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Learning about Cambodia from the old folk

Learning about Cambodia from the old folk

Ya Ker, 80, shows off her traditional ivory ear plugs, banned during the Sihanouk régime

HelpAge International Cambodia recently finished a six-month oral history project.
Anette Marcher looks at the stories researchers collected from old people

in three rural provinces and the problems that face the older generation of Cambodians

- a population group that has a lot to offer but that often feels ignored and unappreciated.

IT was a different time, back then in the 1940s when the Thais took control of Cambodia's

northwest provinces during the roaring years of World War II.

For the poor farmers in the countryside, Cambodia was still a relatively safe place,

but the turmoil that racked the rest of the world had repercussions in the far reaches

of what was then a French protectorate.

Pouk Mut, 75, and Soeun Eoum, 78, both remember clearly the changes the new regime

brought to their village in Battambang province. Before the Thais arrived, Cambodian

women like Mut and Eoum always wore the traditional Khmer samput k'bun - a type of

skirt tied up as trousers that King Sihanouk and other officials are seen wearing

at ceremonies and festivals.

But the temporary Thai rulers brought a lot of changes. For one thing, they forced

the Khmer women to wear sarongs - or somloy - long skirts hanging down.

It wasn't a popular move, and although the sarongs later became the normal wear for

Cambodian women, many locals protested against the change of dress code in their

own little ways.

"When I went to the market, I wore the somloy, but if no Thais were looking,

I would take the somloy off. I was wearing the traditional Khmer dress underneath!

But if a commander came, I would put the somloy back on again," Mut recalls

with a facial expression like a naughty school girl.

Mut and Eoum's tale about the unpopular dress code and dozens of similar stories

about everyday life in Cambodia throughout most of the last century was recently

recorded on video, audiotape and ordinary paper. The recordings were part of an oral

history project by HelpAge International Cambodia, an organization to advance the

interests of the elderly.

For six months, two HelpAge researchers traveled to areas in Battambang, Banteay

Meanchey and Ratanakkiri provinces where they spent hours talking to older people

about their lives, their memories, their skills, their thoughts and their ideas.

Every precious little word of the interviews was recorded and transcribed in English

and Khmer. Some interviews were also videotaped.

The result is a unique collection of testimonies about the history of Cambodia, as

witnessed by the people who themselves were part of the historic times.

"Oral history is not factual history," says project consultant Sarah Stephens.

"Instead it is the voices of ordinary people, telling the stories of what they

believe happened to them personally."

In a country like Cambodia, oral history - word of mouth, or ordinary people recounting

the stories of their families and communities to fellow citizens - becomes the single

most important connection to the past for many people. Cambodian history books are

few , and most of the existing literature is written in English or French by foreigners,

not by Cambodians themselves.

And with nationwide illiteracy well above 30 percent, even Khmer language history

books often have little or no meaning in Cambodia. Especially in the rural areas,

many Cambodians can't read or write or have a very limited education.

Among indigenous people in the northeast, the problem is even more acute. The Kreungs,

for instance, have no written language, so storytelling is the only way to preserve

and pass on Kreung history, tales and myths.

Around 90 years old, Ya Katey from Krala village in Ratanakkiri, is a virtual fountain

of Kreung folklore. In one of the HelpAge interviews, he speaks about how the Kreung

people came into existence:

"My grandfather told me in the past that Kreung had as many people as other

races. But one time we had a flood, and all the people died, apart from one girl

and one dog. They were put into a drum, and after a time the girl and the dog produced

a human. ... He had some parts human and some parts dog. This man created a new Kreung

nationality," Katey tells.

Katey also has an explanation for why the Kreungs don't have a written language.

"From what I know from older people, the Kreung were not uneducated - we also

had written letters like other groups. The originator of the Kreung writing wrote

on buffalo hide, but it was all eaten by dogs," says Katey and continues:

"For Khmers and westerners, they write on paper, which is why they still have

their language. The originator of the western writing was about to die. That's why

all the letters slant to one side. The Khmer originator was still healthy. That's

why he had time to prepare all the different letters."

Katey is one of a number of older people who appear in a 30-minute video, Witness

to History, based on the 44 HelpAge interviews with 16 respondents. Others include

Ya Ker, who shows off her traditional earrings, while other Kreung elders speak about

how more and more ethnic Khmers moved to their area in the 1950s and 1960s and how

the Stung Treng governor eventually banned the Kreung from wearing their traditional

loincloth, the pung.

"We used to think we were handsome, when we only wore the pung," says one


But the stories stretch far beyond clothing anecdotes and creation myths. Many describe

certain eras or important historic events. Un Samoeur from Banteay Meanchey describes

how when French president Charles de Gaulle visited Cambodia in 1966, he was one

of hundreds of youngsters recruited to hold up colored signs that created a giant

mosaic on the spectator stands at the Olympic Stadium.

