Episode 19

Khmer Rouge Part 4 – Force Binds for a Moment, Ideas Link Forever

Welcome to the Poison Room. A podcast about what people do in the aftermath of the fall of a regime that deemed all literature dangerous to its ideology, and destroyed as much as they could. Sorry about the delay. When I came to edit the audio I decided I just wasn’t happy with the sound quality, so I recorded it again.

This is the final episode on the Khmer Rouge. Last episode was the story of what happened to literature under the Khmer Rouge, and their systematic attempts to wipe out not just books, but those who could read, or were educated. This, despite the fact that many of the most high-ranking members of the Khmer Rouge central leadership were themselves educated people and intellectuals. Perhaps, having seen what reading had led them to do, they wanted to make sure no one could do to them what they had done to the previous regime.

During the five year civil war leading to the Khmer Rouge taking power, many of the wats and monasteries where ancient manuscripts and literature were stored, had been destroyed by American bombing campaigns. Those that survived were repurposed as prisons and interrogation centres, and the manuscripts they contained unceremoniously thrown out or dumped on the floor. Schools were closed, destroyed, or also repurposed as prisons. The most famous of those was the Tuol Sleng school, or, as it became known, S-21. A brutal prison where around 14,000 people, including children, were interrogated, tortured, and killed.

Libraries were abandoned and either locked shut or repurposed as storage or living quarters. Books were tossed aside and burned, dumped in rivers, or used for fuel, cigarette paper, or toilet roll. The newspapers were shut down, the printing presses were all destroyed, and by the end of the regime, around 85% of journalists in the country had been killed.

This was the story I had originally started researching, and obviously, I’d discovered more story in the run-up to the Khmer Rouge’s reign. But I also came across articles and discussion about what has happened since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and it feels important to acknowledge and celebrate the subsequent growth and recovery, because, despite their best efforts, the Khmer Rouge ultimately failed in their attempt to wipe out literature and culture.

Let’s start with the fate of some of the libraries, and in particular, the National Library of Cambodia. The National Library first opened 1924. Above the entrance doors a motto was engraved – in French, of course: Force binds for a moment, ideas link forever. That engraving is still there.

When it opened its doors to the public, it housed 2,879 books. 1,059 of those had been donated by the French Resident Supérieur of the time. 133 had been donated by others, and 1,687 had been purchased by the library itself. For the first fifty years of its existence, the books it housed were nearly all in French (Jarvis 1995: 395). By 1928 the library owned around 10,000 books, and had 11,152 registered borrowers, with 9,698 visitors registered as using the reading rooms (Jarvis 1995: 395).

During the reign of the Khmer Rouge the building had been used to house pig keepers and to store food. The pigs were kept in the gardens of the library. Books and catalogues were destroyed or left strewn around the building. Before the reign of the Khmer Rouge, the library had managed to accumulate somewhere between 31,000 to 35,000 books and documents. In 1995, George Smith, a Consulting Fellow to the National Library reported that during a recent shelf-count he conducted he had found that the library had between 24,000 to 25,000 books from the pre- Khmer Rouge era (Smith 1995). I just want to point out here that you will see 80% given as the total loss of books from the Khmer Rouge era very frequently. Part of the problem with trying to figure out exactly how much was lost is caused by the fact that not all of the previously existing books were unique: a shelf count will tell you how many books there are in total, but not how many unique titles you have. So multiple versions of the same book might have survived, whilst the sole copies of other books disappeared (JARVIS). But it’s also the case that over the years more books have been found, returned, or recovered.

When the Khmer Rouge fell, only 2 of the 40 staff previously working at the National Library of Cambodia returned. Mao Kin, who had been a night watcher at the library quickly returned and made a lean-to at the back of the library his home. The other was Um Neang, who had been an assistant secretary in the technical services section, and who became the director of the library in 1979 (Jarvis 1995: 391-92). Speaking in 1993, Neang recalled:

"I was awfully shocked at the condition of the library when I was assigned to work here in 1979. I saw ashes of books under the trees in front of the library… My first task was to collect books from outside, especially Buddhist manuscripts, and to restore order in here." (Ker 1993)

Mao Kin lived in the lean-to with his daughter until 1992. His daughter, Mao Thach, now works as a cataloguer at the library, and manages the French collection (Bugge 2003). Or… at least she did in 2003. The director of the Library at the time the Khmer Rouge took power, Phet Phanur, also survived, but didn’t return to the library when the regime fell. He began a career in the Justice Ministry instead (Jarvis 1995: 392).

