Truth behind Cambodian tale

Nanjing Night Net

The Killing Fields …. Under the Khmer Rouge in 1975-79 life was a struggle in Cambodia. Photo: Jack AtleyIN THE SHADOW OF THE BANYAN.By Vaddey Ratner. Simon & Schuster. 322pp. $29.99.

It has always puzzled me that Buddhists who avoid killing even a mosquito, have a history of bloodily slaughtering other humans – Burmese, Sri Lankans, and Nepalese among them. In the four years after the Vietnam War, a million Cambodians – a third of the population – were rounded up and sent to the killing fields by their Khmer Rouge compatriots, raised in the same Buddhist tradition.

Not that those elsewhere from other faiths have behaved any better. But we usually expect Buddhists to be above all this, setting an example by contemplation and serenity.

Few accounts by Cambodians of the Khmer Rouge years have appeared in English. This may be because most educated Cambodians spoke French, and also because so many of them died.

Vaddey Ratner was one who survived, and her first novel is based on what happened to her and her family when she was five to nine years old. Speaking no English, she reached the US as a refugee in 1981, completed high school 10 years later, and went on to graduate from Cornell University.

Now, the epitome of refugee success, she is married to an American and lives in Maryland. Among the many refugee novels and memoirs that have appeared since the 1990s, hers is unique.

Under the Khmer Rouge in 1975-79 life is a desperate struggle for Cambodians, but Raami, Ratner’s character in the book, has two other disadvantages: she has a leg crippled by polio, and is a descendant of King Sisowath.

All families like hers are driven out of Phnom Penh, and are then constantly moved on, from town to village to work camp to killing fields. At every stage they lose more family members, possessions and dignity. But Raami’s family, and her father, Prince Ayuravann, are particularly targeted by the boy-soldiers and their ruthless Khmer Rouge leaders.

In the end, only Raami and her mother are left, and as a result of the trauma of her experiences, including nearly being shot dead, Raami refuses to speak. It is as if she cannot waste her last reserves of toughness and determination on mere words.

Ratner made a return visit to Cambodia to research her roots, and she tells Raami’s story eloquently. Some indifferent poetry and passages of rather saccharine moon-gazing are offset by plenty of authentic detail.

Cambodian frogs, for example, we learn, say ”Oak”, toads go ”Heeng hoong”, and roosters crow ”Kakingongur”. Raami watches Cambodian peasants tap chilled juice from a palm tree, and sees how they deal with a cluster of leeches. She observes a boy, caked in dried mud, washing his albino water buffalo that ”stood as transparently pink as a peeled pomelo”.

The revolution not only introduces the Phnom Penh aristocrats to their rural compatriots, it reduces them to barely surviving. Once, a person’s head was sacred in Buddhist tradition, Raami’s uncle muses. ”Now it can be cracked like a coconut.”

As well as narrating the awful fate of her family, Ratner’s story contemplates what drives the Khmer Rouge to seek to ”bury a whole civilisation”.

The revolution was released by the departure from Indochina of the French and then the Americans, but as Raami’s mother comments, it originated in Cambodia’s distant past. It is ”an old blaze reignited, decades, possibly centuries of injustice manifesting itself like a raging inferno”.

Raami’s father takes his share of responsibility for that injustice, and meekly surrenders to ”the Organisation” in the hope that his family will be spared.

How a few boys with guns can turn intellectual Cambodians and those in ”modern professions” like taxi drivers and clerks, unresisting, into undesirable refugees to be eliminated, remains a mystery.

But the process is not unknown elsewhere: think of Mugabe’s gradual eviction of white farmers in Zimbabwe, and the grinding down of wealthy Jewish families in pre-war Austria. Although all that seems long ago and far away, think of the opinions now expressed about intellectual ”elites” in Australia by Nick Cater in The Lucky Culture and the Rise of an Australian Ruling Class.

His ”undesirable” Australians, on academic or ABC salaries, are hardly wealthy like the Cambodian aristocrats, the Zimbabwean farmers, the Ephrussi family in Vienna, or the Murdochs who employ Cater. Nor do they rule over anyone. If Cater wants to start class warfare in Australia, lets hope he meets stronger resistance.

Dr Alison Broinowski reviews and researches Asian fiction.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.