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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia



In 2013 it is election year, in both Cambodia and Australia, a crucial year with tension mounting in both countries. Through email and Skype with Cambodian friends, and through reading Cambodian newspapers, I am alert to happenings there.

I read the Cambodia Daily and the Phnom Penh Post to follow the progress of the Extraordinary Chamber in the Courts of Cambodia. Anta Guisse, Kong Sam Onn and Arthur Vercken, defence lawyers for Khieu Samphan, are protesting perceived violations of its client’s rights:

It is now obvious that the dice are loaded. In its “race against death” conducted in the guise of a criminal trial, the Chamber has never been interested in what the Defense has had to say. Regularly cutting the microphones of the Defense lawyers and sanctioning those who protest is nothing other than the visible tip of the iceberg.

On 28 July, after heated political rallies and, seemingly, mass support for the opposition, Cambodians vote in the national election.

Nee phones his sons, who have both been cruising on motorbikes around the polling booths and are enthusiastically predicting a win for the opposition. Their father tells them to return home immediately before the bridge is blockaded.

That afternoon there is lockdown in the city. People queue to withdraw their money from ATMs and petrol stations sell out of fuel.

The National Election Commission announces provisional results. Hun Sen’s party, the CPP, will hold sixty-eight seats and the opposition CNRP fifty-five seats. The opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, calls for peaceful protest. He alleges electoral fraud orchestrated by the ruling party. One thousand protesters camp in Freedom Park and twenty thousand join street protests in Phnom Penh and provincial capitals. Monks in their saffron robes are strongly represented among the protesters. I watch a Radio Free Asia film clip showing a monk attempting self-immolation on a dais at a rally. He drenches himself with fuel. Others on the platform wrestle with him and prevent him from setting himself alight.

Ka sends me an email. ‘This cruel man must not be permitted to rule Cambodia forever.’ He is passionate about one thing now. Change must begin at the local level.

On 19 September Hun Sen is once more named as Prime Minister, extending his twenty-eight-year term for another five years. Parliament convenes. The fifty-five recently elected opposition members refuse to take up their seats.

Australia’s political struggles leave some of my Cambodian friends bemused. Kevin Rudd deposed Prime Minister Julia Gillard, ‘and they were both alive next morning!’ they say.

On a wintery day I do the Australian housework: vacuum the rug, empty the compost, defrost the freezer. Refugees and asylum seekers are desperately trying to reach Australia. There are reports of boats. There are reports of drownings at sea. Australians are told, again and again, that seeking refuge is illegal. There are images of the overcrowded detention centres holding men, women and children behind secure fences as if they are criminals.

At night in the border camp I sometimes stayed among those who were detained behind the barbed wire. In this crowded place every man, woman and child was silently alert. A baby might cry, someone might mutter in sleep. Should there be a sinister sound, a thud or a scream, there was a simultaneous intake of breath. Everyone in this place was forever vigilant. I have heard the fear of those who have been afraid too long.

I stand at the kitchen window watching the drizzle of rain on the apple tree, needing to prepare a meal but thinking of Cambodia. News drifts from the radio. Our Prime Minister has just announced that nobody who comes by boat seeking safety will ever be settled in Australia. They will be processed offshore. The Papua New Guinea solution will be added to the Nauru solution. They will never find safety here. They don’t exist for us.

I have seen too much suffering. Now I am stilled by feelings in a way I cannot name. Is it grief? Grief for Cambodia? Or shame? For Australia?

I think of the stories on the hard drive of my computer. They have served their purpose for Cambodian friends. Perhaps they could be useful in helping Australians to understand the choices made by ordinary people in truly terrible circumstances. The stories are not mine. I am considering what publishing them might mean for the Cambodians.

One memory focuses my reflection. It was 1998 in Battambang when, as I remember it, we were bunched around a black-and-white TV linked to a generator: Touern, Thalika, Nee and me. We saw destruction in Omagh, in Northern Ireland. Irish against Irish. There were broken buildings and bodies in the street. ‘We could volunteer to help those people,’ Nee said. ‘We know what it is like.’ There was a huddle of talk. They were confident then that the life they had lived had value for others who suffer.

During the night memories converge.

Night is becoming day. Purple-grey cloud has piled on the horizon; above it the sky changes from indigo, through aquamarine, to an expanse of clear pale blue. A fine crescent moon hangs high above the cloud. I know what I must do.

Next January I will be back in Cambodia. I will ask Cambodian friends whether I should try to have their stories published in Australia.

This has become as clear as that crescent moon on its back in the morning sky.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy