Choeung Ek has slowly been experiencing a proliferation of different types of commemoration. It used to be the case that Choueng Ek was strongly controlled – but never truly monopolized – by the Cambodian People’s Party, for the benefit of the reproduction of the CPP message – “We saved you people from Pol Pot – We’re all that’s protecting you now.” But once the May 20th commemorations were restarted, enough morbid interest began to accumulate in the international press that Phnom Penh began to grow its tourist numbers. Instead of flying into Angkor Wat from Bangkok and then turning straight back around, tourists were now starting to visit Phnom Penh as well. But where they saw temples in Siem Reap, they saw Choueng Ek and S-21 in Phnom Penh. Cambodia, the land where a nation sells views of its past in one city, and sells memories of its past in another. Anyway…
The broadening of Choeung Ek’s performer base probably started with the Sam Rainsy Party. They began to hold counter-demonstrations, normally about a month prior to the May 20th event, in which they called for a speedy end to Tribunal delays, and for the commencement of government policies that they believed would put an end to grave injustices around the country. So, just as the CPP had their political message made with the dead in May, the SRP had theirs in April, “We have been patient enough, The current government should step down and the people should elect us!” Neither message was terribly sophisticated, any more than today, when for the last two years the May 20th event has included live-action performances of stereotyped Khmer Rouge killings before a coordinated audience of party-organized grief. At least from my perspective, it was not a positive step forward for anyone, despite being a very interesting one. Now, a large number of Cambodian and Japanese Buddhist monks gathered at Choeung Ek to celebrate Prayer Day for World Peace at a location which symbolizes, more than any other site in Cambodia, the anonymous dead of a generation.
There’s some background here, which is a stereotype of a theory I use to understand my work and Cambodian history. Keep in mind that my dissertation revolves around the notion of ‘deathpower.’
A mode of production argument about caring for the dead
The dead have always played a major role in the transformation of legitimate control in territory, over people. The agricultural border expanded in part through the conversion of non-agricultural land and peoples into parts of the fields of the post-neolithic culture. In many cases, it appears that this was an event that took place through the succession of rights of care for the dead. Where the ancestral dead of a village (and sometimes real, recent dead) were disposed of, or imagined to inhabit, tabooed forests, places which could not be cleared and tilled, the priests of agriculture entered. This may have taken place shortly before, or after, the agriculturalists started, continued, or ended the practice of simply murdering all the men and incorporating women and children into low-status members of the new agricultural royaume. Still, the pattern of temples built on top of preneo-lithic (megalithic) cemetaries is consistent, and it appears that at some point, neolithic priests accepted or seized the responsibility of caring for the dead. Still today, it is the priests of our religions, the vast majority of which begin their histories in shifts to agriculture from pastoralism, and a few others from yet other forms of subsistence, who assert a monopoly on caring for the dead. (( See Robert DeCaroli’s excellent-looking book, Haunting the Buddha, which I’m in the middle of right now))
It’s what our religions do well. And it does this well at least in large part because to do it well is to be politically successful. To mediate the relationship with our own, personal dead, is to manage a deeply felt thing. When that relationship is also considered a vital link in your family’s continued health, it becomes not only a source of manipulation, but also a crucial part of the legitimacy of legitimate authority.
Cambodia continues its transformation: Originating as the expanding boundary of farmers into the hills and valleys, and funding a willing upper class through the increased labors of a vast lower class. I’ve already aluded to the way in which the dead and their care figured in this transition. From this to a politically stunted and vampiric mode of production, practiced during the Middle Age, and rendered ever-less plausible by the French. During this period, according to esteemed historians such as Ashley Thompson, the ruling elite was heavily invested in symbolic and even architectural symbols of death and future rebirth.
