Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Cambodian Legacy Presented by Cathy Schlund-Vials

On Thursday, October 8th, I had the pleasure of meeting Cathy J. Schlund-Vials during an open discussion with my thesis class. Following the discussion, I attended her lecture entitled, “Battling the Cambodian syndrome: Cambodian/American Memory, Politics, and Youth Activism.” Both the open-discussion and lecture were extremely informative and intriguing. They largely focused on the impact of the “Killing Fields”- an era in Cambodian history in which massive genocides were conducted by the Khmer Rough. These genocides unfortunately resulted in approximately two-million Cambodians perishing.
Ms. Schlund-Vials informed my peers and I that the legacy of the “Killing Fields” has not been adequately dealt with in Cambodia. Shockingly, many people living in Cambodia have known next to nothing of the genocidal history. Currently, “no consistent policy for reconciliation exists in Cambodia” (Schlund-Vials, 21). Even memorials of the genocide that do exist in Cambodia can be labeled as sites of “atrocity tourism,” where Cambodian subjectivity is elevated to spectacle. By willingly paying money to visit these sites, tourists are being interpellated into accepting a commercial system in which profits are made by exposing human suffering and atrocities.
Thankfully, Cambodian-American rapper, PraCh, is allowing some form of Cambodian justice to be served through his music. PraCh was immersed within hip hop culture in his community in Long Beach, California. He had felt connected with this particular culture, or way of life, which has historically been a means for the socially marginalized to express their interpretation of life. Hip hop music is therefore a cultural product. PraCh’s hip hop music exposes his personal truth and a larger truth for all Cambodians. Though it has not made it into the American mainstream, it seems more meaningful than many modern hip hop albums which only discuss drugs, crime, and women.
By exposing trauma and memorializing the “Killing Fields,” PraCh consciously resists against the hegemony of political officials who have successfully kept the past hidden from the public through both ideological and repressive means. His music relates to the popular saying, “the personal is the political.” Political and historical events shape our conception of self and the world around us.
PraCh is both creating and exposing a collective Cambodian-American identity with his music. This identity is complicated by refugee status. While PraCh and other Cambodian-American youths consider the US their home, they also realize the US has approved of foreign policy initiatives which contributed to the strength of corrupt Asian regimes. US policy has also led to the deportation of numerous Cambodian refugees. PraCh, therefore, does not buy into the concept of American exceptionalism. The US is a flawed nation which often seeks to fulfill its own interests at the expense of others. Similarly, PraCh is critical of the myth of the “American Dream.” The US is not necessary a place of paradise with limitless opportunity.
PraCh’s music is a transnational means of communication. This relates to the argument Susan J. Douglas makes in her article, “The Turn Within.” She argues that “new communications technologies have not created a global village but have, ironically, led to…a “turn within” (66). While music itself is not a “technology,” it is a product of technology. PraCh’s music was created with advanced technological equipment that enabled the mixing of recorded political propaganda speeches, traditional Cambodian musical beats, instrumentation, and vocals. It was dispersed and heard overseas with the aid of communications technology. PraCh’s innovative music ultimately challenges Douglas’ argument. His music, which was created in the US, became extremely popular in Cambodia. It has enabled Cambodian and Cambodian-American youths to connect with one another in a radically new way. Therefore, his music is promoting a more connected world in which people from distant geographical places can link like never before. New international communities are being formed.


Cathy Schlund-Vials said...

Sara, It was so lovely to meet with you as well, and I very much appreciate the engagement with not only my work but with praCh's body of work. You raise some very astute points with regard to the means through which culture circulates within a larger global space, which pushed my thinking quite a bit. With that written, I think I should clarify a few points with regard to the Cambodian genocide. One of the difficulties facing those who survived the Khmer Rouge regime is that it is difficult to prove whether or not what happened was "genocide," which is often understood as a more formal policy that targets one particular group. This occurred in a few instances, but the majority of those who perished died from disease and famine (which were certainly connected to the regime's policies).

As Cambodia deals with the current tribunal, Cambodians have been confronted with this past, which does not adhere to easy narratives (a point you raise in your post). The question of who is responsible figures keenly in the search for justice, for the U.S. and China both supported -- at very different moments -- the Khmer Rouge. Further, the primary sites for tourism -- S-21 Prison and Angkor Wat -- speak to two distinct points in Cambodia's past. Though atrocity tourism is profitable, one could say that religious tourism is itself a huge money-making venture. What do you think? How does this complicate, perhaps, the characterization of Cambodia?

Lastly, I very much liked how you read the transnational dimensions of praCh's "reach." I think that in this way, praCh's work is in line with other Cambodian American cultural producers, who attempt to make visible the experiences of Khmer Rouge regime survivors. How does this perhaps connect to other moments of mass- or state-sanctioned violence? With much respect, Cathy

Sara said...

