RESISTING THE 'WHEELS OF HISTORY'
Rupture and Remembrance in Cambodian American Memory Work
Written by Cathy J. Schlund-Vials, Professor of English and Asian and Asian American Studies
"The wheel of history is inexorably turning: he who cannot keep pace with it shall be crushed." – Khmer Rouge Saying.1
GIVEN: 20 million refugees
GIVEN: individuals who return home are not the same people they were when they left
GIVEN: nearly every single family in Cambodia suffered losses during the time of the Khmer Rouge
PROVE: the journey never ends for the refugee
PROVE: survivors must learn to live with the absence of 2 million
PROVE: it is absence that propels the living to remember
"I will return to a country I have never known / that burns a hole inside my heart the size of home / when I arrive, / will I recognize Loss if she came to greet me at the airport / will she help me with my bags / usher me through customs / will she take me to my birth village / point me to the graves of ancestors / will she share silence with me / will she embrace me / will I ask these same questions / or will I be asked to prove my belonging…
…I often think about our leaving and all we left behind / imagined our lives without this exodus / dreamt of days when I could speak to Loss / to tell her we didn’t choose to leave / leaving chose us." – Anida Yoeu Ali, "Visiting Loss," 2005. 2
The Khmer Rouge reign of terror began at approximately 7:30 a.m. on April 17, 1975, when black-uniformed soldiers marched into the nation’s capital (Phnom Penh) during the Cambodian New Year.3 Emboldened by American foreign policy disasters and an unpopular Lon Nol dictatorship, the authoritarian regime found little resistance from Cambodians wary of illegal bombings, chaotic civil war, and ceaseless military violence.4 Grounded in untenable agricultural revolution, determined to eradicate Western influence by any means necessary, the Khmer Rouge systematically evacuated Cambodia’s cities and forcibly relocated residents to countryside labor camps. Single-minded in its “year zero” focus—which ironically hearkened back to analogous “year one” frames at work in France’s 1793-1805 “Revolutionary Calendar”—the Khmer Rouge renamed the former French colony “Democratic Kampuchea,” tortured countless numbers of Cambodian citizens, and executed thousands of alleged “enemies of the people.” 5
Suggestive of inchoate place and subtractive time, the tabula rasa nature of “year zero” was most plain vis-à-vis “the wheel of history,” a state-produced metaphor configured along a paradoxical, ahistorical axis of “progress.” This de-historicized, state-authorized dictate was not limited to governmental slogans. The Khmer Rouge’s “wheel of history” fulfilled its promise, crushing virtually all facets of pre-revolutionary Cambodian society.6 The Khmer Rouge prohibited religion, outlawed education, disallowed currency, proscribed private property, and forbade the use of affective family names (e.g. for siblings, mothers, and fathers). As Ben Kiernan maintains, Democratic Kampuchea’s “slogan became kchat kchay os roling (‘scatter them to the last’).” Correspondingly, the Khmer Rouge “scattered libraries, burned books, closed schools, and murdered schoolteachers.”7 Within this compulsorily forgetful milieu, Cambodia’s National Library – the country’s chief cultural repository – was emptied and converted into a pigsty.8 In the months after Democratic Kampuchea’s dissolution, journalist John Pilger reported that the Khmer Rouge banned the word “sleep,” privileging instead less permanent allusions to “rest,” a lexical move congruous with an overriding emphasis on extreme labor.9
Demanding that its citizens “give up all [their] personal belongings” and “renounce their father, their mother, all their family,” the Pol Pot-led Khmer Rouge (a.k.a. Angka, or “the organization”) dismantled by way of totalitarian repudiation the principal pillars of Cambodian society: centuries-old tradition, pre-revolutionary socioeconomic infrastructures, and Khmer familial affiliation.10 Democratic Kampuchea’s “wheel of history” had little need for those who could “not keep pace,” including the sick, the starving, the weak, and the elderly. Nor did Angka have use for teachers, lawyers, judges, civil servants, doctors, artists, returning Cambodian ex-patriots (who were fellow leftists), Cambodian Muslims (principally the Cham), Khmer Khrom (Cambodians living in South Vietnam), and ethnic Vietnamese Cambodians, who were specifically targeted, tortured, and executed. Between 1975 and 1979, over the course of three years, eight months, and twenty days, the Khmer Rouge was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians (21-25% of the extant population) due to execution, torture, starvation, overwork, and disease.