Speaking to the Phnom Penh Post in 2012, Ben Sarin recalled the immediate aftermath of the liberation of Phnom Penh in 1979. He had been appointed as Chief Librarian and charged with the task of beginning to restore the library:

“There were only seven people working in the library during that time,” he said. “We had to know each of those languages fluently. I had to catalogue French languages, and the rest of the staff worked to catalogue the other languages,” Ben Sarin said.

He spent days wandering the streets of the capital, finding books that had been tossed out during the city’s forced evacuation, moving from house to house asking for contributions to the fledgling library. (Mom 2012)

The library reopened in 1980. It took the tremendous dedication of a few hardworking people to get the library in functioning order again, and reopen it to the public. But with a diminished collection of books, of varying use to the library users it desperately needed new books. In 1981 it started to receive imports of literature from abroad – mainly from Vietnam and the Soviet Union. Neang recalled that the Westerners used to call it a communist library (Ker 1993).

Around 1989, a woman called Gail Morrison - a Scottish librarian working in Australia at the time - arrived to help order and restore the library’s collection. She used her own personal funds to help repair the floors and furniture, and purchased new shelving for the library. She also introduced open stacks (Ledgerwood 1990). Up until then, a library user would have to request a specific book from a librarian, who would then go and retrieve it. Obviously this only works if you know in advance exactly what you need — especially if your library’s catalogue is still in disarray. Open stacks allow readers to browse and discover new books. I wish I could tell you a bit more about her and what exactly she did, but I can’t find anything. So that’s all I can tell you.

Back to the library. In 1990, Judy Ledgerwood documented her impression of the library:

The building today houses perhaps 50,000 volumes; the shelves are nearly full. But the collection is a strange jumble of old French-language works and recent gifts from socialist comrades. Almost none of the books are in Khmer. There is one room full of Khmer-language materials, but these are almost all multiple copies of the same titles. Library records list only 315 unduplicated titles in Khmer in the main collection (excluding the palm leaf manuscripts). (Ledgerwood 1990)

The reason for this strange jumble of texts was the library’s policy of accepting whatever people gave it, due to the fact that it had no budget. But a consequence of this was that the books on the shelves were dictated by the decisions of others through what they donated. There were children’s books in French, books on communism, including the works of Marx and Engles, and Russian medical books. The motivation behind these donations was frequently political:

The children's books in French were donated by a French organization in an attempt to reestablish French as the predominant second language. The medical books, of which Petrov is only one example, and the books on Marxist-Leninist theory and on the Soviet Union in general are gifts from the Soviet Union. (Ledgerwood 1990)

This meant that in 1990 it was still the case that the majority of the library’s collection were Foreign-language books. And a problem with that is that, whilst those with foreign language skills are in high demand, they are in short supply. These donations are not made to be of service to the library’s users, they are made to push ideologies. The fact that few of the library’s staff knew any foreign languages made it impossible for them to catalogue those books in any fashion beyond grouping them by language.

In 1992, the National Museum in Canberra, Australia returned several volumes of books to Cambodia.

According to John Holloway, the Australian Ambassador to Cambodia’s Supreme National Council, Australia was given the books in 1974:

The odyssey of the Tripataka volumes began in 1974 as Khmer Rouge guerrillas were pressing in on the capital... An elderly monk from a wat in Kien Svay, just east of Phnom Penh, turned up at the Australian Embassy and told the diplomats: "I'm terrified that if the Khmer Rouge get these volumes, they'll burn them." (Dobbs 1992)

The Tripataka is a collection of sermons and writings made by notable Buddhist monks over the centuries. The volumes, produced between 1920 and 1950, are Khmer translations from the original Pali (Dobbs 1992).

The Embassy accepted the books, and when it closed before the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh, they took the books with them for safekeeping, and keep them safe they did, until 1992 when they were finally returned.

In 1995 France donated $60,000 worth of books and documents relating to the French colonial period to the National Library and other institutes. It also donated $40,000 worth of equipment, including computers, software, and microfilm readers. They gave another donation of $25,000 worth of tools necessary to restore the library’s books (Heywood 1995).

Unfortunately, it seems that preserving the library has never been a high priority for the Cambodian government, meaning that the library was still short on funds and lacked the specialists necessary to properly care for and preserve the collections.

