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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - An impressive look at the meaning of "Khmer"

An impressive look at the meaning of "Khmer"

Cambodian Culture Since 1975: Homeland and Exile.

Edited by may M.

Ebihara, Carol A. Mortland and Judy Ledgerwood.

Cornell University Press

(1994), 194pp. 395Bt.

D URING their four ruinous years of power in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge spoke

often of the need to build kasang, a new "standpoint" for society by building up

collective property, workers and peasants and a strong agricultural base.

But kasang also meant to criticize, or be criticized, formally in a public

meeting. To be "built" three times by a Khmer Rouge cadre meant death. Likewise,

Cambodian culture has been reconstructed so often and so violently in the last

25 years it has sometimes seemed in danger of extinction.


Culture Since 1975: Homeland and Exile collects ten essays, most of them

exploring "what it is to be Cambodian in a rapidly changing world, how khmer who

are stripped of their customary context for defining what it means to be

Cambodian redefine and re-identify themselves, as well as how they utilize

traditional forms in new ways and new forms within a traditional framework." The

essays touch on everything from literature, music, theater and religion to

language, gender status and tevevision consumption. The editors and most of the

authors are anthropologists - so be ready for occasional words like "polysemous"

and "liminality" - but their approach is quite accessible to the general


Two of the authors are Cambodian refugees and many of the others

first encountered Cambodian culture through work with refugees in the camps or

in resettlement countries like France and the United States. In their

introductory essay, the editors propose that "an awareness of Khmer culture is

not sufficient for an understanding of the varied experiences of Khmer

refugees". They might have said "necessary though not sufficient" as later they

write that "to understand Khmer refugees in America, we must look to Khmer

cultural assumptions: there are particularly Khmer ways of symbolizing gender,

experiencing pain, and understanding action videos."

The identity of a

Khmer refugee, in other words, is partly Khmer and partly refugee and it is

necessary to examine both experiences in order to understand either. I am not an

anthropologist so I will not comment on the analyses of Khmer culture except to

say that, like historian David Chandler who wrote the book's preface, I was

"delighted, instructed, and impressed" (though not always at one time) with the


Cambodian Culture Since 1975 also offers many penetrating

insights into the daily struggles and adjustments of the Cambodian refugee. But

in its description of Cambodian refugee history, the book makes two

misstatements that bear pointing out.

The editors write, for example,

that "hundreds of thousands of Khmer who had fled to neighboring countries did

not gain the sanctuary they sought. At least 400,000 returned from Thailand,

Laos and Vietnam in the 1980s." There certainly were pushbacks and forced

returns from all three countries - most notably from Thailand - but the great

majority of people came back voluntarily. They had found temporary safety from

conflict, hunger, and insecurity and were returning because life in a

Vietnamese-controlled Cambodia was acceptable to them or at least better than a

refugee camp.

In her essay, "Khmer Buddhists in the United States," Carol

Mortland says that there were fewer than 200 Khmer in the United States in 1979.

In fact, more than 16,000 Cambodian were resettled in America by the end of that

year, when the exodus into Thailand took on crisis proportions in the wake of

the Vietnamese invasion. (In all, the United States resettled about 150,000

Cambodian refugees between 1975 and 1991.) The error is revealing because

Mortland, as she ponders the Khmer search for indentity in the United States,

does not fully appreciate the gulf often separating those who escaped the Khmer

Rouge terror from those who lived through it.

Confronting questions like

"Why did these events occur in Cambodia to Khmer" [and] "How are Khmer to deal

with them?" Cambodian refugees have sought answers in Buddhism, in prophecies

and folklore. But these answers do not satisfy, Mortland suggests, because the

questions are "virtually inexplicable." "Look at what happened to Cambodia under

Buddhism," says one refugee. "Buddhism has failed and we must search for some

other faith." So some turn to Christianity or try to mix the two religions


The most painful (and the most revealing) quote in the book

was the refugee who said: "The hardest thing for me to explain, and the one

thing that has broken my heart and troubled my spirit so, is that Pol Pot is a

Khmer, just like me ! Those soldiers were all Khmers and they killed so many

other Khmers. I don't know why."

I wish Mortland had pursued this

further, both because of and despite the fact that this line of questioning is

the most troubling, even heart-breaking, for Cambodians. Writes Judy Ledgerwood,

"The Khmer today are critically concerned with 'Khmerness,' a concern that leads

them to talk about and try to define the 'moral order' of society." But

somewhere in that discourse, they will find themselves staring into the dark

puzzle of the Khmer Rouge. Some will turn away in silence. Some will turn to

facile answers like blaming the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Thais, or the

Americans. Perhaps a few will work at the puzzle long enough to see that "Pol

Pot is a Khmer" is neither inexplicable nor an explanation. It is only what is

so. And maybe then some will stop running so hard from being Khmer, or running

so hard at it.

Having read the essays, I think the authors themselves

would not disagree that there are several ironies in the title. The first is

that there is no such thing as a "Cambodian culture," singular, Since 1975 (and

before), it has been violently splintered and scattered. There is irony too in

the sub-title, "Homeland and Exile." More than 370,000 Cambodian refugees have

repatriated voluntarily in the last three years and the camps in Thailand are

all closed. "Exile", in that sense, is an anachronism from the days of border

camps, Vietnamese occupation, and civil war. But it is also true that, for many

of the Khmer in Diaspora who choose not to return, the idea of Cambodia as

"homeland" will become increasingly remote.

- Court Robinson is based

at the Chulalonkorn University's Asian Research Center for Migration, where he

is completing a book on Cambodian's refugee repatriation.



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