The Problem of the Collaborator and a Lack of Elders

«Необязательно видеть весь путь.
Просто поверьте и сделайте первый шаг». Мартин Лютер Кинг

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In Ta Kam’s life narrative he presented himself as a passive entity subject to the will of more powerful circumstances. The villagers do not agree. They said that he was elected by them to be village chief and he accepted the position. He was not forcibly conscripted by the Khmer Rouge. For them, he was not a victim but an opportunist who, motivated by ambition, perpetrated acts against his own people. Moreover, his actions were directed locally on his extended kin and community, violating the tacit collective identity of villagers as victims of outsiders and circumstance. Up to now, villagers had not talked openly about Ta Kam’s place within village history. As a member of the former village he was one of them, and therefore his actions were in some sense viewed as a reflection on the villagers’ character as a whole. Yet he was also no longer one of them, as he himself had chosen to live elsewhere. The villagers were apparently willing to see him socially erased. Ta Kam could not be forgiven as a victim of circumstance, for he violated the terms of this discourse by transgressing a boundary of insiders and outsiders.  

Ta Kam’s presence, however, is not the only obstacle to the village’s recovery from the trauma of the past. There is also a problem of absence of elders—that is, moral elders. People say that Prei Phnom “lacks elders” after the war, and that traditional knowledge and practice in this commune is therefore relatively weak. This, they say, explains why the people of Prei Phnom have lost interest in traditional practices and knowledge and instead have turned toward “modern” ideologies and ways. The commune chief of Prei Phnom explained to me: The young people don’t know much about the ancient traditions and the old people who did are dead now. These days the younger folks are into popular modern ideas.   

Historical texts suggest that in Cambodia the restoration of order following chaotic historical episodes is sought not by innovation, but through a return to the ancestral traditions of the past (Chandler 1998). Prei Phnom has an inadequate number of elders to transmit the cultural heritage that might fill in and enrich the present. Ironically, Ta Kam is one of the few maining elders of O’Thmaa. As one of the oldest members of the original village, he is well versed in its traditional knowledge, practices, myths, and stories. However, because of his own past, his knowledge is inaccessible to the next generation for it is tainted.   

To sum up, Ta Kam represents a blockage to the remaking of moral order in several ways. First, his presence prevents people from forgetting the treacherous past of the village. Second, he blocks the transmission of an older moral order since he cannot legitimately pass on traditional knowledge. Third, he opposes the moral order itself by having inverted the structural order that places elders and ancestors in a morally elevated position. And finally, his presence reminds people of his role in the painful loss of their loved ones. 

It may seem uncanny, then, that Ta Kam acts as a Buddhist layman in the neighboring commune, where he serves the needs of the monastery. Ta Kam himself describes no rupture in his telling explanation of his religious activities: “I am only looking after my next life.” For him, it seems, the process of mending the moral order is less problematic than it is for the children of his victims, and one wonders whether he ever really perceived a breach in it in the first place.



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