In a 1994 article, Moeun Chhean Nariddh, writing for the Phnom Penh Post reported that:

Some of Cambodia's last remaining ancient books face being ruined by decay within two years unless urgent action to save them is taken, according to an American expert…

"I hate to see these books being destroyed," said Dr George Smith, a Foreign Fellow of the American Library Association, as he showed the Post a 125-year-old book with pages eaten away by silverfish.

Inadequate storage left the library's book collection open to damage from insects, geckos and mold.

"If termites get into your book, they will destroy it in a week," Dr Smith said.

Among those in danger of deteriorating were ones on Angkor Wat and Cambodian history printed in the 1870s.

The biggest problem in storing the books was the frequent breakdown of the library's air-conditioning - exposing them to high temperatures and humidity - because of electricity blackouts.

"Since the beginning of this July, the library has had electricity to run its fans for only one month." (Moeun 1994)

In 2003 many of the same problems remained as in 1994. The French collection was infested with insects that were eating away at the books. Due to the library’s high ceiling, fumigation was not an option, and so staff were forced to try and get rid of the insects by hand when they cleaned the books. There was also still a lack of adequate air con or dehumidifiers that would help preserve the collection, and the wages for library workers were so low that employees without income support from elsewhere were forced to take a second job in order to make ends meet (Bugge 2003).

Despite still not getting adequate support from the government, the Library was still benefitting from support from other countries: in 2003 Malaysia and Poland were helping to pay for staff to get specialised training, Australia was donating books and funds, and libraries in Brunei and Singapore were also helping support them. The Asia Foundation donated a notable amount of new books and documents to the library, and the US had provided electronic equipment such as computers and scanners (Bugge 2003).

As I said before, by 1928 the library had 11,152 registered borrowers, with 9,698 visitors registered as using the reading rooms (Jarvis 1995: 395). When she spoke to the Phnom Pehn Post in 2014, the then director of the library, Khlot Vibolla, estimated that the annual total of readers and borrowers combined was around 4,800 (Fitch Little 2014).

Harriet Fitch Little, a reporter for the Phnom Penh Post, described the inside of the building:

Fans on the high-ceiling turn slowly, struggling to cool the handful of readers sitting at the long tables. Disorderly piles of books are propped up next to the receptionist’s desk, whose see-through donations box is thinly carpeted by small change. On the library’s shelves, books are inked with the insignias of Cambodia’s eclectic benefactors: some commemorate anniversaries of Filipino-Cambodian diplomatic relations; others come from “Japan relief for Cambodia”; many more are stamped with the badge of the US Army. In the “Waiting to be Shelved” section of the library, a biography of Hillary Clinton shows the then-youthful politician wearing a powder blue power suit – a 1998 donation from Books for Asia. (Fitch Little 2014)

So in 2014 at least, the library appears to still be accepting donations from everywhere.

But in 2014 Cambodia was also preparing to join the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC), and one of the preconditions for membership was a commitment to improving the library. Vibolla told the Phnom Penh Post that the improvements included scanning books, making records remotely accessible, and launching a website for the library (Fitch Little 2014).

Of course, reading that, I obviously had to go check out the library’s website. Unfortunately, it currently doesn’t appear to have one. There is a Facebook page for the library, but… it hasn’t posted anything since 2017. It has a link to a website, but the page isn’t there, they wayback machine never archived it, and the listed email address is defunct. So that’s a legit bummer. Obviously I put a google alert on it, so when anything changes, I’ll let you know. Honestly, part of me just wants to find a way to help them set it up.

In the same 2014 article, a New Zealander, Tony Morine talked about the difficulties in getting funding to support the library. Morine had volunteered with the National Library for five years and was still helping with their donation appeals:

Morine said he has also been looking to Cambodia’s American diaspora for support. He is currently planning the library’s third appeal to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for a sizeable grant. The first two applications were rejected on what Morine describes as frustrating technicalities, and this year he plans to do away with formalities and write an “impassioned open letter on behalf of Cambodia” directly to Bill Gates. But even if the Gates Fund application is secured, it will not guarantee a safe future for “the books that are falling apart with all the bugs in them,” as Morine describes them – as a development-focused organisation, the Gates fund’s priority is on the potential of libraries to act as digital hubs. (Fitch Little 2014)

So I checked that out, too. And, once again, unfortunately the Library has not as of yet received a grant. So, uh... Go email and tweet at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and tell them to support the National Library of Cambodia.

