by Elisa Sandri
‘As the body moves where then does memory live?’ – Katharya Um
For many Cambodians, the wounds of the genocide are still open and hurting. Virtually everyone in the country was affected, to varying degrees, by the brutality of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Still to this day, reconciliation remains an untrodden path, as the Cambodian government openly asks people to forget and bury memory. In 2008, Prime Minister Hun Sen urged Cambodians to ‘dig a hole and bury the past’ (in Chandler, 2008:356). Forgetting, then, is considered the best course to national reconciliation and the Khmer Rouge has disappeared from school textbooks, politics and national narratives.
Whilst memorialisation and reconciliation in Cambodia are processes drenched in obstacles and complexities, they are taking new shapes abroad, especially in the USA. In a world of migration, diaspora and displacement, memory needs to be understood beyond its national borders. The relationship between memory and migration remains a complicated one though. Memory travels with individuals and communities, disrupting the fixity of remembrance and becoming the repository of where ‘we have arrived rather than where we have left’ (Creet, 2014:6). In this context, the question posed by Cambodian American scholar Um, “[a]s the body moves where then does memory live?” (2012:834), becomes central, for it highlights the risk of memory being erased by distance, yet it is able to shed light on the many facets of memory constructed from afar.
In recent years, some of the survivors and ‘1.5 generation’ Cambodian Americans (those who were born in Cambodia but left before their teenage years) have started to reflect on transnational memory of the genocide. Memory is being reconstructed through music, film and Khmer traditional arts, as well as other kinds of artistic productions. These artists use their creativity to position themselves within discourses of genocidal justice across different artistic platforms, combining American and Cambodian aesthetics to produce ‘memorials’ and to create an imagined space of justice and reconciliation.
History and memory have become, in effect, a cultural artefact in the post-Khmer Rouge era, marked by heterogeneity, hybridity and blurred lines between history and art. The artistic output of the diaspora not only contrasts with the impossibility of representing the past in present day Cambodia, but it also makes connections between the country of origin and the host country, showing engagement and committed citizenship. They use both English and Khmer languages in a transnational fashion, in this way making their productions available for the public in the U.S. and Cambodia.
Nevertheless, the revisionist approach to Southeast Asian history of some U.S. administrations inevitably created tensions with the Cambodian American community, as seen in the work of rapper praCh. As a result, for many Cambodian Americans, not letting this past fall into oblivion is not only a personal but also political act. Memory, then, becomes a form of diasporic resistance against historical selection and against the attempt of both Cambodian and American governments to deny any implication in the genocide.
Ultimately, even though these forms of memory fall in the artistic spectrum, they acquire exceptional importance because they are directly affecting Cambodian youth’s attitudes towards the genocide, whilst simultaneously creating spaces for the diaspora where survivors can talk about and reflect upon their own experiences.
Khmer Rouge and the Genocide
In Cambodia, between 1975 and 1979, an estimated two million people (a quarter of the population) died of starvation, torture and executions at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, in their attempt to establish a rural utopia, the Democratic Kampuchea, headed by General Pol Pot. The regime systematically killed people for belonging to the middle classes and abolished money, religion, private property and education. In less than four years, Cambodia’s cultural, religious and social fabric was eradicated, creating a void in the country’s history.
Thousands of lower-level perpetrators still live free, having been granted de facto amnesty, or have been pardoned by Prime Minister Hun Sen in exchange for political truces. At the same time, Cambodian sites of memory are places in which specific versions of history are imbued with instrumental purposes and have been criticised for propagating the government’s hegemonic narrative of silence and for not prioritising the memory of the victims. In Tuol Sleng prison, also known as the ‘Auschwitz of Asia,’ the Khmer Rouge is portrayed as a handful of maniacal traitors who perverted the course of the revolution. Historical analysis is absent and any of the reasons as to why the Khmer Rouge came into power are ignored.
Foreign tourists in these sites constitute 90 percent of the total visitors in recent years. It appears that the priority for the museums’ trustees is to procure more international visitors, rather than national reconciliation. This aspect is clearly presented in the Killing Fields Museum’s website, stating that the number one mission for the museum is: ‘[To] Educate Americans, Cambodian Americans and other nationalities about the factual history of the Khmer Rouge atrocities and help prevent future crimes against humanity.’ It is quite striking that nowhere on the website is there reference to Cambodian memorialisation and local reconciliation.
Cambodian American Diaspora: Art and Memory
Among the few artists in the Cambodian diaspora around the world, perhaps the most well-known are rock band Dengue Fever, film-maker Rithy Panh (The Missing Picture; S-21) and writer Loung Ung (First They Killed My Father). The works of rapper praCh, traditional dancer Saphiline Cheam Shapiro and filmmaker Socheata Poeuv, all based in the USA, reveal important themes around the negotiation of memory from afar.
A self-described ‘child of the Killing Fields,’ hip hop artist praCh is one of the pioneers of Khmer rap and is based in the largest Cambodian community abroad in Long Beach (California). praCh’s family escaped the regime in Cambodia and fled to the U.S. in the early 1980s.
