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.

Savong and the Mystical Python


Savong and his father, 2009. A family story that needs telling.

Over the years I have found that Savong very rarely talks about himself. What I know of him has come through in little snatches of conversation, and in things I have observed. I am a researcher by profession, and normally I ask a lot of questions. But when I’m with Savong, I tend to see little walls put up around himself, and out of politeness seldom venture into the territory of his own life.

One aspect of Savong’s life that I find fascinating is his relationship with his father.

Savong’s father was around 25 years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power, and as a young man he was recruited as a cook for the local soldiers. after the war Savong’s father and a good friend gathered bones from the local killing fields based halfway between Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, and he donated family land in order to build Wat Thmei,  otherwise known as the Killing Fields Pagoda, where Savong was educated. Savong’s father was a Buddhist monk, but these days he serves as a adviser on things spiritual as well as practical, and he also serves as a fortune teller for locals.  In these regards he is highly esteemed.

Fortune-telling?  For Westerners this seems like a dubious title.  Honestly,  how can one tell the future? In fact a lot of the advisory work he carries out is based not so much on reading the future as on reading the body language of his clients. He once told me that an important part of this work was to observe how is clients sit, how they stand, and how they walk. “You can tell a lot about a person from just watching these things,” he explained to me.

However here is a true story that makes me think that us Westerners may be missing a dimension in our lives that Cambodian Buddhists take for granted.

The year is 2006, and at that stage Savong’s School had just been built, and consisted of three classrooms in the middle of a rural field. Sharing the field was a small thatch hut in which Savong lived. One day, (it was early morning, before dawn,) Savong was woken from a sleep by a phone call from his father.

“Savong,” his dad told him, “get out of bed very slowly.”

“What is it?” asked Savong.

“Under your bed,” explained his father, “there is something very dangerous.”

So Savong very carefully rose from his bed and then, using the little torchlight of his phone, peered underneath the simple wooden bed. There, curled up and asleep, was a python.”

“It was this long,”  Savong told me, stretching his arms out wide. ” It was at least 2 m long.”

I have wondered since then how Savong’s father knew that there was danger under Savong’s bed. What little voice had prompted him to make that call early in the morning before dawn?

See also: Ghosts in the Cambodian Schoolyard

Haing S Ngor accepts Best Support Actor Oscar for his role in The Killing Fields

This year a Cambodian, Rithy Panh came close with his movie The Missing Picture, to winning an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and it is thirty years ago when Haing S Ngor won his deserved acting Oscar for his part in The Killing Fields: a movie that has very much shaped the West’s modern appreciation of Cambodia. This video clip of Ngor’s acceptance speech hints at the luck he had in being cast for the role (he was not a trained actor,) and simply bursts with his pride, joy and – yes – blessings not only for the Hollywod recognition, but for the fact that he made it out of Cambodia, alive. Watching it right now I admit: I burst into tears.

Another American/Cambodian connection: The Kent State Massacre – 4 Dead in Ohio

Rediscovering a dignified past: An Interview with Mitty Steele


For US-Cambodian Mitty Steele the last ten years have been a discovery process as she traces her family’s stories about growing up in mid 20th century Cambodia.

More than quarter of 1 million Cambodians live in the USA and for the sons, daughters and grandchildren of the refugees who escaped Cambodia during the Pol Pot era there is inevitably a sense of incompleteness; a sense of a stolen personal history. Among the US-based Cambodians to retrace the steps of her family, and to reconnect on a personal level with Cambodia is Mitty Steele, a young writer who began interviewing her father 10 years ago before he died.

Mitty was born in Battambang, Cambodia in 1975, a few months after the Khmer Rouge came into power. Her family managed to make it to the USA and in recent years Mitty has been piecing together the story of her family.

Mitty’s father must have been a remarkable man.  Born in a village where illiteracy was normal, his parents placed their son aged six in a  Buddhist monastery in order that he may receive an education. The tuition he received as a young boy were sufficient for him to gain entry in what was the French style school system of Cambodia of the 1940s and 50s.

Mitty’s father studied to postgraduate level, and when he met the woman who would become Mitty’s mother, her parents insisted that there prospective son-in-law should become a professional teacher in order to have both the dignity of the profession as well is the assured income.

I first met Mitty via her blog in which she wrote, very beautifully and evocatively, about her parents and about her father’s love of teaching. So I contacted Mitty because thanks to her diligence and personal research she could help me understand some of the lost history of the education system in Cambodia prior to Pol Pot.  Mitty graciously agreed to be interviewed by email, and what you read below are her answers to my fumbling questions. Thank you Mitty for your help. By the way, here is a link to her wonderful blog.

Q: What is your current role in Cambodia?

