Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Transcending Time and Terror: The Re-Emergence of Bon Dalien after Pol Pot and Thirty Years of Civil War

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Transcending Time and Terror: The Re-Emergence of Bon Dalien after Pol Pot and Thirty Years of Civil War

Article excerpt

This article concerns the re-emergence of the annual Bon Dalien harvest festival in the Khmer mountain village of O'Thmaa in Kompong Speu Province. As a result of two civil wars and the Pol Pot years, the festival had not been celebrated in the village from 1970 onwards until it was taken up again in the year 2000. In 2003 during the Khmer month of Makh (January-February) I had the opportunity to observe and participate in three Bon Dalien festivals in Prey Phnom Commune, including one in O'Thmaa, and another in a commune closer to the provincial capital. Through these experiences I was able to gain a degree of understanding of the festival's composition as well as an appreciation for the variation across villages. The most compelling facet of the festival was that it challenged a number of assumptions I had about the effects of the war on the social structure of the village. From my observations and discussions with villagers, it was evident that the devastation and upheaval had crippled social discourse and also diminished ritual knowledge; few people remained who could remember the local practices of the past. Thus, when I was confronted with the camaraderie and enthusiasm surrounding the celebration of Bon Dalien and the apparent vitality of this local traditional practice, a number of questions were raised for me as an anthropologist. These questions constitute the focus of this article.

The questions raised by the resurfacing of Bon Dalien take two forms. The first concerns the nature of ritual itself and focuses on the persistence of ritual over time and through periods of radical social change--a very broad issue that has long intrigued anthropologists, who have approached the question from a variety of perspectives within the discipline. (1) The second question relates to a debate currently being waged among a number of Cambodia scholars that centres on the degree to which communal relations and institutions have been restored or remain severed in the wake of the war and Pol Pot regime. This latter question can be seen as a specific case study of some of the larger questions raised by the former. This article will address the second question while indirectly referring to the first.

Are the communal bonds within Khmer society absent in the wake of Pol Pot's genocide or do they remain largely intact? One view posited by several scholars asserts that in the aftermath of Pol Pot, Cambodian communities were left atomised with few or no social or moral bonds between members outside of the nuclear family. These studies are largely oriented toward the concerns of development agencies interested in conflict management and building 'communal' relations. (2) Nonetheless, implicit to this view is the suggestion that the violence of the past has long-reaching consequences on social relations and accompanying discourse; a finding that resonates with studies of the post-World War Two Germany and Holocaust survivors, Southwest China and Madagascar. (3) These studies demonstrate in different ways how violent pasts may continue to penetrate the veneer of present-day social institutions.

Taking a more optimistic view on the state of Cambodia's villages following the war and genocide, May Ebihara and Judy Ledgerwood assert that despite the fairly recent upheaval, social institutions and relations have in fact emerged from the Pol Pot era largely intact and that villagers have successfully managed to 'layer over' the past. These two scholars conducted fieldwork within a single village in Cambodia's central plains jointly spanning a timeframe of roughly 40 years. Their studies underline the durability of social relations and institutions, as well as the relative success of Khmer villagers in getting on with their lives in spite of the enormous upheaval and suffering they had experienced. (4)

Viviane Frings and Jan Ovesen and colleagues claim that in the wake of war and genocide, what social and moral cohesion ever existed beyond the household has become fragmented. …

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