A History of Conflict

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The geographic locale of the community has also had significant historical consequences for its residents. The area is mountainous, forested, and only thirty km from the main highway, making it an ideal base for guerrilla warfare campaigns. The villagers explained to me that the area was put to this use in three separate historical instances. The first of these episodes took place in the late 1940s and early 1950s when the Khmer Independence movement (Khmei Issarak), with the support of the Vietnamese, used the area as a base from which to launch guerrilla attacks on the French colonial government. Later in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the area was taken again, this time by the Khmer Rouge and by the North Vietnamese. During this period, the Khmer Rouge established a base of operations in the area under one of their top leaders, famous for his brutality. The Khmer Rouge conscripted villagers at this time as soldiers and local leaders.   

According to the villagers, the Vietnamese presence in the area lasted only a little more than a year, but the Khmer Rouge entrenched themselves and began implementing their insidious policies while continuing their fight through the American bombings of 1973, and onward. Between late 1970 and early 1972, the majority of villagers initially joined the Khmer Rouge up on a nearby mountain to flee the war and the Lon Nol government army. After a brief return to the village, most were forcibly evacuated by the Khmer Rouge to a cooperative where they were forced to eat, work, and sleep collectively. In April 1975, the civil war ended with a Khmer Rouge victory. They called their new state Democratic Kampuchea, which lasted four years until 1979 when Vietnam seized power. In its four years of existence, Pol Pot and his cohort exercised torture, mass executions, starvation, and devastation on the people of Cambodia, leaving close to two million people dead. When Viet�nam took the country, the Khmer Rouge (including soldiers from the village) were forced to flee to the Thai border. However, by the late 1980s the Khmer Rouge had regained a foothold in this village region, making it a base and a battle zone up through the mid-to late 1990s.    The historical significance of the region is implied in the name the Khmer Rouge bestowed on it: Prei Brayut, or “The Forest of the Struggle,” the place from which they launched and fought their revolution. Later the region became known as a “base” (moulitan) area, a place that came under Khmer Rouge control relatively early in the revolution, and from which they conscripted their soldiers and low-level leaders. These “base people” or “old people” were considered less corrupt than the “new people” of the urban centers, who were believed to have been contaminated by foreign ideologies (Him 2000; Kiernan 1996; Pin and Man 2000; Ung 2000).   

Through all of this, most of the surviving people from the commune where I stayed were forcibly relocated numerous times. It was not until the 1990s that the residents resettled their villages; most villagers did not return to O’Thmaa until after 1998 when they began to rebuild their lives after nearly thirty years of absence.   

Ta Kam: The Story of a Village Elder What follows is the story of one recent returnee to the village who I call Ta Kam. His story is told from three vantage points: mine, the villagers’, and his own. My Story of Ta Kam It was on my first journey to O’Thmaa that I met Ta [grandfather] Kam. I found him constructing a bamboo platform for his thatched hut on the side of the village’s north�ern slope. His face and body, both lean and angular from a lifetime of work and poverty, were topped by closely cropped silver hair that contrasted with the dark caramel of his skin. Ta Kam explained that he had only just returned to O’Thmaa. He had been born in this village and owned a parcel of land through his first wife, but lived in Doung Srei with his sister’s family. He had returned to O’Thmaa to help his daughter farm. At the time, I found his homecoming extraordinary for it brought into stark relief the rupture and continuity that seemed to characterize this village. I thought that it must have been a profound experience for him to return to see those he had known since his childhood and perhaps with whom he had had little contact for two or three decades. Ta Kam had said he was seventy-eight, and so I asked him about an old woman I had met earlier in the village, who appeared roughly the same age. He said only that he knew her and that she was a bit older than him. I found this strange in a village with such a small population. Surely he must have more of a sense of connection with her. But he said little about her and seemed to dismiss the topic.   

I did not meet Ta Kam again for four months. I made several attempts to visit him but was repeatedly told that he was away in the forest or the other commune. One rainy September evening I decided to try again. Remembering his hospitality, I was looking forward to seeing him and so I was quite pleased to find him at home that evening. Unfortunately Ta Kam was ill and my companion and I found him lying on the raised platform of his hut when we arrived. Even so, he welcomed us with warmth and grace. Ta Kam’s manner was reminiscent of the archetypal traditional Khmer elder—grandfatherly, self-effacing, wise, and kind. On a later visit, he agreed to tell me his life story.   

After that I did not meet with Ta Kam for several months, but would catch occasional glimpses of him along the road with his worn red-and-white checked kramar (scarf) tied into a small bundle and slung over his shoulder. He was always dressed the same, in a threadbare white shirt, mid-length trousers, and wide-brimmed hat; he would be clutching a walking staff. Thin, gaunt, poorly attired, and making incredibly long treks under Cambodia’s sweltering sun, he gave the appearance of an ascetic or pilgrim. Over time, I learned a bit more about him. I was told that he often attended ceremonies at the temple in Doung Srei commune where he served as an achaa (Buddhist layman) and that he was related by blood (sach-chiem) as well as marriage (sach-tlay) to most of the people of the village. Nonetheless, I also observed that he had little or no interaction with the other villagers. No one seemed to show much interest or regard for him, unlike his daughter who seemed to enjoy good relations with most villagers. It was only much later that I was able to understand Ta Kam’s peculiar relationship with the villagers.