A: My current role in Cambodia is to take this time in my life for personal reflection, to learn about Cambodia and our family’s history. I’ve lived in the U.S. for the last 30+ years and Cambodia was always an afterthought in my mind. That all changed when I first visited the country in 2004 and after that experience, I knew that at some point in my life I wanted to take the time to go back to Cambodia to reconnect with the country. A few months ago, our family received a great opportunity to move back to Cambodia. I’m taking a break from my career at the moment because I know this is a rare opportunity to come back and get reacquainted with a country I left so long ago.

Q: I’m sure there’s a complicated psychology going on for Cambodians such as yourself who have grown up in the west and choose to return. What things have you discovered about yourself since flying in to Cambodia?

A: Growing up I didn’t like nor appreciated the fact that I could navigate between two worlds, American and Cambodian. I saw my Khmer identity more as a burden because I wanted to fit in with my American friends. As I grew older I realized that it is not a burden but a blessing, but these are the lessons one learns with age and maturity. Now as I live here and am caught between the two worlds of being Khmer and American, I realize it is a blessing of which I no longer take for granted. I’ve learned that being able to do this is a priceless gift.

I also discovered I didn’t know many of the issues Cambodia faces. When I was an outsider looking in and reading the news about Cambodia from the U.S it was always portrayed as black and white. But having lived here for a few months, now understanding that there aren’t simple solutions to the problems facing Cambodians today. There are nuances that have to be understood such as history, cultural context, socio-political environment that can’t be captured in a sound bite or headline. I understand now that many of the problems facing Cambodia are deeply embedded in systemic failures of institutions and not easily fixed overnight. I believe that it will take a generation to overcome the historical traumas of the past and the culture of impunity of the present but only if real and meaningful reforms start happening now.

Q: What things worry you about modern Cambodia?

A: The future of the young people of Cambodia worries me the most. With over 70% of the population being under the age of 30, Cambodia is under tremendous pressure to find jobs for this burgeoning demographic.

Unemployment among young people is high because their levels of education are low. Cambodia has achieved an impressive 97 percent primary net enrollment rate, yet at only 40 percent of students complete secondary school. Many young people drop out during secondary school to find work or their family can’t support them through school. As such there is a huge gap of an uneducated workforce.
In addition, Cambodia’s economy has blossomed at an impressive rate of 7 percent on average, however that has been attributed to areas of low skilled labor (particularly manufacturing), which require limited skill sets. In order for the economy to sustain that growth or achieve even higher growth, it needs to diversify beyond manufacturing, agriculture, and tourism. But that means deep reforms in the education system, starting with educating students with the skills of tomorrow to prepare them for an increasingly competitive environment.

Q: Mitty; In your writing you reflect on your dad. Your dad was a teacher in the 1960s. Did he talk much about those days?

A: Growing up, I don’t remember my father talking about his teaching days in the 1960s. I remembered my parents talked often about how we suffered during the Khmer Rouge time, perhaps as a way to help us appreciate how fortunate we were to come to the United States and the opportunities we were given. It wasn’t until I started interviewing my parents over 10 years ago—in preparation for my first trip back to Cambodia—that my father briefly talked about his time as a teacher before the war. In one particular story, he told me how he met my mother (who was his student) and that her parents would only let him marry her if he became a teacher for the government, which would give him more financial security. Parents wanted their daughters to marry teachers because it was considered a noble profession and would give them a high social status.

It is also in this context, he would always tell me how highly respected teachers were back then. Students respected their teachers as they would their own parents. When I visited Cambodia with him in 2004, I was impressed to see how his students still held him in the highest regard and respect. And it wasn’t necessarily because he was the best teacher, but it was something you could tell was ingrained in the culture and relationship between teachers and students back then that transcended time. As I’m learning about the education system now, I’m not sure if this type of relationship would hold true today among teachers and students.

As I look back, I didn’t appreciate the information he was giving me nor understood what it meant until I came back to here to live and learned about the stark contrast of the quality education and life of teachers back then and now.

Q: You interviewed Mr Rithy Chea who could reflect on teaching in the old days, as well as the post-Pol Pot years. His comments about the earlier times must have been like a window for you, to look through and see something of your father’s life as a teacher. What did Rithy Chea miss from those days?

A: I think Mr. Chea wanted to become a teacher, for many of the reasons my father wanted to become a teacher, because it was considered a noble profession by society and had financial security. Mr. Chea had studied to become a teacher but then the Khmer Rouge came and that sense of nobility and financial security for teachers was gone and was a liability and a target for execution. When the war was over, that sense of nobility and financial security for teachers never came back and even as we speak, teachers are still struggling to gain this back today. I think that’s what he misses most from those days is the cultural value that the government and society placed on teachers, and the investment that was made in education in general.

Q: He has given 30 years since the 1980s to teaching. I sensed in your interview that he feels discouraged – for example about the low rewards and the widespread cheating by students/teachers who choose to buy or sell pass grades. How widespread do you think this is?

