Sunday, February 17, 2013

Angka’s Judge

Hanging above the violet-robed men and women is an image of an ancient judge.  He is dressed in the traditional formal attire of an Angkor official, seated cross-legged on a dais, sword in hand.

The emblem hangs in the courtroom alongside the UN’s blue and white and Cambodia’s blue and red.   The judges, lawyers and court staff work behind glass, stage-like, in a large, darkened auditorium. 

This is the ECCC, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia – a quasi-national and international tribunal established in 2003 to bring to justice the puppet masters of Pol Pot’s genocide.

The Khmer Rouge Tribunal is located thirty minutes outside the center of the capital, far from the construction, the tall buildings and the bustle.  You drive past the airport and continue out a ways, until you reach a nondescript guard post.  There you turn and drive down a dirt road lined with trees till you reach the stand alone buildings of the court.

Anyone can attend the hearings.  I went on a Tuesday, relinquishing my phone at the gate and then a coffee candy at the door to the Court.  The candy went on a table scattered with the small contraband of purses and pockets – candies, containers of tiger balm and packets of betel nut.

Everyday men and women from the countryside are bused in to watch the halting steps of justice.   Mainly older women fill the seats of the auditorium – women with shaved heads, sarongs, white cotton shirts and checkered karma; women who do not see many foreigners and who smile and nod at me and squeeze my arms; grandmothers and mothers who would have been young women during Pol Pot’s regime.

In the thirty-four years since the fall of the Khmer Rouge only a single perpetrator has been tried, convicted and sentenced to prison.  That man was not Pol Pot.  Pol Pot died in his house fourteen years ago – possibly from a heart attack, possibly from suicide – the same night he learned that he would be tried by an international tribunal.

As of now, the only person serving time for the murder of two million Cambodians is the man nick-named “Duch” (Kaing Guek Eav) who headed Tuol Sleng Prision (S-21) in the heart of Phnom Penh.

At Tuol Sleng, Duch orchestrated the cleansing of traitors and spies from Khmer society – extracting confessions under torture from ten-year-old children and eighty year old grandmothers, ultimately condemning over twelve thousand people to death.
After hiding for 21 years, Duch was discovered by a photo-journalist 13 years ago.  He was the first to be tried by the ECCC in 2007 and three years later was found guilty of crimes against humanity.

We are now deep into trial 002.  Thirty-four years later.  Three men stand accused: Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan.  Originally there was also one woman – Ieng Sary’s wife Ieng Thirith, originally charged with planning and directing mass purges and killings.  But she was released a year ago due to severe Alzheimer’s.  She is one of the few who has been able to forget.

The morning I visit the trial, the prosecution was in the midst of presenting documentary evidence against the three men.

TV screens project close ups of the lawyers and speakers project the proceedings into the auditorium in Khmer.  As one of four foreigners, I am given a headset that translates into English and French.

The process is slow, slightly stiff.  The lawyers read from a six-inch-thick binder, referencing previously presented evidence and citing numbered documents.

The prosecution plays a video interview with Nuon Chea, also known as Brother Number Two, who was Pol Pot’s right hand man.   In the video the interviewer asks
Nuon Chea why children, as young as ten, were conscripted into the Khmer Rouge army. “They were fighting for social equality that they haven’t had since the 2nd Angkor Period.”  “But why children?” “I ignore the reasons…Without Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge Cambodia would have been in the hands of the Vietnamese.”

Nuon Chea is absent from the courtroom.  He has been in and out of the hospital for months now, most recently with acute bronchitis.  Khieu Samphan, former head of state is also frequently in the hospital. 

The orchestrators of Democratic Kampuchea, the men and women who worked for the almighty, faceless Angka, are slowly dying.   But almost all remain uncharged.

The trials churn painstakingly onwards.

In the courtroom the morning session is adjourned.   In the auditorium we rise.  The judges file out of the room. 

Off to the side Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary are helped to their feet.  They have been sitting silently the whole time, off to the side, behind their lawyers.   They are small men now.  They are wrinkled and sunken-eyed – disturbingly easy to overlook in the grandeur of the courtroom.

A guard helps them each to their feet and, as they are led haltingly away, a white curtain slides across the glass of the courtroom – hiding it all from view.

