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Anthropologist described pre-war Khmer village life

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May Mayko Ebihara ... her moving articles on post-Pol Pot Cambodia are classics

M ay Mayko Ebihara, Professor Emerita of Anthropology at Lehman College, City University of New York and the CUNY Graduate Center, died on April 23, 2005, after a struggle with respiratory illness.

She was born on May 12, 1934, in Portland, Oregon. During World War II she and her family were sent with other Japanese Americans to an internment camp in Idaho. She received her bachelor's degree from Reed College in 1955 and a PhD in 1968 from Columbia University where she studied with Conrad Arensberg, Margaret Mead and Morton Fried. She taught at Bard College from 1961 till 1964, briefly at Mr Holyoke, and thereafter at Lehman College. She retired from CUNY in 2000.

In 1959-60 Dr Ebihara was the first American anthropologist to conduct ethnographic research in Cambodia; she would be the last to do so for nearly three decades. Her two volume dissertation, Svay, A Khmer Village in Cambodia, provided a remarkably detailed picture of village life, with analysis of social structure and kinship, agriculture, religion, and political organization. But Dr Ebihara could not have known that the world she described would soon be shattered, or that her description of village life would become the foundation for academic understandings of pre-war Cambodian society - in contrast to the reign of terror of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge.

Throughout the war years of the 1970s and 80s, Dr Ebihara had no information from the people she cared about, though she knew from news accounts that the area had been the scene of heavy fighting. When the country began to open up again after the withdrawal of Vietnamese forces in 1989, Dr Ebihara returned and conducted research in the village on several short visits between 1989 and 1996.

Conducting the interviews was heart wrenching; of the 139 villagers she had known who were still living in 1975, 70 people - 50 percent - had died during the three and a half years of Khmer Rouge rule. The casualties included her adopted parents and grandparents. The people of Svay explained the terrible suffering they had endured during the Khmer Rouge years and how they were rebuilding their lives and their community. Standing in a thatch hut with a dirt floor, the son of her adopted grandparents shook his head sadly, remembering the large wooden house on stilts that had been his home as a young man. "Things are not what they were," he said.

The people of Svay recognized Dr Ebihara as their witness. She was from their old world, now part of their idealized memories. She knew the scale of their loss because she understood what their lives were like before, and she had respect for the memories of their loved ones. One thing that she could do for them was return copies of pictures she had taken in 1959-60. People wept to see the faces of their lost mothers and grandparents and children; all their photos had been lost in the war and revolution.

A new generation of Western and Khmer scholars have come of age using Dr Ebihara's body of work as a cornerstone for their own. Her articles on residence patterns, pre-war Theravada Buddhist practice and gender roles, as well as her moving articles on post-Pol Pot Cambodia are classics.

Dr Ebihara is survived by her husband, Marvin Gelfand, and her sons, Adam and Jeremy. Buddhist ceremonies were held in Svay village, Kandal province, Cambodia on June 10 and 11, and a memorial service in the United States was held on September 17 in Saint Paul's Chapel at Columbia University.

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