When Sihanouk took over the French administration of an Independent Cambodia, he ran it even less competently, for anything other than his own pleasure. He managed to be both progressive and traditional, by replacing death with glorious heritage – related, but not identical. To mobilize death or its spectre, a king must either wield its force or threaten to do so, or else turn it symbolically against himself. The latter option is the image of the painfully righteous king suffering for the people. He portrays himself with a sword of damocles hanging over himself. This is a trope which paints the pleasures of the king as a constant threat – a damoclean dilemma which no immoral hedonist would willingly take on. Sihanouk refused to do this, and continued the same strategy that the French had used, the portrayal of Angkor as a foundation for national unity. This was a fundamentally modern move on his part – a complete break with traditional forms of self-legitimacy through the mediation of the dead, instead trading of the nation’s ideas of heritage, racial accomplishment and talent, common indigeneity, and Buddhist purity ((See Ingrid Muan‘s amazing dissertation on this idea, and Penny Edwards’ recently published and excellent “Cambodge.”)).
Of course, the reign of Democratic Kampuchea changed a lot. They took this national image created by the French, Sihanouk, and taken to crazy levels of racialism under Lon Nol. They ran with it. They fulfilled the destiny brought to them by the agriculturalists’ priests thousands of years ago – they put almost every last acre of land under intensive cultivation for the first time in Cambodia’s history. They got the most work out of the most people for the least return, probably than any regime in Cambodian history. They grew mountains of rice, and the people starved to death in waves. It was a traditional dream of the political elite in Cambodia, put into a real world by the rationalizing and marxist revolutionaries who had been hiding in the forests, fetishizing indigenous peoples while scorning their traditional methods.
Back to Choeung Ek and the contemporary political mode of production
Everyone knows how much the Kingdom of Cambodia depends on its increasing integration into the Modern World-System. From the foreign ‘aid’ which makes up half the national budget, to the Foreign Direct Investment which makes the elites elite and creates wage work for Cambodia’s emerging proletarians, Cambodia’s economy and stability currently depend absolutely on its non-stop integration into our new globalized economy. This has its repercussions – Cambodia must accomodate the international concerns and goals in its internal politics and symbol-making activities. From the adoption of the post-genocidal discourse to assimilate Cambodia’s historical horrors under Democratic Kampuchea (while ignoring the horrors of the periods immediately before and after), to the charade of a tribunal that appears never to happen, politics in Cambodia is increasingly including ideas from international ‘civil society’ discourses into its propaganda.
What are the aspirant political elites doing, and what is the relationship to the dead? Of late, there has been much noise (though little real attempt) to get the supposedly democratic Kingdom of Cambodia to act more democratically, responsible, or even to at least stop issuing flag of convenience registrations to pirates. One of the demands is that donors be allowed to see more footage on the international media channels that Cambodian religious groups are attempting to pray for peace and symbolically promise to never have another massacre like the one in Cambodia. These images conjure up lovely feelings in the donors, though the feelings in the monks themselves are undoubtedly much more hard-won and defiant.
The monks in these pictures are bravely standing up to a regime which has of lately consolidated ever more control over the national sangha, violently repressed Buddhist monks who wanted to exercise their constitutional right to vote in elections, and placed a gang of sleeper-cell thugs known as the Pagoda Boys in temples all over the country, asserting that they have the right and the desire to stand with international non-governmental organizations and foreigners, like the heavily-involved Japanese monks who were a part of this event and the Dhammayatra walks in the past ten years. They are claiming a minimum of political independence, announcing that they do not only turn up for those events where a declination would lead to serious problems.
But the consequence of this declaration are not only the public announcement of a minimum of political independence. It is also that the international sector, the ngo-sector, and the international media-makers, will increasingly dictate the terms of political legitimacy. It’s hardly new knowledge, given the UNTAC-created government, But a coup and increasing consolidation of power by current PM Hun Sen have increasingly given an ‘authentic’ (that is, not democratically installed) appearance. An increasing assertion of power by foreign governments and organizations may embolden democratic opposition. It may also lead to a negative response in which people suspicious of the world they are being recruited into (and the station they are to fill) support an authentic dictator instead of an inauthentic democracy. If this is accomplished by the manipulation and selling of national dead and their meaning at Choeung Ek, at least one thing will have remained somewhat consistent.
[Note: some typos corrected June 1st, headers added]