloads from my BePress site.

Alev is a trickster character (this story can be found in Vol. 3 of the Folktales Collection, “Tricksters.”

The short stories included in this ‘Garland of  Alev Stories’ are “Dogshit Cakes,” “Alev Kills His Parents For Soup,” “Alev Pimps Out A Monk,” “Alev Sells Farts,” and “Alev Steals The Girl.” Please enjoy.

Continue reading

RIP, Martin Riesebrodt

I found out late.

I guess that’s the first thing to say. I found out months after he’d passed. I was out of touch, focusing on my own family, local contacts, and particular field of study. It’s the lateness that increases my sadness that Martin is gone, an indication that I failed to maintain my relationship with him in the way I had wished.

Martin Riesebrodt passed away from cancer at his home in Berlin on December 6, 2014. I hadn’t known he was ill. He is survived by his wife, the artist Brigitte Riesebrodt, and their son, Max. I knew them for a period, while I was a student in residence at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School (2000-2003), and his research assistant (2001-2003). In passing, I taught his son the rudiments of guitar (he wanted to learn heavy metal, but all I knew was fingerstyle acoustic; he suffered patiently and is now, I believe, I devoted Heavy Metal musician who I hope would look indulgently on my old-fashioned love of Black Sabbath, and my current love of Mastodon), and got to know the family a bit. They were, without a doubt, the kindest and most coherent social grouping I met during my time in Chicago, and I will forever be grateful for the space they made for me in their lives, and the role modeling that Martin was to me. Continue reading

Publication announcement; also: my C.V. moving to BePress

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Having recently acquired tenure at my position, I’ve gone ahead and begun to move my archive of articles and c.v., including links to downloads for the same, to my institutionally-hosted BePress page, which you can get here.

I’ll leave my old publications page up, but won’t be updating it anymore. It will eventually disappear or turn into something else.

My latest published article, “Kinship Beyond Death: Ambiguous Relations and Autonomous Children in Contemporary Cambodia,” published in the journal of Contemporary Buddhism, already has been downloaded 50 times (I get fifty free downloads to share), which is encouraging. But it you want to read about why most Cambodian parents consider past-birth memory in the children a disaster and didn’t get to the link, you can read the pre-print version of the article on my bepress page.

 

Andrew Mertha’s Brothers in Arms: Chinese Aid To The Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979

I’ve been gone awhile, but I haven’t stopped working. Instead, I’ve been building up a backlog. I’ll be returning here, hopefully, more frequently in the coming months. I have book reviews on Ian Harris’ new book on Cambodian Buddhism under the Khmer Rouge, discussions about the progress of my own book project, coming out from Columbia University Press this year, and lots more.

Remember that I no longer share links and news here, which accounts for the sudden drop in posts. Instead, those are found at my twitter account. But since that account combines all my interests, many of which may not be yours, you can also search for Cambodia-related, Buddhism-related, or other types of material by searching twitter for those hashtag-noted subjects (e.g., #Cambodia, #Buddhism), or restricting your view of my tweets to those with those two hashtags.

But today, I want to talk briefly about Andrew Mertha’s book, Brothers in Arms: Chinese Aid to the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979.

This is an excellent book which fills a significant gap in both general and particular knowledges about the period of Democratic Kampuchea, 1975-1979, during which period DK had state-to-state relations with the People’s Republic of China, among others.  Mertha, whose previous scholarship focused on the PRC itself, brings the Chinese data to the historical void that is much of the KR period.

In filling the general gap in knowledge about the period of DK, my feeling is that Mertha’s greatest accomplishment here is to demonstrate with great clarity that the Khmer Rouge were not only not autarkic and self-isolating, but actively looking for, and needing, funding and assistance from outside of Cambodia. The stereotype of the period is of a country of Tbackwards peasant savages (<-not descriptions I would ever endorse) forced into a sort of pre-modern dark age; Mertha’s meticulous descriptions of the extensive relationships and widespread and important presence of Chinese advisors in DK Cambodia should put an end to that stereotype definitively.