Unquestionably, this period—known as the era of the Killing Fields to those outside Cambodia and “Pol Pot Time” for those within—would have profound consequences long after the dissolution of the regime. Following Democratic Kampuchea’s demise, approximately 65% of the population was female, highlighting the disproportionate number of Cambodian men killed during the regime. The majority of Cambodia’s teachers (three-quarters) died or fled the country.11 Equally catastrophic, by the time the Vietnamese ostensibly liberated Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979, 90% of Khmer court musicians and dancers had been executed, nine judges were left in country, and out of an estimated 550 doctors, only forty-eight survived.12 Faced with famine, lack of medicine, no infrastructure, and persistent political uncertainty, approximately 510,000 Cambodians fled to neighboring Thailand; 100,000 sought refuge in close-by Viet Nam.13 Between 1980 and 1985, almost 150,000 Cambodians came to the United States, facilitated by the congressional passage of the 1980 Refugee Act, though others would eventually find asylum in France and Australia (among others).14 To date, more than 230,000 individuals of Khmer descent live in the United States, making it home to the largest population of Cambodians living outside Cambodia in the world.15
Visiting Loss and Transnational Remembrance
The dramatic movement of Cambodian bodies across borders, camps, and asylum states—born out of totalitarianism, genocide, and state unrest—undeniably foregrounds self-described “Cambodian American Muslim transnational” writer/performer Anida Yoeu Ali’s epic poem, “Visiting Loss.” Written thirty years after the disastrous birth of Democratic Kampuchea, Ali’s eleven-stanza “Visiting Loss” is an elegiac poem centered on Ali’s first-time return to Cambodia following a twenty-five year absence. Autobiographical, “Visiting Loss” employs a stream-of-consciousness narration (evident in enjambed lines and stanzas).16 Notwithstanding the poem’s “journeyed” emphasis, “Visiting Loss” reproduces a transnational refugee subjectivity forged in the interstices of U.S. foreign policy, Cambodian genocide, Cambodian American remembrance and juridical activism.
“Visiting Loss” begins with “20 million refugees,” an epigraphical allusion to the calamitous demographic aftershocks of the American war in Viet Nam (1964-1975). Incontrovertibly, the war was not—even with Cold War policies of “containment”—restricted to Viet Nam. Instead, as the contemporary presence of Southeast Asian refugees makes clear, America’s mid-century war “over there” involved “dirty war” campaigns in Laos, was waged from military outposts and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) stations in Thailand, encompassed covert missions in Burma, and—most relevant to Ali’s “Visiting Loss”—included illegal bombings of Cambodia. Specifically, U.S. foreign policy took the undercover form of “B-52 Menu bombings” (1969-1973) that targeted alleged North Vietnamese communist sites along the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” in the Cambodian countryside. These euphemistically-named campaigns dropped more than 540,000 tons of munitions (more than the tonnage used by the U.S. in World War II), killing an estimated 150,000 to 500,000 Cambodian military personnel and civilians.17
Antithetical to U.S. interests abroad, this illicit carpet-bombing operation actually increased support for the communist Khmer Rouge, who opportunistically promised an end to U.S. imperialism and conflict in the region. Worsening the nation’s political situation (which previously took the form of unwavering Cambodian neutrality during the conflict), President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (soon-to-be an ironic recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973) installed vehement anti-communist General Lon Nol as its head of state in 1970, fomenting a five-year civil war.18 With the assistance of superpower-driven realpolitik, geopolitically inclusive of United States, the Soviet Union (which backed North Viet Nam) and China (the chief Khmer Rouge ally), Pol Pot’s forces would triumphantly overtake the capital and the nation in 1975. Situated against a ruinous Cold War matrix, Ali’s beginning statement of “20 million refugees” concisely gestures toward displaced subjectivities in the aftermath of war, totalitarianism, and relocation.
Such non-bordered spaces and open-ended time frames are apparent in the poem’s title, which uses a non-finite gerund (“visiting”) modified by an ill-defined noun (“loss”). This lack of grammatical definition is reinforced by Ali’s recurring use of the interrogative “will I” construction to reveal what the poet anticipates she will encounter upon her return to Cambodia (e.g. “will I recognize,” “will I need to look deeper,” and “will I be at a loss for words”). Despite such “unsettled” language, Anida Yoeu Ali’s “Visiting Loss” does have an identifiable destination—Cambodia—and a legible (albeit incomplete) setting: post-Democratic Kampuchea. Indeed, the second stanza in “Visiting Loss” (also in the opening epigraph) begins with the poet’s statement that she “will return to a country I have never known.”19 This future declarative is predicated on a refugee unfamiliarity born out of Ali’s abrupt departure as a child. Even so, Ali highlights an emotional relationship to Cambodia, which emblematically “burns a hole inside my heart the size of home.”20 This embodied metaphor – focused on the heart – reflects an interrogative structure that affectively attaches Cambodian refugee to personified “Loss.”
