Thursday, December 31, 2009

Our Cambodian landlord

is one of the kindest, nicest people I've met. A good landlord is actually one of our criteria for renting houses because of all the horror stories we've heard. These range from landlords who make up stuff to keep your deposit to counting the number of mangoes on the tree to make sure you have not stolen any (this was told to us by the former tenants of a house in BKK1 in Phnom Penh we were thinking of renting).

Mr C is super nice and when we first moved into his house in Siem Reap, spent over USD200 to add an aluminium fence above the concrete wall to save us from the ugliness of our neighbour's backyard. (The backyard's just a tip, it's not particularly ugly). He also invited us to his house for dinner, and his wife and relatives made a scrumptious feast of BBQ meat and the best amok we've eaten in this country.

Mr C is around my age (late 30s) but looks older because of his hard life. His faced is creased and he is thin and tanned and very muscular.

He had told us during the family BBQ he was a soldier during the civil war, fighting against the Khmer Rouge (he was vague about which side he was on; there were a few parties jostling for power). I wondered after that if he'd killed anyone, but I did not dare ask. Or maybe I did not dare find out. To be honest, I think the probability of killing someone in a civil war is quite high.

We did not talk much about the war as is my experience with Khmers who suffered through it. I've always had to pursue the topic until you can see my Khmer host has had enough and then I feel sorry for asking. In my defence, I seldom ask. And when I do, it is because I want to learn. I guess I want to know the truth from the people who know.

I worry sometimes my Khmer friends think I'm just a voyeur, wanting to hear horror stories. But honestly, the worst stories you can get in books (And they're not limited to wars. Have you read anything about slavery - in the US and elsewhere? Absolutely disgusting. Whenever people tell me the Japanese, the Germans, the Cambodians are extremely cruel in war, I point out you get evil people everywhere, just take slave owners. And this is in times of peace, when their hands are not forced, so to speak. They do it for personal profit, or pleasure. And at least war conduct is regulated by the Geneva Convention; slaves were regulated by legally authorised violence. And if you think scale makes the difference, think again: 12 million Africans were shipped to the Americas from the 16th to the 19th centuries. This is not to excuse the atrocities committed by the Japanese, Germans, Cambodians and what have you; it's merely to point out atrocious behaviour is not limited to these few peoples.)

Back to Cambodia. My landlord in Phnom Penh was the first to talk to me about the war, about the forced marriages (they're still married and have 3 kids, that landlord and his wife), the starvation, the sickness and the false medicine, the death of family members. He admitted his kids do not believe him when he tries to tell them their history. Because the older generation tries not to think and talk about the war, the younger generation knows little about what their parents and grandparents went through. That plus the stories their parents tell must seem so surreal. I mean, I can hardly believe these stories even though I know them to be true.

Many of the women who work at Bloom are middle-aged, so they were children during the war. They smile when they tell me about their childhood, about being hungry and eating whatever they could find, about losing their parents and siblings to murder and illness.

It is hard for foreigners to understand how the Khmers can be so smiley about something so serious. I am always puzzled when Cambodians smile while relating bad news. But maybe it is a sad smile, like, "It's a sad story, but don't be sad." Maybe they are trying to spare our feelings?

For me, it's one of the many mysteries of this culture.

Anyway, the other day Mr C came over to cut the huge jackfruit (many of them) and showed us how to cut the jackfruit. We ended up talking about the war.

I learnt his whole family perished under the Khmer Rouge: his parents, two older brothers and two younger ones. He survived because his mother sent him to hide with a monk when she knew the KR were coming. He started living on his own since he was nine.

As city folk in Siem Reap, my landlord's family were considered enemies, "new people" who were "leeches", as Mr C told it, because they had no idea how to make things, grow things. By contrast, "old people" were the people who worked on the land, who had helped the Khmer Rouge when they were in the jungles fighting a guerilla war against Lon Nol's corrupt government. (Very quickly, Lon Nol was the Cambodian puppet general installed by the US government who wanted an ally in the US's fight against the communist Viet Cong in North Vietnam).

Anyway, Mr C says to the Khmer Rouge, all that the townies knew was to work in offices, pushing pencils, serving foreign masters. The KR thought these "new people" were more than useless; they were parasites, so eliminating them was actually a good thing.

His brothers were killed as they were accused of being spies. And here Mr C said "You know the KGB? Like in James Bond?" I could not believe even children (his brothers) were killed for being thought of as spies. He said yes, of course. If your mother is a spy then you must be a spy too. He said later on, the KR could not understand why their programmes failed and concluded it must be sabotage, by their own people, which is why the party turned against its own and started killing KR soldiers as well.

I think Mr C was using the word "spy" loosely, to mean "dissenter", anyone who was not sympathetic to the KR's cause. Educated people, i.e., those in the towns, were murdered because they were likely to be dissenters, which means trouble-makers.

It's a common tactic among governments. If you dissent, it must be you are a spy. In Singapore, groups critical of the ruling party are often challenged to reveal where they get their funding from. The insinuation being you must be an agent provocateur, a "spy", for some foreign government.

We had given Mr C a can of Angkor beer while chatting and at this point, while talking about his family, he quickly gulped to finish the beer and stood up to leave. The conversation was over.

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