Friday, February 15, 2013

All the World’s a Stage

How does one translate “All the World’s A Stage” into the ancient language of Khmer?

Once again I have found myself teaching Shakespeare in an unusual environment.  Last year in Boston, I explored the elements of the story with 6th graders and probed the emotional transformation of the bard’s characters with teenagers.  The year before, at a Thai university, our focus was the adaptation to a South East Asian setting.

Here, in the Kingdom of Cambodia, reading, listening, writing and speaking Shakespeare with Khmer college freshman and sophomores, our focal point has been the language.

In past years, I relied upon my childhood favorite – Macbeth.  But here, I am surrounded by empowered young Khmer women working to break the stereotypes of the role of women in Cambodian society. When it comes to choosing an appropriate Shakespeare play, there is an obvious choice.

What better play than “As You Like It”?

The play is a stark contrast to the romantic Khmer soaps my students are always watching, where woman are always seen weeping or imploring their men to return.

Rosalind does not weep and she certainly does not beg.  Instead she stands up to her uncle, dresses as a man to protect herself and her cousin, establishes a life for herself in the forest of Arden, and does not wait for any man to rescue her. 

And so we began.

“All the world’s a stage,” proclaims the melancholy courtier Jaques.  And in the dusty city of Phnom Penh, the streets and roads, but most particularly our dorm, became our stage. 

The transformation took less than a week

These young women took Jaques’ words to heart.  They practiced in their rooms and in the hallways and in the kitchen.  They repeated their lines on their Motos en route to school.  

Within a week they were quoting their lines to each other – saying good bye with a joking “I do desire we be better strangers” or “Goodbye Signior Love.”

Our Khmer Orlando embraced her role so fully that she altered her Facebook name to reflect her Shakespearean name.

To understand the full story we watched a movie adaptation. Whenever a student’s character walked on screen the particular student would correspondingly blush, or nod in agreement, or tease the others.

To introduce iambic pentameter I hung sonnets throughout the dorm.  I found students studying the sonnets in the bathrooms and the kitchens, trying to read them out loud and decipher their meaning.

 Mostly we practiced.  We deciphered meanings of words and phrases: what does it mean when Rosalind charges her cousin to “take the cork out of thy mouth that I may drink thy tidings?”  We practiced pronunciations :“she” particularly challenging to Khmer speakers: Shepard Shepard Shepard.

“O Rosalind!” the girl playing Orlando exclaimed from the dorm balcony, causing at least one neighbor to turn from their laundry to look up.

After a month of exploration it was time to perform.

We selected costumes and reviewed blocking.   And then, one Sunday afternoon, we drove to the other dorm for a leadership seminar with all 80 young women, 20 recent graduates and 20 visiting Americans.

The girls changed into their costumes – pants, “manly” shirts, sneakers, some wore hats to hide their hair.  The girl playing Touchstone (the fool), drew a curly mustache and fake beard on her cheeks.

And then they were walking out on stage, my roommate inspecting audience members before pronouncing in a loud clear voice: “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women are merely players.”

Be it in inner-city Charlestown MA, the mountain city of Chiang Mai or the dusty capital of Phnom Penh, Shakespeare has captured the fascination of my students.  Yes, Shakespeare is extremely difficult.  Yes, the language sounds weird and the meanings are complex.

I love teaching Shakespeare because I believe that it is challenging but also empowering.  These nine women rose to the challenge and I believe that these young Khmer women, who I have had the honor of living with and teaching, are all modern Rosalinds.

I look forward to watching their individual performances in the years ahead. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Farewell, in Black and White

“All radios and TV stations as well as entertainment places must suspend broadcasting joyful spectacles,” read the decree signed by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.

For three months now, truckloads of mourners have been driving the dusty roads into the capital.  They have come from all across Cambodia, from the cities and from the countryside.  They wear formal white shirts and black silk sarongs and trousers.

They have driven up the central boulevards and along the quay.  Bringing pink-tipped lotus buds and bundles of incense, they come to sit in front of the Grand Palace to pay homage to the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk, former King of Cambodia.

