The Coloniality of Abridgment: Afterlives of Mass Violence in Cambodia and the U.S.

Emily Mitamura. Third World Quarterly. Volume 40, Issue 2. February 2019.


‘When the Embassy of Cambodia first appeared in our midst, a few years ago, some of us said, “Well if we were poets perhaps we could have written some sort of an ode about this surprising appearance of the embassy” … But we are not really a poetic people … I doubt there is a man or woman among us, for example, who—upon passing the Embassy of Cambodia for the first time—did not immediately think: “genocide”‘. So reads Zadie Smith’s narrative incision into the relativity of global pain and sympathy; yet, what this passage succinctly elucidates are operations of snap-pathologisation, instantaneous colonisation and abridgment which circulate between the international gaze and the Kingdom of Cambodia. In the 40 years since the Cambodian Genocide, the almost four-year period in which the Khmer Rouge effected the deaths of between one-quarter and one-third of the small Southeast Asian nation, the country has borne the weight of not only the psycho-social fallout of mass death and destruction but also, this article will argue, the disaggregating force of a neocolonial desire which seeks to wed Western guiltlessness to simplified historical narrative. Proposing the concept of abridgment, influenced by Grace Cho’s ‘gap’, Fred Moten’s reflections on imposed self-racialisation and Johannes Fabian’s ‘denial of coevalness’, this article examines the ways in which narratives that exclude Cambodia from international society and temporality are granted perpetual license.

Abridgment is traditionally defined as the process or act of shortening a text while ‘retaining the general sense and unity of the original’. Relatedly, the word describes the foreshortening by omission, condensing or reduction in scope of immaterial entities, often rights. In this interstice, this article explicates abridgment as a colonial mechanism, specifically identifying the paradoxical acts by which histories of the Cambodian Genocide are simultaneously foreshortened and created. In this vein, abridgment operates to prepare histories and peoples for consumption—to parcel them, refined to palatability, bite sized. This article develops abridgment as a continuous and vital process within neocolonial world order, as a procedure which abstracts and extracts from the Global South that which is necessary to maintain the global status quo. Greater than a force of dehistoricisation, the phenomenon by which histories are segmented and separated from their causal lineages, abridgment works to reify a carceral metonymy, forcing the four-year span of a murderous regime to stand for Cambodia’s many thousands of years of history, Cambodia to stand for genocide, and genocide to always already represent an inhuman utterance ineluctably beyond the civilized mind let alone the bounds of its sociality. I argue that abridgment works to condense and decouple histories, creating a totalising conceptualisation of the past along the lines of existing imperial and racialising operations of power by editing out that which is made extraneous. Thus moves a deracination of Cambodia, which occurs less with the ever-incomplete and haunted promise of Year Zero than with the narcotic hold of collapse, of the othered’s collapsibility.

This article thus examines components and operations of abridgment, excavating material and psychic remainders of histories continually conquered by the logics of international justice, genocide and global political community to eke out the internal others of these phenomena: the ghosts abridgment buds. To this end, it excavates the ways in which abridgment in relation to Cambodia operated in the West throughout the Khmer Rouge era, how the process propagates in memorialisation efforts, and moves within existing structural milieus and cultural tropes in order to reveal the tension inherent in this enduring neocolonial effort. Examining narrations of the Cambodian Genocide through the lens of abridgment allows us to intervene in the illusion of its preserved coherence and unity, namely the construction of its universal value—as an object of intergenerational education and global heritage—thereby identifying the endurance of colonial violence in the discrete histories which we receive and with which we construct the present. In this way, this article seeks to foreground the afterlives of colonial and mass violence, material and ghostly, and to rethink the responsibilities of scholars who write in such wakes.

Cold Customers

Within a nine-year span, alongside what is termed the Vietnam War or Kháng chiến chống Mỹ (the Resistance War against America), the US military unloaded an estimated 2,756,941 tons of bombs from B52 planes into the Cambodian countryside in an attempt to unsettle supply routes of the communist Viet Cong guerrillas with whom the US government was engaged in an undeclared war, on fronts both physical and ideological. According to contemporary scholars, several hundred thousand Cambodian people were killed and four years of secret American operations followed by five years of open destruction were enacted upon a neutral, sovereign land from 1965 to 1973. Many now argue that the magnitude of American impact on the Cambodian material, social and political fabric of the 1960s and 1970s was vast and crucial to the rise of what is often termed the bloodiest regime of the twentieth century. Yet likewise, between 1975 and 1979, as the Khmer Rouge enacted its catastrophic consequence, these events became the terrain of debate between Western public intellectuals about the nature of the violence in Cambodia and what knowledge would ground the international imaginary.

