Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Living with the Dead in the Killing Fields of Cambodia

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Living with the Dead in the Killing Fields of Cambodia

Article excerpt

This article examines interactions between the living and those who died during the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-79) in the years immediately following its demise. In the early 1980s, after the regime lost power, corpses covered large parts of the land, and the dead were present in many places. Now, however, these bodies have long since gone: some left the areas of their death; most have been reborn. (1) Through ethnographic encounters at Koh Sap, (2) an island in the Bassac River where several thousand people were imprisoned and killed during the regime, and Choeung Ek Genocidal Center--the primary killing site of the infamous Tuol Sleng prison--where over 12,000 people were killed and buried in mass graves--this article outlines the changing status of the dead. I argue that the dead were active participants in the re-establishment of security in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia, where rebuilding relationships between the living and the dead enabled both to be brought in from 'the forest'--the wild and untamed post-conflict environment of insecurity and fear. Creating links reintegrated the dead into the social lives of the living, enabling them to support those who survived, and in doing so transition from frightened and frightening entities of haunting, into benevolent allies in the reconstruction of post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia.

In this article I give agency to the dead; a narrative method intended to elucidate that in Cambodia ghost stories are not just stories of fear and insecurity, nor are they merely metaphorical, but represent relationships with salient, social beings who are integral to building sociality and whose management is fundamental to security, particularly in the immediate aftermath of widespread conflict and violence, such as that wrought by the Khmer Rouge regime. (3)

Although it considers relationships between the living and the dead, this is not a study in Buddhism or ritual, but rather an analysis of the immediate post-Khmer Rouge period, when massive ruptures in socio-religious life meant that people had to find their own ways of living with, and managing, the dead as part of working towards stability in a still wildly insecure environment. Being situated in this specific period of time and rupture, the dead warranted different treatment and interaction than normally practised, and relationships to them are understood and narrated in ways that differ from contemporary ones. Because of this, this extraordinary moment warrants consideration beyond the 'normal' and the formal doctrine of Buddhism. The interpretation of events during and after the Khmer Rouge is still under debate, and this article contributes to the discussion by adding ethnographic data on the post-regime environment.

Taking the dead, and relationships with them, seriously in post-conflict Cambodia allows us to reconsider socio-religious elements of life and death that have been overlooked by much of the literature considering the Khmer Rouge. This article also seeks to contribute to the scholarship on mass death in the global sphere by complicating simplistic renditions of the relations of the living to the dead in mass graves, as illustrated in the discussion on grave looting.

This article arises from field research conducted between June 2012 and December 2013. During this time I spent sixteen months in Cambodia, conducting research on mass graves dating to the Khmer Rouge regime, considering how, as physical markers of mass violence, they materialise the way this period is used by people today to re-imagine and reconstitute the world they live in. My research traces the historiography of the graves as well as examines their place in contemporary Cambodia. A central part of this is considering relationships to the dead who lay within the graves.

Much of my research was conducted at two sites: Choeung Ek Genocidal Center--a mass grave of over 12,000 people (4)--now a national memorial and international tourist site just outside Phnom Penh, and Koh Sap--an island in the Bassac River that was the killing and grave site of several thousand people, and is now returned to rural farming. …

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