Further, as a transnational returnee, no family members meet the artist/poet at the airport, reinforcing the devastating and ongoing impact of a genocidal past. Instead, it is the feminized “Loss,” who—like Cambodia—is potentially unrecognizable, and who—a la Ali—is born out of familial separation, cultural depravation, and state-authorized ruination. Ali substantiates this reading with mentions of “birth villages,” ancestor graves, and “silences,”—sites and emblems of war-time collateral damage. All in all, Ali cartographically reproduces—by way of initial allusion—a legible set of refugee coordinates which identifies and relates distinct points of U.S. foreign policy, modern Cambodian history, and contemporary Cambodian American survivor memory.
In so doing, “Visiting Loss” adheres to what Kandice Chu maintains is the geopolitical function of “transnational” as a “cognitive analytic that traces the incapacity of the nation state to contain and represent fully the subjectivities and way of life that circulate within the nation-space.”21 In Ali’s epic poem, this “cognitive analytic” traces the “incapacity” of a post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia and a present-day United States to “represent fully the subjectivities” that circulate within the diasporic nation-space (e.g. the refugee subject). For the “Cambodian American Muslim transnational” Ali then, the unbounded histories and experiences which shape the refugee subject bespeak an involuntary circulation of bodies across borders in conflict with national narratives of exceptionalism and reconciliation. Within the context of a displaced Cambodian American subject, this “incapacity” must necessarily be evaluated vis-à-vis the pursuit of prosecution and justice following the dissolution of the Khmer Rouge regime, which is internationally and domestically marked by deliberate erasure, amnesia, and absence.
Juridical Belatedness: Prosecuting the Khmer Rouge
Expressly, if reporter William Shawcross’s evocative characterization of Cambodia as a “sideshow” aptly encompassed mid-century U.S. foreign policy (wherein the nation was a collateral site in the “main stage” Vietnam War), the term also encapsulates a still-unresolved Khmer Rouge trial history via war, torture, and genocide. Soon after the end of Democratic Kampuchea in 1979, the newly established People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) began its juridical assault on the Khmer Rouge. To that end, the PRK government collected an estimated 995 pages of testimony from victims of the regime.22 These testimonies recounted abuses and human rights violations during the Democratic Kampuchean era, and this criminal investigation culminated in a four-day trial, in which the regime’s leader (Saloth Sar a.k.a. Pol Pot) and Khmer Rouge’s Deputy Prime Minister (Ieng Sary) were tried on grounds of genocide and sentenced – in absentia – to death.
In the face of such testimonial documentation, the PRK trial was by and large ignored by the international community. Indeed, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights refused to consider the prosecutorial evidence because the investigation and trial did not follow U.N. protocol. Superficially dismissed on administrative grounds, the unwillingness to prosecute former Khmer Rouge leaders reveals a problematic continuation of ongoing Khmer Rouge support and Cold War politics. Until the dissolution of the PRK, the U.N. officially recognized Khieu Samphan (a high ranking Khmer Rouge official) as Cambodia’s head of state. Following the “Fall of Saigon,” the United States continued an anti-Vietnamese foreign policy for the next ten years (1979 – 1989), which took the form of aid and supplies to displaced Khmer Rouge leaders in Thailand. Another high-ranking player on the U.N. stage—China—had, as mentioned previously, supported the Khmer Rouge and was equally disposed to anti-Vietnam initiatives due to antagonist relations in the region.
