Exploring Cambodia’s Trauma of Silence

Andrew Lam


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In the early '90s, while a graduate student in the creative writing program at San Francisco State University, I became a cub reporter and got a juicy assignment: Accompany a young Cambodian American student, a recent graduate from Stanford who once fled Cambodia as a child, and write about his homecoming.


A scholarship boy, my subject nevertheless was unprepared for the reality of Cambodia and the reemergence of his own unprocessed trauma. Upon reaching his homeland, he slowly unraveled.


I went on to write about Cambodia on my own, covering the then unfolding election sponsored by the United Nations. The epitome of the trip culminated in a risky interview of former Khmer Rouge soldiers. But the story of my friend’s return was never written and the planned video project of his homecoming never made.


So “expect the unexpected” became the object lesson I learned in Cambodia, and a caveat for all my foreign reporting thereafter.


Fast forward 25 years and that same lesson can be applied to another Cambodian American friend and filmmaker, Mike Siv, whose documentary “Daze of Justice” traces the return journey of a group of aging Khmer Rouge survivors back to Phnom Penh. Their purpose: to testify at a U.N. tribunal for four former high-ranking officers charged with crimes against humanity.


Siv fled Cambodia at the age of two with his mother and grew up in the Tenderloin neighborhood, a low-income immigrant enclave in the heart of San Francisco. Like many of her generation, Siv’s mother was largely silent about the past, a fact that drew Siv to focus on these survivors who are beginning to break that silence.


But if Siv thought he was simply there to document the trial and survivor testimony, his story quickly shifts after a chance encounter with the son of one of the most notorious architects of Cambodia’s genocide, Kaing Kek Eav a.k.a. Duch.


It is estimated that up to 2 million Cambodians died during the Khmer Rouge’s four-year reign of terror from 1975 to 1979. As head of Tuol Sleng Prison, a one-time school turned torture chamber in the middle of the capital, Phnom Penh, Duch oversaw the imprisonment, torture and execution of over 20,000 people. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison during a 2009 tribunal.


Duch’s son, Hong Siu Pheng, is now a public school teacher in a remote corner of the country. If there is a turning point in the film, it is when Siv turns his camera on Pheng - face drawn and jaws clenched - as he tours Tuol Sleng and is confronted for the first time with the evidence of his father’s crimes. Stained black and white images describe torture chambers and the victims, who were once tied to metal beds and cut to pieces, confessing to crimes they didn’t commit. Their dry blood still stains the floors.


Of war we know that the trauma it inflicts is generational. Those who experience its horrors firsthand then pass it on, consciously or not. Painful memories bind perpetrator and victim along with their descendants in a karmic fate that permeates an unforeseeable future.


Siv returned to Cambodia for the first time over a decade ago to look for his long estranged father. His visit was the focus of filmmaker Spencer Nakasako’s documentary, “Refugee,” for which Siv also worked as a cameraman.


For "Daze of Justice," his first film, Siv says he was drawn to the idea that people of his mother’s generation, who had long kept silent, were now seeking justice. What they find, and what the audience discovers over the course of the film, is that for victims of war, justice is often illusive, like an exotic animal one hears of but rarely sees.


In another scene from the film, Siv’s group of survivors sit under a veranda alongside Pheng and a crowd of others - presumably victims or their descendants - as they watch a screen depicting the court proceedings happening just inside. As the dense language of the tribunal drones on, the faces in the crowd slowly glaze over in a mix of confusion and boredom, a daze to which the film’s title points. In the heat many begin to fall asleep.



Any hope for justice or emotional release after years of pent-up anger dissipates in the daily churn of courtroom jargon. Anticlimactic at best, it is an ending that at worst derides their suffering.


The futility of the affair is as obvious to Siv as it is to Pheng, both of whom have slowly bonded as inheritors of a bloody history neither wanted to address, nor from which neither can truly free themselves. "Our parents don't want to talk about it, but the second generation is also traumatized by their silence," said Siv.


It is at this juncture that the film moves from mere documentary toward the spiritual and profound.


Before returning home, Pheng asks to speak to his traveling companions. The group gathers inside a Buddhist temple, statues of buddhas and boddhisatvas looking down benevolently from behind. He will bear the weight of his father’s sin, he tells them. He will ask for forgiveness.


“35 years of silence is broken by the son of a killer,” Siv noted. “It’s not just [my mother’s] generation that needed to talk, but mine too.” He points to a picture of his newborn son. “And now it’s my turn to help the next generation make sense of what happened.”


As someone who cut his reporting teeth covering Cambodia, its tragedy, its corruption, I am admittedly uplifted by the documentary. A seasoned and somewhat cynical journalist, I will put my trust in this new generation, in those who inherited traumas but who nevertheless found a way out of that silence and moral quagmire. I trust that Siv and Pheng, and those like them, will carve their paths toward national healing.


"Daze of Justice" has won the Social Justice Award from at Cannes World Cinema Initiative, and is being shown this month in Cannes.


Author Bio:


Andrew Lam, author of the essay collections Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora and East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres (see WLT, Sept. 2010, 14), and a first collection of fiction—Birds of Paradise Lost. All three books cover similar material: the exodus of Vietnamese fleeing the fall of Saigon and its subsequent aftereffects as they remake their lives in the San Francisco Bay area.


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