AAS Annual Meeting

Southeast Asia Session 355

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Session 355: ‘Historical Narratives and Societal Change in Cambodia since 1979’

Organizer: Michael L. Sullivan, Center for Khmer Studies, Cambodia

Discussants: Miriam Muslow, Texas Tech University, USA; Kheang Un, Northern Illinois University, USA

This panel discusses the ways in which recent historical narratives are used to explain societal change in Cambodia since 1979. The Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in late December 1978 simultaneously liberated the country from the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, and plunged it back into civil war. In 1989, as the Cold War thawed, the Vietnamese withdrew and were replaced in 1992 by the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). After UN organized elections in 1993, the country gradually came to be dominated by the personal power of Prime Minister Hun Sen. Today, there is a generation of Cambodians who have no memories of the Khmer Rouge, and dim, if any memories of UNTAC. The question is, how does this new generation understand contemporary Cambodian society in the context of the recent past? A society underpinned by an endemically corrupt, inequitable and predatory political-economic system. The panel tackles the question from three perspectives. The first, from inside Cambodia, deals with how formal and informal educational narratives are transmuted to this generation. The second, from outside Cambodia, examines how ‘refugee’ narratives create an ‘ambivalence’ of memory among a second generation of Cambodian Americans. The third looks at how particular historical literature narratives may be used to legitimate the current political-economic system. The panel draws these three perspectives together, in an effort to shed some light on how they may influence the future socio-economic and political direction the country may travel.

‘Formal and Informal Education and Genocide in Cambodia since 1979’.
Sothy Eng, Lehigh University, USA

Cambodia has gone through social and political upheaval in the past thirty five years, including genocide, with almost two million people killed and many brutally tortured. Many of those who survived the war are now parents of high school and, or college students. How these historical narratives are being interpreted and presented to those who have no personal experiences of the Khmer Rouge (KR) period necessitates examination. Within formal education, a history textbook about KR was published by Documentation Center of Cambodia and Ministry of Education in 2007 for high school students with the purpose of (1) empowering those who suffered as students are encouraged to ask questions, (2) instilling a sense of forgiveness and good-evil differentiation, and (3) preventing genocide through discussion between students and those who suffered. Within informal education, war-surviving parents use this historical event to guide their children’s moral and academic development. Parents tend to present their genocide experience when their children complain. Parents compare between the past and present to make their children content and aware of what they have in the present, such as food to eat and school to attend. Some parents show their children the practical value of education, when they were able to survive the war with their intelligence and quick-wittedness, making their children optimistic about their lives. Thus, formal and informal education are presented and interpreted as inspiration or a teaching tool that parents and educators use to influence children toward a sense of contentment, reconciliation, and achievement.

Performance as (Re)Incarnation: the Sdech Korn Narrative
Astrid Noren-Nilsson, KITLV, France

For all its legendary ‘devaraja’ Angkorean kings, Sdach Korn, a king reputed to have lived in an era often dismissively referred to as the dark ages, is gaining increased fame at the Cambodian household level. Here, it could escape but a few that PM Hun Sen is authoring an emerging narrative in which the PM himself is the king’s reincarnation. In 2007, Ros Chantraboth’s book about Sdach Korn was disseminated to schoolchildren around the country. Around the same time, the capital of Sdach Korn was ‘rediscovered’ and developed into a tourism site, and statues of Sdach Korn showing a remarkable physical similarity to Hun Sen were erected around the country. The similarities between Hun Sen and Sdach Korn powerfully combine details of their life trajectories with moral claims. Both are men ‘of the people’ rising to positions of power by virtue of their own daring, toppling an unjust king. This paper takes the Sdach Korn narrative as a starting-point for examining the centrality of historical narratives for the evolving relationship between Hun Sen and the Cambodian nation, quite apart from the narratives produced by institutional mechanisms within incumbent Cambodian People’s Party. By assessing the full implications of the narrative, it aims to retrieve important clues to the reconfiguration of Hun Sen’s engagement with the nation in the new era - “Samay Decho”, adding to the ongoing debate within Khmer Studies on political legitimacy (Ojendal & Lilja, eds, 2009), from the perspective of the politics of a new moral order (cp Kent & Chandler, eds, 2008).

Genocide, Memory, and Ambivalence in Cambodia: A Cambodian American Perspective’
Teri Shaffer Yamada, California State University, Long Beach, USA

This paper will explore the 'ambivalence' over the memorialization of the Cambodian genocide among second generation Cambodian Americans in Long Beach, California, the site of the largest refugee population of Cambodians outside of Cambodia. There are over thirty autobiographies foregrounding the Khmer Rouge survivor experiences that have been published since 1979, some are written by the 1.5 generation. The Cambodian community in Long Beach has matured politically, enabling Cambodian Town recognition by the city government and the annual production of a Cambodia Town parade after many years of lobbying. There has, however, never been an active community effort to establish a memorial museum to the genocide victims like the one established in Chicago, Illinois. The task of keeping historical memory alive resides at the university, CSULB. CSULB faulty have lobbied for a Khmer Heritage Language Course and a Khmer Experience course. They have developed study abroad courses to Phnom Penh that provide students with a chance to see cultural artifacts of the genocide and more recently to see the Tribunal Court. The second generation of Cambodian American students generally seems more concerned about leaving the bad memories of genocide behind. There is a sense of 'wanting to move forward' while still respecting Cambodian heritage: dance, music, food, and rituals. Nevertheless, their pride in Prach’s "Dalama" album and his representation of the genocide experience indicates ambivalence about this historical marker for Cambodian Americans.