In filling the particular knowledge gaps about DK, my favorite part, and the most provocative and interesting (as well as, for those terrible human beings concerned primarily with ‘policy,’ a good indication of how long the PRC has pursued its international funding and aid strategies), is about how ineffectual the PRC advisors and aid regime was in convincing the DK leadership to do things the way the PRC wanted. Amazingly, given the huge asymmetries in the relationship, DK leadership managed to continue to receive enormous amounts of aid and advice without really giving the PRC much of anything in return (this aspect of the book is also highlighted by Milton Osborne in his review of the book, linked below).

The first three chapters of the book set up the various parties involved and introduce them nicely. For those of us without expertise in historic PRC bureaucracies, Mertha’s flowcharts and graphs in Chapter Three are particularly helpful. Chapters Four through Six detail the histories of individual joint projects: the Kraing Leav Airfield, The Kompong Som Petroleum Refinery Project, and the development of markets and trade between the PRC and DK. Each of these case studies make slightly different and complementary points. The DK ability to accept aid while rebuffing PRC demands regarding the airfield was just amazing to me, despite having seen countless Cambodian perform smaller-scale feats of resistance, planned incomprehension, and foot-dragging (see James Scott’s “Weapons of the Weak,” please). The sheer bravado and confidence of the DK leadership appears stunning. The almost total failure of the Refinery Project was, in contrast, the result of a continual refusal by DK leadership to take PRC advisors’ advice seriously – real training and logistics are necessary to make a refinery. Since the DK leadership refused, the refinery failed. Finally, in Chapter Six, Mertha details how the PRC development of DK markets was actually on an upward trajectory, and potentially a success, had Vietnam not then invaded and ‘liberated’ Cambodians from the Khmer Rouge.

I do have one complaint, which I’ve made to Andrew in person, and will rehash here. Many will see it as unimportant, or even narcissistic, given that I myself do identify and organize as an anarchist. Mertha uses the term ‘anarchy’ three times in the first three paragraphs, to refer to devastation, death, and the negative space of life. Certainly he will be within the long history of Gentlemen’s Historians using this word in this poetic way, to refer to the absence of any order. However, Mertha is also aware that ‘anarchy’ is a worldwide, historic, current, and expanding set of ideologies that insist on the ability of human precisely to organize society without oppression and hierarchy.Mertha is, finally, aware, that the word for anarchy in Khmer, អនាធិបតេយ្យ (from the Pāli “anādhipateyya,” meaning “unruled) has become a government accusation against a whole range of those who protest for various forms of social justice. Most commonly, the government accuses those who are being kicked off lands a private businessman is about to grab, of living there “in anarchy.” That is, in the last fifteen years, the government’s abusive use of the word has been largely about land-grabs. But just recently, the government accused a union of acting ‘anarchically,’ indicating an expansion of this word to categorize citizens as outcasts, and then treat them accordingly. Given this set of situations, I’m disappointed that he chose the word ‘anarchy’ to refer to ‘chaos’ and ‘death.’

Regardless of my complaint, this is an excellent book which fills enormously significant gaps in knowledge about the period, advances knowledge regarding both the PRC and DK, and remains significant to those interested in the present and immediate future. Mertha should be proud of this book.

Other Reviews of the Book

Ian Storey at New Mandala

Milton Osborne at Contemporary Southeast Asia

Andy Brouwer at Andy’s Cambodia

Religious (Studies) Board Games

Where’ve I been? I wish I could say I’d been playing board games, but alas – no.  My book is almost complete, and will enter into production soon! I also have some things to say about a neat story out of Oakland in the next few days.  I’m gearing up to teach Caillois and Huizinga in my class on Ritual tomorrow, partly through this excellent reading of Caillois by a video game designer (!!). But for now, here’s a list of noteworthy (not necessarily an endorsement!) Religion or Religious Studies-esque Board Games. Also note that there aren’t enough games from outside the Abrahamic traditions, and I wasn’t gonna throw “Chutes in Ladders” in there just for historical resonance. Suggestions? Links? Throw ’em in the comments, friends.

