Cambodian post-war memory and the generation gap

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A tourist visits the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as the notorious security prison S-21, in Phnom Penh March 3, 2015. REUTERS/Samrang Pring

Without the genocide survivors, Cambodia would lose all that is required to be a nation. But remembrance itself is questionable, as it could be interpreted differently by different generations, argues Sim Vireak.

Reactions to the Khmer movie related to genocide, or more precisely “self-genocide”, were mixed. There were those who didn’t want to see the movie for fear of rekindling past wounds and trauma-related stress. They didn’t want to experience pain and weep for days.

There were some who fear that history would repeat itself and the same atrocities would happen again. On the other extreme, there were those who were indifferent and emotionless. Frankly, they would not have given a damn. Also in this category, were those who rejected the film saying the genocide was a mere figmentation of the moviemaker.

Nonetheless, such differences stem from individual experiences and exposures.

As someone from the post-genocide generation, I belong to the group that fears the repeat of history.

Born in the 1980s, in the immediate aftermath of the war, it was the prevailing environment that shaped my thoughts. My father was a soldier, who went to the frontline to fight against the Khmer Rouge. At school, a ‘fatherless son’ was a common target for the bullies.

A study tour to Toul Sleng prison is a one-time memory that stays on forever. Some parts of the walls are still stained with dried blood. The smell and ambiance from building-to-building makes one feel that the spirits are demanding your attention. I never did dare climb up to the third floor. The current museum, however, is quite clean and is what a museum should be.

Every year on January 7, I remember three major films which are often highlighted on TV – ‘Killing Fields’, ‘Nine Circles of Hell’ and ‘Memory of the Heart’ (chet chong cham).

I recall the days of my childhood. Phnom Penh was dark and quiet after the evening curfew. Kids dominated the whole street playing and chasing each other after nightfall. The then Soviet Union’s ‘Rabbit and Fox’ on TV was the kids’ favourite, similar to that of ‘Tom and Jerry’. TV broadcast was only in the evenings and the cartoon was shown regularly.

At night, I always heard melancholy music from the radio, appealing the Khmer Rouge to integrate into society. News was always about siege of particular battle fields. Sometimes, I heard the government forces won; sometimes, I heard the government was fighting to regain the same area they had earlier captured.

The sound of gunfire was a usual part of life. It was normal for people to point their weapons in the sky and shoot whenever there was lightning and rain.

Our school curriculum was dominated by Marxist-Lenin ideologies, fights against imperialism, capitalism and the Khmer Rouge.

At Bak Touk elementary school, the once and only Soviet hot milk I received tasted like heaven. We lived with Soviet and Vietnam-provided food supply. Rice was limited, meat was scarce. We always checked the amount of food first before we ate – worried that if we ate too much, there wouldn’t be enough for tomorrow. Malnutrition and malnourishment was clearly reflected in the physical development of our generation.

Soviet and East European scholarships were exceptional chances to go abroad, to escape the darkness of Kampuchea.

At that time, provincial tourism would have been a risky choice. Koh Kong or Kampong Som (the current Sihanoukville) seemed so remote that only smugglers would dare travel to, risking their lives. Om Leang in Kampong Speu and Phnom Voir in Kampot, which are not far from Phnom Penh were close to the battlefields. Pailin, Banteay Meanchey and Kampong Thom sounded to me like provinces detached from Cambodia.

Such memories shaped my thoughts about the genocide, though I could never imagine the degree of trauma of those who experienced the brutal Khmer Rouge regime.

The fact that my relatives were killed and that my parents were almost killed before the Vietnamese came to save their lives remains deeply etched in my heart. Emotional experiences do not give me the chance to believe otherwise. After all what else can you remember when your life was about to be terminated?

Without the survivors, Cambodia would lose all that is required to be a nation anyway.

When I heard that some of those born in the 1990s were less emotional about the genocide, with a few even denying that it happened, I was hurt and perplexed. But now, I have got over it. I’m trying to put myself in their shoes. Different time and different era, I console myself. It’s just like reactions to the Holocaust. We knew it happened during World War II, but different generations have different reactions to it.

Emotional attachment to the past can change across generations with a variety of perceptions and thinking. This is probably the current social reality of discourses on genocide in Cambodia.

Sim Vireak is a Cambodia observer based in Phnom Penh.

 

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