A: Cheating is so widespread that the government has made examination reform one of the top priorities in the education reform agenda. Cheating during examinations is so deeply ingrained in the system that it has become a well organized business machine. The government is looking into how it can tackle this problem, including how to take legal measures against those caught cheating, but this will be a difficult issue to tackle because there will be resistance from those who directly benefit from the cheating. There needs to be enforcement mechanisms for those who are caught cheating but there also needs to be incentives in place to reward the honest and hard working students and teachers.

Q: It seems to run counter to the widespread respect that Cambodians hold for teachers.

A: It does seem counter to the respect that Cambodians in general hold for teachers, but as we know the level of respect that students, parents, and society held for teachers in the past pales in comparison to today, and that is because of the cheating, the bribing, and the low salary that has diminished what was once considered a noble profession.

Q: If you could make three reforms to what you see of the education system in Cambodia – what would you focus on?

A: I would create strong accountability and enforcement mechanisms to deal with cheating and fake diplomas, such as suspending students who are caught engaging in this. I would incrementally increase the pay of teachers based on merit and performance; and improve the quality of education at all levels, especially the secondary level by finding incentives for students stay in school and help students gain the professional or vocational skills they need to find jobs when they graduate.

Q: You’ve probably got mixed views about what you see in modern Cambodia. Are you optimistic for the Kingdom?

A: I believe that change is in the air for Cambodia and I am optimistic for the future of the Kingdom. I believe the Cambodia as we see today will be vastly different in 5-10 years. The country is at a crucial turning point where current leaders are aging and the younger generation (which encompasses over 70% of the population) wants real change and reform.

We saw this as evidence after the results of the elections when it was a narrow victory for the ruling party. In five years time there will only be more young people who will be eligible to vote. To ignore these voices as a wake up call for real change and reform would be a mistake. If the time between now and the next elections aren’t used to make genuine efforts for deep institutional reforms I believe the results will not be as close as it was in July.

I think most Cambodians, including the young people, want Cambodia to choose a path of peace, economic and social progress and stability but they also need to feel hope for a brighter future for themselves and for their families.

Q: Last question. If you could talk to your late father about Cambodia: what would you tell him?

A: I would tell my father that Cambodia is so different. He probably wouldn’t recognize it now. Everyday since I’ve been in Cambodia, I’ve wished that he was here with me to see how much the country has changed. I wish he was here with me so that he can show me the places he went to when he grew up, the schools he studied and taught in, to tell me the stories of his life living in Cambodia, the good and bad times. My father loved telling stories, and loved everything about his country; the food, music, culture, history, and politics. It was always his dream to live back in Cambodia in his old age. I would have loved it if he were here with me right now to hear these stories of the past and compare them to what I see today.

When I started interviewing him 10 years ago the questions I asked were more about our experience during the Khmer Rouge, and a little about before the war—what life was like before then. What he provided to me was a peek into the past. I regret not asking him more questions when he was alive about Cambodia’s past, present and future.

Now that I am here the things I am learning about Cambodia and the places I see mean so much more as I try to understand the country’s struggles and strengths and my own family’s history and journey. But without him here, they are fragmented stories of a window to the past of which I am trying to piece together to help me understand our story and Cambodia’s story.

Thank you Mitty for your depth of insights. I encourage readers to also reflect on her beautiful piece of writing about her father’s experience as a teacher.

For more about that aspect of today’s cheating: Crackdown on Cheats.

Book Review: David Chandler’s “History of Cambodia”


David Chandler’s short but solid History of Cambodia has since the year 2000 stood as the single most well-regarded history of this small complex nation. Chandler is a Professor of History at Monash University, Melbourne and the author has clearly invested his recent life, not to mention his reputation, in the process of getting this book right. In fact during the 360 pages he often takes time out to discuss the challenges facing the historian as he or she must weigh up the fractured evidence from the previous centuries, and must choose a perspective from which to tell the story. After all, Cambodia – as we discover – has always been a poorly defined entity that somehow exists yet is itself a collision of different cultural forces including Hindu, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese: not mention the various tribes indigenous to Cambodia itself. As Chandler says:

No one knows for certain how long people have lived in what is now Cambodia, where they came from, or what languages they spoke before writing was introduced…whether the early people came originally from what are now China and India and from elsewhere in Southeast Asia is still debated by scholars.

And so Chandler pieces together the early evidence, which is quite scant, and takes care to present the various theories and conclusions that historians have reached since the 19th Century when French historians “discovered” Angkor and began investigating the story behind Cambodia.

Any visitor to Angkor Wat and the collection of temples may recall some of the vividly evocative bas relief carvings which portray life 1,000 years ago, but again, as Chandler points out, these stone records don’t tell the full story. As he assembles, from the evidence available, the story of the Angkor Kings we find their stories, upon investigation, are part legend, part spin on their own part, and partly lost altogether. If the historic landscape lacks written evidence, there is at least some, furnished by Chinese visitors: but how reliably?

