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
- Name and address withheld.