But I can tell you something that would hopefully make Suzanne Karpeles proud: there are once again mobile libraries operating in the country to bring books to those outside the cities.

I’ve sent quite a lot of emails over the last week trying to get in touch with anyone who works at the library, and so far I’ve not had any success. I might actually have to figure out somewhere I can send a fax from, or legit send snail mail. If/when I hear anything back, I’ll let you know. If you happen to know anyone who works at the library, let me know.

So that’s what I can tell you about the library. Its collection now is bigger than its pre-Khmer Rouge heights. It receives international help from quite a few countries and organisations - but not the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but still appears to be chronically underfunded and neglected by the Cambodian Government.

What about manuscripts? The ancient texts that were kept in the Buddhist monasteries. Both manuscripts stored in libraries and in the wats were significantly reduced in number during the 1970s.

In 1990, the Fonds pour l’Édition des Manuscrits du Cambodge (Fund for Manuscript Publication in Cambodia, or FEMC) was established. It was headed by professor Olivier de Bernon, Leng Kok An and Sopheap, in a bid to stop further loss of manuscripts and begin to restore those that remained (Sassoon & Meta 2017).

Leng Kok An described his own attempts over the last twenty years to find manuscripts that had survived the 1970s:

“I found some leaves inside stupas, in the roofs of buildings inside Buddhist pagodas, or in the kitchens,” he says. “Most of the scriptures were lying all messed up on the floor and were covered in dust. Many of the bundles had already lost some pages, so I didn’t just clean them but also had to put each page in order.”

Each page was photographed before each bundle was retied and placed in a bookshelf in the pagoda or library where it was found. (Roth 2011)

Researchers have visited over 1,000 monasteries in pursuit of preserving manuscripts, and whilst many manuscripts have been found, they reported that they remained in fewer than 100 monasteries (Roth 2011).

Of particular value was an undisturbed library of manuscripts found in Wat Phum Thmei Serey Monkgol, in the Kompong Cham province. So far, it’s the only undamaged collection to be found. It comprises 50,000 thin leaflets, which, once reunited into whole texts made up 1,210 books, including 200 texts that were written in Khmer. The collection has now been filmed and digitally archived. The originals remain in the Wat, stored in glass cases to preserve them (Roth 2011).

But despite efforts to preserve the manuscripts, there are still obstacles to progress.

Kok An lamented that the scrolls in the pagodas are being stolen by the very monks who are supposed to protect them, who he said would then sell them illegally in the markets to market vendors and tourists. Worse than that, he also reported that the vendors would chop up the scrolls into smaller sections (Sassoon & Kong 2017). I presume they do this so as to have more items to sell and can make more money. The upshot is that these texts are now incomplete, and the likelihood of being able to reunite all pieces of a manuscript once some of them have been sold is almost non-existent.

The FEMC pursued its work until 2015, when it ran out of funding. In a 2017 article by Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon and Kong Meta for the Phnom Penh Post, Professor de Bernon explained that their current lack of funding and support was severely impacting their work:

“Let us put it this way: more than thirty percent of the manuscripts that we have restored, microfilmed and inventoried since the 1990s have disappeared… It seems that nobody is offended: not the monks in the pagodas, not the lay people around, not the local religious authorities, not the Buddhist institute, not UNESCO. It is nobody’s concern.” (Sassoon & Kong 2017).

As if to prove his point, when the journalists reached out to the UNESCO office in Phnom Penh, they had not received a response by the time they published their article, a week after contacting the office.

They also reached out to the spokesperson for the Ministry of Cults and Religion, Seng Somony, who claimed to know nothing of the problem:

“I never heard of the monk or achar [religious lay people] stealing these old things to sell at the markets. I never received such information,” he said.

“It is not that I don’t believe you about the stealing. It’s not like it’s well maintained at the pagoda – 100 percent – but the monks are the ones who are accountable for the manuscripts.” Somony added that he would look into the alleged thefts.

Whilst efforts continue to preserve these artefacts, despite the setbacks, a small number of dedicated, expert artisans are working to preserve the techniques for making manuscripts. Like many high-skill traditional arts around the world, these techniques are in danger of dying out.