Was the Khmer Rouge regime enacting a ‘bloodbath’, expanding and epitomising the horror of communism? Or was it rather a political organisation fighting against colonial world order, internationally vilified and painted as brutal in an era of American hegemony and Red fear? When the American-supported Lon Nol government lost power and Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge on 17 April 1975, the overwhelming response of Western media was doubt. Yet such rhetoric, constantly producing that familiar civilized-barbaric schema in describing exoticised reports of Khmer Rouge violence, significantly operated alongside another paradigmatic demand for veracity: can these reports of savagery be believed? While in The New York Times on 2 March 1975, soon-famed journalist Sydney Schanberg, queries, ‘Who are these insurgents? Is there credence to the American argument that they are immoral barbarians, or is this merely an escalation of rhetoric in a time of loss for American foreign policy?’ Later that month, on 13 March, he also writes:

Much has been said about brutal behavior on the part of insurgent groups … They are known to burn whole villages. Some prisoners—whose desire to live may make their statements less than totally reliable—have said that the order came from above to kill villagers who did not join the cause … Such behavior has apparently not been widespread and some diplomats and other long-time observers suggest that if the country passes to Insurgent control there would be no need for random acts of terror. Moreover, unlike Administrative officials in Washington … most Cambodians do not talk about a possible massacre and do not expect one.

On 17 March, one month after the Khmer Rouge took power, Anthony Lewis in the same publication adds, ‘Some will find the whole bloodbath debate unreal. What future possibility could be more terrible than what is happening to Cambodia now?’ Attesting hauntingly to the fallibility of history production, the first impulse of Western press was not to condemn the Khmer Rouge but to ask: when so little is certainly known, who could expect or be expecting international intervention? ‘The fact is’, Zadie Smith’s fictional narrator notes, ‘if we followed the history of every little country in this world—in its dramatic as well as quiet times—we would have no space left in which to live our own lives or to apply ourselves to the necessary tasks, never mind indulge in occasional pleasures’. These early responses from Western correspondents display the fecund racial-colonial circulations upon which abridgment builds, nourished by what Michael Shapiro and Smith, obliquely, identify as ‘the psychic suppressions of the phenomenology of everyday life’. Yet, greater than a lack of critical inquiry or the simple observation that the most easily imbibed narrative sells the most papers, contouring the diurnal logics which populate collective imaginaries in the West is rewarded at the level of history-making.

In these ways, in the latter half of the Khmer Rouge era, the public debate between French journalist Jean Lacouture and American academics Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman foregrounds moments of violent encapsulation and productive foreshortening. The historiographies which trace this debate, one among many of the time between characters scattered throughout the West, point foremost to the instability of knowledge throughout and in the wake of the Cambodian Genocide. What might easily be termed the ‘basic facts’ of events therein are championed, rejected and perennially disputed by diverse public figures as well as accusations levied against those appearing to bend to ostensibly external demands both material and ideological. However, though often noted as the parenthetical backdrop to contemporary scholarship concerning Cambodia, Chomsky, Herman and Lacouture’s public skirmish is rarely understood as implicated in contemporary political life or reflective of anything larger than purposive misinformation and ideological commitment.

Abridgment occurs in the creation, not simply retention, of a unified meaning where a narrative is stripped down. In other words, this lens allows us to consider the ways in which the construction of narrative coherence is itself a productive violence in simultaneously foregrounding moments and modes of contraction. Paradigmatic of this process, in March 1977 in The New York Review of Books, French journalist Jean Lacouture coined the word that was to lastingly encapsulate the events of 1970s Cambodia such that these mass brutalities were to stand in a category of their own. Autogenocide, Lacouture determined in reviewing priest François Ponchaud’s Combodge année zéro, is the phenomenon the Khmer Rouge unleashed upon the global imaginary. The world looked on at ‘the suicide of a people in the name of revolution; worse, in the name of socialism’ as ‘the new masters of Phnom Penh … invented something original’: genocide, of 1948 UN Convention proportions and implications, directed inward at the self.