The rapper has combined stories of the Khmer Rouge with testimonies of the marginalisation of Cambodians in inner-city America. His debut album Dalama…The End’n is Just the Beginn’n (Dalama being an invented word that puts together trauma, drama and dilemma), was critically acclaimed for its negotiation of genocide and oppression. Dalama acquired great success in Cambodia too, making praCh a celebrity amongst Khmer youth, even though he had not set foot in the country since childhood. It is not only the music that fascinated the young audience, but also its message. Indeed, in Cambodia among the younger generations there is a widespread suspicion towards the Khmer Rouge period: some think it is a story the elders created to compare their hard lives against the ones their grandchildren now enjoy; others are so disillusioned by the current state of affairs that they believe the Khmer Rouge should come back. praCh’s work then, became extremely important in educating the youth about the country’s history, arguably more than the genocide museums ever did. praCh, then, has managed to create a form of transnational hip hop, linking young Cambodians across continents, united in the memory of the genocide, the marginalisation of Cambodian history and the alienation of the diaspora in the USA.
Khmer Traditional Dance
When the Khmer Rouge seized power, all forms of art were destroyed and artists were systematically killed, leaving the country devoid of cultural heritage. What remains today are only fragments of the ancient arts, jealously preserved and magnified against the desolated present of displacement and loss. Nostalgia is central in traditional Khmer arts, as they represent a world that no longer exists, a world where Cambodian heritage was left untouched.
The Khmer Arts Academy, founded by survivor Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, is a Khmer traditional dance school based in Long Beach (California). Despite its traditional pretensions and rigour, the Apsara dance performed in Long Beach is ultimately local, for it expresses the exigencies of Cambodian Americans to relate to their memories and to give testimony of their survival. In addition, the dance has created new forms of sociality amongst survivors, as they participate in this experience alongside younger generations and share a collective reimagining of Cambodian identity.
It can be argued that by being faithful to a ‘traditional’ dance canon, the Khmer Arts Academy has created an important bridge between the pre-Khmer Rouge era and the contemporary world. Finally, the Khmer Arts Academy is constructing a space for the Cambodian American diaspora to make sense of their identity, and to find solace in this.
New Year Baby
The documentary New Year Baby (2006) by Socheata Poeuv is a journey through the family history of the director and the only Cambodian American documentary to date that directly addresses the genocide.
Poeuv was born on Cambodian New Year’s Day in a refugee camp after her parents fled the country; similarly to praCh, the whole family resettled in the United States in the early 1980s. After finding out some shocking details of the history of her own family, Poeuv decides to travel to Cambodia with her parents to uncover the ‘secrets they left behind.’ One of the most emotional passages in the film is when Poeuv finds out that her parents were forced to marry in a labour camp, a Khmer Rouge policy to increase population numbers.
The film ties together survivors’ trauma with the second generation’s search for closure. Poeuv and her family try to negotiate the delicate balance between the history of the genocide with intergenerational intimacy and conflict. The film shows that her parents have passed on a complex legacy of silence, trauma and anger, as well as incongruous stories about a distant glorified land. Nevertheless, resisting amnesia both on a familial and international level, Poeuv attempts to fill memory with new meanings and, in doing so, she comes close to a sense of closure.
Despite some problematic scenes, the film speaks to survivors and their children about collective memory, trauma and family histories, highlighting that Cambodian memory work is a process involving forgiveness, yet not forgetfulness, at individual, rather than national, levels.
In a further attempt not to bury the past and to bridge gaps between older and younger American Cambodian generations, the director founded Khmer Legacies. An organisation based at Yale University, its mission is to create a video archive collecting testimonies of Cambodian survivors interviewed by the younger generation.
The year 1975, famously known as ‘Year Zero,’ marked the beginning of the erasure of Cambodian cultural history. Memorialising the genocide in Cambodia has been a difficult and contradictory process, as closure and justice have yet to occur.
The work of Cambodian American artists can be interpreted as an act of resistance against the erasure of the past, but also as a new creative process, whereby memory itself becomes an artistic production. Artistic reflections on memory from afar may be important elements for the past and future of Cambodia, engendering alternative modes and practices of justice. Memory and memorialisation do not end at the country’s geographical borders, as the diaspora and second-generations construct and narrate memory from afar. Paraphrasing Prime Minister Hun Sen, the hole into which the past is to be buried has been partially filled in by the art and the memory of first and second-generation Cambodian Americans, who are not only remembering the past but also fighting against its intentional neglect.
Elisa Sandri completed her MA in the Anthropology of Development and Social Transformation at the University of Sussex in 2016.
Photo: Khmer Arts Academy, with praCh at left. Long Beach, California.
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This is a beautifully written and extremely informative article. Is it possible to obtain a print version of the article and to request permission to use it with high school students? I’m developing a curriculum unit for 12th graders on the Cambodian genocide, and this article would deepen the students’ understandings.
Hi Pam, so glad you liked the article. Of course I can send you a copy if you like. Could you contact me on my profile below, so I can share it with you privately? Sorry I don’t want to share my email privately. Thanks!