A young woman in Siem Reap, Phoeun Phavy, learned the technique from her father, and has been practicing since she was 13. In an article for the Phnom Penh Post, Phavy explained how her father had been one of the country’s few experts in the art of ‘crafting sastras on leaves’, and how she had come to learn from him:

“It was not my father’s wish,” she recalled. “When I was young, my father only taught my brothers to continue this job.” Traditionally, inking palm leaves is an exclusively male profession, and mainly undertaken by monks.

But Phavy’s brothers had no aptitude for their father’s craft, whereas Phavy felt that she had found her calling: “I loved it, so I started to learn,” she explained.

Phavy’s skills and dedication impressed her father, and she devoted herself to the craft. When she was working in 2015, Phavy sold her manuscripts for $250 each, but considering that each one can take months to make, and the hours of deep concentration poured into it, it’s far from a lucrative profession (Sen & Thik 2015). In 2017, however, Prime Minister Hun Sen declared that he would buy as many manuscripts as Phavy could make, at twice her current rate (Pann 2019). I’m sure it’s still far from adequate for the patience, skill, and time involved, but it’s a start.

Most recently, in December of 2019, the Phnom Penh Post ran a story about another artisan by the name of Lorth Loeng, who is also working to preserve the techniques involved in making manuscripts.

Loeng told the Post:

“Each sheet is sold at 15,000 riel but is sometimes sold less because most of the buyers are not rich. They buy it because of their love for Khmer art, culture, and literature… Most of the time, I am asked to make a whole set of palm leaf manuscripts of a specific story chosen by the client. This takes me about two to three months to finish, with around 400 sheets in total.” (Pann 2019)

15,000 riel by the way, is just under four US dollars, just over three Euros, or just under three pounds sterling. At 400 sheets, that makes each manuscript around, $1500, €1,300, or £1125.

Like Phavy’ father, Loeng is determined to pass the techniques on to his children:

“Besides making a living from it, I also spend my spare time passing on the skill to children who are passionate about making Khmer palm leaf manuscripts. Now, I teach about 10 of them for free. Among them is my 11-year-old daughter and only girl in the class.” (Pann 2019)

So there are a lot of laudable efforts going on to preserve ancient Cambodian literature for the future, but what about new literature since the fall of the Khmer Rouge? As testimony to the creative drive of humans, literature started appearing again almost as soon as the Khmer Rouge had been ousted. Remember, all the printing presses in the country had been destroyed by the Khmer Rouge and even paper and ink could be very difficult to get a hold of (May 2004: 30). But where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Novels, hand-written on school notebooks began to appear in the cities. The texts would be photocopied and these would then be rented out by the day at the market (May 2004: 30). The Vietnamese, who stayed around to help install the new regime they’d nurtured and trained, were socialists. And because the books were considered to be not supporting the socialist government, they were frequently confiscated. To avoid getting into trouble, many writers used pen names to avoid revealing their identity (May 2004: 30). State-sponsored novels also started to appear (May 2004: 31).

When the Khmer Rouge fell, many Cambodians fled across the border to Thailand, where, if they were lucky, they joined refugee camps rather than being sent back into Cambodia. These survivors too, immediately began to start writing. Stories, poetry collections, and at least 40 novels were produced in these camps (Someth 2004: 31). Exiles living abroad also started publishing their memoirs in English, and writing novels in Khmer. I quoted liberally from some of the memoirs last episode, and if this is a topic that interests you, or you like autobiographies and memoirs as a genre, then I can honestly recommend any of the ones I read from last episode.

Those were Cambodian Witness by Someth May, When Broken Glass Floats, by Him Chanrithy, and To Destroy You is No Loss by JoAn Criddle and Theeda Butt Mam. I also read Stay Alive, My Son by Pin Yathay, though I didn’t end up using any quotes from it.

Beyond autobiographies, Dr. Teri Yamada of the University of California Long Beach gives a brief overview of what happened to literature in Cambodia:

The Khmer Rouge era (1975-9) caused the disappearance of most writers and intellectuals; then the imposition of social realism, another form of censorship, occurred under the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), 1979-89. The democratic elections under the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (1992-3) ushered in a new era of open literary expression through the many newspapers published during the 1990s. This openness would gradually change from the 2000s as the government again imposed censorship laws on journalists. (Chuk 2013)

So literature isn’t entirely free, yet. In order to have a book published, the author needs to obtain a licence from the Ministry of Culture. In 2018, the Phnom Penh Post reported that:

Toul Kork district authorities in Phnom Penh confiscated two books written by the court-dissolved Cambodian National Rescue Party’s (CNRP) lawyer Yem Ponhearith.

