44 years since the Kent State Massacre – how many more?

Image

John Filo’s photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio, kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller minutes after he was shot by the Ohio National Guard. The protest was over the bombing of Cambodia.

By 1970 public sentiment in the USA toward their war in Vietnam had turned almost decisively. In late 1969 the spotlight had fallen on the My Lai massacre in which a village of innocent people were murdered by out-of-control US soldiers. There was no moral defense for this. The war was increasingly unjustifiable – except to the so-called political Hawks who saw Vietnam as the place where the communist dominoes would be stopped from falling (into Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia.)  Now on April 30th 1970 President Richard Nixon announced to America that, in fact, he was extending military action into Cambodia.

In fact the US had already been actively bombing the eastern parts of Cambodia, adjacent to Vietnam. This was Nixon’s “secret war” urged on by Henry Kissinger (three years later recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize.)

The announcement on April 30th spurred a planned demonstration by peace protestors across dozen of university campuses including Kent State University in Ohio. Here on May 4th 1970 the protestors were met by the National Guard who, under specific orders, aimed and fired their rifles at incredulous protestors. (Witnesses thought surely they were using blanks.)

Four students were killed.

The photo (above) was taken by a passer-by and widely published. Of all media images this is the one that took the horror of the Indo-China conflict right onto America’s own doorstep. Days later, fuelled by singer Neil Young’s anger over the event, Crosby Stills Nash & Young released the single Ohio which to me, even 44 years later distils the feelings I have toward wars in general.

Alas, the photo has echoes today, not in the USA so much as in the Freedom Park of Phnom Penh where Hun Sen’s soldiers have killed protestors seeking fair elections and living wages. A common element when I look at the photos of both events is that the soldiers are masked. The Ohio National Guard soldiers were wearing gas masks – their use of teargas was not successful because the breeze dispersed this – while the Cambodian riot police wear motorbike helmets.

I wonder if this is for physical protection or whether it reflects the shamefulness of meeting a peaceful protest with unnecessary brute force.

GARMENT WORKER

Source VoA News. A garment worker protesting low wages meets police force in Phnom Penh.

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I weep for Savong’s older brother – Savet.

I weep for Savong's older brother - Savet.

In 2009 when I took this photo I was captivated more by the picturesque quality of what I saw than by the true human story. The man in the picture – his blue shirt contrasting gloriously with the fluffy delicious white rice he is cooking for the children at SOC – is no longer alive, and his story nags me as a reminder of Cambodia’s recent history.

His name is Savet, and he was Savong’s older brother; a figure to whom Savong remains deeply attached.

In the years immediately after Pol Pot, Cambodia went through a terrible period of impoverishment, and families scratched out what living they could.

This is how bad it was: Savet left home at age seven to fend for himself. He survived on a diet that included tree bark, insects and whatever he could afford to buy from begging. Imagine making that decision as a 7-year-old.

In many respects it is understandable that Savet became emotionally rather detached from his family. As a teenager he came and went from the household, but he spent many years of his adult life living in Poipet. In is last years he came home to Siem Reap where he helped Savong at the SOC. He was the stoic father figure that many of the children looked up to.

This was not to last. In time Savet contracted cancer and after a brief and painful battle his life ended in the same home in which he had begun his life.

Savong speaks admiringly of his brother who as a youngster took Savong under his wing and taught him the skills of begging. Together when the UN troops arrived in Cambodia, the two boys would sell banana cake and it was from Savet that Savong learned his first word in English which was something like: “Misterdollar.”

When Savet was on his deathbed, hooked up to a drip, he chastised Savong for not being by his bedside often enough. “In Cambodia,” Savong explained to me, “when you are on your deathbed then you have the right to insist that others gather around.”

Savong felt the sting of the rebuke, but what could he do? He was so busy running the school and the children’s home out in Bakong and he was unable to be in two places at once.

Savet’s death marked a change in Savong. I noticed almost immediately that my friend was much more serious in life, and that the grand adventure he was on – a young man who has started a school! – had now become a mission.

Perhaps Savong does everything in the name of his brother these days. I wouldn’t blame him. Savet was a victim of everything that went wrong in Cambodia in the 1970s and 80s, and ultimately he gave the last days of his life, as we see in the photo, preparing food and serving the needs of a younger hopefully luckier generation.

A recent story of a girl with an awful decision.