I arrived in Cambodia not long after the King Father had passed away, from a heart attack, in Beijing at the age of 89.  The country was in mourning.  Large images of Sihanouk draped in black and white ribbons were everywhere across Phnom Penh.   In the public park across from the royal palace construction proceeded at a rapid rate, as a red and gold stupa fit for a king’s cremation took form.

We have now come to the final days of mourning, the official seven days spanning the opening week of February.  No music or TV shows may broadcast episodes that might make one laugh. Silky blue and red flags fly half mast, circling ferries on the Tonle Sap have switched off their engines, and the city’s main arteries are blockaded against the usual swell of traffic.  The boulevards to the palace feel only the pad of thousands of feet.

Early on the first of February, I donned a white blouse and a black pleated skirt – a school uniform borrowed from my roommates – and headed out to the center of the city to attend the King’s funeral procession.

We drove as far as roadblocks would permit.   Police congregated at the gates allowing in only those who were dressed in white and black and to whose chests were pinned black and white ribbons some bearing color pictures of the king.  One of my students was wearing a grey sweatshirt over her formal clothing.  A police officer stopped her in the road with a reprimand.  He pointed at me, “See even the foreigners pay their respects.”  Chagrinned, she stuffed the jacket into her bag and only then were we allowed to pass the barricades and walk on foot up Norodom Boulevard to the towering mauve Independence Monument.  

It was a morning of waiting.  We sat on the grass as the day grew hotter and the crowd larger.  But the atmosphere, despite the numbers, was subdued: thousands of men and women and children, all in black and white, on the grass and on the roads encircling the monument.  They talked, they sat quietly, they prayed, they cried. 

Across the city thousands of people were doing the same – not just along the roads of the procession, but in the central meeting places of the city, where 14 large screens had been erected to broadcast the march of the King Father’s body.

Monks in brilliant orange congregated in groups and crouched near the front of the crowd.  Spaced along the six-kilometer route teams of 90 monks sat waiting to chant final blessings as the king’s coffin passed.

Police officers and older army officers paced along the empty road.  Women skirted the edges of the crowd hawking lotus blossoms and sticks of incense.  Boys carried Styrofoam trays filled with black and white ribbons.  On a grass median we fanned ourselves with orange cellphone fans that had been passed out to the quiet crowd.  We sat and waited.  And then walked and waited.  

Somewhere farther north, many blocks up, the king’s body was making its final tour of Phnom Penh.  The cremation ceremony, which according to the government costs 1.2 million dollars (but others speculate ran to 5 million), began at 8:10 with the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces piercing the muggy air with a 101-gun artillery salute.  Preceded by flocks of startled pigeons, the funeral procession began a march up the packed but quiet streets of Phnom Penh towards the towering stupa of Wat Phnom.

The four-day funeral ceremony follows, as precisely as possible, documents detailing the funerals of past Cambodian kings –stretching from the 20th century all the way back to the processions held to honor the Angkor kings 800 years ago and inscribed in carvings in Siem Reap.  Only small nods to modernity have been allowed – a metal funeral pyre has replaced wood ones and there is no longer a parade of elephants through the streets of Phnom Penh.

Down at Independence Monument we listened to updates over the loudspeakers. We sat with a woman who shared with us cobs of boiled corn.  Helicopters circled overhead – one so low to the ground that the crowd was buffeted by wind and grit.

Despite the hundreds of thousands of people spread along the main roads there was no crush, no shouting, no pushing.  Over the loud speakers the approach of the procession was trumpeted and, with a communal sigh, the crowd kneeled.  We kneeled, knees to the gritty pavement.  And we waited.  A young man looking back as I shifted weight passed me one of his flip-flops to kneel on.

With the sound of drums the procession rounded the monument.  Subdued and stately, men and women in colorful uniforms marched praying crowd: members of the army, members of the navy, members of the Red Cross youth, members of the Royal Palace staff.  Glittering floats headed with tens of mythical nagas carrying the king’s crown, floats shaped as the mythical – Hamsas – bird bearing members of the royal family, members of parliament.  A delegation of Cambodian Muslims dressed in white playing long stringed instruments, a delegation of Cambodian Chinese clashing cymbals, a delegation of the ethnic minority from the forested Ratanakiri Province.  The young man on whose shoe I was kneeling leaned back, “All Cambodians, from all communities come to honor the King.”

