Week Nine reflections – Cambodian Narrative

mickyatesBuddhism, Cambodia, CambodiaFMP, Coursework, Critical Research Journal, Documentary, Education, Genocide, Ideas, Narrative, Photography, Plans & Notes, Practice, Project Development, Reflections, Society, SSWeek9, SurfacesStrategies 10 Comments

It was a very busy but productive time in Cambodia.

My reflections this week (partly whilst sitting on the plane home) are about clarifying the narrative. I was shooting a lot of new material, some planned, some experimental. The trip was also very helpful in clarifying the social context of my work – not just for this module, but going forward.

Unfinished Stories remain core to the project. After the past couple of weeks, I am even more convinced that the long term effects of the Genocide are both pervasive and hidden.

I remain certain that my work is not about the Genocide per se – but about its impact on individuals and their lives over time.

Yet it is clear that in reaching a broader audience outside of Cambodia, the Genocide must be explained and contextualised if those personal stories are to come alive.

I see five broad themes emerging in my understanding, research and consequent personal narrative about Cambodia.

1. Time

It is tempting to believe that time has delivered great social improvement, especially as we were involved in setting up programs to do just that. There are clear changes, notably in Phnom Penh, which has a great deal of Chinese investment. There’s even a burgeoning hipster coffee scene.

Yet in other ways, the same issues remain, stubbornly, and especially in the countryside. And it’s clear that the already well-0ff are getting better off.

Cambodia has a small, emergent middle class, but very much a nascent one. This impacts the way society is, and how it should be documented. I do not want to wander into Cambodian politics, though that is a pervasive social backdrop.

2. Traces of Genocide

These are ubiquitous. A simple question in the past couple of weeks has led to stories coming out from almost everyone I met.  There is clearly has been trauma – not dealt with, even decades later. The stories are hidden from children, from neighbours and work colleagues. I witnessed examples of all of those.

There is some ‘survivor’s guilt’. Yet the young people I talked to all want to know more, to be able to contextualise their history, and positively address the future.

3. Education is more than classrooms

This is a great truism, but was hammered home to me by visiting different Districts in the north. In Trapeang Prasat, the schools seem more alive, cleaner, vibrant. The school principals are very active, there is much parental  involvement, classrooms are clean, and child friendly (by and large).

Yet in Angkor Chum, whilst we saw progress, we also saw less vibrancy, dirty classrooms and frankly a little neglect in places. Simeth and Sarath will be addressing such differences at a national conference they are running, as I write this.

4. Societal glue

In David AyresAnatomy of a Crisis‘, he points out that the long-term foundation of education is rocky, and not just because of Khmer Rouge times. Before Independence, the education in the country entered around the Buddhist Wat. I will be doing a fuller review of Ayers work, but for the purpose of this post, he makes the following points:

  • First, the individuals who constituted society – king, officials (Okyna), Buddhist Clergy and villagers existed through a web of patronage and clientship.
  • Second, there was no mutual obligation – those at the top had the power and power became a goal in its own right.
  • Third, the teaching of the Buddhist Clergy at the Village Wat secured the system. (pg 12)
As Buddhism accepted human imperfection and considered that everyone is essentially helpless, it is clear why the clergy supported the King, and the King was legitimised in return. (pg 12).
Traditional Buddhist teaching at the Wat had three themes:
  • Chbab – prescribed poems, or folk laws. How to behave between people, even today. Described and legitimised relationships with others. Stressed that people needed to be guided, and solitude is to be avoided. Prescription for harmony, balance and conformity. (pg 14)
  • Reamker – Hindu Epic, cornerstone of cultural life since Angkor era. Themes and ideals were given, not open to discourse. (pg 15)
  • Gatiloke – collected folk stories which teaches virtuous behaviour. ‘Gati’ means ‘the way’. Generally makes very explicit the negative consequences of acting against the social order. Draws on the lives of ordinary people in everyday settings. Maintenance of the status quo – new things bring disaster. Only written down in 19th Century. (pg 16)

I am stressing this because that ‘societal glue’ delivered by that teaching is still very much in place. It is an important underpinning as to how how education has developed in Cambodia, and also how individuals evolve. Hence:

5. Sarath’s growth

As a small example, Sarath told me that the way he brought up his two children was different.

When he and Vanna had their first, Rattanak, he had little formal knowledge of how to be a parent. It was in fact his work with Save the Children that opened up his thinking on how to deal with children – and he thus changed how he and Vanna brought up Mary.

Simeth had a similar experience.

So, in summary, I feel all of these forces are at work in the making of of my project – Sarath’s stories, the contextual impact of Genocide for a broader audience, and the related issues of education and society in Cambodia today.

I am not yet sure how it will all be executed, but I know I need to sort these, prioritise and address.

This past couple of weeks have been most insightful!


AYRES, David M. 2000 (2003 Ed.). Anatomy of a Crisis. Education, Development and the State in Cambodia, 1953-1998. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.