Domestically, justice proves just as obscured and elusive. Though Cambodia’s political imaginary was in part stabilized following the end of the Vietnamese occupation (1989), U.N. intervention (1991-1993), and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s coup (1998-1997), prosecuting Khmer Rouge perpetrators was not a priority until 2003, when the U.N. and Cambodia’s government (led by former Khmer Rouge foot soldier and long-standing Prime Minister Hun Sen) began discussions about an international tribunal. An agreement with the United Nations was reached in June 2003 detailing how the international community would assist and participate in the hybrid tribunal, called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). Seven years would pass until the ECCC (a.k.a. the UN/Khmer Rouge Tribunal) would render its first conviction on July 26, 2010—Kaing Eav Guek (a.k.a. Duch, the head warden of Cambodia’s notorious S-21 prison, the fatal destination for more than 12,000 Cambodians) was found guilty of war crimes and sentenced (with time served) to nineteen years in prison.23 Currently, a total of only two Khmer Rouge officials remain in custody: Nuon Chea (the regime’s chief ideologue and “Brother Number Two”) and Khieu Samphan (the Khmer Rouge Head of State). The aforementioned Ieng Sary and his wife, Ieng Thirith (democratic Kampuchea, Minister for Social Affairs) passed away and were released on grounds of mental instability respectively; Thirith would also die before the court was able to issue its second verdict of “guilty” to Chea and Samphan for crimes against humanity.
Cambodian American Memory Work
Thus, despite the passage of more than four decades since the regime’s deposal, to date only three Khmer Rouge officials have successfully been tried, convicted, and sentenced for war crimes and crimes against humanity in an international court of law. Set against this post-Khmer Rouge juridical backdrop, Ali’s “remembrance work”—wherein Cambodians and Cambodian Americans “must learn to live with the absence of 2 million”—gestures toward a politicized mode of transnational memory. At the same time, Ali’s “Visiting Loss(focused on survivors and an “absence that propels the living to remember) dialectically calls to mind Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940), wherein the German Jewish philosopher avers, “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was.’ It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” 24
Written during a profound international crisis (revealed in the strengthened presence of fascism in Europe and on the world stage), Benjamin’s consideration of history militates against an allegedly “progressive” and complicit uses of the past. Necessarily, Theses on the Philosophy of History combats “politicians’ stubborn faith in progress, their confidence in their ‘mass basis,’ and…their servile integration in an uncontrollable apparatus.”25 Such “mass basis,” or conformism, relies on a reading of history as a “progression through homogenous empty time” which fails to address the primacy of the present in the production of state narratives. Further, this “homogenous, empty time”—redolent of static, vacant frames—underscores teleological assertions of inevitability and foregrounds exclusionary, disastrous readings of progress (contemporaneously redolent ofHitler’s “Final Solution” and presciently apt for Pol Pot’s “Wheel of History”).
By collapsing verbalization, expression, recognition, and remembrance amid a catastrophic totalitarian crisis, Benjamin’s “history thesis” engenders alternative, non-state-sanctioned routes to the past. These historical transits are composed of “dangerous moments” and eruptive “memory flashes” that carry the potential to destabilize national narratives of cohesion and amnesic uniformity. Correspondingly, Benjamin rejects teleology and supplements the primacy of concrete historical facts (e.g. dates, leaders, and battles) with intangible but by no means less valid modes of seized remembrance. Concurrently, these seizures – reminiscent of force, rupture, and containment—become opportunities of recovery that evocatively collapse the boundary between history and memory. Therefore, Benjamin’s cacophonous, disruptive reading of historicity naturalizes individual and communal memory by means of inclusion, assimilating such remembrances to fit a more expansive articulation of the past.
Indeed, Benjamin codifies the principal parameters through which to construct a contrapuntal archive that challenges strategic, nationally-serving amnesias. Arguing that a “redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments,” the philosopher elaborates, “For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.”26 This historical labor – which embodies a syncretic understanding of the past and present – accretes political significance when placed perpendicular to dominant narratives of the past. Such antithetical placement further revises an official vector which indubitably privileges above mentioned exclusive stories of “progress” and state-authorized tales of singularity and exceptionalism. Likewise, Benjamin’s historical reading re-inscribes the primacy of the “oppressed” in the production of a new historical archive.
Correspondingly, Benjamin notes, “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight” (257).27 By forging a political connection between the “way it really was” and the “way it was remembered,” Benjamin undermines nation-state claims and political arguments of teleological uniqueness, engendering a multivalent historicity constitutive of counter-hegemonic, remembrance-oriented resistance. In the end, Theses on the Philosophy of History significantly positions the oppressed as resistive agents of memory. In turn, such agents have the potential to produce a “citable” archive constructed according to episodic yet nonetheless significant memory moments. Lastly, the collection and production of this archive makes possible an alternative to state-sanctioned memories employed to exclude, disenfranchise, and forget.