Playing Gods.

Playing Gods is a satirical board game of divine domination. Two to five players each play a different god, and compete with each other to take over the world. This is done by spreading your believers, converting the followers of other gods, or killing them off with Acts of God.

Playing Gods also has an open-ended structure that encourages player creativity. For example, players may choose to be a figurehead of one of the five main religions, or they may choose to create their own gods – or even be their own god! In the Expansion Pack, artistic and creative players may even write and design their own cards.

Here I Stand: Wars of the Reformation.

The lineage of Here I Stand includes descent from both SPI’s A Mighty Fortress (published in 1977) and GMT’s The Napoleonic Wars (2002). Reusing the theme of A Mighty Fortress, the game improves on its predecessor with a much deeper system to handle religious conversions, the additions of New World exploration and Mediterranean piracy, and the explicit inclusion of minor powers that can be coerced into the conflict through card play. Borrowed from The Napoleonic Wars is the use of important cities to determine economic strength and elements of the land combat, avoid battle, and interception systems. Many game mechanics borrowed from The Napoleonic Wars were simplified to ensure a fast-paced game despite the wide range of factor considered by this design. From this base, the game adds mechanics unique to the 16th Century, including heavy use of short-term (and unreliable!) mercenaries, explicit wintering of armies, and the mercurial nature of siege operations, especially against targets that can be resupplied by sea. Here I Stand is an innovative game system, being the first to integrate religion, politics, economics and diplomacy in a card-driven design. Games vary in length from 3-4 hours for a tournament scenario up to full campaign games that run about twice the time. Rules to play games with 2, 3, 4, or 5 players are also included. The 3-player game is just as well balanced as the standard 6-player configuration, taking advantage of the natural alliances of the period.

The Virgin Queen: Wars of Religion.

Virgin Queen: Wars of Religion 1559-1598 is a game of grand strategy for two to six players based on the military, political and religious conflicts within Europe during the reigns of Elizabeth I of England and Philip II of Spain. Each player controls one or more of the major powers that presided over European politics in that day. Spain is the juggernaut, able to draw upon the vast riches of their global empire. But such a dominant power is sure to have many enemies. The Ottoman expansion towards Spain’s Mediterranean outposts remains unchecked. Elizabeth’s English sea dogs are poised to raid Spain’s overseas empire. And the forces of Protestant reform will soon drag Spain into eighty years of rebellion in the Netherlands. Will Spain find aid from its Catholic allies? Perhaps not from France, where the Catholic Valois dynasty is soon to engage another group of Protestant believers in the bloody French Wars of Religion. And even Philip’s relatives in Vienna who rule the Holy Roman Empire may dabble in the Protestant faith instead of remaining loyal to their Catholic heritage and Spanish brethren. Virgin Queen is the sequel to Here I Stand, another card-driven game of grand strategy that covered the previous forty years (from Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses in 1517 through the abdication of Charles V in 1556). Players familiar with Here I Stand will find much that is familiar in Virgin Queen: over half of the rulebook remains unchanged. New game systems have been put in place to emphasize the changing nature of the conflicts here in the late 16th Century

A Game For Good Christians.

It all started playing a game of Cards Against Humanity when someone’s “horrible” card pairing was vaguely biblical and deeply spiritual. One of us said, “imagine if this entire game was based completely on passages from the Bible?” Hours later a midnight phone call began A Game For Good Christians, but it truly goes back further than this.

This game was developed through years of many irreverent and deeply theological conversations; Bible studies, seminary classes, sermons, readings and reflections are at the root of this game, as is deep exploration of the Bible.

The cards capture stories, characters, and statements from the Bible. Some familiar and comforting, others frightening and confusing. Those who have been uncomfortable playing this game have had the most trouble with Canon Cards which quote directly from the Bible without any clever commentary from us.

The Bible, like humanity, is messy because it contains the messy relationship between the divine and humanity: a relationship which is humorous and horrifying. Our game embraces this dissonance. We ask you to do the same.

