War, Genocide, and Justice
by Cathy J. Schlund-Vials
Book Review by Adam Severe, Christina Langbehn, Tony Tran, and Alex Suy
Cathy J. Schlund-Vials’ book War, Genocide, and Justice: Cambodian American Memory Work, explores the different methods of Cambodian American remembrance of the genocide inflicted during the Khmer Rouge reign. By dissecting the effects of the phenomenon of atrocity tourism, the writing of conflicting and controversial memoirs, and the reproduction of Cambodian experience through music and film, we notice that Cambodians are trying to reclaim their slowly fading and controversial history in order to extract justice for the loss suffered during the Killing Fields Era, which never received its proper closure. Schlund-Vials also combats the state-sanctioned forgetting and re-writing of the Killing Fields Era so that future generations of Cambodians, and indeed of the entire world, will properly acknowledge the history of the Cambodian genocide.
The introduction provided by Schlund-Vials gives a thorough summary of the Khmer Rouge era. It includes explanations on how the dissatisfaction with the previous Lon Nol dictatorship spurred popularity for the Khmer Rouge Regime, allowing them to come into power. However, the Cambodians put faith in a group with a biopolitical and necropolitical agenda that required the mass murder of their own people. Schlund-Vials goes on to provide a brief history up to the final Vietnamese push to oust the Khmer Rouge Regime.
Once in power, the Khmer Rouge committed its three year reign to purging more than 1.7 million Cambodians in order to achieve their goal of completely wiping any western influence from their country (2). The Khmer Rouge wanted to reset their country back to year zero in order to re-establish a country as idealistically grand as the Angkor Kingdom (1). Their view was that they didn’t need any outside influence to make a great country; however, that meant Cambodia would not keep up with the changing world which is something the world could not ignore.
The atrocities inflicted on the Cambodian people under the Khmer Rouge regime have created a lasting wound in the history of Cambodia. As such, every year Cambodians go into Phnom Penh National Olympic Stadium to commemorate the day Vietnamese forces entered the capital city and ousted the Khmer Rouge from power known as “Victory over Genocide Day or Nation Day” (4). There is a significance in transitioning the stadium from its former use as an execution center for Lon Nol officials in the early days of the Kampuchean regime to a place of genocidal remembrance (5). Although the the stadium is the most symbolic site for remembering the genocide, there are many other sites littered throughout Cambodia which is a reminder to everyone of the extent of the genocide that occurred during the Khmer Rouge era.
Looking through all of the brutality and horrible events that occurred, the Cambodian genocide of the Killing Fields era rivals that of the Jewish genocide during the Nazi regime. This begs the lingering question of why this atrocity isn’t well-known. It is believed that “60% of Cambodia’s population was born after the end of the Democratic Kampuchea regime” which contributes to the disbelief that the Killing Fields Era actually occurred (7). Reinforcing this is the fact that only one person was actually tried in court for humanitarian crimes, even though there has to be more people that should be accused. To top it all off, there is even a Khmer Rouge official still in the Cambodian government. So why is there no distress or commotion about these issues that are still present? Two logical answers include the tactical forgetting of the Khmer Rouge which was enacted by the U.S. government and the Cambodian Syndrome. The Cambodian Syndrome is just like the Vietnam Syndrome discussed in class that implements tactical forgetting and strategic remembering which work together to mold history into a new shape.
The last thing the the introduction discusses is U.S. involvement during and after the Khmer Rouge era and the U.S. point of view. First of all, the US actually passively supported the Khmer Rouge because the U.S. was still bitter about the recent outcome of the Vietnam War. Secondly, from the perspective of the U.S., Cambodia was simply another refugee hotspot that was another burden for them since there were still masses of Vietnamese refugees coming into the U.S. Lastly and most importantly is how U.S. ambassador Hillary Clinton viewed the Khmer Rouge period through a tour of a genocide museum in Cambodia. She exclaimed that she was impressed that Cambodia was able to confront its past and overcome it (9). I personally believe this is not the case because much of the population was born after the genocide and don’t have the complete experience of the Killing Fields. Instead, there needs to be remembrance of how exactly the people were killed and why those people were killed. Simplifying death makes every death a statistic.
