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
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.