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Beyond Year Zero: Confronting Memories of Cambodia’s Painful Past

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Beyond Year Zero: Confronting Memories of Cambodia’s Painful Past

Beyond Year Zero: Confronting Memories of Cambodia’s Painful Past

Few countries wear the scars of history as prominently as Cambodia. But how do you remember the past when you can’t agree on what took place? We caught up with Fionn Travers-Smith, producer and presenter of the podcast Beyond Year Zero, to talk about the tricky issues of memory and memoralisation.

Lead photo: Khem Soun tends Pol Pot’s Grave. By Fionn Travers-Smith

This interview has been edited for length and clarity


WOPP: So Fionn, talk me through the theme of the podcast and what inspired the idea.

Fionn: Well, the podcast is partly about the history of the Khmer Rouge genocide and the horrific things that happened in this country. But it’s also partly about a love for Cambodia today. It’s such a dynamic and vibrant and fascinating country that I didn’t want to just focus on the past. I also wanted to focus on the present and to kind of shine a spotlight on some of the amazing things that people are doing here. So, a little bit of an exploration of the history of the genocide and a lot of exploration about how that genocide has affected modern Cambodian society today.

The third episode is on “memory and memorialisation”. So how do people remember the past and how is the past captured and presented back to people through memorialisation efforts such as archiving, public history, education? Every country has a past and every place is shaped by that past. But in Cambodia, it’s so close to the surface.

WOPP: Something that really came through in the podcast was that there’s real debate over what actually happened during the Khmer Rouge period, what you can trust and who was responsible.

Fionn: I mean, we’re all aware of being in social media bubbles or opinion bubbles, but you’re totally right. When I studied Cambodian History at SOAS University in London, I had come across the idea that the recent past was a contested narrative. Whisperings that there were different ways of interpreting, for example, the Vietnamese invasion and whether or not it was liberation or conquest. But I just thought maybe this was something that was very marginal. And actually, what came through was not just that it was much more hotly contested than I realised at the time, but that it’s still hotly contested today amongst certain circles.

We went to visit Anlong Veng, to see different memorialisation sites and interview a few people there. I met a woman who tends Pol Pot’s grave. She’s in her 60s, spending her latter years tending to the grave of a mass murderer. [She still believes] Pol Pot was trying to protect the country and the territorial integrity of the land and should be held up as the hero.

Pol Pot’s Grave. Photo by Fionn Travers-Smith

WOPP: Anlong Veng is an area that was actually quite successful under Khmer Rouge rule after 1979. Did you find that a lot of people were still supportive, almost fond of the memory of the Khmer Rouge in that area?

Fionn: Yeah, absolutely. Ta Mok [a senior Khmer Rouge military chief] had essentially bunkered down in the north of the country. He was unassailable militarily. And one of his guiding principles was to look after his people. Despite his leading role in the genocide, despite being known as the Butcher for his ruthlessness and his violence in the southwest, he still had a fierce loyalty to his troops, his people and the spirit of public service. He really believed in it. He ended up building dams, roads, bridges, schools, hospitals, communal living structures. He built a lake, which is now known as Ta Mok Lake. When you go to Anlong Veng these days, it’s all burnt out, deforestation everywhere – it’s a dry landscape. To bring water to that landscape, you know, it sustains people. It sustains life and vegetation and agriculture, which is the main staple of most rural living in Cambodia.

Dr Kheang Ly [Director of the Anlong Veng Peace Centre] describes this in a really vivid way. He says that the reason Ta Mok has so much support is that he brought water to the people – and water is like diamonds. It’s life. I just thought that was such an incredible statement, because, you know, we’re all set here in our ivory towers talking about internal political dynamics and how much autonomy there was between different zones and how much Pol Pot was truly in control, and all of that is irrelevant to these people because they’re living in a very small, very isolated, poor place. Their experience of Pol Pot was as a builder and as a public servant and as a leader – and an effective, compassionate one. And so, yes, there was a lot of support for Ta Mok in an Anlong Veng. Something like 75 percent of the local population are former Khmer Rouge cadres and soldiers. It was an eye-opening experience, really.

Dr Kheang Ly, Director of Anlong Veng Peace Centre. Photo by Fionn Travers-Smith

WOPP: I think people often forget that what happened after communism in a lot of countries was often a very sort of exploitative version of capitalism that left a lot of people even poorer than they were and with less access to their own resources. So it almost, for some people, feels like a golden age. And it’s hard to get your head around that when all you know about that period is the violence.

Fionn: Well not that long ago, Stalin was voted Russia’s most popular historical figure, which is from a Western perspective quite bizarre because we think of the Red Purges and that kind of thing. But it’s again, as you say, it’s kind of symbolic of a golden era or of a different time, a time of expansion and renewal and glory. So, yeah, I think that’s one of the things I think I’ve taken from this process and that I would love others to take from it is that whenever you think a narrative is completely uncontested, whenever you think it’s set in stone, it’s good to challenge that because you might be surprised. And I certainly was in the case of Anlong Veng and the Khmer Rouge.

