Wednesday, August 31, 2005


Trying to explain Cambodia is like trying to explain yourself. Only with yourself you have a lifetime in which to examine and extend the contours of your peaks and valleys, whereas with Cambodia I have only this particular post. The history, geography, culture and language are beyond my means, but I shall dive into the deep end of what remains while I am still young enough and foolhardy enough to try.

At one point in time, long ago, Cambodians actually ruled southeast Asia. They built the incredible, incomparable Angkor Wat series of temples, and their culture was rich and deep, varied and exquisite. As the centuries passed, Cambodia traded places (and blows) with neighbouring Siam (now Thailand) and Vietnam for supremacy. Cambodians hate the Thais and the Vietnamese, and vice versa, and there’s centuries of historical precedent to back up their grievances. (Think how fast people on reality TV learn to hate each other; these folks had millenia, for chrissakes. Imagine what grudges could be carried within this period of time.)

Of course, the real history that anybody talks about regarding Cambodia only took place within my lifetime. Actually, almost exactly within my lifetime, because it was in October of 1975, I believe, the month I was born, that the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh and evacuated the city. Think about it. A city of millions, evacuated.

Why? Pol Pot and his minions decided they wanted to create an agrarian, socialist utopia. Everyone would farm the same fields and eat the same food; there would be no hierarchical social systems in place for one class to dominate the other. (Except, of course, for the folks with guns in charge.) The entire country was forced into the fields for four years. Most people had little, if any, idea of who was in charge. Their job was to farm, and that was it. They were told who to marry. If they wore glasses, they were killed. If they had a high school education, they were killed. If they were doctors, they were killed. Any sign of education was a sing of bourgoise indoctrination. All that mattered was ‘angkar’, this mythical allegiance to a new, pure Cambodian state. Each night you would have to gather with the other cadres and ‘rat’ on the other folks you worked with, relating what ‘bad’ act that somebody other than yourself had committed. Father against son, brother against brother. It was, in short, hell.

After four years, the revolution turned in on itself, as they all do. The boys at the top started to kill each other, and when that happens, the game is over, and there are no parting gifts for the second and third place winners. In the end, Cambodia was ‘saved’ by its most hated neighbour, Vietnam, who had expansionist, imperialist tendencies of its own.

Imagine it. Between two, three million people dead. No electricity. No phones. No newspapers. No media. No government. No money. No laws. No hospitals. No police. An entire country of twelve million people reduced to absolutely nothing, ruled over by their most hated foes, who now demanded allegiance to Vietnam, who forced them to learn Vietnamese and Russian, but not English. Never English. (A Khmer friend of mine told me of how he used to sneak out at night to study English by a dim light with a small group of friends, the penalty being probable death, all of this taking place while I discovered Stephen King and wondered if Back To The Future II could possibly live up to the original.)

What saved Cambodia from Vietnam was the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was funding Vietnam, so when the Soviets fell, so did the money for Vietnam. Cambodia was no longer on the top of their agenda.

In came the UN for three years, with UNTAC (United Nations Transitional Authority) running the country. This was the first time in the history of the UN that the global organization actually ran an entire country. They had a mess on their hands. They still have a mess on their hands, but back then was abominable. Refugees who had fled to the Thai border. A system in shambles. A people demoralized. On and on and on.

It was a holocaust, and that is not an exaggeration. An entire civilization destroyed. An entire people savaged, forced to turn against one another, to breed distrust, to trade in betrayal as if it were fruits at the market. And all of this, within my lifetime. While I collected comic books and licked popsicles and scanned the sky for odd-shaped clouds.

Whenever I get tired of Cambodia, of its poverty, of its recklessness, of its incompetence, I remember what they’ve been through. In my lifetime. I look at the faces of middle aged people and realize that they would have been young men and women when all this insane shit was going down. They would have seen their parents and brothers and sisters kill; they might, even now, live next to door to former Khmer Rouge soldiers. It is still, in so many ways, a country defined by death, but there is so much light, so much sheer goodwill, that I cannot give up on it yet. I do not know if the future is bright, but the young people I see on a daily basis are bright, and that will have to be enough. In a country ravaged by poverty, in a country where only thirty percent of people have clean drinking water, that light will have to be enough. There is no other choice.

Attempting to describe this country is like attempting to describe you. I can find the words if I look hard enough, but words are not enough. They are the blind man groping in the dark, these words, and whether there will soon be light enough for me to see and understand is something that I think about all the time. Whether the light from my students' eyes will be enough to guide them through the dark days I fear still lay ahead for this small and cursed, enchanting and blessed land.


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Great post, Cambodian history in a nutshell for those of us who only know fragments.