Their Story of Ta Kam In the final months of my fieldwork, the village development chief,3 Sau, whom I knew quite well, and I were discussing the executions that had occurred in the village in the early 1970s after the Khmer Rouge had come to the area. I remarked how I had noticed there were a disproportionate number of widows (26 percent of village households at the time were headed by widows)in O’Thmaa as compared to other villages in the area. Agreeing, Sau explained: During that time they had a chief like I am today. He wanted to have a good face and so he would issue complaints against people here to the commune leadership and they believed him. They would come then and catch these people and take them away to kill them. Some of the people committed no wrong—but he accused them anyway to gain face (reputation). That village chief was Ta Kam.    

Ta Kam, whom I had perceived as a warm, grandfatherly elder was in fact a killer—a collaborator. After this it must not have taken long for word to spread that I now knew about this village secret, for I began to hear stories from other villagers as well. I learned that Ta Kam had been the vice village chief under Lon Nol and then was elected by the villagers to be the acting village chief under the Khmer Rouge. Ta Kam thus doubly betrayed the villagers. As leader he would have been expected to behave morally and offer the villagers some protection in exchange for their support. He not only failed to do this but also transgressed his role by sacrificing them to promote his own welfare and longevity. Ta Kam had now become in the words of one villager: “that Ta, who caught the people to take to kill.”   

Viewed as a killer of his own people, Ta Kam was shunned by the villagers. He did not speak or talk with anyone beyond his daughter and was notably absent at the annual village harvest festival. One former Khmer Rouge soldier who had lost his father to Ta Kam explained the present-day relationship between the villagers and Ta Kam as follows: That Ta, he doesn’t dare to look at anyone young or old in the face. No one really likes him either. They don’t want to be friendly with him; they hate him. If people wanted to they could take revenge (songsuck) against him at any time. But people think it is over now and so they don’t want to fight and claim or demand (tiem tia) retribution for their parents’ blood.   

I now understood why no one would talk to Ta Kam when he came to the village and why he was rarely mentioned. People saw him as lacking morality and concerned only for his own promotion and welfare. In other words, they said he was ambitious in the negative sense, meaning that he willfully sought to better his position at the expense of others, was ignorant, and did not know right from wrong. Ta Kam sacrificed his neighbors and kins�men to the Khmer Rouge and yet, remarkably, the children and wives of those he killed did not seek revenge. They said the past was behind them and they had no desire to continue fighting, suggesting that they have found a means by which to heal from their wounds, even if Ta Kam’s living presence still continued to haunt them as a reminder of their lost loved ones.   

Over time people were willing to share their stories with me, but they were still reticent about talking about Ta Kam. When they spoke about that terrible episode in the past they more often commented that the people of that generation committed evil deeds against one another for reasons that are not understood. One might anticipate that the villagers would also shun Ta Kam’s daughter, but instead she enjoyed warm social relations with most villagers. This appeared antithetical to the idea that families are morally affiliated, an idea that informed the practice of arrests and executions under the Khmer Rouge in O’Thmaa when cadres and their entire families, in�clud ing babies, were arrested and killed as traitors. This view of families seems to stem from broader Khmer beliefs about kinship ties in hierarchical relations of politics and violence. Not blaming the family as a whole provided villagers with another means of healing; the tear in the community was contained through their welcoming of the daughter. Because most villagers were related to Ta Kam by blood or by marriage, there was a vested interest in keeping his family within the community while surgically removing him.    Ta Kam’s Story of Himself It is important to humanize Ta Kam, for he is actually a real person and it is as such that villagers related to him, and because his story contextualizes the village’s circumstances.   

Ta Kam was born in O’Thmaa in 1923 to a family that had lived in the area for generations. Like other villagers at the time, most of his children died in infancy; later, a son taken by the Khmer Rouge died under Pol Pot. Ta Kam said he had relations in every village across the two communes, but when asked about his relations in O’Thmaa he said there was only his daughter and a couple of nephews. His account of his childhood was sparse. There was no school. He helped his parents tend their rice paddy and garden and helped collect forest products for consumption and trade. One of the significant events that Ta Kam remembers from his childhood was seeing a French hunter astride an elephant, accompanied by some Khmer soldiers. He explained that he hid himself in the forest at the time because he feared the Frenchman just as he would fear soldiers or policemen. In another act of evasion, he later avoided an encounter with a delegation sent from the district governor’s office to conscript boys for military service. These encounters with outsiders of higher social rank and representing larger systems of power are important in understanding Ta Kam’s later acts and the history of the village.  

When Issarak and Vietnamese forces entered the area during the war of independence, Ta Kam was forced to flee with other villagers to the mountains in the north for four years. At age thirty-five, he went to work at a nearby mountain where the former king Norodom Sihanouk was building a residence. He recalls that there were twenty households in O’Thmaa when he left and twenty-five by the time the Khmer Rouge had entered the area in early 1970, when he was forty-seven. “Then,” Ta Kam explained, “Pol Pot came to the area and they were killing everyone except me and a few others who managed to survive.” He said he had not seen these other survivors since that time. He continued with this period from 1970 to 1975, a particularly bloody chapter in O’Thmaa’s history: Before 1975 I didn’t do any work [meaning he held no special position]. I was just like other people, someone eking out a living. The war happened and some people fled to the forest, but I didn’t. After that the Khmer Rouge pushed me to drive a cart and carry cloth, rice seed, and other stuff [again, he was not in a position of power].  

Ta Kam later admitted that he had fled to the forest, but qualified this by saying: “Here we had a lot of trouble and had to flee to the mountains to live.”    When I asked him whether he was ever made to be the village chief, he stated he had not, and that he had “always gone to the temple.” He said he had never been a monk, but at the request of Doung Srei’s temple monks and laymen he had served the monastery there as part of an effort to look after his next life.



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