Benjamin’s history thesis – which fuses resistance to memory, agency, and archive – highlights what is at once theoretically at stake in Anida Yoeu Ali’s “Visiting Loss,” which epitomizes the work of Cambodian American writers and artists who, through individual and familial narratives of survival and loss, memorialize the period of the Killing Fields, articulate, through the revelation and negotiation of trauma, calls for justice, and negotiate the complicated question of reconciliation. In the process, Cambodian American cultural producers are engaged in a form of archival labor which visits, through multiple idioms, loss. Such production militates against Khmer Rouge “year zero” frames, recuperates pre-revolutionary traditions, accesses survivor testimonials, and carries an incontrovertible evidentiary function. As Teri Shaffer Yamada argues, artists like Ali “resituate the Cambodian American [subject] from silenced position of victim to the site of social justice advocate: the personally and politically significant movement from victim to plaintiff” (159). Engaged in politicized acts of resistance, individually produced and communally consumed, reflective of both U.S. and Cambodian aesthetics, Cambodian American cultural production is, to use Lisa Lowe’s oft-quoted characterization of Asian America, marked by a heretofore under-examined heterogeneity, multiplicity, and hybridity.
In closing, Cambodian American artists and writers purposefully and politically use remembrance to deconstruct, reconstruct, and reimagine the affective dimensions of history and nation. Such work, which assumes what Lisa Yoneyama characterizes as a “Benjaminian dialectics of memory,” necessarily “allows historical knowledge to remain critically germane to present struggles for social change” by way of interrupting “the evolutionary continuity between past and present.” It is the political, communal, and juridical foci of such memory-oriented labor – which is shaped by multiple moments of rupture and the failure of nation-state to facilitate large-scale reconciliation – that undergirds the explorations of Cambodian American cultural production which comprise my emblematic second monograph, War, Genocide, and Justice: Cambodian American Memory Work (University of Minnesota Press, 2012). As this project maintains, Cambodian American writers and artists engage – through poetry, performance, memoir, film, and hip hop – an identifiable form of “memory work,” which links calls for justice and acts of resistance to genocide remembrance. Drawing on what James Young labeled “memory work” with regard to the collective articulation of large-scale human loss in Holocaust memorialization debates, such producers mediate the unresolved question of justice through multivalent frames of public remembrance. In sum, Cambodian American cultural producers time and again negotiate historic and presentist cartographies of state-authorized violence (from the Cold War to the War on Terror) via the strategic imagination of alternative sites for memorialization, remembrance, reclamation, and justice.
1 See Locard, Henri. Pol Pot’s Little Red Book: The Sayings of Angkar (Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 2004). p. 213.
2 See Ali, Anida Yoeu. 2005. “Visiting Loss.” <http://atomicshogun.com/writing_visitingloss.htm>
3 See Munro, David I. (dir).Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia. John Pilger (narrator). London: ATV Network Limited, 1979.
4 Both the Nixon administration and the Ford administration supported (financially and politically) the Lon Nol government, which was vociferously anti-communist. This support was part of a more expansive Vietnam War strategy that sought – at all costs – to eliminate communist influence in the region. Between 1969-1973, the United States orchestrated covert bombings of the Cambodian countryside under the largely unproven assumption that Viet Cong were headquartered in the area. According to Ben Kiernan, by 1973, “half a million tons of U.S. bombs had killed over 100,000 peasants and devastated the countryside” (78). The amount of munitions tonnage was the equivalent of five Hiroshima bombings. See Kiernan, Ben. “Recovering History and Justice in Cambodia.”Comparativ 14 (2004), Heft 5/6, S. p. 78.
5 The term, “Enemies of the People,” comes from a speech delivered by Pol Pot that aired in 1977 warning his fellow Democratic Kampucheans that there were potential traitors in their midst. This is also the title of the recently released documentary film directed by Rob Lemkin and Sambath Thet (2010). It should be noted that Cambodia was officially renamed “Democratic Kampuchea” as per the adoption of a Khmer Rouge constitution January 5, 1976.
6 The term, “genocide,” is contested vis-à-vis the Khmer Rouge. Some have argued that what happened in Cambodia constituted an “autogenocide” because – unlike other genocides – no one group was targeted. Ben Kiernan and others have argued against this reading, pointing to the Cham and the Khmer Khrom. Given that Cambodian American cultural producers by and large refer to this era as a period of genocide, I have followed suit with terminology.