… Commune chief Pech Sokhoeun said officials confiscated 54 copies of the two books that were published without the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts’ approval.

“I don’t know the exact contents of the books written by Yem Ponhearith. They said the ministry did not give permission to publish those books. Vendors said they will stop selling them,” he said.

The two books titled Human Value and Vision for National Reconciliation and Social Restoration were written in the Khmer language and published in France. (Kong 2018)

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, Thai Norak Satya, told the post that the authorities would seize any book which:

Poses a threat to national security, has political motives or could encourage people to seek any form of revenge against the government.

“Action will be taken on any book which has contents that threaten public security and provoke people inside or outside the country to take revenge against the government."

“We want to maintain harmony and protect the welfare of our people. If [a publication] causes national distress, action should be taken,” he said.

Like Pech Sokhoeun I don’t know the actual content of the two books, but that statement from the spokesperson for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts sounds… pretty repressive. So that’s not great. But Cambodians are still writing, and their writing still includes social commentary. Dr Yamada describes the focus of Cambodia’s short fiction writers today:

[they] are concerned with injustices in contemporary Cambodian society, especially the gap between rich and poor, urban and rural life. Common themes are a return to Buddhist compassion for Cambodians who struggle to survive—the rickshaw pullers, poor fishermen, rural young men come to school in Phnom Penh in a contemporary competitive capitalist economy within Cambodia. Some Cambodian writers still enjoy writing animal tales albeit in a modern context. This is no longer common in the rest of Asia. (Chuk 2013)

In 2013, Dr. Yamada edited a translated volume of short stories by contemporary Cambodian writers, called Just a Human Being

Journalist Eric Chuk, writing for the Khmerican – an online newspaper catering to the Cambodian Diaspora community in America, describes the volume as:

convey[ing] a stark, sombre impression of life there. Throughout, the themes are serious—the characters contemplate various ethical problems while dealing with loss, unfortunate accidents, and financial hardship. Yet at the same time, hope can be found in the emphasis on fairness and empathy for others. (Eric Chuk: 2013).

I’ll include a link to the book on both amazon.com and amazon.co.uk in the show notes. If you do buy it, please let me know – and then let me know what you think of it.

There’s one Cambodian writer, Soth Polin, whose story I found particularly interesting. Nearly all the information about him comes from an interview he did with Sharon May, and I’m going to quote from it liberally, here.

Polin is one of the surviving authors from the pre-Khmer Rouge era, and he’s a fitting candidate to talk about, given the theme of this podcast – as we’ll get to in a minute. Unfortunately the interview is behind a paywall. It’s available from Project MUSE if you happen to have access to that – I’d recommend reading it if you can, ‘cause it’s just super interesting.

Anyway. Polin was born in 1943 and learned to read from his maternal great-grandfather, the highly regarded poet Nou Kan. Polin recalls:

He made me lift my arms up and around the top of my head. When each of my hands could reach the opposite ear, I was of the age of learning, and he began to teach me the Khmer alphabet… he thought I was intelligent; the other members of my family did not agree. (May & Soth 2004: 9)

If you just checked to see if you could pull that stretch… I’m not gonna judge you because I did too. Nou Kan became a member of parliament when Polin was five or six, and Polin remembers writing letters to him about how much he missed him (May & Soth 2004: 9-10).

When he was 9 or 10 years old, Polin started to read a magazine called Saturday Night. It was a publication his mother was subscribed to, and kept locked in her room because she thought Polin was too young to read it (May & Soth 2004: 11). In order to read it, he would climb in through the window whilst she was out, putting the magazines back exactly where he found them when he was done. Polin tells of one instance where he nearly got caught:

Once I was reading a shocking story about a wife who takes a lover; when the husband comes home, the lover hides in a clothes chest that is like a casket. While I was reading this story, my mother returned from the market. I heard her footsteps. I saw the same kind of chest in her room—a long chest made of wood—so I hid inside it like the character in the story and closed the lid like a casket. My mother didn’t know I was in the room. I waited maybe fifteen minutes, but it felt like an eternity. When I was sure she had left, I came out. (May & Soth 2004: 11-12)

So this kid was dedicated to reading things. He even used to pinch money from his mother in order to buy books, taking just a little at a time so she wouldn’t notice.