A toilet belonging to Ta Mok, the Khmer Rouge commander known as The Butcher, has become a kind of visitor’s attraction in Anlong Veng. Photo by Fionn Travers-Smith

WOPP: I was really fascinated by the interview with Chhay Visoth, director of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. You were asking him how people could possibly think that this could have been faked. What struck me about that interview was that he wasn’t saying, “But that’s insane. How could this possibly be fake? So many people experienced it and we all know it happened”. But rather, “look at this writing on the wall, this tiny detail that proves it’s real.” It was really interesting that there wasn’t any shock that people could believe this quite crazy conspiracy theory. You’re trying to prove it with really small, specific details because no one knows what to trust, because there’s so much fake news and fake narrative, I guess.

Fionn: There seems to be quite widespread scepticism, especially amongst younger generations and younger people. It was a big surprise in the process of doing the podcast. And, you know, in a way, the reason Chhay Visoth spoke about that is partly because that’s his specialism; he was brought in as an archaeologist. And so, on the one hand, he’s nerding out because he loves that stuff. But another aspect is that’s essentially his legacy, of his leadership, of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum as an institution, is that using his archaeologist background, he’s done loads of work to prove that the site was not faked by the Vietnamese when they liberated or conquered Cambodia. So, you know, it’s part of his professional legacy. He describes in a lot of detail different techniques, looking at the materials that were used to graffiti on the walls and looking at the depths of the layers of paint, you know, chipping away at parts of the building to see when it was made, how quickly, using what resources and things like that.

Since then, the museum has also initiated a digitisation project. So a lot of the forced confessions under torture and the haunting mugshots we’re also familiar with, all of that stuff is getting digitised and being made freely available.

Graffiti etched into the wall by victims at the torture prison S-21 in Phnom Penh. Photo by Fionn Travers-Smith

WOPP:  Were you surprised at how widespread and accepted it is to vilify the Vietnamese intervention – whether you want to call that an invasion or a liberation – in 1979?

Fionn: I mean, on a personal level, I was surprised. I’d always assumed that this was a clear case of humanitarian intervention and the right thing to do, because the cause of the horrors of the Pol Pot regime and how it was accelerating. I mean, it was a crazy four years, but it was getting worse and worse and worse. There was a lot of chaos within the party. These terribly thought-through systems that had been cobbled together were struggling, and deaths and disease and starvation and horror were getting worse. There was lots of intrigue and infighting and assassination attempts and all these sorts of things. So, you know, the situation was rapidly snowballing and Vietnam took the intervention that it did and ended that period. There’s no doubt about that.

So my assumption as an outsider was of course, this is a scene of liberation. I was surprised by how strongly some people felt about the alternative view of conquest. But a big part why that has become a narrative is because America and the UK, under Reagan and Thatcher basically, initiated sanctions against Vietnam during the Cold War, when the Domino theory was still very much a fear in policymakers’ minds in the West. Most people are shocked when you look back now, that Pol Pot was allowed to retain the Cambodian seat at the UN. Whilst Vietnam was helping to get Cambodia back on its feet, it wasn’t recognised as a country. That’s seems to me to be bizarre Cold War politics. You can’t help but think that if that wasn’t the choice that Reagan and Thatcher and others had taken, then perhaps that narrative wouldn’t have such a stronghold in Cambodia today.

Chhay Visoth, director of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Photo by Fionn Travers-Smith

WOPP: I guess if you’ve got all these people trying to model to younger generations how not to repeat the past, but they’ve all got slightly different versions of what happened in the past, that’s part of the problem, isn’t it?

Fionn: And also, most people have a very complex history, particularly the perpetrators. There’s a whole conversation about how much autonomy people had and how much they were under duress. And a lot of secrecy as well about what people did or didn’t do. You know, one feature of life in Cambodia is that it’s very interpersonal, very community based. There are lots of small communities out in the countryside that don’t have a strong presence from the [central government] or strong infrastructure. When you add the layer that half of them were Khmer Rouge cadres and soldiers and so on, and the other half were operating underneath it, the way those different groups interact and communicate, and the power relations between them over the decades that followed the end of the regime are very hard to navigate.

I think a lot of people had some very challenging experiences in the countryside, where they haven’t had these memorialisation efforts until recently. They haven’t had truth commissions or opportunities to process it amongst themselves and with each other. They haven’t had any help with that process. And in some instances, former Khmer Rouge perpetrators are in positions of political power as administrators or local bureaucrats or even elected politicians. A lot of people have difficult relationships within those communities between the victim and perpetrator identities.

Chum Mey was one of the few survivors of the Khmer Rouge horrors at S-21. Photo by Fionn Travers-Smith

WOPP: Did you come up against any kind of resistance or challenges in conducting the interviews?

Fionn: It’s always a balancing act and it’s a tough topic because most people in Cambodia are affected personally. Throughout the podcast, people were very generous and open with their experiences with me. I was humbled by it, because I’d be sitting in a room with someone telling me that they lost six or seven members of their family and it doesn’t matter how empathetic or compassionate you are, you don’t you don’t know what that feels like. People were very open and genuine.

But what do you say to someone who spent years locked up in a torture prison, seeing all those horrors and losing all those people? How do you respond if someone says to you, Vietnam invaded? How can you, as an outsider who wasn’t there, who hasn’t lost loved ones – who’s you know, done a degree and read some books but doesn’t have a direct emotional experience? There were times I felt it was really necessary to put the counterargument to the person I was interviewing or to propose an alternative interpretation, but it was a delicate line to tread. I can only hope I treaded that line with compassion and respect.

Click here for Episode 3: Memory and Memorialisation. All episodes of Beyond Year Zero are available here on Soundcloud.


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