Khmer stories illuminate our world's present brutality



To be asked by a young man to describe his father's earlier life is a privilege and a responsibility. More so when the father is still alive, when in his earlier life he experienced the violence and fear in Pol Pot's Cambodia, generously served the community in a refugee camp and returned with his young family to an uncertain life of service in Cambodia. To tell such a story is both a gift and an act of piety.

Writing for Raksmey by Joan HealyThe narrator of Writing for Raksmey is Josephite Sister Joan Healy, who worked with Meas Nee in the Healing Centre in the huge Site 2 Camp in Thailand. When the refugees returned to Cambodia she again worked with him in helping villagers reestablish themselves, listening to their stories and living simply with them. There they lived under constant threat from the remnant Khmer Rouge forces and from the political divisions after the first Cambodian elections.

Healy tells the story from the perspective of the Khmer people whom she met. After an introductory chapter that summarises the history of which the refugees were part, she mentions foreign agencies and workers only when they impinged on the lives of the people she knew.

She describes in unadorned language the horrifying events, sights and fears that punctuated people's lives, including in fragments the terrors of life under Pol Pot that they held so tautly. She notes her own response to inhumanity only as occasions of learning. For the reader they also provide a moral compass.

In the book, as in the life of the people, little details tell the story. A father sells everything, including his trousers, to buy milk for his sick child. She dies and he waits in his underpants to bury her in the makeshift crematorium. A woman mother takes her five year old fitting child to the camp hospital for treatment.

The overseas doctor with tears in his eyes declines to examine her because her condition is not listed. A United Nations agency tells expatriates that a train is likely to be attacked by the Khmer Rouge, but no one tells the train driver. When it is attacked many poor Khmer people die and are injured.

I found Writing for Raksmey intensely moving. I spent some summers in the border camps around the same time as Healy, and had met some of the people mentioned in the book. I also visited the Battambang area later. The experience was life-changing: it made me subsequently look at policies from the perspective of those affected by them.

But on reading these stories told from the perspective of the Khmer people I recognised how much of their life I had not noticed. I was tightly defended and did not, could not, see what would put into question my own interests.


"It is not sufficient to shout in defiance, shame one's opponents or attack the good faith of politicians. The only way to change policy is for people, including those with some power, to see and listen to groups that are targeted. "


That of course is no more than one individual's experience. But I wonder if this gap between perception and reality may be pertinent to reflection on how we are to respond to the startling recent shifts in our world and to the brutality that runs through them. I have in mind the enthusiasm of competing nations for fertilising the gardens of Syria and Iraq with blood and bone; their refusal to take responsibility for the refugees they have helped make; the hostility to international relationships displayed in Brexit and other European elections; the election of the trash-talking Duterte and Trump on vindictive programs in the Philippines and the United States.

And locally we might think of the increasing brutal treatment of asylum seekers; the despatch of children to high security jails; the disregard for the environment. These actions reject the claims of the weak. But they are done with the consent of the majority.

Those of us who have argued for more decent ways of acting in any area have long recognised that we stand against the tide of public opinion, and that brutality will hold sway until popular attitudes change. It is not sufficient to shout in defiance, shame one's opponents or attack the good faith of politicians. The only way to change policy is for people, including those with some power, to see the faces and listen to the voices of people who seek asylum, who have spent time in prisons, Muslims and other groups that are targeted. They must cease to see them as a problem and recognise them as persons like themselves.

That remains a necessary condition for change. But in the light of my own experience I wonder if to see and to meet people is enough. The deeper challenge is to change the eyes out of which we look so that we can see the reality of other people's lives. To do that demands that we recognise our fears and the interests we wish to defend. Right thinking is not enough. Also required is the freedom to lose that others may gain respect. Writing for Raksmey shows the costs and the joys of that freedom.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Joan Healy, Cambodia, Duterte, Philippines, Syria, Iraq



submit a comment

Existing comments

The vast majority of people here in Australia can only imagine the immensity of the trauma faced by Cambodians in the terrible years of the Pol Pot regime. This is an important book written on behalf of someone else, a huge responsibility and privilege. Recognising the responsibility we have towards others, and the privilege of being able to serve them is so very difficult. Maybe these words written by Richard Flanagan in his small book "Notes on an Exodus" should be added to the pledge of office of politicians everywhere: "Refugees are not like you and me. They are you and me. That terrible river of the wretched and the damned flowing through Europe is my family." Perhaps after the word "Europe" the words "and other places" could be added.

Pam | 08 December 2016  

Writing for Raksmey is a beautifully written story about the courage and resilience of the Cambodian people. It is a story of the ultimate triumph of hope and speaks to each of us about the importance of the choices we make and our responsibilities to one another. After reading this I felt for the first time that I had some understanding of what really happened in Cambodia. It is an inspiring and moving book.

Diane Corro | 08 December 2016  

It is true that many Australians are unaware of the sufferings of the Cambodian people in the 1960s and 1970s. But it was not the Pol Pot regime that was responsible. Pol Pot's crimes were dreadful, but so too, were the crimes of the US leaders who had a secret bombing program in Cambodia for a number of years that claimed many lives. And the US war in Indochina also adversely affected the Vietnamese and Laotian people as well. Some historians believe that Pol Pot may not have become so powerful had in not been for the US intervention in Cambodia. And I thought it was interesting that the Western powers that denounced Pol Pot still recognised his dictatorship as the official government in the UN until the Vietnamese Army with Cambodian resistance fighters defeated the brutal regime. Because Australian leaders were complicit in the US crimes in Indochina, Australia needs to do a lot more to help all the peoples of the region to rebuild their nation and remove unexploded ordinance.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 08 December 2016  

Similar Articles

Fall of Aleppo caps off wretched 2016

  • Jeff Sparrow
  • 16 December 2016

Assad's victory epitomises, in a sense, the reactionary tide prevailing just about everywhere in this, the Year of the Donald. The hopes raised during the Arab Spring have, it seems, been crushed, with the Syrian regime consolidating its grip over a nation it has oppressed for so long. Yet Aleppo also illustrates how little the Right's victories have actually settled. The Right's biggest asset is often the Left, with progressives seemingly determined to validate all the smears levelled against them.


Guilt edged smartphones an unhappy Christmas gift

  • Francine Crimmins
  • 19 December 2016

A few years ago I woke up on Christmas morning to see a small, neatly wrapped gift under the tree. The size and shape were familiar and I was excited to see my name on the gift tag. I'd wanted a new phone all year ... one with one of those touch screens everyone else seemed to have. A few months later I could no longer feel pride for my phone, instead just guilt. I'd sat down and watched a documentary about how phones just like mine were manufactured.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up