7 See Kiernan, Ben. “Recovering History and Justice in Cambodia.”Comparativ 14 (2004), Heft 5/6, S. p. 80.
9 See Munro, David I. (dir).Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodian . John Pilger (narrator). London: ATV Network Limited, 1979.
10 See Locard, Henri. Pol Pot’s Little Red Book: The Sayings of Angkar (Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 2004). p. 269. Also, Pol Pot was the nom de guerre for Saloth Sar,
11 See Kiernan, Ben. “Recovering History and Justice in Cambodia.”Comparativ 14 (2004), Heft 5/6, S. p. 80.
12 See Munro, David I. (dir).Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodian . John Pilger (narrator). London: ATV Network Limited, 1979.
13 See Southeast Asian Resource Center (SEARAC), “Cambodian Refugees.” <http://www.searac.org/cambref.html> accessed June 12, 2010.
16 See Ali, Anida Yoeu. 2005. “Visiting Loss.”<http://atomicshogun.com/writing_visitingloss.htm>
17 Cambodia: Pol Pot’s Shadow. (<http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/cambodia/tl02.html Accessed 12 July 2008>). As many scholars within the field of Cambodian Studies have observed, more bombs were dropped on Cambodia during this time than the amount used against Japan in the Second World War. According to David Chandler, “In the first half of 1973 the United States brutally postponed a Communist victory by conducting a bombing campaign of Cambodia that, in its intensity, was as far-reaching as any during World War II. Over a hundred thousand tons of bombs fell on the Cambodian countryside before the U.S. Congress prohibited further bombing.” See Chandler, David. A History of Cambodia. (third edition). Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000. p. 252.
18 Henry Kissinger was, along with revolutionary North Vietnamese politician/diplomat Le Duc Tho, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their collaborative work on the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, which ostensibly orchestrated a cease-fire agreement in the Vietnam War. Tho had refused to accept the award; Kissinger accepted. Interestingly, Tho would serve as the chief advisor to the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (1978 – 1982), and was charged with protecting Vietnamese interests during the occupation.
19 See Ali, Anida Yoeu. 2005. “Visiting Loss.”<http://atomicshogun.com/writing_visitingloss.htm>
21 See Kandice Chuh, Imagine Otherwise: On Asian American Critique. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003. p. 62.
22 See Raoul-Marc Jennar. “Cambodia: Khmer Rouge in Court.” Le Monde Diplomatique [English Version]. October 2006. <http://mondediplo.com/2006/10/11cambodia>
23 Although Kaing Guek Eav (Duch) was indicted on August 12, 2008 for crimes against humanity for his role in the administration of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison (S-21), a place where an estimated 14,000 to 16,000 individuals were tortured and executed for alleged activities against the Democratic Kampuchean regime, the trial officially began February 17, 2009. According to Associated Press reporter Ker Munthit, an estimated 14 individuals survived their imprisonment at S-21. See “Cambodian Tribunal Indicts Khmer Rouge Jailer.” The Washington Times, 12 April 2008. <http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2008/aug/12/cambodian-tribunal-indicts-khmer-rouge-jailer-1/> (13 April 2008).
24 See Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Hannah Arendt (editor). London, Schoken: 1969. p. 255. In the original quote, Benjamin cites Leopold von Ranke, a prominent German historian who rejected Hegel’s notion of historical materialism in favor of a source-based historicism. Lisa Lowe, in Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1996) also draws on this particular quote (97), as does Lisa Yoneyama in the introduction to Hiroshima Traces: Time, Space, and the Dialectics of Memory. Lowe uses Benjamin’s compression of time and space to examine Asian American cultural production via “decolonization, displacement, and disidentification.” Each work is instructive with regard to applications of Benjamin’s work within spaces of trauma and subjugation. I diverge from Lowe and Yoneyama by using Benjamin’s work as a foundation upon which to examine the types of labor enacted by remembrance (memory work).
25 Ibid., p. 258.
26 Ibid., p. 255.
27 Benjamin’s use of “state of exception” brings to mind Giorgio Agamben’s later examination of “states of exception” via homo sacer. Interestingly, Agamben and Benjamin explicitly respond to German political philosopher Carl Schmitt, who in his 1921 essay. "Die Diktatur" justified dictatorship during “states of emergency.”
28 See Yoneyama, Lisa. Hiroshima Traces: Time, Space, and the Dialectics of Memory. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999. p. 30.
29 Mariam Lam’s input about the issue of “labor” in “memory work” productively highlights the issue of production and intent in Cambodian American cultural production.
30 James Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Their Meaning (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1993).