The Question of Collaborators: Moral Order and Community in the Aftermath of the Khmer Rouge

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It was near to the end of my fieldwork in Cambodia when Pu [Uncle] Thon offered to take me to see the sites that had comprised the old village of O’Thmaa before Pol Pot came and everything was destroyed.The original village had consisted of four parts, each with its own place name and located at a distance from each other. Each part contained a group of households whose members were related by birth or marriage. Unlike today when the houses line the main road, the four parts formed a loose arc that together formed O’Thmaa village.  

On the morning of the tour, we set off on the oxcart road behind my house passing the Thmaa Khmouch or ghost/spirit rock on our right. The base of this boulder is littered with old bottles and ancient ceramic jugs and bowls, which had been used as receptacles for the ash remains of ancestors that the villagers say lived perhaps a century ago. Turning westward, we continued until we reached a stretch of rice paddy where the first of these homesteads once stood. Pu Thon explained: This place was called Bung Srei. There were four houses here. In the house of Yiey [Grandmother] Hom there were four people originally; now no one is left. Her two children, both Khmer Rouge soldiers from 1970 to 1972, were accused by someone from the village, not a Khmer Rouge, of being White Khmer and killed. One of these sons was married to Yiey Na, the daughter of Ta [Grandfather] Som.    The next is the house of Yiey Na and no one is left. She was the daughter of Ta Sok. Her husband who was the son of Yiey Hom was a Khmer Rouge soldier but was killed after being accused by a villager of being White Khmer. We continued westward toward the O’Thmaa creek and came to Ta En’s garden near the giant mango trees and small stream: This place is O’Ta Rom and is named after the ancestor guardian spirit named Rom. We believed in these spirits before the war. There were three houses here. The first was the house of Von. His wife is Yiey Oak.   

Pu Thon told me that Von was a member of the Khmer Rouge who had his head cut off by the American-backed government under Lon Nol (1970– 1975). The Lon Nol Government was at war with the Khmer Rouge, who were fighting a revolutionary war to seize power in the country and install an extremist Marxist-Leninist-inspired government that later decimated over one-fifth of the population (approximately 1.7 million people) in an effort to “cleanse” the nation. The Khmer Rouge Regime lasted from 1975 to 1979 under the leadership of Pol Pot.   

Pu Thon’s narrative continues: Lon Nol’s soldiers cut off Von’s head and sent it to their commander. It was the custom at that time. Von was a Khmer Rouge soldier who had gone to the “Struggle in the Forest” [he had joined the revolutionary movement that was based in the forests] with the Khmer Rouge in the late 1960s. He was the first cousin of Cheun. All of his family is dead except Yiey Oak and her son Som.   

Next is the house of Ta Chan. He was the village chief under Sihanouk [the monarch who held power before being ousted by Lon Nol] and first cousin of Ta Von. Chan’s daughter married Ta En. Chan worked with Ta Kam who was the deputy village chief. Both were village chiefs for a long time. Chan was killed by Lon Nol. Everyone in his family is now dead except two daughters; one here in the village who is married to Ta En, and the other in Sre Ambel. His wife died of illness.   

And so the tour continued, with each household having lost some, or all, of its members to the Khmer Rouge, Lon Nol, or each other. I tell this story here to start at the place where the old society ended. And now the story I tell begins.



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