Though the originality of this phenomenon is troubled by many histories, not least the comparisons Lacouture himself draws between Pol Pot’s regime and those of Stalin and Hitler, the term creates the nation of Cambodia as a hermetic entity. It is discrete, cut off from the geopolitics which produced its conditions of possibility, a body singularly responsible for workings within its border-skin. Neither the Vietnam War, the extensive sociopolitical degradation wreaked by American bombs, the financial and ideological motors of Lon Nol’s American-supported rule, nor any international happening are acknowledged by the concept of autogenocide. Indeed, though hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were fatally devoured by American military Operation Menu—including Operations Breakfast, Snack, Dinner, Supper and Dessert—the US is expunged from what has come to be the automatic discursive apprehension of Cambodia.

In their June 1977 article ‘Distortions at Fourth Hand’, Chomsky and Edward Herman analyse successive waves of scholarship and coeval media coverage around these events, examining the presence of what they term a ‘line’ in the American imaginary. By 1977, Chomsky and other leftist academics sought to pose a different question than that asked in 1975: not can but rather should these reports be believed? In the context of American Cold War policy and widespread anti-Communist sentiment, should the widespread depoliticisation, which appended itself to increasing reports of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge, be permitted to rest within the haven of what Jeffrey Alexander (via Durkheim) has termed the ‘sacred evil’ granted by analogising Cambodia to 1940s Germany? They ask specifically, was the popularity and high profile review of books like John Barron and Anthony Paul’s Murder in a Gentle Land: The Untold Story of Communist Genocide in Cambodia, which alludes to American bombings only as anonymous, rhetorically unoccupied ‘lands made fallow’, far above George Hildebrand and Gareth Porter’s Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution, which explicitly traces American violations in Cambodia, simply coincidence?

Following their initial exhaustive critique of Lacouture’s review, ‘The Bloodiest Revolution’, and his accordingly exhaustive response, ‘Cambodia: Corrections’, both in The New York Review of Books, Chomsky and Herman write:

If, indeed, postwar Cambodia is, as Lacouture believes, similar to Nazi Germany, then his comment is perhaps just, though we may add that he has produced no evidence to support this judgment. But if postwar Cambodia is more similar to France after liberation, where many thousands of people were massacred within a few months under far less rigorous conditions than those left by the American war, then perhaps a rather different judgment is in order.

Both explicitly addressing abridgment and likewise implicated in its conveyance, Chomsky and Herman ask whether the violence employed by the Khmer Rouge is so different from the collateral damage of French revolutionary fervour. They are not the only ones to make this comparison—to contend, as French academic and Cambodian Genocide survivor François Bizot contended famously at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, that ‘the Cambodians weren’t the first men in history to kill to make their dreams come true’. Bizot, like Chomsky and Herman, queries whether historical analogy might access multiple registers and thereby combat the inevitability of a simple moral tale. They and others hold that Western media and geopolitical machinations have made it all but impossible to understand the web of histories that undergird Khmer Rouge violences. They trace the ways the story is lightened, made compact so as to better sell.

Chomsky and Herman are not the only ones to open a space for the Khmer Rouge violence as means to a sovereign end. Yet, likened to Holocaust deniers, their contributions face marginalisation amid headlines of ‘Holocaust II’ emerging by 1978. Throughout their careers, they held that the assertion of ‘autogenocide’ in relation to the Khmer Rouge was at best a false claim and at worst a deliberate misrepresentation along the lines of ideological discrimination. Still, the political consequences of their rhetoric as well as their own implication in attempted historical construction remains troubled. Do their words do violence to the suffering in Cambodia by discrediting survivor testimony, already leaking out of Democratic Kampuchea, through refugees? Within and beyond this debate, those such as Sophal Ear identify a determination to undermine the credibility of refugee accounts of Khmer Rouge violence in the works of Chomksy, Herman, Hildebrand, Porter and others. Indeed, the castigation of refugee narratives as ‘unreliable’ or manipulative in attempting to secure survival present in several of these works is not mitigated by the now well-documented Chinese and covert American support of the Khmer Rouge as an geopolitical counter-balance to Vietnam.

