Posts Tagged ‘Khmer Rouge’

Southeast Asia Sounding: 1/18/2010

In sounding on January 18, 2010 at 11:20 am

SOUNDING for Week Ending 1/15/2010

In sounding on January 14, 2010 at 1:31 pm


KI-Media consolidated a series of youtube clips from a French-language documentary film about the Khmer Republic under Lon Nol, from 1970-1975. Very worth checking out, especially if you can understand French. [link]

Whenever the topic of the Khmer Rouge comes up, you’re bound to hear someone impugn Noam Chomsky as a Khmer Rouge apologist. Here’s a new review of the evidence, which seems pretty evenhanded to me. Check it out. [link]

Milton Osborne wrote an essay on “The Mekong River Under Threat” for Asia-Pacific Journal, reprinted here in Japan Focus. Milton Osborne, “The Mekong River Under Threat,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, 2-2-10, January 11, 2010. [link]

Important statements from Chea Mony, president of the Free Trade Union Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC), on the reason why there were fewer labor actions in this last year:

The president of the Cambodian Free Trade Union of Workers stated that there were more than 100 demonstrations and strikes held by workers in 2009, but this number is less than in previous years. However, the decline in numbers is not due to better working conditions, but due to restrictions imposed by the government on demonstrations and strikes, especially due to suppression of workers movements by the local authorities. [Daem Ampil, translated by the Mirror. link]

Mony has also written to the US government asking for them to drop all export tariffs from Cambodian goods to the US. [link]

The International Republican Institute (IRI), rather infamous among those who pay attention, even rising to the level of international scrutiny during the US 2008 presidential election (McCain is a booster), declares that Cambodia’s government just keeps getting better. Read it here. [link]


Thich Nhat Hanh has finally spoken out forcefully, laying the blame for the violent evictions of students, monks, and nuns in Vietnam, upon mobs for hire at the command of the Vietnamese government. This is important; wait for more. [link]

Another positive review of Anne Hansen’s excellent book How To Behave, by Craig Reynolds. [link] I reviewed Hansen’s book previously for the Journal of Asian Studies, 67.3, pp. 1123-1127.


Of course, the biggest news of the week is the unimaginable devastation ongoing in Haiti. It’s unbearable. Please consider giving money to worthwhile organizations.  William Easterly, the most prominent critic of bad development aid and proponent of effective aid, has a blog called “Aid Watch.” Over there, Laura Freschi has published suggestions.  Please take a moment. [link] Avaaz has other good suggestions [link]. You might also read Anthroman’s reflections on Pat Robertson’s horrific comments.


Not that this is really news, but the World Food Program announced the other day that of all the world’s hungry people, three-quarters are the rural poor. [link]

I’m digging on the Middle Mekong Archaeological Project’s weblog. Check out these two posts: Guano and sacrificial pigs, and A family in every pot. The latter includes this awesome, death-related, photograph.

Oh yes, Google might stop helping the PRC censor its citizens. [link]

Burned like old rubbish: Pol Pot’s funeral

In comment on April 29, 2009 at 7:20 am

The Phnom Penh Post’s “This week in history” feature includes an article on Pol Pot’s death and cremation back in 1998.

Worth checking out.

The Phnom Penh Post – Burned like old rubbish: Pol Pot’s funeral.

“Maybe the dead were starving…”

In notice on February 24, 2009 at 11:39 am

Excellent two-part documentary from Al Jazeera on the ongoing Cambodian tribunal of the Khmer Rouge. There’s little discussion (but some) on the extremely limited number of leaders in the dock, but some great discussion. The talented Nic Dunlop, author of The Lost Executioner, takes lead on this report.

In the clip above, starting at about 10:43, note the following quote, which is characteristic of the way in which people have talked to me about ghosts and the dead during the Khmer Rouge period (Democratic Kampuchea, 1975-1979). Seng Yao, 81 year old survivor of prison camp M-99, says

At least ten prisoners died each morning and we would take the bodies away. We kept moving the corpses. I was not afraid of ghosts at that time. I would sometimes sleep on graves but ghosts did not haunt me. Maybe the ghosts did not have the energy left to haunt us because they died of starvation.

[Note that the speech in Khmer is actually somewhat less conditional about the reasoning]

I only interviewed a few survivors of Khmer Rouge prisons during my fieldwork. But such expressions and reasoning about ghosts were common among many survivors, not just former prisoners.  I was frequently told that “there were no ghosts during the Pol Pot time,” because “they had nothing to eat.” I had a hard time understanding this at first, because it was my assumption that whenever there was mass death there would necessarily be more ghosts, not fewer.