I very much appreciate your response and clarification. The fact that both the US and China supported the Khmer Rouge is quite a complicated issue. However, it should not be shocking to Americans that the US supported this regime considering our nation has also supported Sadam Hussein, the Shah of Iran, and Fidel Castro, among other corrupt authorities.
I do agree that religious tourism can be a huge-money making venture. However, I do not necessarily think this is a bad thing. Many people enjoy traveling to historical places of worship or sites where religious miracles supposedly occurred. It takes time and money to preserve and maintain these sites and I understand why some tourist dollars could help maintain them. Ultimately, visiting holy sites seems different than visiting sites for atrocity commemoration. To me, gaining profit as a result of people witnessing the skulls of real people who suffered seems more questionable than gaining profit as a result of people traveling to places with religious significance.
In your work, “A Transnational Hip Hop Nation: praCh, Cambodia, and Memorialising the Killing Fields,” you mention how Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek are the only two government-sanctioned memorial sites for the Killing Fields. However, they “privilege a politicized narrative of liberation, wherein the Khmer Rouge regime is cast as an enemy of the Vietnamese-liberated state” (20). The memorial serves to praise the Vietnamese as “liberators” and label the Khmer rouge as the “bad guys.” Especially because the memorial is not really doing adequate justice to Cambodians, atrocity tourism is problematic. In contrast, I think of tourist attractions like the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC which is free to visit. Though I have never been there myself, I have heard visiting it is a very moving experience. Rather than turning suffering into spectacle, this museum is an effective means of paying homage to the people who were persecuted in the Holocaust.
PraCh’s work reminds me of an exhibition I had read about entitled, "Intended Consequences: Rwandan Children Born of Rape.” The exhibition highlights the fact that during the Rwandan genocide (which mainly targeted Tutsi and moderate Hutu men) Tutsi women were systematically raped as part of the political campaign. Many of them contracted the HIV virus. At the exhibition, Tutsi women’s pictures were displayed and their voices were heard. These women had been raped during the genocide and had become pregnant. Approximately 20,000 children were born as a result of the rapes. Like PraCh’s music, this exhibition sought to remember the genocide and its long-lasting consequences. It made visible the experiences of women who were terrorized and assaulted and whose lives have forever been changed as a consequence of the trauma.

Professor Glenn Hendler said...

Sara: I agree with you that it should come as no surprise that the US has supported brutal regimes (though I'm pretty sure the U.S. never supported Fidel Castro--if I'm wrong about that, please post a link to a source correcting me). The U.S. used anticommunism to support just about anyone who opposed the Soviets--after all, we created and supported the groups that became Al Qaeda and the Taliban, too. That turned out well, didn't it?

Direct support of a regime that had undeniably murdered 25% of its own population is a pretty extreme case, though. Since we had just directly murdered half a million Cambodians ourselves--in a country we weren't even at war with--I suppose it made some perverse kind of sense to find ourselves taking the side of the perpetrators of genocide.

If I correctly understood Cathy Schlund-Vials's comparison of the Holocaust Museum and the two sites of atrocity tourism in Cambodia, her point was that the two are quite similar. First of all, isn't the Holocaust museum a form of atrocity tourism, too (though your point that they don't charge admission is a good one)? By which I mean, isn't the point of both to go and be edified and in some sense uplifted by viewing atrocities? And, ultimately, to feel good about the status quo (Vietnamese hegemony in Cambodia; US hegemony in the world)?

To connect this point directly to what I heard in Cathy's talk: In both the Holocaust Museum and the Cambodian sites, the supposed "liberators"--the US, the Vietnamese--are featured. As she mentioned in her talk, the first thing we see when we go to the Holocaust museum is the view of American G.I.s entering the death camps, just as at Tuol Seng the point is to show how the Vietnamese invasion stopped the genocide. Of course, in both cases the images are accurate and the history is not exactly wrong: U.S. troops did liberate some camps; the Vietnamese invasion did end the genocide. But I think Cathy's point is that these museums serve above all to glorify the people currently in power (the U.S., the Vietnamese). And that they do so at the expense of both the actual victims of the genocides (and their own resistance) and at the expense of a full account of history (though Soviet troops liberated at least as many death camps as U.S. troops did--perhaps more. But we wouldn't want to have a museum on the mall in Washington that showed anything positive about them, would we?)

As one of our American Studies speakers from last year, Philip Gourevitch (whose amazing book on the Rwandan genocide I hope everyone reads), argued in critiques of both Schindler's List and the Holocaust museum (, there's something disturbingly self-congratulatory about putting a memorial up in Washington to a genocide that didn't even happen here, especially before there are any memorials to the genocides that our own country committed. It's much easier to walk through a building in Washington and feel bad about (or actually, feel good about, as the museum ultimately interpellates us to do) the Nazi mass murder of Jews, communists, and homosexuals than it is to fully confront the fact that our own wealth and power wouldn't exist if it weren't for the mass murder and dispossession of Indians and the mass exploitation of Africans. And--again, as Gourevitch points out--at the very moment Americans were donating money to and then flocking to visit the Holocaust museum, we were doing nothing to stop the genocide in Rwanda. (That exhibition does sound impressive, though; can you post a link to it?).

Does anyone else want to jump in on these topics? There's much more to be said, and more points of view to be represented here.

Sara said...

You are correct professor. Sorry for my mistake. The US supported Fulgencio Batista, the dictator of Cuba before Castro.