Examining these manoeuvres through the lens of abridgment allows us to ask after both the relative success of competing historical narratives—the racial-colonial contexts which fix the epistemic game—as well as the realities created by historical omission and transmutation. Importantly, it allows us to ask, how is American self-interest carefully nurtured by a frame which includes only the brutality enacted by brown bodies against themselves? The death and suffering borne by the Khmer Rouge regime is beyond question; yet, how does it benefit the US to view Cambodian people murdered and starved to death in the Khmer Rouge regime on the biological as opposed to the political level? In what ways is the emphasis on the dying body and not the political body bolstered by racist imaginaries in which the Cambodian people cannot be politically cognisant enough to enact a revolution, bloody and glorious as that of the French, but can only, in their primitive state, slaughter themselves? The marginalisation of such disputes over historical fact and, more succinctly but with undoubtedly vaster consequence, the pervasive acceptance of the concept of autogenocide do the work of contracting the past, not only creating its compact and consumable form but likewise binding it into the service of power. Abridgment specifically excavates this co-constitution of history and power, opening space to critically re-examine the puzzling or paradoxical—for instance the mnemonic feats by which the Khmer Rouge retained control over the Cambodian seat at the United Nations for 15 years after its fall from territorial supremacy, with the concerted support of several American administrations who simultaneously condemned genocide as a crime against humanity.

Along these lines, despite an apparent failure of the total phenomena to meet the legal criteria of the UN Convention except in relation to the Cham Muslim, Vietnamese and other minority peoples, Cambodia 1975-1979 remains paradigmatic of the category of Genocide. Genocide stands as a pre-existing classification, absorbing the substantive contents of mass violence, quashing the morbid details of murder and starvation, the bodies, pain and suffering. By collapsing the intimacies of death, forcing them into the skin of law and uncontestable or ‘sacred’ evil, abridgment continually unfolds to bolster global order. Its epistemological processes mobilise colonial desires to avoid the appearance of complicity in that which the West condemns, simultaneously bolstering a global empathetic economy which relegates the brown body to panoplied perditions of appropriation, erasure and death. The word Genocide demands: mourn and promise, never again. Yet, performatively mourning the dead—condemning the slaughter of millions while providing material and political aide to those responsible—is far from a moment of wishing the peoples of Cambodia alive again.

Effaced Economies

Though the recently established Sleuk Rith Institute and Anlong Veng Peace Center under the Documentation Center of Cambodia are currently undertaking rich efforts to initiate other sites of historical violence into Cambodian remembrance, the Choeung Ek Center for Genocide Crimes and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum remain the primary loci of state sanctioned remembrance within Cambodia. Discovered in the days immediately after the Vietnamese took Phnom Penh in December 1979, S-21 or Tuol Sleng is memorialised as the secret heart of Cambodian communism’s purifying operation, the Khmer Rouge determination to root out anti-national, bourgeois and traitorous enemies within. Though the ideological, ethnic or purely domination-based aims of the Khmer Rouge project remain contested and subject to the decimation and decay of the archive, it is estimated that in the course of this ambiguous effort, 14,000-20,000 people passed through S-21 as inmates, chained to beds or each other by the wrists and feet, and extensively tortured. Less than 300 inmates are known to have survived, most in the early days of its operation. Choeung Ek, unearthed by the Vietnamese almost a year later, bears the primary association with another emblematic term of the Cambodian Genocide, the Killing Fields. Just as S-21 wears its morphological lineage, formerly a high school in a residential neighbourhood of Phnom Penh, Choeung Ek shows the skeleton of past purpose. Originally (and still) a Chinese cemetery, the Killing Fields endure a hallowed palimpsest for the many mass graves unearthed there after the Khmer Rouge era. The terrain remains the texture of plague. The bodies of tens of thousands have left pock marks, depressions in the earth, deep pits where the gaseous expansion of human decay created great mounds, small mountains since collapsed and excavated. Now the land has caretakers, those who collect the teeth and bones and clothing that still emerge in the rainy season even 40 years later. The land itself has become pragmatically and recurrently structured by violence.