But the explanations I received were consistent with what Seng Yao expresses in the documentary clip above. In January 2005, an 85 year old man in rural Kompong Cham province expressed it this way:

When the country is rich, there are lots of ghosts. When there is nothing to eat, what will the ghosts eat? Nowadays, there are lots more ghosts than during the Pol Pot time.

Note that the reciprocity between humans and the dead is assumed to be the basis of the ‘health’ of the dead, and that the basis of this reciprocity is food. This point underlies almost all my work thus far on death and deathpower in Cambodia.

Khmer Rouge Tribunal Begins Today

In comment on February 17, 2009 at 9:27 am

I haven’t talked much about the tribunal, largely because while I think a good tribunal would be truly beneficial for Cambodia, this tribunal, it is increasingly clear, is little more than another fig leaf for a political regime. The last one was a fig leaf for the recent invading Vietnamese; this one is a fig leaf for the international donor countries, some of who re-armed the Khmer Rouge in the eighties, while allowing their representatives to retain their seat in the UN.

My anger and disappointment about this entire thing is nearly incandescent.

more about “Khmer Rouge war crimes trial begins -…“, posted with vodpod

François Bizot, one of the greatest academic authorities on Cambodian Buddhism, has a somewhat more measured statement on the beginning of the trial. One of Duch’s few survivors, Bizot was held in a prison camp by Duch north of Siem Reap prior to the victory of April 17, 1975, and was one of the only prisoners of that camp released. He has told his story in the bestselling book The Gate. His opinion piece in today’s New York Times deals with Duch as his own personal savior (insofar, I suppose, as Duch released him) and as a murderer of tens of thousands, in his capacity as the head of S-21. It’s definitely worth reading.

AFTER 10 years of detention, Kaing Guek Eav, alias Comrade Duch, is to appear today before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. He was arrested in 1999, after 20 years of living incognito, for crimes committed on his orders as commander of the Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh from 1975 to 1979, when the Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia and were responsible for the deaths of more than a million people.

Bizot, “My Savior, Their Killer.”

Also note that finally (FINALLY), a history of the Khmer Rouge period will be returned to the curriculum of Cambodian students, something which has been nonexistent for years (history ended in 1974). I have actually interviewed a man intimately connected with the destruction of the older, early PRK-era textbooks which did discuss the Khmer Rouge. There is no escaping of the fact that all these histories will be imperfect, intended to fit one political agenda or another, but the mere fact that the Khmer Rouge will be discussed in high school curriculum at all is already a major change.

Preah Vihear and the 'Former Khmer Rouge'

In Uncategorized on July 28, 2008 at 3:21 pm

The conflict over the temple of Preah Vihear and its surrounding 1.6-1.8 sq. miles of land continues, like a constantly recurring nightmare. It’s Nietzschean in its aspect of banal and violent repetition, but not nearly as inspiring or enlightening.

The United Nations’ Security Council had agreed to hear Cambodia’s complaint against Thailand’s incursion into the territory, couched as the abrogation of national sovereignty. In countries as touchy about lost territory and national sovereignty as Thailand and Cambodia, bringing such a complaint to an international body is big stuff. But then, at Cambodia’s request, they canceled the meeting, and are currently, reportedly, involved in a second round of talks.

Whether this has something to do with yesterday’s CPP-claimed massive win in Cambodia’s national elections is anybody’s guess – and lots of people are doing just that, including comparisons to 2003’s election. Was Hun Sen merely waiting until after the elections? Will he now settle quickly, having used nationalist sentiment to buoy his party’s big win? Or is he as genuinely interested in this issue as the majority of Khmer people seem to be (I make no personal declarations of support or detraction here – just noting the preference).

Of course, Thailand’s national sovereignty is important to national pride for reasons different from Cambodia’s. Thailand builds much of its self-image on the idea that they were ‘not colonized,’ and in fact are exceptional in this regard among their neighbors. This gives them the sense that they are exceptional not merely as a matter of historical accident, but as a matter of national destiny, national character, and relative national worth.

Cambodia, on the other hand, finds itself deeply invested in its territory and national sovereignty precisely because of it’s self-image as a once-great former empire, ruling “all of mainland Southeast Asia,” whose territory, national self-respect, and former greatness has been slowly and repeatedly eroded through the immoral, and duplicitous actions of its neighbors and its european predators. This leads to the connection between the recovery of lost territory and lost national pride.

And this raises the specter – again – of the “Former Khmer Rouge.” I’ve been blogging about this topic for awhile now. In 2006 I noted that

The question of ‘former khmer rouge’ constantly recurrs, like acid after a bad meal. Many people were Khmer Rouge, and are therefore ‘former Khmer Rouge,’ but in an example of social common sense, it seems that the appelation “Former Khmer Rouge” is most often applied to those who use force in ways deemed oppressive and amoral, often regardless of whether or not the people in question are actually former cadre or not.

