Reflecting on the Cambodian psyche

Cambodia is a fascinating but broken country. At its peak, Angkor was a thriving city with a million inhabitants and 300 temples just within its 400km2 area, with the reach of the Khmer empire extending to Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia. The Khmer empire was undoubtedly a powerful nation. The walls of Bayon temple in Angkor recounts the stories of the Khmer nation’s many battles with the Muslim Champa Empire that once also inhabited parts of Cambodia. Proof of the Khmer’s triumph rests on the fact that there is little of the Champa Empire that remains today (except for the scattered Cham communities around Cambodia). Despite this, the prized jewel of Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious building and one of today’s Ancient Wonders of the World, now lays in ruin, far from its resplendent glory and a constant reminder that Cambodia’s golden era has long passed. The humble size of the Royal Palace in Phnom Pehn compared to the buildings within the walls of Angkor almost feels like a cruel joke. No temple refurbishment can restore Cambodia to its prior position of power. Cambodia is broken and its healing process is long and painful.

Angkor Wat and the long restoration process…

This week, I could not help but understand the Cambodian psyche in terms of its duality. Just like the flow of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap river that changes according to the seasons, reversing its flow when the Mekong River is swollen with water from Himalayan glaciers, likewise, the Cambodian identity has been defined by a game of religious ping-pong between Hinduism and Buddhism. The Angkor temples are adorned with both Hindu and Buddhist architecture and decorations, and while Cambodia is officially a Buddhist nation, the Hindu caste system is surprisingly still present in some way. Any distinction between Self and Other becomes difficult, particularly when the ‘Other’ has been absorbed into the ‘Self’.

This duality is more than just a contradiction; a more apt word is ‘tension’. The hope of the people for a better present and future stands in tension to the death of the past, the blotch of the dark Khmer Rouge period from 1975 to 1979 best ignored. Moreover, the healing process is made all the more difficult when it becomes clear that every survivor of that period was in some way part of the regime, whether willingly or not. Death and hope defines Cambodia and has touched everyone there. This sad truth was made clear by the ‘gold fish joke’:

 Three men- one Vietnamese, one Thai and one Cambodian – are shipwrecked and stranded on an island for twenty years. One day, they caught a magic goldfish which promised to grant a wish to each man if they released it. Without much hesitation, both the Vietnamese and Thai men asked to be returned home to their families. The Cambodian man, on the other hand, took a long time to ponder the question. He eventually asked that his two friends be returned to the island so that he could have his friends back.

While our Cambodian tour guide recounted this story as a ‘joke’, I could not help but feel that the joke was on him. Perhaps the Cambodian man in the story had no family to return to? Or was I reading too much into the story? To me, there was nothing funny about this ‘joke’. It was especially depressing that this was considered funny to the Cambodian guide.

Clearly Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge past is catching up on the present, whether consciously or not, despite some desire to pretend it never happened.  Just as the smell of decomposing bodies alerted people to the presence of the infamous Tuol Sleng S-21 torture camp, likewise, the rot of the past cannot remain buried for much longer. The structural inequalities that prompted the rise of the Khmer Rouge still exist. Fisher-folk and factory workers still struggle to etch out a decent living while the resources of the nation go to a few at the top. Cambodia is on tipping point again, and unless work is done to lift the majority of Cambodians out of poverty, I fear a repeat of the Khmer Rouge is likely.

Famous Bayon Temple in Angkor city

I had initially dismissed Pol Pot as a ‘mad man’, but on reflection I now see him as a rational man wrecked with insecurity. His fellow students who helped form the Khmer Rouge were one of the most educated people in Southeast Asia during the 1960s, some of them professors at elite universities in Cambodia. I can only imagine their shame during their student years in France that their once great nation paled in comparison to thriving Paris. Nationalism compounded by insecurity is a toxic concoction.

Unfortunately, this same insecurity continues to exist in most Cambodians but with the added burden of a violent modern past. It also manifests through the government’s intolerance of any criticism, constructive or not, for fear that they will be removed from power. Advocates for justice and reconciliation are targeted as opposition voices of dissent in need of being stamped out. It is clear that bridge-builders and mediators are needed to help bring Cambodia to a point of true peace.

Our field trip has taught me two main things. Firstly, it is important to uncover and document our past (as per the work of Documentation Center of Cambodia aka DC-Cam) as our history shapes our present. In order to move from our collective brokenness, society needs to heal by sharing the stories of the past in order to develop stories for the future. By articulating repressed emotions, people can be exorcised by the demons that bind them for so long. This gives deeper to the twin acts of confessing and forgiving, both necessary for people to move forward.

Secondly and at a more personal level, Cambodia reminds me of the need to really deal with my own issues of insecurity, fear and brokenness. As a peace-builder, it is incumbent on me to do so. Otherwise, the potential for harming people while working in the field is tremendous. This means being more intentional with seeking inner peace. Our trip with Osmose on the boats reminded me of how much I enjoyed being on small boats and how internally healing it was for me. I will need to actively seek out alternatives in Beijing if I am going to survive as a peacebuilder.

Conversely, I will need to make a bigger effort to understand people and why they think differently. While it is hard to listen to (what may sound like) offensive views, often the underlying reasons may not be as strange. Hopefully I will also be slower to judge and quick to listen. This trip has made me realised that there are many traumatized people and nations in this world and thus ‘common sense’ is not a fair standard of measuring people.  Overall, this trip has reminded me to act less and ‘be’ more.

6 Responses to “Reflecting on the Cambodian psyche”
  1. Another information and thought-provoking blog, thank you Elaine for sharing your musings and revelations = )

  2. Mike Knott says:

    Thanks for this Elaine.
    It is very insightful and well thought out.
    Your journey will most definitely be a personal one, from which you will be able to fulfill your dream for others.
    Ultimately the Holy Spirit will be there for you as you bring peace and reconciliation to a broken world.

  3. Fiona Reid says:

    I agree – great insight and quite profound. You are being very courageous in your self evaluation and humble in allowing us to glimpse your personal revelations. xx

  4. kennydurkin says:

    ”I’ll never understand the Khmer mentality” I’m forever hearing, from travelers who fail to grasp that understanding works both ways… and besides, understanding isn’t everything.

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