Don’t pick up teeth, the signs insist. Don’t step on the mass graves. They cannot be thus placed without reason, but to imagine the indecency with which feet knowingly tread on this death place is staggering. To date 19,733 mass graves have been discovered throughout Cambodia. More than 300 memorials have been constructed by survivors and their kin; yet, as James Tyner and others emphasise, the centrality of these two loci often presents a homogeneous image of the events parcelled as monolithic genocide. Further, like all memorial endeavours, these sites themselves reveal a political process of selective memory. Both S-21 and the Killing Fields were sites of internment and death for specifically political prisoners, many Khmer Rouge cadres who, through a web of exacted confessions, were read as ‘enemies of the state’. The staggering inmate to execution ratio of the joint operations of S-21 and Choeung Ek during the era of Khmer Rouge supremacy as well as the visual tenacity of Tuol Sleng’s extensive archives account for the sites’ collective significance in Cambodian and global imaginaries; however, the ways in which internationally this span and space take on a metonymic grandeur, representing all of Cambodian history, must still be examined.

At the centre of Choeung Ek, a stupa exposes 17 levels of skulls recovered from the surrounding earth. These 8985 cranial lingerings have been ‘carefully examined by foreign experts’, a sign at the door notes. This remark is intended to fortify, to be sure, but still the skulls look thin and brittle like eggshells. They are organised and categorised, yet the bones have yet to be identified, returned to living relatives or cremated according the Buddhist praxes of facilitating reincarnation, creating what Schlund-Vials terms a ‘vexed spiritual context’ which maintains the victims as ‘fragmented, incomplete, and anonymous’ even as the sites endeavour to memorialise them. A tier below the remains are weapons, metonymic means of destruction, and everywhere, on every wall, no smoking signs. These efforts display an ongoing process of selective exposure and cloaking in relation to both psychic and material vestiges of the Khmer Rouge era. The bones are internationally verified as proof of genocidal occurrence; yet those purveyors of scientific expertise are unable or at least not tasked with determining the personhood of each set of remains they mark as murdered. Proof of violent, anonymous death, not the specificity of individual life, is that deemed necessary and worthy of exhibition.

Even as it is clear that Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng are spaces of mourning, ‘evidence’ is perpetually exacted by the international. In tandem with historical doubt in the media, the genocide must be continually verified, proof displayed. Yet, what further undergirds this need to purvey certainty is potential falsehood—the perilous hypothetical in which this whole messy era was actually fabricated to unbalance the affective economy of global powers, garner support in an ongoing era of Western emotional frugality. Fred Moten, speaking about the figure of the racialised and racially subjugated refugee, writes that ‘the burden of “voluntary” deracialisation’, in this case self-condemnation and acknowledgement of monstrosity where self-brutalisation has been definitively deemed by foreign experts, is ‘placed on the backs of those whose access to the fantasy of man’s full embodiment—the free, full, self-determining occupation of his position—is always refused and often refused’. Always because the conditions of time have been manipulated by power relations to reflect the permanence of Western domination and often because those same relations rely on the tense possibility of acceptance into the gilded halls of Whiteness, the receding horizon of ‘if’. It is a ‘strictly racialization responsibility of deracialization’ just as surely as it is a racialised burden of cosmopolitanism, ever unattainable by ever more scientific standards.

Forgetting, selective re-membering and rebuilding the self in the image of the international, is a labour exacted from postcolonial spaces for those nations, as Zadie Smith points out, who aspire to have embassies in places like London. As Hughes notes, memorial spaces such as Choeung Ek paradoxically both focus ‘attention on universal humanitarian concerns‘ and ‘symbolize an “uncivilized” and essentially Cambodian horror’. Yet further, sites of Cambodian remembrance must affirm the past ‘inhumanities’, past instances of ‘unimaginable’ and ‘extraordinary’ violences, in order to gain access to the global economy. The designator of genocide both facilitates survival and decimates the self along the lines of racial-colonial logics. This self-racialisation comprises both the wages and cost of international attention, determining subsequent access to material necessities of life. Still if.

Even or especially within Cambodia, this lexical and psychic entrenchment of ‘autogenocide’—or, more to the point, ‘Cambodian sickness’, as Lacouture also calls it—testifies to what Johannes Fabian has termed the ‘denial of coevalness’, ‘a persistent and systematic tendency to place the referents’, in his lexicon, the objects of anthropological study, ‘in a Time other than the present of the producer of anthropological discourse’. This relegation of the studied, the objects one seeks to ‘understand’ to a temporality other than the modernity in which the viewer dwells comprises a form of abridgment. In an effort to learn from the Cambodian Genocide and effect the ‘never again’ which haunts international society, Cambodian peoples are relegated to the past, their history contracted to simulate chronological coherence. Genocide becomes one of the only parts of Cambodia which may move internationally because it fixes the nation firmly within both a barbaric past and a paradoxical imperative either to display or be eternally relegated to it. Such denial is self-perpetuating, taking as its motor the very beings it degrades both living and ghostly.

