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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia



I prepare to leave for Australia. Theary invites me to one more meal before I go. I sit at her table with Raksmey and Reaksa on my left, Nee and Theary on my right.

Nee has a message on his mobile phone. There is a rumour that Ieng Sary, the deputy to Pol Pot, has died. He checks contacts for confirmation and finds that the rumour is correct. Ieng Sary has died in hospital, surrounded by family. The three defendants still awaiting trial in the Khmer Rouge Tribunal are Ieng Sary’s wife, Ieng Thirith, who has been declared unfit to stand trial because of dementia, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan. Nuon Chea is also old and sick.

I look towards Raksmey and Reaksa. If they are listening this is a conversation they might remember to tell their grandchildren. Reaksa is nevertheless more interested in the distinctly Khmer apartment Theary has fashioned: carvings, pictures and wall hangings produced by Cambodian artists and craftspeople, the heavy Cambodian-timber dresser displaying local pottery and ceramics decorated with traditional designs. He appreciates it all and wants to talk to me about it.

Theary, the attentive hostess, offers each of us the fish and the thick beef soup she has chosen and prepared, then returns to the conversation with Nee about the news of the day. The Extraordinary Chamber in the Courts of Cambodia was not constituted in time to try Pol Pot. He died in Khmer Rouge territory back in 1998. Almost two million people are believed to have perished between 1975 and 1979; the only person whose trial has been completed is Duch.

I know that if I join this conversation Reaksa and Raksmey will stay wordless; Theary’s dinner table is more formal than Nee’s sons are used to. Reaksa is fascinated with the light fitting. ‘Look at this Yeay. It is energy efficient.’ He is hoping that when there is enough money he will be able to organise tradespeople to renovate his father’s house, and is gathering ideas.

Theary and Nee are talking of Khieu Samphan as he was when a young lecturer at the University in Phnom Penh. They have always heard that he was a man who lived simply, travelled by bicycle, cared about the poor. They have sympathy for him. He gained his PhD in Paris. He was a government minister in Sihanouk’s time. He made the cause of the poor his cause and suffered for this. There is a story about the young Khieu Samphan angering Sihanouk by taking a stand with destitute workers in Battambang province; though a cabinet minister in Sihanouk’s government he was stripped naked and cast out on to the Phnom Penh streets. This might catch Reaksa’s attention; I look sideways to him. Raksmey is already listening.

In the early ’70s Khieu Samphan emerged as a senior member of the Khmer Rouge. Is he ‘Mr Clean’, ignorant of what the regime was doing? Nee seems to be saying that Khieu Samphan is a gracious old man, ‘eighty-one years old.’ He chose to live quietly in Palin while he awaited trial. No longer a member of the Khmer Rouge, he consistently asserts that his role was limited, that he was kept away from decision-making and was used as a figurehead.

A Battambang university where Nee is lecturing arranged for him to spend an evening with Khieu Samphan at his house near the border of Thailand. They talked together into the night, these two Cambodians with their overseas doctorates. Khieu Samphan said that during the Khmer Rouge time his role was simply to watch over Sihanouk and eventually to prevent him being taken hostage by the Vietnamese. Just before the fall of Phnom Penh he protected Sihanouk and ensured that he was able to cross through to Thailand and so find refuge in China. Nee tried to draw Samphan to comment on the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, but failed.

The next morning, as I wait at Pochentong Airport for my flight from Phnom Penh to Singapore to Melbourne, I buy the international and Cambodian newspapers. Ieng Sary’s death is reported in both. His family will take him from the Phnom Penh hospital to his home province to honour him with dignified ceremonies of mourning.

The Phnom Penh Post also reports:

Speaking at an inauguration ceremony at Preah Sihamoni Reachea Buddhist University in Phnom Penh’s Chamkarmon district yesterday, Hun Sen said that the attempts of the first four people – King Norodom Sihamoni, Queen Mother Norodom Monineath and two chief monks – had failed because candles had gone out and portions of the pyre had failed to ignite.

After they tried, Hun Sen said, he had stepped in. The flames caught and spread.

I read that the ‘temporary crematorium’, which cost one million American dollars to construct, has been taken down, and the site is cleared.

I check my email using the airport wi-fi. There is one from Thero. He read what I wrote about his family; he would like to see it published, even as excerpts in the newspaper. He could do something about it; his profession is publishing. I reply that I wrote it for the family; it will be there for his young twins when they are old enough to understand it. I say that it would need a lot more work before publication. He replies that he understands and respects this.

My flight to Singapore is called. My travel documents are ready: arrival February 4th 2013, departure March 15th 2013.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy