The situation in Syria today is breaking many hearts. It’s also deeply distressing to those of us whose faith in the future relies on humanity’s ability to learn from its past mistakes.

There are people on the Left who are openly supporting Assad, Putin, and even Trump – and frankly, cackling over what appears to be the death throes – often quite literal ones – of all organized resistance to the murderous regime of Assad, ranging from resistance groups most of us would be horrified at, to those we might consider critically supporting.

I am confused as to why some on the left, who are very well-educated and often have decades of experiences on which to reflect, continue to pretend that the horrors of authoritarian left regimes are illusory, exaggerated, or acceptable in the face of US Imperialism.

I’ve met folks holding positions like these before. It’s not company you want to keep, or be classified among:

DSC00818 Erik and Nuon Chea

This is where history seems important. You’d think people who talk about historical materialism would agree. That’s a picture of a sullen-looking, much younger looking me, and Nuon Chea. Nuon Chea was “Brother Number Two” after Pol Pot, and the man considered most responsible for the estimated 1.7 million deaths of the period of Democratic Kampuchea (“Khmer Rouge”). People supported the Khmer Rouge for the same reason that many authoritarian leftists today are supporting Assad.

I think that the reason the ‘marxist-leninsts’ (Stalinists, mostly), maoists, and some trostkyist groups, find themselves supporting genocidal and mass-murderous regimes, is that  give is that they see these people acting against the imperialist actions of the United States. So, by the traditional binary logic that identifies one’s friends among the enemies of one’s enemies, authoritarian anti-imperial leftists around the world have thrown their support to this bizarre and bloodthirsty set of leaders, who now stand in for the Syrian people themselves.

When this strategy of substituting political leaders for actual human beings at the level of political discussion succeeds, perhaps it becomes hard to see that one is justifying horror.

I won’t tell you what should happen in Syria. I’m not so arrogant as to expect that my opinions are worth basing an entire country’s population’s lives on them. I also won’t keep my mouth shut about the horrors that are happening.

I am on the anti-authoritarian left, so perhaps my appeal will still come off as predictable and unserious to those on the left who are applauding the destruction of Eastern Aleppo and hailing the new alliance between Assad, Putin, and Trump, as a victory for Anti-Imperialism.

I do not mean to be predictable. I do mean to be consistent. So I respectfully ask that if you are one of those people who honestly embraces the idea that a victory for Assad is a defeat for United States imperialism, that you consider these thoughts on your own time.
One can oppose US Imperialism without supporting mass murder.

cambodia, comment

A Cambodianist’s Note on Syria

A brief note from a student of Cambodia on the authoritarian left, and why people might want to be more careful about the company they keep, and support.


Beads, Trade, and Power in Early Southeast Asia

I was very pleased to be able to help organize and attend Dr. Alison Carter’s public talk at Macalester College, on the topic of “Beads, Trade, and Power in Early Southeast Asia,” yesterday. It was well-attended, and exciting.

If you take the longue durée seriously, and imagine as I do that some things persevere through generations and centuries, and that therefore early history can be very important, then archaeological knowledge is crucial for people like myself, even though my focus is contemporary.  I have many notes for myself.

Dr. Carter’s presentation was hugely engaging, and dealt precisely with some of the themes we are discussing in one of my seminars at the moment, “Ritual and Ecology in Southeast Asia,” which includes the Angkor civilization and its ‘collapse.’ Those themes are complexity, emergence, and collapse, and especially understanding the nature of those processes: is the emergence of complexity dependent on trade network transformations, commodity transformations, local manufacture, the rise of local elite classes, etc., etc.?  What drove early complexity, and what processes underwrote and sustained it?  What was the nature of that complexity?

Dr. Carter will shortly be traveling to the Society of American Archaeology (SAA) conference in Honolulu, where she will be chairing a symposium titled “Technology in Southwest China and Southeast Asia II: Working with Stone, Ceramics, and other materials – tecnological innovation in Southeast Asia, Southwest China, and Beyond,” and presenting a paper on “The production of stone beads in Southeast Asia.”

Also, Dr. Carter has a blog. It’s fantastic, and I have frequently linked to it from here. Most recently, she’s written on the enigmatic jar burials discovered in the Cardamom mountains. Here it is: go, read.



Beads, Trade, and Power in Early Southeast Asia” – A Public Talk by Dr. Alison Carter


I was just at the “Imagining Cambodia” conference at Northern Illinois University this last weekend, which was a great success; so many excellent presentations. My own paper, “Nuon Chea’s New Buddhism,” was a presentation of an in-process paper on Nuon Chea and his attitudes toward Buddhism, drawing largely on my 2005 interview with him at his home in Pailin. I’ll note here when that paper is submitted for publication.

In my email this morning I was informed that my latest publication, “Khmer spirits, Chinese bodies: Chinese spirit mediums and spirit possession rituals in contemporary Cambodia,” was published today in an edited volume from Thomas A. Reuter and Alexander Horstmann, titled, Faith in the future: Understanding the Revitalization of Religions and Cultural Traditions in Asia. It represents a tentative new direction for myself, and explores the concepts of neak ta  and their common characteristics in Cambodia, especially as regards multi-ethnic contexts.

Here is a photo of one of the two mediums discussed in the paper.

Bentougong from Pailin

One of the two mediums’ performances discussed in the paper


New publication

Bentougong from Pailin

One of the two mediums’ performances discussed in the paper