Cambodian Americans Re-Member the Genocide of the Khmer Rouge

According to scholar Cathy J. Schlund-Vials, Cambodian American artists are providing new interpretations of the Khmer Rouge period that go beyond the previous frame established by the movie,“The Killing Fields.” Their works critique the strategic amnesia of the United States regarding twentieth-century Cambodian history and are re-scripting the Cambodian experience so that it is not exclusively about trauma.

Cambodian American artists such as Anida Yoeu Ali, a poet and performance artist, and praCh, a rap musician, are generating works that engage in memory politics at home and in Cambodia.

International Institute, March 6—Speaking at a well-attended lecture at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Cathy J. Schlund-Vials explained that Cambodian American artists were creating alternative sites to remember and reclaim the history of the Khmer Rouge era, achieving a measure of justice for the Cambodian people and its diaspora in the process. In the absence of international or state-sanctioned justice for the genocide of 1.7 million Cambodians by the Pol Pot regime, Prof. Schlund-Vials pointed out that Cambodian American memory work is changing the narrative of the Khmer Rouge epoch in both the United States and Cambodia.

The speaker explained that “cultural producers” of Cambodian heritage in the United States were using film, memoir, music and performance to transcend the linear narrative imposed by human rights’ tribunals, which are limited solely to the years in which the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia (1975–1979). The work of these artists, she said, highlights the “strategic amnesia” in the United States about the illegal U.S. bombing of Cambodia (1969–1973) and the subsequent Khmer Rouge regime.  Rather than end the killing in Southeast Asia, she remarked, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam led to the deaths of millions of innocent victims at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. In addition to evacuating the cities and forcibly relocating residents to re-education labor camps in the countryside, the regime engaged in widespread brutal torture and mass killings (of, among others, schoolteachers, doctors and court musicians and dancers), and burned books and schools. The resulting flight out of Cambodia created an enormous diaspora, with approximately 510,000 Cambodians ending up in Thailand, 100,000 in Vietnam and 150,000 in the United States.

Drawing on the analytical paradigms of memory and holocaust remembrance of James Young (“memory work”) and Jenny Edkins (“the politics of mourning”), Schlund-Vials pointed out that the Khmer Rouge regime itself engaged in violent practices of “dis-remembering” the Cambodian past. The installation of Prime Minister Hun Sen by Vietnam subsequently led to a policy of “burying the past” in which Sen negotiated agreements with former Khmer Rouge leaders. The People’s Revolutionary Tribunal, which was organized in 1979 and sentenced several of these leaders to death, was considered a “show trial” organized by the Vietnamese to inculcate loyalty in the country. Although the United Nations rejected the work of that tribunal because it did not meet accepted human rights’ standards, the contemporary U.N.-Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia tribunal is using the 1,000 pages of testimony generated by it. Schlund-Vials pointed out that the present tribunal is suffering from a lack of international monetary support and that its defendants are unlikely to survive the proceedings. One hundred million dollars have been spent, she observed, and the tribunal has so far sentenced only one individual.

Today, there are 19,733 mass graves and 196 Khmer Rouge former prisons in Cambodia, but no state-sanctioned memorial to the victims of the regime. The 81 private genocide memorials in existence were largely intended to foment anger at the Khmer Rouge regime, explained the speaker. Unfortunately, these private memorials are encouraging what Schlund-Vials labeled “atrocity tourism,” in which only one out of eight visitors are Cambodian. In a country with a majority Buddhist population, it is profane to keep human bones at such sites, she continued. Traditionally, these remains would be cremated, yet they—and the memorial sites—are evidence in the ongoing U.N.-Cambodian tribunal. Ironically, the idea of “justice” is really a Judeo-Christian concept, she observed, with Buddhist cultures understanding karma and reincarnation as the vehicles by which the past is addressed.

Against this background, Cambodian American artists such as Anida Yoeu Ali, a poet and performance artist, and praCh, a rap musician (who attended the lecture), are generating works that engage in memory politics at home and in Cambodia. praCh, for example, has not only brought hip-hop to Cambodia, said Schlund-Vials, he has initiated dialogue with young Cambodians about the era of genocide. She emphasized that memory work is also occurring in Cambodia itself, but that her focus was on the work of the Cambodian diaspora in the United States. These artists are providing both new readings of the Khmer Rouge period that go beyond the previous frame established by the movie “The Killing Fields,” they are also rescripting the Cambodian experience so that it is not exclusively about trauma.

Schlund-Vials is Associate Professor of English and Asian American Studies and Director of the Institute of Asian American Studies at the University of Connecticut. She is the author of the recently published book, “War, Genocide and Justice: Cambodian American Memory Work” (University of Minnesota, 2012). Her lecture was cosponsored by the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies of the International Institute, the Asian American Studies Center, Asian American Studies Department and Charles E. Young Research Library Oral History Project, together with the Southeast Asian Studies programs of the University of California, Riverside and the University of Southern California. Many students of the cosponsoring academic departments and institutions attended the event.

Published: Friday, March 08, 2013