Cycle of Life
Tararith Kho is one of Cambodia’s most influential young literary profiles. Full of initiative he started the magazine Nou Hach Literary Journal, which he later abandoned after experiences of threat. He is also one of the initiators of the Cambodian branch of PEN. The text published here is an extract from a longer piece of work.
“These hands of mine, Father! They have defended our country against militants in southern Thailand who wanted to secede. They have overpowered Burmese workers who violated our laws. They have handcuffed and shot countless Cambodians who crossed the border to engage in illegal logging, poaching and smuggling. I was praised by my unit of Black Shirt Rangers and recommended for a promotion in the coming year, Father. I completely resent the migrants, especially the Cambodians, who continue to infiltrate our country. Not only do they enrich themselves at Thai expense by illegally chopping down trees in the forest, they insist that Thai territory is actually the land of their ancestors.”
No sooner had I finished speaking when tears began to trickle down my father’s cheeks and his face became as flush as the embers of a red-hot fire. He said to me, “Than, you have impressive achievements. Even though I am elderly, I still haven’t accomplished as much as you. When I read your letter of commendation signed by the King, I felt very, very proud. You are a model son. ” I smiled in response to my father’s compliments.
He continued by saying, “However, I have made one grave mistake with regard to you.” (At this point, he reached for a tissue from the box on top of the table in order to dry his tears; my mother rose from her chair, sat beside him, and began gently stroking his back.) My father continued, “Your mother and I taught you to love Thailand unconditionally, but I never enlightened you about the qualities of compassion, virtue and forgiveness—traditional Khmer beliefs which I hold dear. You know my story. I am your Cambodian father who has lived as a refugee in this beautiful land, assimilated Thai culture into my body until I mastered the Thai language better than my native Khmer, earned a doctorate degree in this country, and lived here for more years than I lived in my homeland. I have been more devoted to this country than the land of my birth. I have a wife, a child and a house. If I had left Thailand, I would have had none of those things. I respect the King and the country of Thailand with all my heart, so much so that I have forgotten that I am really Khmer. Your mother and I are proud to have such a brave son. No matter what, you will always be my son.”
My father’s gentle comments lingered in my thoughts. As I sat and reflected, I broke down and began crying. Tears were also streaming down my mother’s cheeks. My parents were clearly distressed. Sensing their pain caused my heart to ache and filled my face with uncontrollable emotion. When I was young, my father never scolded me at all and even now, he was placing blame on himself. His considerate words caused me heartache and embarrassment; he is still such a good person. The comments he just uttered altered my outlook, turning my pride into shame. I love my father as much as he loved me as a child, and his words jolted me into recalling the ordeal of his family’s past.
My grandfather had been a soldier in the army of Marshal Lon Nol, fighting against the Vietnamese at Taing Kok and Chenla Two. Both of my father’s older brothers were policemen who fought against Viet Cong invasions and the Khmer Rouge insurgency. After the Khmer Rouge victory of 17 April 1975, millions of Cambodians were forced to perform hard labor and untold numbers were brutally executed. In early 1979, Vietnamese soldiers again invaded Cambodia, spurring hundreds of thousands of citizens to flee the country and seek refuge in Thailand.
Before he left Cambodia to study at university, my father had promised to marry a local girl upon his return. He had been writing letters to her while he was away, but after a while the letters began to be returned unopened because the situation in the country had deteriorated. Overwhelmed with concern for his relatives, my father would occasionally cross the border to inquire about their fate. He visited each refugee camp with the huona, the Thai camp strongman, in an attempt to meet anyone who might have information about them. He even had the courage to search piles of corpses of Cambodian refugees who were killed on the mountainside at Preah Vihear. My mother was very sympathetic to his plight. At times, my father was so distraught over his family’s welfare that he would talk in his sleep and rise up in the middle of the night, half-dazed, and call out their names.
In 1988 a distant relative of my father’s, who was living at Khao-I-Dang refugee camp, informed him that some of his family members had been evacuated by the Khmer Rouge from Takeo to Battambang in order to work at Trapeang Thma. My father’s older cousin had been conscripted by the Vietnamese and ordered to clear trees in the forest of the Dangrek Mountains during the K5 Project. While there, he died of malaria. No one could provide any information about the fate of my father’s remaining relatives. Completely devastated, he vowed not to return to Cambodia under any circumstance because he was unwilling to face the loss of his loved ones…a loss which had etched a permanent scar on his heart. He stayed in Bangkok and, with the assistance of his political science professor, made a traditional proposal of marriage to my mother. She accepted and her entire family welcomed my father to live with them in Sisaket.
Whenever I reflect upon Thailand, I think of the beautiful forests and pleasant lifestyle. Thailand’s culture has been influenced by the West, providing Thais with advantages over their neighbors. The country has progressed by adapting to political circumstances and cooperating with the superpowers. Thai political leaders have effectively encouraged businesspeople from all over the world to invest millions of dollars of capital in the country. Investors admire the prosperous, civilized society, which they compare to Europe.
Circumstances are different in Cambodia, where citizens who try to protect their country’s natural resources and border integrity are considered criminals. The army arrests them and brings charges against them in court. Sometimes soldiers even shoot and kill them. It’s pitiful that any Khmer who tries to protect their border, for example, immediately becomes an enemy of the government. Some Khmer leaders are perfectly willing to relinquish their national interests to foreign countries.
As I was coming of age, there were times when I was confronted with the harsh realization of the disparate cultures of my parents. Whenever my friends and I were studying together and had an argument, we would accuse each other of being Khmer or Burmese by saying, “I hope you’re born over and over again as Khmer; that’s what I wish for you,” because in our minds, Cambodians were considered as low as animals. Those kinds of insults are directed at the lowest social classes and, as high school students, we felt like we were having fun. Later, when my mother heard about the comments, she forbade me from ever using such insulting language. She said, “Those words are very abusive. An educated person like you should never use those expressions.” My mother then shared with me a little more history about my ancestors. I remember what she told me, but I didn’t consider it important at all because Cambodians repulsed me.
At this moment, though, all I feel is humiliation…total humiliation! After listening to my father’s words, I realize that I haven’t lived up to his standards. It’s difficult for me to look my father in the eye because I don’t know where to hide my shame. I can still hear the voices of the victims I so cruelly shot and killed as a Black Shirt Ranger. They begged for mercy with their palms pressed together in front of my face. The souls of those dead victims haunt me with their pleas, marking this day as the most shameful of my life. My actions as a Ranger have brought much disgrace upon my parents and me. Why, when I have such a worthy father, did I feel the need to achieve honor by committing acts which have brought me nothing but misfortune?