Death sights like the photographs of inmates at S-21 and sites such as Choeung Ek, owned and operated by the Japanese Company JC Royal from the 1980s to present, are the objects of international investment on fronts both material and ideological. As Michelle Caswell, Hughes and others have well elaborated, the global traffic of the ‘Faces of S-21’ in Western art museums stands at the intersection of genocide education and colonial desire. The humans visually interred therein—as Susan Sontag writes, ‘forever looking at death, forever about to be murdered, forever wronged’—as well as iconography like the map made by Vietnamese curator and general Mai Lam of the skulls discovered in mass graves at S-21 and arranged in the shape of Cambodia reveal the ways in which the nation is continually re- and pre-figured as composed of death. Notions of Western progress and futurity are always already foreclosed or tied stringently to self-effacement: A man who survived Duch’s S-21 returns there regularly to sell books, linked to the space of his torture and trauma to make his living. Cambodia as a nation has become economically dependent on the wages of death tourism. These material realities are permissible because, while the multiple impositions of these psycho-socially carceral positions instruct on ‘never again’, they are made possible by the basic notion that consistently underlies such acts of abridgment, namely that the Khmer Rouge massacres occurred as a result of some inherent Cambodian quality, some perversion in the sociality or, truer to form, blood of Cambodian peoples. Physical and discursive violences thus enacted do each other’s work.

Personal Affects

Questions of naming and commemorating victims of the Cambodian Genocide are intimately tied to fissured imperatives to remember, to not forget, and to live within landscapes, communities and global relations enduringly structured by violence. Thus, when a name, a face or a story endures, centring abridgment prompts one ask to what extent its mnemonic hold is always and often predicated on its submission to a master narrative. The monolithic title The Cambodian Genocide, ECCC Case 001 defendant Comrade Duch, a woman he murdered named Hout Bophana, among many petrified symbols, are made to bear the contents of these imperatives while often simultaneously evacuated of their own.

Bophana’s face, which filmmaker Rithy Panh holds ‘defies the camera and the eye of her torturer and still looks straight at us’, is one of those which circulates globally. She haunts Panh’s prominent films—her image held in unknown hands in his Academy Award-nominated autobiographical feature, The Missing Picture, in S-21: Khmer Rouge Killing Machine and Duch: Master of the Forges of Hell seen resting on a table, looking out from the same still, as Panh interviews former guards, or cradled lightly in Duch’s palms. ‘Her name is Hout Bophana’, a segment in a 2005 New York Times Sunday Book Review entitled ‘Minor Characters’ purports, ‘and her story is told in a movie shown twice a day at the museum [Panh’s film, entitled Bophana]. Sometimes called the Anne Frank of Cambodia, Bophana has become a folk heroine, known for the letters … she wrote before her torture and murder by the Khmer Rouge’.

‘I was overjoyed’. Elizabeth Becker, author of the above quoted article and related books, goes on to say:

In fact, I was surprised how deeply satisfied I felt knowing Bophana had evolved from her first appearance in my book to become a national figure. Today, she looms so large in the public imagination that not even Chhang [current Executive Director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia] remembered where he had come across her story. ‘It’s funny’, he said. ‘I forgot she came from your book’.

In Becker’s story of her, Bophana grows up in East Baray there falling in love with and marrying a distant cousin, Ly Sitha. Soon, however, the overflow of the Vietnam and Cambodian Wars force her to seek refuge in Phnom Penh while Sitha, soon Comrade Deth, becomes a monk and later a Khmer Rouge cadre. Surviving sexual assault from one of Lon Nol’s Forces Armées Nationales Khmères soldiers, Bophana bears a child and struggles to find work in the days just before the Khmer Rouge seize the city and force mass evacuation. Through fated happenstance the lovers meet again and, even as the country is subsumed by the narrative of revolution, they write each other amorous notes in code to arrange their illegal trysts. Bophana’s file stands out in the archives of S-21, thick with reams of her expressions.

Becker’s attention to the material vestiges of Hout Bophana and Ly Sitha’s torture and execution after their correspondence was discovered, her demonstrable commitment to the painful Khmer-language archives which endure from S-21, rings laudable. However, beyond the intervening impossibility of faithfully representing the totality of a life let alone in the wake of mass violence, the ownership of Bophana’s life and ‘evolution’, the commodification Becker enacts in selling her story, exposing her intimacy, represents yet another capture—the colonisation and usurpation of this woman’s last remaining form.

The omniscient authority with which Becker writes of this love affair, and the Shakespearian trope into which she fits the lives and private griefs of Bophana, Ly Sitha and their families fuels abridgment along the lines of Western entitlement and unquestioned access to bodies of the Global South across space, time and experience. The purposeful and incidental degradation of the archive underlines the impossibility of containing Bophana with authoritative narrative. This unlikelihood is clear in the editorial discrepancies between the 1986 and 1998 editions of When the War was Over, first sub-headed the Voices of Cambodia’s Revolution and its People, and later, Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution. In the first edition, the child Bophana leaves with her family as wartime necessity begins to disaggregate normalcy is attributed to her union with Ly Sitha. Though in the second edition of Becker’s book, the middle of a single paragraph shifts to acknowledge intersecting intimacies of sexual and neocolonial violence, the flow of Bophana’s story does not change. Indeed, only a few other words in the approximately dozen pages which Becker devotes to her and Deth confess to any alteration to their lives at all. In the second edition, small mentions note that Bophana’s grandmother is with her when she’s separated from her family, Deth is dishonourably defrocked before he joins the Khmer Rouge; yet, the overwhelming continuity reveals the moral teleology of the romance and tragedy of these ‘star-crossed lovers’ for Becker.

With further offense, Bophana’s beauty is consistently, inappropriately emphasised throughout the vignette, seemingly explaining her husband’s continued devotion. Terming Deth and Bophana’s words at times ‘rambling’ and amorous actions ‘foolish’ and ‘fruitless’ in the face of chaotic revolution, Becker notes that ‘Bophana and Deth wrote as star-crossed lovers and not as historians’, a sentence later adding, ‘they wrote as Cambodians’. These curious emphases, even as Becker picks up on the influence of the Ramayana and Buddhist references in their letters, purposively bely the vigorous autonomy apparent in the choice to communicate in dangerous circumstance. In these small ways, Becker boils them down to an essential nationality and what she sees as the ‘truth’ of their romantic apotheosis to a love worthy of endurance in the archive and her book. Given that the very conditions of Bophana’s five months of torture required her to write and re-write many versions of her story and herself until the narrative appeared satisfactorily condemnatory to provoke her execution, the reiteration of her tale based on Becker’s estimation of what facets ring ‘honest’ as a ‘voice of Cambodia’ is perverse.

As is made plain by her self-promotion in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Becker’s effort is significantly bolstered by privileged Western media attention. Indeed, Becker’s book is still considered one of the finest written on the Khmer Rouge era. Thus, within the epistemic order of colonial desire produced by and with abridgment, one can say that Bophana ‘came from’ Becker’s book; yet, the woman who, as Becker points out, signed her name Deth Sita—a combination of her manifest devotion to her husband Comrade Deth and Sita, the patriarchy-eroding heroine of the Ramayana who walks through fire to prove her fidelity—on every torture-elicited confession she was forced to pen is not one that can be so apprehended. What is minor about her character? In what way is this narrative diminutive? Becker did not construct Bophana’s interrogation file at S-21, where she was eventually imprisoned and murdered; but, it is clear that such specific exposure serves to bolster moral clarity, spawning recognisable features of fable. Bophana and all other so-called minor characters whose private griefs are sacrificially bared as exemplary tragedy are not created by those who purport to ‘discover’ their remains, whether love letter or bone.

In Haunting the Korean Diaspora, Grace Cho examines the figure of the yangongju, who lurks in a state of flux as Korean War prostitute to American soldiers, war bride sent to America, mother of a generation of children who are haunted by the silence of her past. She is ‘the embodiment of the accumulation of often unacknowledged grief’ which continues to flow from legacies of Japanese imperialism, US military dominance and compensatory loss of Korean autonomy, the ambiguity and protraction of the war’s resolution. Bophana suffers from the legacies of other imperial happenings, distinct violences under French, American, or American-supported, and autonomous Cambodian operations of power. However, through both interrelated histories of Cold War domination as well as the quality of haunting, of being made to haunt, she and the yangongju share a common process.