Chapter 1 of War, Genocide, and Justice goes through the harsh history of the Tuol Sleng Prison 21 (S-21 in short). The purpose of this school-converted max security prison was supposedly to “guard against the strategy and tactics of the enemy” (28). But the true intent of S-21 was for torture, extracting confessions, and ultimately for executions. The method of luring them into this hellhole was done by rounding up people accused of “engaging in pre-revolutionary behavior”. To attest its effectiveness, of the ~13,000 detained, less than 20 survived and only 7 are thought to be alive now (29). Currently, S-21 Prison is a tourist destination for people that want a feel for what it was like to be in this place. Tourists are virtually allowed to go anywhere they please; however, most follow the path into the prison as if they were in the prisoner’s shoes. Throughout the experience, the visitor must be asking himself/herself of what the prisoners must have been thinking about when they walked towards the prison looking at the sign with the security regulations.
sign near the entrance of S-21
S-21 was only a single school/prison out of the 196 prisons that were throughout Cambodia. One must try to comprehend that each one of these death sites had people that were waterboarded, electrocuted, starved, and beaten. The point is that being killed and being tortured are completely different things that is not explained in education or textbooks. S-21 is significant due to it becoming another case of “death tourism” like The Coliseum in Rome. Essentially, these places of mass deaths are utilized for revenue and are slowly becoming commercialized by corporations. The impact and symbolism of each site is less valued because visitors just rate which place is more atrocious than the other. Although this allows some people to know about the Cambodian Genocide, visitors do not get in-depth into the specifics of the genocide other than the death count.
Chapter 2 explores and analyzes two films made about the Khmer Rouge regime’s authoritarian rule in Cambodia. The first, Roland Joffe’s film The Killing Fields (1984), is based on Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg’s piece “The Life and Death of Dith Pran”, a first person remembrance of a friendship forged before and during the Khmer Rouge and the guilt of the author for “abandoning” his friend in a country at war while he fled to safety. The second film is New Year Baby (2006) by Socheata Poeuv. It is an emotional patchwork quilt documentary of the producer’s family’s own fragmentation, which was caused by the biopolitical and necropolitical policies enforced by the Khmer Rouge regime. It also attempts to bridge the disconnect between her parents and the generation 1.5 refugees raised in America, which is the result of both the silence of her parents and the U.S. political “forgetting” which is being written into history by the lack of juridical justice for the Cambodian people who suffered the “killing fields” era.
Joffe’s production The Killing Fields is the first film to publicize Cambodia’s genocide history and is still the primary mode of access to Americans about this history. Despite this, the story is presented largely through the voice of the American reporter Sydney Schanberg. Initially, Schanberg was drawn to Cambodia by a liberal humanitarian concern of the human impact on Cambodia as “battle fodder”, or collateral damage, for the Vietnam War. There he met Dith Pran, a former US Army translator turned foreign press assistant who became an invaluable friend to Schanberg. Pran saved Schanberg the day of the Khmer Rouge occupation, but he was unable to save him in return when he, along with all other Cambodians, were ordered to evacuate the cities into what “had become a death camp for millions” (72). The story from here becomes largely one of guilt. Schanberg’s abandonment of his friend mirrors that of US soldiers ordered to withdraw from Southeast Asia, leaving behind friends and allies in a country at war.
The Killing Fields, while attempting to reproduce the history of the Cambodian genocide, fails to account for U.S. culpability. In the final scene of the film Schanberg asks Pran for forgiveness, only to be told there is “nothing to forgive, Sydney. Nothing to forgive” (97). In the end, it is the American reporter who receives reparative justice for his guilt and not the Cambodian refugee Pran, for what he and his people have suffered. In what amounts to a dissatisfying resolution, there is no direct call for juridical justice for the Cambodian people.
In contrast, Poeuv’s New Year Baby allows Cambodian subjects and memory to take the center stage. The narrative is centered around the fractured composition of her own family, in which she discovers that her two sisters are actually her dead aunt’s children and that her brother is from her mother’s pre-war marriage to another man. Additionally, Poeuv is told that she is a product of the forced marriages of the Khmer Rouge biopolitical scheme. Poeuv and her family then travel to Cambodia in an attempt to make sense of the past and perhaps gain some sense of closure. She includes interviews with her parents to help narrate their experience of the Cambodian genocides. Overall, her film ”militates against familial silences and strives to connect survivors and their children by way of historical reclamation, collected family stories, and collective remembrance” (98).
During their visit, Poeuv and her father visit two former Khmer Rouge cadres. Poeuv demands that they take responsibility and apologize, but is disappointed when both people shove the responsibility onto the higher-level Khmer Rouge leadership. These scenes draw attention to the lack of justice for those who suffered through the killing fields era. It also explores the limitations of an apology to give that justice. Although patchwork like in its attempts to include many different aspects of the Cambodian genocide history, her film is essentially based on the ”ontological issue of how Poeuv’s family was domestically, internationally, and transnationally produced within the spectrum of US foreign policy, state-authorized loss (under the Khmer Rouge), and the Cambodian genocide…[and] explores and makes visible critical genealogies of US imperialism that involve a remapping of and re-engagement with Khmer Rouge authoritarianism” (113).
