Khmer Rouge film spurs Cambodians worldwide to revisit buried history
Cambodian diaspora revisits the country's brutal Khmer Rouge history in 'Enemies of the People,' a new documentary competing for an Oscar.
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The history of the Khmer Rouge and subsequent decades of civil war are often suppressed by survivors, in Lowell and in Cambodia, who’d rather not recall how up to 2 million people – a quarter of the population – died from starvation, disease, and execution under the Maoist regime.Skip to next paragraph
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Such repression comes with consequences, as Cambodian immigrant Phala Chea has seen while serving as Lowell Public Schools Specialist for Community Outreach. In her work, she says, she has found that Cambodian families who repress their past often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, violent conflicts, and drug addictions. Thirty percent of the students in Lowell Public Schools are Cambodian, she says, and many don’t know why their parents ever left Southeast Asia.
“By not sharing the history, the past, the suffering, the younger generation is going to suffer,” says Dr. Chea. She co-authored an official teachers’ manual for a new textbook devoted to the history of the Khmer Rouge. It entered Cambodian high schools in 2009, and also some classes of Lowell High School. “This is a great chance to talk, especially with the trial happening."
As much as the Khmer Rouge is decades-old history, it is also contemporary news. In July, the internationally funded Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia meted out their first verdict against former prison chief Kaing Guek Eav (better known as Duch).
While Duch admitted to his role in the regime, he was not a senior leader, and none of the four other detained cadres have cooperated with court investigators. Which makes “Enemies of the People” all the more important. After Pol Pot, who died in 1998, the next highest-ranking leader of the Khmer Rouge was Brother No. 2 Nuon Chea. He speaks to the camera in "Enemies of the People" and admits (for the first time ever) the regime ordered the killing of thousands of political opponents.
Highlighting the film’s importance, tribunal investigators requested the interview tapes from Mr. Thet and Mr. Lemkin. The filmmakers refused, on the grounds that they did not want to betray their sources. "We were not working as officers of the court," says Lemkin. A second film from them is in production.
For those unaware of the court's functioning, this film alone may be more important for informing and educating Cambodians about their country's history.
“Some people really watch the tribunal. For others, this is their first introduction,” says Niem Nay-Kret, who lived through the Khmer Rouge period and moved to Lowell in 1994. “For the younger generation, they’re learning why they’re even here in the US,” she says, pointing to the couple of hundred people – mostly young Cambodians – who turned out to see the film on opening night.
Cathy Schlund-Vials, the associate director for the Asian American Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut, also attended the Lowell premier. She sees the film as another attempt by Cambodians to reconcile with their past amid the historical amnesia – both officially sanctioned and personally inflicted – that infests post-genocide Cambodia.
For filmmaker Thet, it was also a way of confronting Brother No. 2 Nuon with the murder of his own parents during the Khmer Rouge. "I would like to tell you how sorry I am," Nuon tells Thet days before he is arrested and brought into pretrial detention. And this in some measure seems exactly what the regime survivor wanted to hear.