The gap, the ‘unhappy wind’, which for Cho blooms in the space where the trauma of Korean American relations should exist speaks likewise to the Cold War elision which enduringly germinates in an international imaginary of Cambodia. As the nation is denied coevalness, is confined to a violent past and rewarded for this self-condemnation, omitted nodes still bloom. Cho observes, such trauma is productive: from the Korean and Vietnam Wars to present day, the intimacy of lives ‘lost’ in these ways leads to the ‘mass production’ of ghosts. The figure of Bophana, herself a ghost, produces yet other spectral beings—the versions of herself elided by Becker’s simplistic propagation as well as other men and women who died for unknown humanities, loves as well as animosities. The real ghosts, living and dead, for which she is made to stand as ‘the Anne Frank of Cambodia’ are produced in Becker’s retellings which excise even parts of Bophana which do archivally endure. It is not simple that she was raped by and bore the child of one of Lon Nol’s soldiers. It is not easily reconciled that her cousin/husband/lover was a Khmer Rouge cadre and that they lived together for a time protected and nourished by this occupation. The child’s story is not followed by the fable, nor truly the husband’s. She bears their ghosts as well.

The apparitions rubbed into existence in the inhuman violence of Cold War era Cambodia are forced into amalgam, the singularity of victimhood for the totality of genocide. Yet they exist ineluctably beyond their composite form. The slimly known past, in large part the result of an ever-incomplete archive, is likewise the product of a kind of abridgment bolstered by a state and scholarly imperative to own authoritative truth. The phenomenon appears in the sacred notion that one can apprehend the magnitude of such injury from the proportion of dead to once-living: between one-third and one-quarter of the country disappeared from the earth—but by whom? For whom? Who? There is no separate experience of victimhood demarked between those who perished from Khmer Rouge deprivation and brutality, those whose lives and livelihoods were decimated by American bombs, those who lived but were lost to time and those who perished but are preserved with purpose. The assimilation of ghosts into a narrative deemed ‘representative’ is but one more marketable foreshortening of history. International bodies are permitted distance, infinitely thicker than geographical, from the sites and consequences of the violence they do while projected intimacies, obsessions with the parenthetical tragedies of ‘minor characters’ like Bophana elide any need to ask permission or forgiveness. She is loved for the potentiality of her tragic tale, which produces at the same time it destroys.


‘Surely’, Smith writes, in order to appease the gods of diurnal concern, in order to live, ‘there is something to be said for drawing a circle around our attention and remaining within that circle. But how large should this circle be?’ She points to the privilege inherent in the ability to constitute this circle, to separate action from concern, interconnected violence and complicity from the quotidian indulgences which make up the ‘life’ and ‘livingness’ of those who benefit from the dominant social. As oppressive political work circulates in the guise of a casually invented descriptor like ‘autogenocide’, subjugation as humanitarian mourning, and totalising accounts as paradigmatic love stories, the abridgment of Cambodian peoples and geographies continues, steeped in acclaim. As succinct as the map of Cambodia composed of the skulls of the murdered of S-21 which was dismantled as recently as 2002, operations of abridgment unevenly and purposefully shrink histories, reconstitute a nation as death, reposition peoples as too far away and occurrences as too horrible, that is, always already beyond the realm of thought.

The power to draw such a circle is contrasted sharply with and indeed made possible by the way other human lives and faces become defined by their scars: both the product and process of this carceral metonymy which conceals the simultaneity of such operations. The processes of abridgment—the lines or gaps or deliberate collapses—are mnemonic acrobatics that brew a torsion within Cambodian history and the global present. As we have seen, sites and the insights of scholars who attempt to apprehend this phenomenon alike reveal the warp. Through the perennial process of abridgment, violence is not historicised but othered. That death and violence of this sort are deeply intimate and human interactions is a notion absent from the sterilised, exceptional and externalised conception purveyed by the concept of genocide and thus the imaginary that subsumes Cambodia. The ideological labours therein are consistent and vast; yet, the process leaves a remainder, a mark, a stain. The work here undertaken to excavate the happenings of this process must therefore proceed gently in the face of taboo which houses certain histories beyond the borders of questionability. Any kind of trauma which entails collapse of the everyday cannot be understood in straight-forward terms because to do so would again deform the project of understanding in contributing to an abridged body of authoritative knowledge.