We are Christians, designers, teachers, preachers, parents, artists, seminary students, male and female, Jew and Gentile, and no respecters of persons.

The only Christian game not afraid of the Bible!

See Religion Dispatches on the game.

Settlers of Canaan.

The settlers of canaan takes place in the territory of canaan off the coast of the great sea. Each player represents a tribe of Israel seeking to settle in canaan guide your tribe through the fertile lands of canaan. Each hex space will yield resources that you can cash in for roads, settlements and cities. Harvest resources of stone and ore from the land to help build Jerusalem and receive king david’s blessing. Harvest timber, grain, wool, and brick to build more roads and settlements to expand your territory work quickly your opponents are moving to settle the most fertile parts of canaan you also need to be wary a plague could come upon you at any time and destroy your harvest. Based on settlers of catan. For 3-4 players. Biblical theme.

A.D. 30:

Walk With Jesus to Jerusalem is a very reverent solitaire game that takes you, as the player, along the travels of Jesus, from His baptism in the River Jordan to His triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Along the way, you will make decisions which will affect the outcome of His journeys and teachings. Thirteen possible alternate outcomes are included not to imply that other outcomes were in fact possible, but to build a strategy game that includes challenges with possibility of success and failure as the player of the game. Achieving the Major Victory (the historical outcomes) will demonstrate the extraordinary set of circumstances that took place and were necessary to achieve the birth of Christianity.

The events that take place often cause the political and religious leaders of the area (represented by Caiaphas, Herod Antipas, and Pontius Pilate in the game) to take notice and become increasingly concerned. In game terms, this is shown by moving those Leader markers along a track on the game board, advancing them from their start spaces one step at a time until they reach the final space on that track (“Arrest in Jerusalem”), at which point they attempt to arrest Jesus.

You get the chance to react to these movements with several choices each game turn. The goal is to assemble all twelve apostles, maintain a high level of piety, and enter into Jerusalem. Additionally, when trying to reconstruct the beginnings of Christianity historically, it is imperative that Judas betrays Jesus in Jerusalem. Events tend to push Jesus towards Jerusalem, but try to avoid entering too early before all the important pieces are in place!

Solomon’s Temple.

Solomon’s Temple is a board game of strategy and fun! Each player has his or her own deck of cards and game board. Your goal is to build and furnish the Temple of Solomon while at the same time fighting off invading Babylonian armies (that your opponent controls!). Mix in prophets, priests, Kings, altars and offerings, and the task becomes even more difficult! Do you have what it takes to defend the city and complete the temple in time? (Redemption® fans will want to note that Solomon’s Temple is the only place you can find the promotional King David and King Solomon Redemption® cards!) Board game for 2 players ages 7 and up. Average 1 hour game.

Kalua Board Game.

On the tropical island of Kalua, different religions compete to become the one and only religion. You will take the role of one of the Gods that Kaluans follow and you will reward your families with good harvests, nice weather and general well-being or punish them with famine, epidemics floods and other disasters if they do not pray to you enough; but do not forget that there are other Gods on the island and Kaluans cannot tell where all their bad luck is coming from.

Opus Dei.

Opus-Dei: Existence After Religion is an atheist-themed game (with no affiliation with the catholic organisation Prelatura del Opus Dei) built around the world of philosophy though no philosophical knowledge is needed to play as it is a purely strategy-based game. The philosophical foundation is however only the beginning the next steps include expansion sets that explore historical events politicians artists musicians writers and revolutionaries of all kind. Opus-Dei: Existence After Religion is a new entertaining and irreverent card game that takes place in a universe where religion is almost completely something of the past. In this world without religious dogma the players represent rival Zeitgeists (German Time-Spirits) competing in a battle of rational ideas to maintain ethics morals and meaningful lives for all by virtue of reason! When playing the game a queue of potentially existing philosophers scientists and fools are lined up for each round. These humans are worth varying amounts of points according to their intellectual status and magnitude. It is then up to each Zeitgeist in their turn to create the best of them into their particular World by playing up to two cards that can serve their best interests. The player with the most points at the end of the game wins!