There is a light that never goes out

I have to warn you now that this entry is almost certainly not going to be funny (- are they ever? You flatter yourself, James!). Sometimes we have to get a little serious to allow ourselves the luxury of humour in our lives…

Living the relative comfort of the expat lifestyle in Phnom Penh it’s easy to forget the recent troubled history of this beautiful country that is Cambodia. Here in the city, or to be more accurate, the central part of the city, the expat community can indulge themselves with some of the finest restaurants in Asia, and quite possibly in the world, or watch the crimson sun set sipping an extravagant cocktail gazing from a colonial balcony over a riverside that would not disgrace the French Riviera. One can stroll around the park in the balmy early morning or calm stillness of early evening. The younger and more resilient can dance until the dawn rays push their fingers into the dark recesses of the myriad designer bars and nightclubs that cater for their hedonistic excesses – oh, for the endless stamina of youth again! If staying at home is your choice, then the non-working waking hours can be filled watching high quality DVD’s of the latest releases for the princely sum of $2 each, perhaps accompanied by a takeaway – how about ‘pavé de boeuf avec pommes frites et sauce bordelaise’ for $6 from ‘Commé a la Maison’? Wash that down with an $8 slab (24 cans) of beer, take a bit of a break to listen to some new music on that $1.50 cd you bought from the Russian Market, and you have the makings of a great start to the weekend…

Yes, the expat life can be quite idyllic… and then the ghosts of the past that still whisper through these streets and howl through the countryside decide to remind us that we too are only passing through these moments…

This week has seen the arrest of two prominent members of the Khmer Rouge and the hospitalization of a third, pending his arrest. Ieng Sary, the former Foreign Minister and his wife, Ieng Sirith, one of the few women to rise to prominence in the Khmer Rouge as the Minister of Social Affairs and the sister of Pol Pot’s first wife, were arrested at their home in Phnom Penh, literally just around the corner from my house. Neither we nor many of our expat neighbours had any idea that the elderly couple with the black Toyota Landcruiser who lived quietly in their expensive villa had been amongst the principal architects of Cambodia Year Zero and the horrific genocide that followed. Khieu Sampan, the former Khmer Rouge head of state, suffered a mild stroke at his home in Pailin the day after those arrests, but his attempt to go (escape?) to Thailand for treatment was thwarted by the government who flew him instead to Phnom Penh where he remains in hospital… his arrest, it now seems, is imminent. The ordinary Cambodians I work with seem almost embarrassed by these arrests. For the intense media coverage, and the looming trials, stir the graves of the dead and the troubled spirits rise to haunt the living once more.

Young people I know laugh when discussing the ‘regime’ as it is often called. This is not inappropriateness, it is simply the only way they can deal with the overwhelming nature of the evil that stalked Cambodia, an evil hatched in the intellectual hotbed of the Cercle Marxiste des Etudiantes Khmer in 1950’s Paris, that fermented throughout the 1960’s and came into bloom with a sickening stench of death and decay in the 1970’s… the KR have touched the life of everyone here, all have tales that they keep locked inside because the pain of the memory is unbearable, either as a victim, directly or indirectly suffering, or as a perpetrator haunted by the indelible memory of the acts they committed.

Part of my work involves editing translated testimonies and case studies relating to persons whose lives are affected by what we in the business call ERW, or Explosive Remnants of War. ERW refer to landmines, UXO, cluster munitions, small arms and light weapons (mortar bombs, rockets, shells, ammunition), anti-vehicle mines… Up to 4,000,000 of these (there is no accurate estimation) litter the Cambodian countryside, literally putting the actual fear of death into some of the poorest communities in Asia. Access to farmland, land for resettlement and basic social amenities and infrastructure is denied because of the very real fear of death or injury. Most anti-personnel landmines are not designed to kill (adults that is… young children are generally blasted apart), but to maim and disable, which they do with chilling efficiency. Each case study recounts tale after tale of the legacy left by the Khmer Rouge and the warring factions in the conflict that raged here for three decades… people wryly thank the US Department of State for helping to fund the clearance of UXO they dropped on Cambodia during the secret bombing in the 1970’s… a woman talks of how the despairing cries of her young son prevented her from selling her baby daughter to a Thai couple in order to raise enough money so that her other children could eat… a beautiful young woman tells how her life was blown apart when she stepped on a landmine and became an outcast in her village as a worthless amputee… however, the one thing that unites all of these individual stories is that somehow those that survive do so because they have hope, hope for a future that will be better…

I was sitting in the latest chic designer café with my boss the other morning, and our conversation revolved mainly around the arrests. Not the high-ranking Khmer Rouge who had been taken into custody, but the arrest this week of three persons for the murder of Chris Howes and Houn Hoerth. Chris worked for our organization, and he and Hoerth, his interpreter, were kidnapped and killed by the Khmer Rouge in 1996. I cannot and will not comment about he case in any detail, as the legal process is still ongoing, but please investigate further for yourselves through the wonderful medium of the Internet.

The hope that finally there may be justice for Chris and Hoerth will, I pray, bring some kind of peace for their families. My own father and my grandmother were murdered by a drunk driver in 1985 – Scottish justice brought some relief from the pain of their deaths, but like the ghosts that haunt this beautiful land and its wonderful people the memory is never far away… when I look around me at my Cambodian friends I realize just how difficult it actually is to make any sense of this world sometimes… we are all so different, yet essentially we are all the same…

Make of that what you will…

May your God go with you

Take care


One comment

  1. eannsinc · November 17, 2007

    Powerful stuff, freen’.

    Here am I, having been in the depths of depression having watched the scottish football team succumb to a dodgy late Italian goal to crash out of the Euro championships, and then I log on to this….

    There is a surface sheen to all our lives on this little globe, and beneath it lurks the KR and its ghost victims, as well as all those millions of others struggling towards the surface (in Russia, China, South America, eastern Europe, eastern timor, the USA, South Africa, Darfur etc etc). What percentage of those ghosts do we actually get to know about?

    Answers on a postcard to:

    In the meantime, next time I’m in a designer bar (hardly ever) or a fancy restaurant (ditto) it will be worth a moment’s pause to listen for the sound of surfaces being broken….

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