Polin attended high school, and when he finished, he was faced with a choice of continuing to study either maths or philosophy. He chose the latter. And he was a dedicated student. The final year of his study was spent at the Lycée Descartes, and was taught in French (of course). Polin found the course hard, but studied harder, and became familiar with Sartre, Nietzsche, and Camus (May & Soth 2004: 12). Poor boy.

Polin was actually briefly taught by Pol Pot. He took a class on French literature with him for a month in 1957, after being told by his friends that Pol Pot was a good teacher. Polin remembers him as a gentle and well-liked man (May & Soth 2004: 17).

When he finished high school, Polin, age 19, starting writing his first novel. He self-published it when he was 22 years old, using money from selling a collection of French Composition essays from his high school exam to a bookshop. The novel was called Chivit at Ney or, A Meaningless Life. The first run was 1,500 copies, and it later became a great success (May & Soth 2004: 13).

In 1967 he published another novel, Chamtet Et Asor. Polin says of that book that:

It was very successful—maybe my most successful—because the government banned it. The Ministry of Information announced that anyone reading “that Soth Polin novel” risks going to jail. So I sold three or four editions on the black market, all of them gone after about a week. Because of the government, I became famous.

It was a daring novel. The title, Chamtet Et Asor, is ambiguous. Chamtet can mean “to make love” or “to provoke.” Et asor means “without pity.”

In the old Khmer folktales, there is the story of Thmenh Chey, who out-wits the king. The king tells him, I don’t want to see your face, so get lost! When the king passes by again, Thmenh Chey doesn’t offer his face, but his backside. That book was like offering my backside to the king. I didn’t write about Thmenh Chey, but I stole his style of being revolutionary, of indirectly criticizing the king. King Sihanouk had put to death many intellectuals. They were shot and hung upside down.

The word chamtet can also suggest absolute indifference to authority or government. Readers thought the title referred to making love, but the authorities knew that I was provoking them, so they banned the novel immediately after it was published. (May & Soth 2004: 14).

After that he spent some time away from Cambodia, living for a while in Berlin and France in 1968 while waiting for the heat to die down a bit after the scandal his book caused. He returned to Cambodia in 1969, where he took up a job as… a newspaper editor! He worked for his uncle’s paper, Khmer Ekkaraj or, Independent Khmer until Sihanouk threatened to have them arrested. His uncle shut down the paper (May & Soth 2004: 13).

Polin took this opportunity to do some writing. He wrote a book, The Adventurer about his time in France, and then a book of short stories, Whatever You Order Me… I Will Do It (May & Soth 2004: 13). The latter was, apparently, not popular (May & Soth 2004: 15). A while later, Polin started up a publishing company on his own, when he was about 27. It was called Nokor Thom, or Great Nation (May & Soth 2004: 13). In 1974 a series of events led to Polin fleeing the country. In his own words:

In early June, my friend was assassinated. He was Thach Chea, the deputy minister of education. I think he was killed by the government, but they tried to pass it off as an assassination by the Khmer Rouge. I composed a vendetta and published it in Nokor Thom. It was a special edition of the newspaper that took three weeks to prepare. No one knew about it. Nokor Thom had been shut down and was not permitted to publish, so I had to prepare the vendetta in secret.

The title was “The Emperor Has No Clothes.” Two or three hours after it was selling on the streets, I left for France. I was already at the airport with my wife and two sons. No one knew where I was. I escaped just in time.

People told me later that Phnom Penh was like a city struck by fire. A French diplomat wrote to me that the special edition was like a bomb. The military police confiscated it, then resold it to diplomats. Every copy sold out. The price went up fifty dollars a copy on the black market—that’s what they told me. At the time, that was a lot of money. But I did not profit from it. (May & Soth 2004: 14).

Polin has not been back to Cambodia since that day.

He spent the next ten years in France. In 1976, he learned that one of his brothers had died along with his wife and child whilst trying to flee to Thailand. Polin heard of this because he was interviewing thousands of refugees that had fled to France for a book he was working on about the Khmer Rouge with the French journalist Bernard Hamel (May & Soth 2004: 18-19). The book was called Of Blood and Tears: The Great Deportation of Cambodia, and was published the following year.