Chapter 3 deals with reasons for and issues that arise from the memoirs being written. The chapter focuses on two specific memoirs, Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers and Chanrithy Him’s When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up under the Khmer Rouge. The Cambodian memoirs usually consist of three parts: recounting the details of life before the Khmer Rouge takeover in April 1975, the evacuation of cities, and life in the labor camps during the killing fields era (1975-1979), and life after 1979, which mostly consist of the Cambodian people fleeing to Thai refugee camps.
The most common reason for these memoirs to be written is because the individual is still haunted by their memories of loss and suffering. They want their story to be told and are hoping some form of justice will get served against those that committed this horrible genocide. Currently, only one member of the Khmer Rouge regime has been charged by the UN in the Cambodian War Crimes Tribunal for crimes against humanity, “Kaing Guek Eav, aka Comrade Duch, the head warden of the notorious S-21 detention center”(125). On the flip side, several issues are raised against these memoirs, such as accuracy of the accounts, who actually authored them, and, in at least one case, racism. So even though these are accounts of what happened to individuals that survived, all the information in these accounts might not be 100% accurate. These issues tend to lessen the effect on readers and not make them have the impact they should.
Chapter 4 opens up with the narrative of Nee Prach Ly and his experiences of translating the effects of violence, displacement, and relocation of Cambodian refugees and their children. He is better known by his rapper name praCh and he is the seventh child of the Ly family who escaped Cambodia into Thailand in the 1980’s and secured a sponsorship to the United States. After first arriving in Florida, the Ly family made their way to Southern California and from there praCh grows up only learning about his people’s history through accounts from his older brother and other elderly Cambodian refugees. He uses this as influence to compose his music in order to convey the history of Cambodians that, according to him, is somehow lost to those of his generation.
Cathy J. Schlund-Vials uses praCh to illustrate how one might use an art, like music, to tell the story of a people’s history as well as their current struggles, which are the primary topics of praCh’s Dalama trilogy albums. praCh draws from influential artists such as N.W.A and Ice-T, gangster rappers from Los Angeles who, through their music, send messages of oppression, violence, racism, inequality, and the realities of living in a poor neighborhood or city that is built like its own prison. Schlund-Vials uses the connections of both the black community and the Cambodian refugee community to signify the social stigma that follows these groups of people, yet who both use their music and culture as a way to combat the struggles of a street environment where, not only are they facing adversity against intra-racial violence, but also against a stratified system of inequality.
praCh and his music were used to depict the Cambodian diaspora by using the narrative of those that would speak about those events. He felt that his generation, specifically those who immigrated to the U.S. after the Khmer Rouge, had no personal account of the events, and therefore felt more of a disconnect than ever. The author then goes on to explain how praCh used his music as a form of transnationalism and how his music reached Cambodian air waves and became a hit overseas. Using current hip hop sounds with a blend of old Cambodian style music, praCh created music that could appeal to both the younger and older generation that would bridge the gap created by the silence that many of the older Cambodian generation chose to use instead of talking about their past.
War, Genocide, and Justice: Cambodian American Memory Work serves as a way to not only remember the past, but to combat the state-authorized forgetting of it as well. Just like praCh’s music, Poeuv’s film, and Ung’s memoir, Schlund-Vials seeks justice against a systematically racist society, politically corrupt agendas, and a sense of “letting the past go”. She argues that the past simply cannot be let go and that trying to forget is the same as injustice. The generation of Cambodian immigrants that have no recollection of their past still have something missing in them and it is this past that may come to haunt them. In forging a legacy of remembering for Cambodians, Memory Work tries to convey a message of justice that still needs to be answered. With such an obvious lack of justice, one is left to consider why no real action has been taken to give Cambodians a sense of closure for their genocidal history. After the Jewish genocide of World War II, it only took four years to bring the Nuremburg Trials to a close. This swift juridical action gave legitimacy to the suffering of the European people and afforded a sense of justice and closure. In comparison, it is has been 38 years since the fall of the Khmer Rouge and the Khmer Rouge Tribunal trials are still ongoing. Only through the collected works of awareness and remembrance, such as in Schlund-Vials’ Memory Work, can we hope to someday give a sense of peace to those affected by Cambodia’s genocidal history.
Dani, Tuol Sleng Rules, https://danilovescats.wordpress.com/asia/cambodia-phnom-penh/, 2006.
Schlund-Vials, Cathy J. War, Genocide, and Justice: Cambodian American Memory Work.
Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2012. Print.
VOA News, A Cambodian man is seen at one of the Killing Fields where vast numbers of people
were killed by the Khmer Rouge regime,