For an American with a firm belief in democracy, such displays of grief for a monarch might be unnerving.    Having lived for some time in the neighboring monarchy of Thailand, I have garnered an appreciation for the power of a King in the eyes of his subjects.

Who was Norodom Sihanouk?

Norodom Sihanouk was crowned King of Cambodia in 1941 in the midst of World War II at the age of 19.  It was a time for young kings – neighboring Thailand would put the teenage Bhumibol Adulyadej on the throne four years later.

For Cambodians the king father is larger than life, but even for those who are dubious about the power of monarchy his accomplishments are impressive.

Most notably, it was under King Sihanouk that Cambodia won independence from France.   But his reign was not velvet lined.  In the 1950’s he chose to abdicate the throne to become Cambodia’s first prime minister, leading Cambodia into twenty years of peace and development.

Cambodia's growth and peace were shattered by the geo-political strife of the Cold War, and particularly the Vietnam War.  Aligning himself with communist China, the King found himself ousted by a United States backed coup d'etat against him.  Shortly after being reinstated through an alliance with the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot turned against him, holding him hostage for the remainder of the regime. He would lose five of his fourteen children to the war and genocide. After the Vietnamese invasion,  he lived in exile in North Korea and in China, finally to be reinstated as King and then finally to abdicate a second time in 2004 in favor of his son, the present King Norodom Sihamoni.

It has been six turbulent decades for the Kingdom of Cambodia.

And then, as we kneeled on the ground of the road, the king’s coffin, bedecked in jasmine flowers floated past.  Past the chanting monks, past the military dignitaries, past the thousands of mourners from the city and from the countryside, past the towering monument to the Independence King Sihanouk won from France over fifty years ago. 

On Saturday I walked all the way to the Palace along the quay.  The day was hot, the sun strong, but still mourners covered the grass, congregating in pockets of shade, taking pictures next to the parked floats of gilded nagas.  Some have been here for days, sleeping out in cardboard boxes to be close to their king.  Several old Buddhist nuns have not left the palace since the day in October when the King’s body was returned to Cambodia from Beijing. 

At the entrance to the cremation site a line was forming, and – because no one stopped me – I joined the queue.   As we reached the front there was a slight commotion with guards deciding whether foreigners would be allowed entrance.  “I’m sorry you are journalists, you have big cameras you can’t enter.” Then “only foreigners with papers can enter”.  Then “we are checking.” Then “I’m sorry no foreigners can enter.”  About to leave, a high-ranking police officer strode over to the small collection of foreigners: “What are they doing? Of course they must be allowed to enter.  Let them through.”

The site of the cremation shines in new paint.  From an aerial view on television, it takes on the appearance of poor CGI effects.  The ground is a flat-toned yellow, the roofs a matte red with painted lines to suggest tiles.  Large displays of white plastic roses are everywhere.

Quietly we were ushered around the central crematorium, kneeling with the crowd in respect, the jasmine covered coffin high above us. 

I returned to the palace Monday evening – the night of the cremation.  Thousands of mourners filled the park leading up to the Palace.  Food sellers laid mats on the sidewalks and busied themselves cooking skewers of meat and boiled baby ducks still in the shell (a local favorite.)  There were corn sellers and cotton candy sellers and men and women peddling laminated images of the king.

On this last day the cremation site was reserved for the dignitaries: The French Prime Minister, the Japanese Prince, senior officials from China and from other Southeast Asian countries.

Present too were 405 former prisoners – former drug sellers and thieves, some accused of rape and some accused of murder, but all pardoned and released in honor of the cremation.  Their first free steps were to pay respect to the King Father.

Barricades were erected on the street running the length of the palace. As the sky darkened we knelt again on the road amidst thousands and waited.

I know, but I did not see, that the King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihamoni, and the Queen Mother gave the final prayer through tears and carried candles to light the pyre.  I did not see the body of the King Father turn to ash.  Neither did the people of Cambodia, for in the final moments flowing white curtains enclosed the gold coffin shielding the conflagration from view.

A 101-gun artillery salute broke the mournful quiet, followed by the bursting of fireworks along the Tonle Sap.  The crowd clambered to its feet pointing upwards as the first billows of smoke rose up into the night sky, over the palace and outwards over Phnom Penh.