It wasn’t popular with French journalists, who were still at that point mostly pro-Khmer Rouge. And when I say ‘wasn’t popular’ I don’t mean ‘didn’t get favourable reviews’ so much as ‘Polin was so worried about the implications of publishing the book that he didn’t take an author credit on it’. He was afraid of reprisals, and so, despite doing a huge amount of the work, he was listed only as an assistant (May & Soth 2004: 19).

Polin also wrote a novel in French, The Anarchist, published in 1980. The first part was the novel he published in 1967 - Chamtet Et Asor, which he translated into French. The second part was written in three months after the Khmer Rouge’s regime collapsed and Polin learned of the death of his father (Edwards 2015). His other brother also did not survive the Khmer Rouge. His mother did, but that’s all I know.

The same year — 1980 — he also wrote an article on Pol Pot for Le Monde, which was subsequently translated and published in Germany and Britain, too (May & Soth 2004: 17).

The article caught the attention of journalists and researchers, but not so much Cambodian exiles and writers in France. At least not until David Chandler used that article as a source when he published his biography of Pol Pot, Brother Number One. Incidentally, if you want to read a biography of Pol Pot, that’s the one I’d recommend. There’s another one called Anatomy of a Nightmare, but out of the two of them, Brother Number One is more detailed and better referenced, and David Chandler has done a lot of work on and in Cambodia.

Anyway. Chandler’s book drew the attention of Cambodians in France to Soth Polin’s article, and they were apparently, not impressed by it. They objected to his description of Pol Pot as a good teacher. They wanted to portray Pol Pot as someone who hadn’t been particularly good at French - as someone who was not an intellectual.

The Anarchist wasn’t immediately popular in France, but by the time Polin moved to America, the initial run of 5,000 copies had sold out. In 2003, when Sharon May interviewed Polin, it was very hard to find a copy of the book. But in 2011 it was republished in French. Penny Edwards suggests that the reason the book wasn’t so popular the first time around was possibly due to it being critical of the French journalists for their highly favourable reporting on the Khmer Rouge (Edwards 2015).

After living in France Polin then moved with his two sons to America. He arrived as an illegal immigrant, but now lives their legally, and in 2002 was working as a cab driver. His most recent book, The Widow From L.A. was published in Khmer in 1995. He has a bunch of other books that he’s working on, but he has a self-confessed bad habit of not finishing things.

When asked whether he thought Cambodian literature would recover, Polin said:

I think it will recover. There are a lot of writers now. But it is not the same thing. What is lost is lost. There are young writers. But what we have lost will not come back.

I’ll leave you with his answer to a question of what he hopes for in the future:

I hope our art continues. I think it will survive. I think Cambodia will survive. There will be another generation of writers. But right now, what we have lost is indescribable. Khun Srun, Hak Chhay Hok, Chou Thani, Kem Sat… They are all gone. It is difficult now. What we have lost is not reconstructable. An epoch is finished. So when we have literature again, it will be a new literature.

Even if we had more writers of my generation, we could not succeed if we continued writing as we did. There is something that we cannot get past. It just kills the imagination. It is the atrocity of the Khmer Rouge. Even if you are reaching in your imagination for a new destination, you cannot get past their cruelty. When you try to write something without mentioning the Khmer Rouge, you can’t.

The next generation will forgive that, they will forget, but for us, we cannot forgive it. (Soth & May 2006: 115).

Thanks for listening. If you like the show, please subscribe on whatever podcatcher you’re using. Rate and review the show, especially on iTunes.

If you have questions, comments, corrections, feedback, want to suggest a topic, want to tell me you’ve read books by Cambodian authors and recommend some to me, etc. You can find the podcast on twitter @poisonroompod, or send an email to: poisonroompodcast@gmail.com

Alternatively, contact your local library and either donate money to them, or ask them what books they need and donate those.

Transcripts of all episodes are available at poisonroom.com, where you can also see the references and bibliography. As always if the sources are publicly available, they’re linked to.

I… hope everyone is doing okay in the current… snafu of… global pandemic-ness? Umm… stay safe, look after yourselves. If your friends are bored whilst self-isolating tell them to listen to this podcast, but maybe not the super grim episodes. And, uh… I’m gonna try and… maybe Wednesday is just going to become the new release day for this podcast. We’ll see. I’ll try and get the next episode out by next Wednesday at least.

You have been listening to The Poison Room, a podcast that very much advocates for Bill and Melinda Gates to give the Buddhist Institute money to look after its collection.

The voice in your ears has been: Silvie Kilgallon.


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