Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Khmer Rouge Re-Visit

A Cover-Up and an Agony
One day, as I was climbing a palm tree to collect its saps, I saw my mother tending the vegetables in the garden alone very early in the morning. After climbing down from the palm tree, I walked over to ask her why she came to tend the vegetables alone without everyone else working along with her. In a rather upsetting tone of voice, my mother told me that she just wanted to avoid seeing Ta Chim who had been saying words of flirting with her lately. She was afraid that he might act inappropriately toward her. Naively, I asked her how about Yeay Ngo with whom my mother always walked back and forth from the village to the vegetable garden. Couldn’t the two of them swat off Ta Chim’s unwanted behavior? In a somewhat irritated mood, my mother retorted my question with another question of her own: “What could Yeay Ngo do, if Ta Chim decided to rape me?” Speechless, I returned to finish my round of collecting palm saps for that morning with a feeling that my mother was a bit paranoid about Ta Chim’s behavior. However, a couple of months later late at night, I was woken up by a commotion made by someone coming into our hut. It was Ta Chim. He was out of breath and appeared to be in fear. Ta Plaok inquired what was happening to him. In a bombshell, Ta Chim told us that he had just raped a woman and was caught by her little brother in the act. He wanted to kill both of them to cover up his crime but didn’t have the courage to carry out his plan. So, in a panic, he decided to run away and came here first to seek some advice. After a lengthy discussion, Ta Plaok finally persuaded Ta Chim to stay put and wait until the next morning while he (Ta Plaok) would go to the village to find out how widespread news of the incident had been disseminated.
Ta Plaok went into the village very early in the morning while Ta Chim went to hide in a nearby forest. He (Ta Chim) told me where to find him when Ta Plaok returned from the village. I went about my business collecting palm’s saps as usual while pretending that nothing unbecoming had happened last night. Though I was just a kid at that time, I knew full well that the repercussion of Ta Chim’s misdeed could reach far and wide. In the Khmer Rouge’s scheme of legal structure (if such a thing existed) adultery and rape were punishable by death. All involved including Ta Plaok and I who had the misfortune of knowing what Ta Chim had done and did not report it to Angkar would not be spared. As luck was to be on our side, the victim went to report the crime to one of the village’s leaders who happened to be Ta Plaok’s relative. After learning of the extent of whom and how many people could be implicated in the death trap, a cover up scheme was hatched. Ta Chim was to stay at the vegetable garden and keep a very low profile. Everyone who knew of the incident must swear to keep it a secret. It was perhaps one of the greatest cover up in Ponlear Chey’s history.
After learning of Ta Chim’s immoral behavior, I immediately thought about my mother’s earlier encounter with his flirtation. All of a sudden, I was having second thought about my mother’s story, that she might be a victim of Ta Chim’s misdeed as well. My greatest fear was that my mother might have been raped by Ta Chim, and that she did not report it to anyone, for fear of reprisal or, worse, being killed by the Khmer Rouge altogether. The more I thought about the possibility, the more distressing I felt. I wanted to ask my mother to get to the bottom of it; but I somehow held back and hoped that my suspicion was unfounded. For years, I continued to live with that agonizing suspicion. But, the feeling that my mother might have been a rape victim during the Khmer Rouge regime had never faded away from my mind. After the Khmer Rouge’s regime was toppled from power, I summoned my courage a few times to ask my mother about it. However, I fell short of doing so, for fear of opening up old wound that my mother had spent all of these years to heal, or to cover up. It took me 29 years to finally overcome my fear and ask perhaps one of the most unwanted questions to a person I loved and respected the most. The day was August 22, 2006, during a layover in Singapore’s Changi Airport on our last journey to Cambodia together that I decided to ask my mother that painful question. Due to the reverse time of day, we couldn’t sleep. So, my mother and I sat next to each other in our hotel room and reminisced on our past. We talked about life in the old day, how we cope with the difficulty living in refugee camps in Thailand, and how fortunate we were to be able to go and live in the United States of America. But the majority of our conversation focused mostly on our ordeals living under the Khmer Rouge’s rule. I was so impressed at how my mother recalled past events so vividly despite her having a mature Parkinson’s disease. As we were talking about our lives during the Khmer Rouge period, I gingerly and uneasily steered our conversation to the time we spent at Ponlear Chey village. After recalling our work at the vegetable garden and the names of people who were working with us there, I closed my eyes and agonizingly asked my mother if Ta Chim had violated her. In a calm and serene voice, my mother said, no. Beside his flirtatious talk, Ta Chim did not misbehave. I felt so relief to hear that my mother had been spared from the cruelty of life’s circumstances. Though one might suspect that my mother was just telling me what I wanted to hear in order to spare me from a shared suffering, I had no reason to believe otherwise because, at that point, I had already been a chosen offspring who would have the opportunity to listen to many secrets of her life’s stories. Over the course of our lives spent together, my mother had probably shared more of her life’s trial and tribulation with me than anyone else.
(Excerpt from Unpublished Manuscript)

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