This has been noticed by others in the metonymic use of the word “Pol Pot” to signify simply “Khmer Rouge Soldiers,” though in both cases it needs to be carefully noted that these are post-experiential uses, since the Khmer Rouge never referred to themselves as Khmer Rouge (They were the minions of Democratic Kampuchea, or more universally, simply “Angkar,” the ‘organization’), and Pol Pot was not widely known inside of Cambodia until after 1979, and became famous largely through the anti-Khmer Rouge propaganda of the new People’s Republic of Kampuchea. But people are still referred to as ‘Pol Pots’ or as ‘Former Khmer Rouge,’ in a way that acts as political shorthand for a shared, constructed historical consciousness.

After a recent spate of articles referencing, again, the “Former Khmer Rouge,” this time their involvement with the Preah Vihear conflict, I feel obliged to revisit this idea, and also to reformulate it. When the international press refers to ‘former Khmer Rouge,’ they tend to signify only the aspect I pointed to in my earlier post – the idea that the Khmer Rouge use force in ways deemed oppressive and amoral. This is the major implication in current reportage on this – ‘isn’t it horrifying, or amusing, or ironic, or <whatever>,’ the articles seem to imply, ‘that these former Khmer Rouge fighters are now fighting on behalf of the current government?’

These uses miss the fact that while this image of the Khmer Rouge is very strong within Cambodia as well, there is another, equally potent image of the Khmer Rouge fighter within Cambodia, one that is not shared without Cambodia’s borders: the Khmer Rouge as powerful nationalist – those who will defend the country at any cost. This image was constructed primarily after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979, when the Khmer Rouge were forced to the Thai border. The Thai took in a few refugees, whom they housed in horrific camps, and also began re-arming the ‘former Khmer Rouge,’ this time to fight against the Vietnamese. The Khmer Rouge would almost certainly have disappeared as a plausible fighting force without this rearming.

One of the upshots of this was the continuation – for nearly 20 full years – of the civil war in Cambodia. During the forced conscription of the K5 program in Cambodia, young people were drafted to go plant landmines and cut down trees on the Northwest Frontier, and where they died in proportions similar to the period of 1975-1979, under Democratic Kampuchea. During this period, the Khmer Rouge progressively shed their communist ideology and practices. Never practitioners of anything resembling a ‘mature’ communism, it was perhaps particularly easy to shed. What remained was the rabid nationalism of the groups –  a nationalism which predated 1979, but which was now their sole rationale.

With this in mind, let’s read again some of the recent quotes in which “Former Khmer Rouge” fighters talk about Preah Vihear. For instance, when they say, “I am read to fight the Thais.” What are they saying? And how? Here’s a lengthy quote from a recent article on the issue from Bronwyn Sloan:

Former fighters say they would be at war already if Prime Minister Hun Sen had just said the word, but instead he and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), expected to be handsomely returned to office after the elections, have urged restraint. Some are frustrated.

“I only have one leg, and I am old, but my former troops are still in Preah Vihear, and I am willing to give military advice or any other assistance I can to protect Cambodian sovereignty,” said former Khmer Rouge fighter Try Nin, 56.

“We are former Khmer Rouge. We are not scared of foreign aggressors. We respect the government’s decision to meet the Thais with diplomacy, but if that fails, everyone here is ready to fight.”

Former photographer at the Khmer Rouge’s infamous Toul Sleng torture centre turned CPP commune leader, Nhem En, 47, who claims Anlong Veng’s several thousand voters are 99 percent CPP, agreed.

“I am ready to fight the Thais. All we wait for is an order from Prime Minister Hun Sen,” he said. “We don’t want war – we want peace and development. But we need tourists, and while the Thais do this, the tourists do not come.

“Thais already have their own problems in their south,” he said, referring to Muslim insurgency. “Why do they want an extra problem?”

Note the repeated assertions of loyalty to Hun Sen (though, given the source – a CPP commune leader – the reality might be somewhat different). But note also the tone of impatience and readiness to fight: There is no stated preference for diplomatic solutions, merely a willingness to abide by the Cambodian government’s decision to meet the Thais. Nope – the stated preference is for fighting, dying, and protecting the nation.

It will be interesting to see how these fighters feel about the government if it quickly settles with the Thai after the election win.

Khmer Rouge History Back in Schools

In Uncategorized on June 3, 2008 at 8:31 pm

Well, this is big news (from VOA):

More than 30 years after Khmer Rouge communist guerrillas marched into Phnom Penh, evacuated the cities, and sewed the seeds for one of the worst genocides of the 21st Century, the Cambodian governments says it will allow the regime’s history to be taught in schools.

