Friday 30 June 2023

"I felt a burning sensation on my forehead and realised I'd been hit" - Stories from Cambodia

"I've heard of England but I don't know where it is" said Chai. This 63 years old  Buddhist monk had asked me one of the standard questions asked of travellers, "where are you from?" We were sitting in the compound of a monastery in the Cambodian countryside, about an hour's drive from Siem Reap. It was late afternoon and the gentle breeze both lowered the temperature a little and warned of the forthcoming evening rain. Other monks sat smoking in the shade. One of the younger ones crossed the compound to where we were sitting and climbed into a hammock to listen to our conversation.

When we arrived, Chai was cleaning his teeth with a stick. He was extremely slim, gaunt even, his ribs clearly visible under his exposed right shoulder. His shaved head emphasised his lack of weight. His chest, throat and chin were tattooed. I asked him if the dots on his chin had a meaning. "It's for protection" he said. Many Cambodians believe that tattoos can ward off evil spirits or bad luck. We would return to this theme of protection and belief a little later.

I encouraged him to tell me about his life. He said "I was born in Battambang province. My family worked on the land. I never went to school. I cannot read or write. When the other monks read scriptures, I just follow them and join in the prayers. I got married when I was 22 and I have three children. I became a monk when I was 58, after my wife died. I couldn't live with my children and so I came here".

We were briefly interrupted by the arrival of an elderly man chewing zucchini seeds. He squatted down beside us, smiled and followed our conversation with curiosity, looking directly at whoever happened to be speaking. He was barefoot, wore only an old pair of trousers and had draped a krama, the traditional checked Cambodian scarf, over his shoulder. His teeth were stained red, the tell-tale sign of excessive consumption of paan - an Areca nut slaked with lime and wrapped in a betel leaf. It acts as a mild stimulant and is popular across south and south-east Asia. When chewed it releases a bright red liquid that permanently stains the teeth and lips. If mixed with tobacco it can cause cancer of the mouth. Our visitor shared his zucchini seeds with us, then after a few minutes, took a cigarette from Chai and went on his way.

The monk returned to his story. "I joined the army when I was 17 or 18. I wanted to support Sihanouk against Lon Nol. I didn't like Lon Nol and I was against the coup. Later on Sihanouk joined forces with the Khmer Rouge and so I ended up fighting alongside their soldiers." I was intrigued by Chai having been drawn into the Khmer Rouge forces, not by choice, but because Sihanouk formed an, admittedly shaky, alliance with the communist group. I asked him to talk about that experience, but he seemed reluctant and I let it go.

His few sentences about the war hide the complexity of Cambodian history during the 20th century. Sihanouk ruled as Monarch from 1941 until 1955 when he abdicated in order to participate in politics more directly. In the same year, his party won a general election and he became Prime Minister. He then ruled the country under various titles until 1970, when he was deposed by the National Assembly led by Lon Nol. Sihanouk spent the next five years in exile in China and North Korea during which time he began to back the communist insurgent Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot. The Khmer Rouge eventually defeated the government forces in 1975 and took control over the country. Then began four years of extreme brutality and repression, causing the deaths of up to two million people. In 1979, the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia. Pol Pot and his regime were forced out, but his troops continued to fight in remote parts of the country for the next several years.

I asked Chai about the mark between his eyebrows. He said "In 1982 I was involved in the fighting against the Vietnamese, somewhere near the border with Thailand. I felt a burning sensation on my forehead and realised I'd been hit. I was unconscious for almost two days but I didn't die thanks to the blessed scarf I wore and which protected me.  I woke up in a Thai hospital where I was looked after by French doctors". He sat in silence for a few minutes and then asked if I wanted to photograph him. I did, and he kindly stood for a series of pictures.

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Monday 5 June 2023

"I used to steal small amounts of rice just to survive" - Stories from Cambodia

Phnom Penh in May is not hot. It's very hot, and very humid. Residents and visitors alike seek respite from the soupy atmosphere by spending time on the riverside walk, just a few blocks away from some of the city's main streets and the old market known locally as Phsar Chas

The riverside area has been cleaned up in recent years and now hosts good quality restaurants, bars and hotels. There are also many informal stalls close to the river. I stopped to buy cold water from one of the vendors, a smiling, silver haired woman wearing a brightly patterned blouse. As she handed me the bottle, I asked  how she came to be doing this work. Song Yeun said she had been selling goods in the street for many years. I asked her if she lived with her family, and unprompted, she began to tell her story. "I am 68 now but I became a widow at 21" she said. "My husband was an educated man and was killed very soon after the Khmer Rouge took over. My own family were farmers. I grew up in a village and managed to convince them that I could work in the fields. So I was spared". 

She referred to the Khmer Rouge as "the Angkar" a Khmer language word meaning "organisation" and the term that the Pol Pot led communists used to describe themselves. The regime held power between 1975 and 1979, dismantling civil society and brutalising the population with forced labour and summary executions. Estimates vary but the Khmer Rouge caused the deaths of up to two million people through starvation, exhaustion or outright killing. Educated people were seen as particular enemies and many teachers, professors, doctors, writers and artists were murdered. 

Song Yeun's experience of agricultural work was no guarantee of being spared or surviving, but it gave her a better chance than many of those forcibly evacuated from Phnom Penh a few days after the Khmer Rouge entered the city. She continued "There were famous people in the work camps. The singer Pan Ron was there. I tried to help her but they killed her too". Pan Ron (also known as Pen Ran) was a prominent singer and songwriter who had great success in the 1960's and early 1970's. Her music was influenced by western rock and soul styles and some of her lyrics were deemed risqué for their time. As all things western were deemed unacceptable, this made her. particular target. She is remembered in a series of murals outside the Space Four Zero gallery in Palace Lane, Phnom Penh. Several of her recordings have been uploaded onto YouTube. 

Song Yeun went on to describe some small acts of resistance. "At night they would put spies under our huts to listen to our conversations. You could be executed for any criticism of the regime. We knew they were there and we used to pee through a whole in the floor above where they would be laying. They couldn't say anything or move as they'd give themselves away". She laughed at the memory, but then grew serious and said "We were starving and I used to steal small amounts of rice just to survive. If they'd caught me I wouldn't be alive now." 

The Khmer Rouge regime was ousted in 1979 when Cambodia was invaded by Vietnam, although fighting between various factions continued into the 1990's. After being released from the work camp, Song Yeun somehow made her way back to Phnom Penh, discovered that she had lost most of her family and had to find a way of supporting herself. "Some men asked me to be a prostitute" she said, "But I refused. I knew I could work. These days I have trouble with my legs and people say 'you are old, stop doing this job and just beg' but I won't do that. I want to keep working". 

I bought an extra bottle from her and continued along the promenade. A group of overweight western men in shorts and vests sat drinking outside a bar. On the opposite side of the river, close to the shore, I could see the makeshift homes of the Muslim fishing families. I looked back at Song Yeun. She sat waiting for customers and smiling at passers-by.