Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Violence and the Dialectics of Landscape: Memorialization in Cambodia

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Violence and the Dialectics of Landscape: Memorialization in Cambodia

Article excerpt

The Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK--better known as the Khmer Rouge) is considered one of the most brutal and repressive regimes of the twentieth century. Between April 17, 1975, and January 6, 1979, the CPK carried out a program of organized mass violence that resulted in the death of approximately two million people. Upwards of one million died from direct violence: torture, murder, and execution. The remainder died from starvation-related causes, lack of medical care, exposure, and exhaustion.

Both visible and nonvisible markers of Cambodia's violent past remain on the landscape. Former wats and schools, for example, were converted by the CPK into security centers or warehouses; some of these have been restored to their original purpose, while others remain as silent witnesses to the pain and suffering that occurred within their walls. Moreover, approximately 300 memorials have been erected throughout the country, ranging from elaborate stupas that are regularly visited by thousands of tourists, to others that are scarcely known beyond the immediate community.

Aside from these visual remnants and monuments are sites "hidden in plain sight"--those places that are both unmarked and unremarked, and yet retain an enduring day-to-day presence. For throughout the four-year reign of the CPK, hundreds of infrastructure projects were initiated, most notably massive reservoirs and irrigation systems such as the O-Cham Na Lou Reservoir, located near Highway 4 in Kampong Som Province; the ist January Dam in Kampong Thom Province; and the Sros Dam in Battambang Province (Figure 1). Also present are the nearly 400 mass graves and many thousands of individual grave pits, most of which remain unmarked, known only by those who survived. Located someplace in the rice fields of Kampot Province is the site of a former prison, Tasik, where the brother of the village chief was killed for stealing a coconut because he was hungry. In Kampot Thom Province, there is the site of the former Chhouk Koy Security Center and its attendant mass grave. Nothing remains on the landscape to indicate its violent past.

Politics, as Richard Muir writes, "find expression in the landscape" (1999, 150). This is so because memory--and specifically the memorialization of "violence" on the landscape--is "inherently instrumental: individuals and groups recall the past not for its own sake, but as a tool to bolster different aims and agendas" (Hoelscher and Alderman 2004, 349). Such an understanding highlights the contentious interrelations of memory and landscape, and has generated considerable debate within landscape and memory studies as to the epistemological foundation of such interrelations (for example, Nora 1989; Johnson 1995; Riley 1997; Schein 1997; Morin 2003; Edensor 2005). Indeed, as Derek Alderman and Joshua Inwood write, "how we imagine ourselves in the present is intimately linked to how we remember ourselves in the past" (2013, 186). Crucially, this "link" between past and present is the pivot, for it is that moment where the political contestation over memory is fought.

There is, however, a more nuanced understanding to landscape as dialectic, for in reading Karl Marx, the existence of, and the relation between, the realized and the potential is fundamental (Guglielmo 2012). This requires some clarification. Marx, by way of illustration, used the example of a seed that contains within it the potential to become a tree. Likewise, any given tree may be said to be the realized potential of a previous seed. To suggest that landscapes are in a process of becoming is to suggest an inner-transformative quality--that not only are landscapes not as they seem (on the surface), but that they hold the potential for their own transformation. In other words, landscapes have a "double-dimension": they are what has become realized and also are what is potential. Any memorialized landscape therefore is the realization of a potentially memorialized landscape; as a corollary, any nonmemorialized site is also nonrealization of a potentially memorialized landscape. …

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