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Paper calls for closer study of culture under Khmer Rouge regime

An undated photo shows members of the Khmer Rouge waving flags as they perform for an audience. Documentation Center of Cambodia Archives
An undated photo shows members of the Khmer Rouge waving flags as they perform for an audience. Documentation Center of Cambodia Archives

Paper calls for closer study of culture under Khmer Rouge regime

More than mere tools of indoctrination, songs produced under the Khmer Rouge were aesthetic representations of the regime’s vision for Cambodia and shed light on what has often been presented as a “black box” of cultural life under the regime, researchers from Ohio’s Kent State University contend in a new paper.

Publishing their findings in Association of American Geographers journal GeoHumanties, the researchers examined more than 100 songs preserved from the Khmer Rouge’s 1975 to 1979 rule. Within their lyrics they found detailed descriptions of the regime’s vision for Cambodia, particularly its obsession with tripling the country’s rice yield.

“We build big rice dykes, divide them into chessboard pattern, and make them look so beautiful. We merge small rice dykes with one another. We work together for the Cambodian revolution,” went one representative – and characteristically dry – ditty quoted by researchers.

The authors go on to argue that much as the Khmer Rouge’s chessboard pattern rice fields and ambitious irrigation projects transformed Cambodia’s physical geography, the music of the regime contributed to the mental and behavioural transformation of its citizens.

While insisting that such research should not justify or excuse the atrocities of the regime, the researchers contend that more work needs to be done to understand cultural life under the Khmer Rouge, which they believe is too often depicted as a “black box” that saw Cambodia “starting from nowhere” in 1979.

Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, said in an email yesterday that there is continuity in Cambodian music before, through and after the Khmer Rouge.

“The Khmer Rouge did not invent anything new in form of arts, though they have tried. They were not only plagiarizing but also indoctrinating the Khmer arts and culture,” he wrote. “The Cambodians – many genocide survivors – continue to sing today, including songs written by the Khmer Rouge as a mean[s] to reclaim their humanity and healing.”

Rather than “healing”, as art often does, Chhang said, in his own experience in Takeo in 1975, performing arts under the Khmer Rouge were used more as “a torture device”.

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