Ung Boun Hor (L), former president of the Cambodian National Assembly, and Ung Billon, his wife. Photograph supplied
In late 1975, after the Khmer Rouge had seized power, Mai Bunla’s brother disappeared while looking for honey.
Thout, her older brother, had climbed a tree to raid a beehive in Sokeo village, where the family had fled to near the Thai border, when black-clothed Khmer Rouge soldiers approached. Her cousin, who was waiting under the tree and recounted the story later, bolted into the jungle.
“Within minutes my dad, mum, and that one cousin returned to the scene. When they got there they found nothing. Not a soul. No blood, no signs of struggles. I can only conclude that my brother climbed down from the tree and surrendered himself to the KR. We have no further news after this,” she said.
A few years ago, one man purporting to be her brother stepped forward through a service that helps reconnect survivors. But it was a case of mistaken identity.
Recent media reports about an uncovered trove of photos showing portraits of inmates from S-21, the Khmer Rouge prison in Phnom Penh, gave her new hope. Her brother, however, wasn’t one of them.
For 42-year-old Bunla, who as a refugee emigrated to the US when she was 11, the search for an answer to the fate of Thout continues to burn.
Bunla’s story illustrates the void members of the diaspora struggle to fill, as mysteries from the past linger in the darkness, demanding illumination. For many Cambodians abroad, it seems, moving away is not the same as moving on.
Socioeconomics affected refugees’ destinations
Between April 1975 to mid-January 1979 Cambodia had lost nearly a quarter of its population. Escaping the bloodshed motivated the first wave to leave, but after the regime fell, the second exodus was massive and arduous.
The common path led to refugee camps in Thailand before ending in destination countries all over the map.
“At the time, there was a kind of confusion,” said Kok-Thay Eng, researcher with the Documentation Center of Cambodia. “Sometimes the Khmer Rouge propagandised to them, that the Vietnamese were brutal ... So they had to escape with the Khmer Rouge to the Thai border, and they became separated.”
According to the International Center for Transitional Justice, a correlation existed between the countries refugees arrived in and their socioeconomic background.
The elite found homes in France – a language and culture they had already imbibed. Military officials, farmers, and their families composed the largest group that emigrated to the US, where roughly 150,000 resettled.
Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and Norway also welcomed refugees. DC-Cam places the total diaspora at nearly 1 million.
Following from afar
The International Centre for Human Rights found that, in a study based on interviews with civil parties in Case 002, more than a fifth of respondents cited the lack of information about relatives as a reason for involvement in the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
Mostly living in the US and France, 133 members of the diaspora are currently civil parties in the ongoing case.
Ung Billon, 71, who lives in the vicinity of Paris, is still tenaciously researching what happened to her siblings and husband, Ung Boun Hor, the former president of the Cambodian National Assembly.
According to Billon, the Khmer Rouge dragged her husband out of the French Embassy where he was hiding during the April 1975 takeover of the capital.
In addition to her civil party status, she has filed a separate complaint in a French court against “the Khmer Rouge who could be held responsible for crimes against humanity committed in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 and against any member of the French Embassy based in Cambodia at that time or any personnel of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris, during that period of time”.
In a phone interview, she told of her research through members of the family who are still living on her husband’s and father’s sides.
“No one knows anything,” she said. “Where is the corpse of my sister, where is the corpse of my brother?”
Her attorney, Marie Guiraud, said in an email that while Billon and her other French-Khmer clients want “to know”, they are also attached to the overarching goal of the trial.
“I would say they’re mainly concerned with seeking justice,” she said, adding that being a civil party can be empowering. “They’re very aware of that status” and they follow the proceedings closely from abroad, she said.
Internet links diaspora
The surge in information about missing relatives available on the internet has changed the dynamic of diaspora searches for missing loved ones.
“Cambodians living abroad find ways to get to us much easier because of the internet,” Documentation Center of Cambodia Executive Director Youk Chhang said.
The centre regularly receives email queries about missing loved ones from Cambodians abroad, and is on the verge of publishing a list that contains the names of everyone who died from 1975 to 1979, when the Khmer Rouge was in power.
Referred to as the Book of the Disappeared, the 3,000 page volume is envisioned as a comprehensive reference for survivors of genocide. The editor, Kok-Thay Eng from DC-Cam, said publishing it can serve different purposes.
“It is a final act of recognition … it can bring closure to people who don’t know the fate of family members once they were separated.”
But with almost two million dead, and survivors all over the country, the date of publication is in the distance.
Bunla has the patience. She says she may never stop searching.
“I do realise that some things are impossible, and I would accept that, but for now I want to at least try.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Joseph Freeman at [email protected]