Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - "Who am I?" no easy question

"Who am I?" no easy question

"Who am I?" no easy question

The Editor,

As a Khmer-American, I often ask the question, "who am I?" Am I a Khmer

or an American? What am I supposed to answer when a Khmer in Cambodia ask me, "Are

you a Khmer or an American?" And the same question coming from an American?

What would be my appropriate answer? Is it Khmer-American? I only know that it can't

be either Khmer or American.

Sounds like an identity crisis? You bet! I am sure this question is being asked many,

many times over by both Cambodians and Americans. Any answer people like myself give

would not be appropriate as people such as myself are neither Khmer nor American.

If I said that I am an American or a Khmer, it is wrong. I found out about this the

hard way while I was in Cambodia quite recently.

I was in Siem Reap on an official working trip. A very high-ranking Royal Government

official had asked me that "Are you a Khmer?" question. Purely in reactive

mode and without really thinking, I answered him, "Yes, I am a Khmer."

It was a serious mistake on my part for me to say the words "yes, I am a Khmer".

For that honest mistake, I was threatened with arrest by this high-ranking official

of the Royal Government and was escorted out of a government property/public building

in Siem Reap.

I had to depart Cambodia earlier than planned due to a family emergency, but I was

seriously thinking about leaving Cambodia for good following the incident with this

official. I was in Cambodia under an invitation of an American NGO, which coincidentally

happened to be there at the Royal Government's request. I have been serving as an

environmental consultant to this NGO, as a volunteer, on conservation projects at

Angkor since 1993. I have been in Cambodia working as a volunteer on numerous occasions

with this NGO and others. On this particular trip, I was part of a conservation team

which was hosting a group of tourists from New York. They are the guests, supporters,

and funders of projects at Angkor for the American NGO I am working with.

Since these tourists are "potential" big donors for other projects in the

area, the Royal Government, specifically this very "high-ranking official,"

was giving them VIP treatment, including a private tour of Conservation D'Angkor

in Siem Reap. The normally locked door surrounded by barbed wire to the storage shed

where numerous Angkor artifacts are kept was opened by the order of this official

to allow the tour group to enter at will. Despite the official warnings about "No

Photographs!" the tourists' camera flashes lit up the darkened facility freely,

without any attempt by this official nor his staff to stop the violation. After all,

they were his special guests and potential donors for other projects. He was willing

to look the other way and graciously provided his guests with the interpretive tour

of the facility. It was nice of him and his staff.

As fate would have it, I was the only "Khmer-looking" dude in the all-American

group of tourists from New York. One must remember that I happened to be there as

a host of the tour group in an official capacity because I was a team member of the

NGO which co-hosted the visit with this official representing the Royal Government.

In short, I had as much rights (or privileges) to be at this particular place as

any entering the facility.

After about two minutes upon entering the highly guarded facility, I was spotted

and targeted by this high-ranking official, even before I could pull my camera out

of my field pack.

"Are you a Khmer?" he asked me in Cambodian. I greeted him with a Khmer

sampeah and instinctively answered him "Yes, Your Excellency" without having

time to think twice. As a matter of fact, I have met this official numerous times

before. I even assisted him and his aide to write a speech while he was at a conference

in the United States just six months earlier. I was even invited to assist his ministry,

but I had to decline. I even met him again earlier out in the field prior to us entering

the supposedly secret facility. In short, unless his old-age memory was playing a

trick on him, he knew exactly who I was and what I was doing in this supposedly forbidden

place with the tour group full of Euro-Americans.

Once he confirmed that I was a Khmer, he ignited. "What are you doing in here!

Why are you here? Who let you in? You are not supposed to be here [as a Khmer])!

This door is open because of me, my personal favor [to the American NGO]. You can

be arrested! Get out of here, now!" He fired a salvo of words at my stunned

face while signaling his assistants to kick me out of the building. Before I could

recover my composure from the shock, I was escorted by the arm outside while others

continued to tour the facility without even knowing what was happening to me.

My stunned face turned to rage and embarrassment as I was walking outside past the

gate of Conservation D'Angkor. I didn't do anything wrong! I was kicked out simply

because I said, "Yes, I am a Khmer". As a Khmer, I am not supposed to be

in this facility? There was no sign that said: "All others except Khmer ar allowed."

I didn't quite understand it. I was angry as hell. I can't be in there with the tourists

simply because I am a Khmer? How sick can this be? Being a Khmer I was kicked out

from a facility that belongs to all Khmer, including me! What got me is that the

tourists, a bunch of foreigners, were allowed to roam freely in the facility unmolested.

I was kicked out, the first time in my life, by my own countrymen!

This incident was just one example. There are plenty others. Others such as the day

when I was on my way to Pochentong International Airport when the main and only road

there was closed because a Singaporean delegation was going to travel on it. For

nearly three hours in sweltering heat, Phnom Penh streets were completely choked

with clogged traffic by this closure. Was it so shameful that the Singaporeans might

see the poor Khmer on dirty old motos sharing the main road to and from Phnom Penh

that the Royal Government decided to shut the main road down to all but official

traffic? The hell with the people as long as the street where the Singaporean delegation

is traveling is free of ordinary Khmer. Of course, I missed my flight to Siem Reap

and I am sure many others faced the same situation as their trip was interrupted

for hours because of this closure. Khmer interests come first, that is only after

foreign interests and money. When will the government that is supposed to serve the

people ever learn? It is shameful, very shameful indeed!

This is a matter of principle. My pride is badly damaged from these unfortunate incidents,

but repairable in due time. I am badly hurt and very disgusted by my fellow countrymen

and the Royal Government attitude toward their own people. Call it policy, prejudice,

discrimination, or racism, but the fact remains: as a Khmer, my rights and privileges

were violated by those officials who are there to serve the people, the Khmer people

such as myself. Once again, national interests come first, that is after foreign

interests and money. It is this kind of attitude toward Khmer in general that ruined

Cambodia and people such as myself in the first place. Will the Khmer people ever

learn? After studying Angkor's history and society in detail, the answer is most

likely a resounding "NO."

I had no idea why I said that "yes, I am a Khmer" in the first place. Perhaps

I still have pride for my native homeland and nationality. Perhaps I am mistaken

for thinking that I am still a Khmer in my heart and soul. It will be my last mistake.

It won't happen again! This particular official has answered the question I have

about my identity. I am not a Khmer, not any longer!

Because I hope to continue my volunteer work in my native country and home village,

I ask the Post to withhold my name and the name of theofficial involved. They know

who or what they are. I now know exactly who I am, it is anything but a Khmer. Why?

Simply because it is an embarrassment being a Khmer.

Thank you for allowing me, a former Khmer, the opportunity to express my disgust

and anger.

- Name and address withheld.


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