The Ministry of Education is finally allowing the years after 1975 to be taught in school. The article doesn’t mention why it hasn’t been taught. After the end of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (1979-1989), and the integration of massive defections from Khmer Rouge armies primarily in the Northwest, these texts were destroyed in the name of National Reconciliation. They were afraid of not being able to successfully control and integrate KR soldiers (and especially their leaders), if the history was told in the way it had been: of a brutal, cruel, and stupid regime that respected nothing but power.

During my fieldwork in Cambodia, I had the opportunity to become friendly with an elderly man who used to work in the Ministry of Ed, and personally helped in the destruction of the PRK-era textbooks on the KR period, after the defections. He retained a number of copies of these books; later I was able to obtain even more from the archives of DC-Cam.  They aren’t so very hard to find, but they aren’t being taught in schools, where history ends before the Khmer Rouge, and usually with the fall of Sihanouk.

The belief was apparently that by ignoring the period and relegating it to individual memories, the period could be ignored, and its effects diminished.  This has helped structure the contemporary relationship to the past experienced by Cambodians of different ages: the elderly are often ashamed of their experiences, as if they somehow deserved them (let’s be clear: they did not), and if they are not ashamed, they are often bitter, or resigned: the younger generation isn’t really interested, and is often outright skeptical of the verity of stories of the Democratic Kampuchea, samay pol pot.

The Ministry of Education has approved plans to incorporate lessons on the period of Democratic Kampuchea, authorizing the independent Documentation Center of Cambodia, which has extensively chronicled the brutality of the regime, to train 1,800 teachers.

Those who are publicly interested in the period are the same people who once attempted to destroy public knowledge of the period: the rulers. Just as the government once attempted to destroy an area of historical knowledge in order to have it suit its purposes, the same (largely, though much bloated) government now restores these periods, but with a new hermeneutic intended to partake of the international discourse of genocide.

“We will organize a guide book for high school teachers, and we will train them on how to present this sensitive era to students,” center director Youk Chhang said. “First we will contact other countries that have the same story of atrocities committed by a communist regime on how they taught their young children in school about the genocide.”

20 May – Day of Hate – A Note On Titles

In Uncategorized on May 20, 2008 at 7:17 pm

Today is Mphei Ousophea, May 20th. During the eighties, it was more commonly called tngai chong komhoeng, the Day to [remain] Tied in Anger. I’d like to translate it as “The Day to Stay Angry,” or “Grudge Day.” The problem with the first is its colloquialism, and the problem with the latter is the potential confusion with kum, the Khmer word for grudge, which does not appear in the name of the day.

Really, the main problem with either is the dominance of Western literary tropes laid over Cambodia – as if there weren’t already too many palimpsests of history laid over the land. So we call it the Day of Hate, referring quite obviously to Orwell’s fantastic novel 1984. There are similarities, but the differences tend to be erased in this appropriation.

Regardless, because of the ECCC tribunal, the increased attention has led to a return of people calling this day “The Day of Hate.”

It was the Day of Hate that first focused my early interest in Cambodian funerary rituals, but what struck many of my advisors at the time was that it seemed to be barely hanging on. And they were right. It was a purely political ritual, attended almost exclusively by party members and villagers from party villages.

If we are to judge by the increase of media attention, the ritual has begun to transform into a more popular ritual, though it sounds very much the same to me.

Caring for the dead and a silly mode of production argument

In Uncategorized on June 1, 2007 at 3:13 am

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… Read the rest of this entry »

The “Day Of Hate”

In Uncategorized on May 21, 2007 at 11:38 pm

May 20th has long been known at the “Day of Hate” in Cambodia, though for the last ten years, it’s been more frequently referred to simply by its date, Mphei Ousophea (May 20th). Rumored to have been the date either of Pol Pot’s Birthday (probably not) or the date the KR leadership decided to collectivize all agriculture (more likely), the Renakse Liberation Front decided to use this day to remind the populace of their claims to legitimacy, which rest largely on the destruction of the Khmer Rouge.

This is all well-trod territory, though I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that the Renakse Front was Khmer-led, but Vietnamese controlled and backed. It was, as Penny Edwards once put it, “Doubly Post-Socialist,” which I think is not only accurate, but well-put. Not only that, but many of the members of the Renakse, including current Prime Minister Hun Sen, were themselves members of the Khmer Rouge at one point. It was incumbent on them, therefore, to find a way to preserve their socialist legitimacy while demonizing the communist KR they had supplanted. They did this primarily by labelling the KR ‘fascists,’ and by focusing not on the organization (“angkaa”) as a whole, but on a specific “fascistic” clique within it, the “Genocidal Pol Pot-Ieng Sary-(Khieu Samphan, sometimes as well) Clique.” Read the rest of this entry »


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