Pouk Mut, 75: the Thais forbade her to wear the samput k'bun

Later in the video Peing Ean, 67, from Okambot village in Battambang, recounts how

he himself took an active part in changing the course of Cambodian history. In the

late 1940s and early 1950s a liberation group called Khmer Issarak struggled for

Cambodian independence from French supremacy. Ean was one of the freedom fighters.

His commanding officer was the famous resistance leader and later prime minister

Son Ngoc Thanh.

"I used to join the fighting in Trapeang Thmor district, Ron village and some

parts of Dangkae Snoul. At that time most of the fighting was between Khmers only,

because there were only one or two French people, who were commanding officers. The

French used the Cambodian army to fight for them," Ean remembers.

One of the country's most important witnesses to Cambodian history, painter Vann

Nath, 55, also appears in the video. Vann Nath spent one year in the Khmer Rouge's

infamous torture prison Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh, where at least 14,000 prisoners

were interrogated and later killed during Pol Pot's brutal regime from 1975 till


Of the seven prisoners who survived Tuol Sleng, only Vann Nath is still alive today.

Previously he has written a book about his harrowing ordeal in Tuol Sleng and painted

several pictures of the atrocities that he saw take place behind the barbed wire

and prison walls. His paintings are on display at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

"Transferring the history of the past to the young generation is important because

it lets them know right from wrong and which way we should follow," Vann Nath

says in the video.

"Our society has had a lot of criminals and sad stories. So we have to document

and tell everything in order to help [the young] understand about the mistakes our

leaders have made in the past that made people die. Also, knowing about the past

helps us to progress into the future."

While collecting and recording personal stories for posterity was one goal for the

HelpAge researchers, the purpose of the oral history project was also to raise awareness

about the situation of the older generation in Cambodia. According to the 1998 census

7.5 percent of Cambodians are over 55.

After years of turmoil and the sudden invasion of modern times in the 1990s, many

older people live in precarious circumstances - particularly due to poverty and the

breakdown of traditional family patterns.

As old age and physical decline set in, working to make a living becomes increasingly

difficult, but a 1998 HelpAge survey found that a lot of old people rely solely on

themselves for their livelihood.

And old people are not inclined to take part in rural microfinance projects that

would increase their ability to generate income under less physically demanding conditions.

Either they are afraid that they won't be able to pay back the loan before they die

or micro-finance organizations simply refuse to lend to older people because they

are not considered a good investment.

Other old people receive financial support from their children, especially their

daughters. But this often puts the older person in a frustrating dilemma when he

or she falls sick. For poor rural families the cost of medical treatment can mean

that they have to sell a cow or other assets of value to their livelihood. Rather

than impose a heavy financial burden on their families, some older people choose

to ignore their illness and suffer in silence.

In recent years the burden of supporting a family has increasingly fallen on older

people. As their children migrate far away from their home village to find work,

grandparents are often left to take care of their grandchildren. Some parents never

return to pick up their children.

Also, the spread of HIV/AIDS among young and middle-aged Cambodians has a devastating

impact on old people's lives. The burden of caring for ill children and raising orphaned

grandchildren continues to fall on more and more elderly Cambodians.

"At a time in their lives when they should be looked after themselves, older

people often end up having to look after others," Stephens say.

HelpAge's oral history project doesn't pretend to be able to remedy any of these

problems. But it does hope to put more focus on older people's roles and responsibilities

in a modern society. It also aims to create more recognition for the skills and contributions

of a population group that often feels ignored and unappreciated.

The organization hopes to be able to distribute copies of the Witness to History

video to universities and schools. A ten-minute radio program, based on the 44 interviews,

called "Valuing our heritage" will be aired on the local Battambang radio

and possibly on a nationwide radio station. The theme of the radio program runs along

the lines of "When was the last time you talked to an older person about the


Finally, transcripts of all 44 interviews in English and Khmer will be made publicly

available at the National Archives.

But even by carrying out the project, HelpAge researchers may have helped raise awareness

and recognition of older people.

"When we went out into the villages, younger people noticed the amount of attention

we gave to the older generation. They saw us listening to older people for a long

time, again and again, and were encouraged to sit down and listen themselves,"

Stephens say.

For at least one respondent, the visits of the HelpAge team seemed like a revelation:

"It feels like you coming here has woken me up, so that from this time I should

tell what I know to the young generation," Lous Yim from Battambang said in

one of the interviews.

HelpAge hopes that the oral history project will also inspire young Cambodians to

lend an ear to Cambodia's walking, talking history books - before it's too late.


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