Despite these challenges, Chandler succeeds in developing a central thread to his narrative: the idea of Cambodia being a deeply conservative, traditional culture that somehow manages to absorb change and challenge – to incur invasions sometimes – while keeping its core culture intact.

For me, the book can be a little dry – especially when the historical evidence leaves Chandler (and his collective colleagues – whom he generously acknowledges,) simply speculating about what might have happened, and how society may have operated. But it comes alive the moment the French arrive (first as missionaries in the late 18th Century) and when they begin to assert control over Cambodia. Here Chandler’s scholarship is impeccable: citing a wide range of sources as he traces the sometimes smooth, at other time fractious relationship between the Khmer people and the French colonisers.

Here by the early 20th Century we see all the seeds for Cambodians to start opposing foreign control and to turn quietly against the French. Well, not always quietly. In April 1925 is the murder of French tax collector Felix Louis Bardez – an episode told with an electric level of energy by Chandler – in which a whole village, angered at the high tax levies, attacked the Frenchman and his interpreter, and murdered them. A later witness recalled that there was no one murderer: everybody was equally guilty.

From here the narrative accelerates as the events of World War 2 redefine or sharpen Cambodia’s sense of self. We enter the era of the politically opportune Norodom Sihanouk who helps steer Cambodia to independence. But independence, Chandler argues, is a relative term because Cambodia as a small nation has always had to gingerly take sides – with the USA during Lon Nol’s reign as PM, and then with North Vietnam and China. Every decision to side with a bigger force carries a price however, and David Chandler, who in the latest edition of the book steers us into the 21st Century (he extensively reviewed his early editions and added a new chapter,) wonder aloud if Cambodia, (which seems to absorb and occasionally revolt against foreign influence,) can weather the impact of the modern Century. A problem, as he quite fairly sees it, is that Cambodia has a long history of patronage, and that rival groups of Patrons (consider how Hun Sen has ensconced himself as Prime Minister,) show a stubborn inability to compromise, co-operate or share power. Eventually each Patron (whether the French, or Lon Nol or Pol Pot…) loses to a violent overthrow or defeat.

The author wonders if Hun Sen is heading for the same fate given that the PM seems, in the words of the author: “..unprepared to be genuinely responsive to people’s needs.” He puts his hopes and faith in the resilience, talents and desires of the Cambodian people.

Don’t expect an easy read with this book. Not every chapter of Cambodia’s history follows a straightforward narrative arc. However if you are interested in modern Cambodia, then this volume fulfills a necessary place in your need for knowledge. I admire the author for his due care, not just in reporting widely researched facts, but in providing a balanced, thought-provoking perspective.


David Chandler is an Emeritus Professor at Monash University, and holds degrees from Harvard, Yale and Michigan Universities.He has authored a number of books relating to the Democratic Kampuchea period and S-21 and was called as an expert in Case 001 of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal for an analysis of the policies that established S-21 and the broad purpose and function of security centres (and S-21 in particular) in Democratic Kampuchea.

For two other book reviews that may interest you: Cambodia’s Curse and a Travel Writer’s take on modern Cambodia.

Cambodia – film archives released by Pathe


Before television International News was seen at the movie theatres around the world thanks to newsclips shot by international organisations such as Pathé. Prior to seeing the main feature film, cinema goers were treated to sights and sounds from around the world. Well good news, much of the old black-and-white footage has been rediscovered and restored by Pathe themselves, and this week they released 80,000 film clips to YouTube, many from Indochina.

The footage includes what documentary makers might call pickup shots; backgrounds and scenes that themselves do not have much news value, but allow the filmmaker to set the scene. A lot of this footage has no sound, and in fact when Pathé put together their short news films for the cinema circuit they were heavily reliant on music and on voice-overs scripted by people who had never, apparently, been overseas themselves.

One of the short films released this week is an account of the annual paddle race at the Phnom Penh; 1945. The footage is exciting, and quite telling – revealing French and British troops in attendance. The voice-over makes no reference to the fact that western Cambodia had been annexed to Thailand at the time. It seems these news stories had no time for actual news! And unfortunately the scripted voice-over, in that British broadcasting voice characteristic of the day, is ugly, dishonorable and condescending to say the least. A lot of the “facts” are simply made up.

However, if we can look past this appalling example of colonialism, and turn down the sound then an interesting experience awaits. Some of the footage, the earliest being shot in 1910, connects modern Cambodia with life in the early to mid 20th century. It gives pause for reflection and inevitably asks the viewer; how has Cambodia changed? In what ways is Cambodia now different?

Here are just three links to this footage.


For more stories about Cambodian film: