Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Continuing a Sad Yet Informative Exploration of Cambodia's Killing Fields, in Chicago

National Cambodian Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial, Chicago
Until two weeks ago, all I actively knew about Cambodia was that it is a country in Southeast Asia where atrocities had occurred, and is home to the wondrous Angkor temples, which I'd someday like to visit.

Perhaps I'd once learned a bit more--I'd certainly heard the name Pol Pot--but I would have been hard pressed to get more specific than the above. 

Likely due to my fascination with Angkor Wat, embrace of people from all backgrounds--thanks to global travel--and an abiding love of rock 'n roll well-beyond the music itself, I was recently eager to see a play called Cambodian Rock Band by Victory Gardens Theater (in the old Biograph on Chicago's North Side). 

I got that chance on Friday, April 12, the show's opening night in Chicago.

As I wrote in my review, the still-running Cambodian Rock Band is terrific. (Note that the May 1 performance will be accompanied by a concert at Lincoln Hall by Dengue Fever, a current band playing Cambodian rock songs.)

Not only is the play by Lauren Yee illuminating about Cambodia's once-vibrant music scene of the 1960s and early '70s--abetted by excellent musical performances of songs by Dengue Fever, whose members aren't in the show--but it adroitly uses the tale of musicians to address the genocidal regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge from 1975-79.

The multifaceted history lesson of Cambodian Rock Band--which slyly weaves not only pop music but a good bit of humor into its sorrowful exposition--has prompted a bout of associative learning, or perhaps a subset I would dub "connective learning," as it is more targeted than tangential.

I certainly don't claim much expertise from what I gleaned from the play, or resources I've explored since--and details can vary by source--but the Khmer Rouge supposedly put over 2 million fellow Cambodians to death, decimating about 25% of the country's population. 

In doing so--ostensibly in the name of turning Cambodia into a Communist, agrarian country where no one was superior to anyone else--Pol Pot cleared out the capital of Phnom Penh, turned virtually everyone into a farm worker and killed almost everybody identified as an artist, professional or intellectual. (Simply wearing glasses would often mean execution.)

In Phnom Penh, a former school was turned into a notorious prison called S-21, and its chief--a still-living man named Kang Kek lew (a.k.a. Duch) who is depicted in Cambodian Rock Band--oversaw the death of nearly all 20,000 of its residents.

The murders--specifically in Phnom Penh but also all over Cambodia--often took place in open lands that became known as the Killing Fields.

This grisly term also was the name of an acclaimed 1984 feature film directed by Roland Joffe.

In it, a New York Times reporter named Sydney Schanberg (played by Sam Waterson), chronicles the Khmer Rouge overtaking Phnom Penh, with key assistance from a Cambodian journalist, Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor), who would be abducted by the Khmer Rouge and spend time within the Killing Fields, a term he coined. 

I had never seen The Killing Fields, but made a point of watching it in the days after Cambodian Rock Band.

Though reflecting the terrible barbarism of the Khmer Rouge, the film isn't quite as gruesome as I was expecting, and with the friendship between Schanberg and Pran driving much of the narrative, it filled in only some of the blanks about what actually happened, and why. 

So along with reading about Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, the Cambodian genocide and the killing fields on Wikipedia, I've also now watched three fine documentaries and another feature film with heart-wrenching undertones.

I was able to watch most of these via a television app called Kanopy, which has a vast library of free streaming films, available to anyone with a library card. (It's possible there may be some non-participating libraries.)

Enemies of the People (Kanopy link) is a documentary that chronicles attempts--in the 21st century--by a Cambodian journalist named Thet Sambeth to track down, befriend (or at least gain the trust of) and interview former members of the Khmer Rouge at various levels.

This includes interviewing, on camera, Nuon Chea, who was "Brother Number 2" of the Khmer Rouge--Pol Pot was #1--and its Chief Ideologist.

Sambeth also speaks with two lower level members of the Khmer Rouge, who without ever even knowing of Pol Pot, carried out orders and killings.

Most frightening is that the two individuals are remorseful and don't seem like bad people.

Yet what they had done is about as heinous as humankind gets.

Available on Amazon Prime, Angkor Awakens gives a solid overview of the rise of the Khmer Rouge regime--including related sociopolitical undercurrents, particularly the Vietnam War  and U.S. involvement--while doing a fine job reflecting on ongoing contemporary repercussions for Cambodian citizens.

Apologies for any inexactitude of this brief explanation, but in the war the United States aided South Vietnam against Communist North Vietnam (whose army was known as the Viet Cong), which had the support of the Soviet Union and China.

Because of the geography, North Vietnam would commonly send troops, tanks, supplies, etc. through Cambodia--by way of Laos--on what was known as the Ho Chi Minh trail.

So around 1970, President Nixon opted to begin bombing Cambodia, ultimately killing hundreds of thousands of civilians in what was a neutral country.

I was reminded that the controversy over U.S. military operations in Cambodia was what the protests at Kent State University--and elsewhere--were about when four students were killed there on May 4, 1970 by National Guardsmen.

Amidst the Vietnam War and U.S. bombing of Cambodia, Prince Sihanouk--the Cambodian leader from 1941-1970--was deposed in a military coup led by General Lon Nol, who was supported by the U.S. and whose government became known as the Khmer Republic.

"Khmer" is a Southeast Asian ethnic group native to Cambodia, existing since 2000 B.C., and also the name of the language spoken.

In part due to rising anger over the American bombing campaign and casualties, the Communist aims of the Khmer Rouge became more popular, and the Khmer Rouge fought the Lon Nol's Khmer Republic in a Cambodian Civil War from 1970-1975.

In April 1975, with victory for North Vietnam assured, the U.S. pulled all of its troops and weapons out of Cambodia, and soon left South Vietnam as well.

Within days, on April 21, 1975, the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Pehn, initially welcomed by residents who thought this meant peace after years of civil war.

But Pol Pot, Nuon Chea and the Khmer Rouge evacuated Phnom Penh, essentially turning Cambodia into a vast prison farm.

Another excellent documentary, Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll (Kanopy link) shows how tremendously popular music once was in Cambodia, including guitar-driven rock, but sadly depicts how many of the prime practitioners--Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Serry Sothea, Pen Ran, Yol Aularong and others--were silenced, persecuted, imprisoned and would largely perish under the Khmer Rouge regime.

I have to assume this documentary was an important resource for Cambodian Rock Band writer, Lauren Yee. And it perfectly compliments seeing the play, as it chronicles many of the musicians--and how their musical styles were prompted--that Yee's terrific piece references but doesn't cover in detail.

Though I had largely surmised that Cambodian artists of many idioms were quelled in every which way under the Khmer Rouge, a fine 2014 feature film called The Last Reel (Kanopy link)--directed by Kulikar Sotho--focuses on filmmaking.

A note at the end of the film--which is about a modern young woman in Phnom Penh trying to get a director to finish his long-deserted picture which had starred her mother--indicates that 300 movies were made in Cambodia in the decade prior to the Khmer Rouge regime.

But not only were directors, actors, writers and cinematographers among those curtailed and largely wiped out, only about 10% of the actual films survived the deadly regime.

As the Angkor Awakens documentary spells out, the repercussions of approximately 25% of Cambodian residents being slaughtered remain understandably vast, but the specific silencing of artists--considered dangerous for their ability to share and stoke thoughts among others--has left a hugely detrimental hole.

Not only is it that much harder for music, film, art, etc. to regenerate itself in Cambodia, among both young and older there is a hesitancy to be seen as intellectual.

For what if a regime like the Khmer Rouge reoccurs?

Heady, and hugely sorrowful stuff.

Although I've not been able to pinpoint specifically why, Chicago is home to the world's only museum outside Cambodia dedicated to that country, or even with a memorial to the Killing Fields, which is contained within.

As shown atop this blog post, the museum--whose building adjoins the Cambodian Association of Illinois at 2831 W. Lawrence in Chicago--features a gorgeously-carved exterior.

Yet I imagine that many pass it by--just west of the North Branch of the Chicago River--with nary a clue or a glance.

I only knew of it because Cathy Taylor, the publicist for Victory Gardens and Cambodian Rock Band, mentioned to me that she valued her visit.
On April 17, after having seen Cambodian Rock Band and then The Killing Fields, I convinced my friend Ken to join me for an excursion (which included eating at Brazilian Bowl on Lawrence & Kedzie and buying Peruvian soda--Inca Cola--at the largely Mexican grocery, Lindo Michoacan).

Incidentally, I have not been able to find any Cambodian restaurants in Chicago. Supposedly there was one in a Lombard strip mall for awhile, but it seems to have closed.

We had to go upstairs to the Cambodian Association to ask to see the museum, for which we were greeted by a friendly young woman named Nisa (sorry if my spelling is off), a musical artist-in-residence who also serves as a museum tour guide.

She informed us that the day we were there--rather incidentally, unless the scheduling of Cambodian Rock Band somehow correlates--was the exact 44th anniversary of the Khmer Rouge seizing power of Cambodia.

That evening there was to be a vigil at the memorial--which has the names of victims engraved--but we did not hang around that long or return. Seemed better to let relatives, Cambodian-Americans and others more directly affected attend in sanctity.

Yet while I can't say that as a tourist attraction--with a $6 admission fee; $4 for seniors--the Cambodian Museum & Memorial is all that extensive, Ken and I very much valued our visit.

Although the displays and information largely covered what I'd already learned--and would continue to--we enjoyed speaking with Nisa (who recommended Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll), watching a brief introductory video and the experience of seeing not only the memorial, but actual objects once used in the killing fields.

Hung a bit too innocuously in a utilitarian stairway, there were also some truly compelling photographs, and artful objects throughout.

In this brief exploration of the Khmer Rouge regime, one of the things I've most been struck by has been their use of rather abhorrent axioms.

Whereas similar phrases attributed to Confucius, other great Eastern philosophers or even just fortune cookies are invariably hopeful, as displayed throughout the museum galleries, the Khmer Rouge's tenets have a quite discomfiting menace to them.

Such as: "To keep you is no gain, to destroy you is no loss."

With the disheartening reality that there are several genocides continuing today--in Myanmar, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Darfur--as well as other massacres, human rights violations, ethnic cleansings and numerous deadly atrocities, I am sorry for what I now know took place in Cambodia during my lifetime.

I don't know quite when I will get to Angkor Wat--hopefully within the next 5 years--but it is now also important to me to spend some time in Phnom Penh, and to see memorials to the Killing Fields in their actual settings.

And if possible, to perhaps talk to Cambodians who might be willing to tell me a bit more.

Simply for theatrical reasons I reiterate my recommendation that you try to see Cambodian Rock Band at Victory Gardens.

But with simply a library card, a streaming outlet and/or an excursion to Chicago's Lawrence Ave. (@ California), your exploration can be that much deeper, sadder and richer.

I know mine was.

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