Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Evening in Phnom Penh

February 8

After my usual breakfast of fruits, coffe with bread and cheese, a van comes to pick me up at 8:30am to the bus stop. I get a window seat; beside me sits an Australian woman in late twenties. She is an research assistant from Perth, working on microRNAs in brain tumors. That livens up the conversation. Apparently she is mostly working on establishing primary cultures of brain tumor cells. I tell her that my wife learned how to establish primary neuronal cultures from Ed Furshpan in Harvard Med school, the guy who first started primary neuronal cultures. She is duly impressed, but confesses that establishing primary cultures from tumor cells is a lot easier because you do not need such stringent growth facture requirements.

We chat about Battam Bang, where she had been before Siem Ream, and had traveled by boat from BB to SR, and highly recommends that trip. Perhaps I should do that on my return journey. She will spend a few days in Phnom Penh then go on to Ratnakiri and Mondulkiri, the two north eastern districts near Vietnam. I look it up—lots of forests where one can take elephant rides, hill tribes which I am sure would be interesting, but also the two most expensive districts of Cambodia.

The entire distance of Siem Reap to Phnom Penh is lined by exactly the same general motif: houses on stilts, farm lands parched dry due to lack of rain in this season, a few scattered palm groves. We reach Kompong Cham, where we break for 15 minutes or so. I eat a sour mango with salts. The bus starts; more of the same. We reach PP at about 4 PM. A tuk-tuk driver comes forward, and I pile my backpack into it, and off we go to the first guest house on my list. A dark wooden contraption with lots of hammocks, the single room is crappy, and the only other room is a dormitory reeking with hashish. I bow out, and depend on my tuk-tuk driver to take me to a more reasonable place.

We drive near the Mekong river, just past a large open air market to a cramped building. An A/C room for $15, the only one available. The folks appear to be nice, so I take it…it sort of busts my budget but, well, what other option?

The tuk-tuk driver asks whether I would hire him for the next day. I ask about the rate, and he says whatever I gave in Siem Reap, that will be the same here. So I say $10 for the full day, and he readily agrees.

I unload, shower, then walk to the riverside through the busy market. Phnom Penh is a city that I think I can grow to like. Busy with life, which has a ghost hanging in its history that gives a totally different perspective on this city.

April 17, 1975. Where was I? We might have returned from Jim Corbett National Park just a few weeks ago and I had dived headlong into the Spring semester in JNU. That was the day when Khmer Rouge walked into Phnom Penh at about 8 in the morning. A recent article by a resident describes the day in these words (I am quoting from memory):

By 9AM, the initial trickle of a few bedraggled, tired soldiers in black uniform swelled into masses of grim faced armed soldiers. Then they stopped coming. The city was silent. By noon, there were tired patients, some in wheel chairs, some still carrying serum pouches, were walking down the street—the Khmer Rouge had evacuated the city hospitals. By 1:30 the city began to empty out—every man, woman and child were either walking or riding a bicycle or were in push carts through the road, being silently watched by soldiers in black uniform. By evening the city had emptied itself. Phnom Penh was a ghost city by the end of that evening, with people only in the foreign embassies. What happened afterwards is mind-boggling. I remember the utter confusion in those days in my mind: Is Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who took refuge in Peking several years earlier, who gave the call to millions of rural Cambodians to rise up against Lon Nol, the rightwing despot, to form the Khmer Rouge the good guy? Is Khmer Rouge against Vietnam or for Vietnam in the US-Vietnam war? Which side is the US in all of this, after its carpet bombing campagn for three years over Cambodia? I remember the enthusiastic response of JNU Marxists in the early days when Khmer Rouge was winning, only to fall strangely silent as weeks passed by after the fall of Phnom Penh.

I sit in a restaurant by the Mekong, an old building that harks back to the French Colonial days, in a cane sofa, and try to write a defense of Khmer Rouge. A full moon rises over the Mekong, against which a constant flow of motobikes and bicycles and cars passes by.

Imagine being a villager in Cambodia for generations, being tied to the land, with ancestral memories reaching into the dark crevices of time, and then on a wet monsoon day, you look up into the sky, into the dark clouds and hear the drone of strange birds high above, and then little dots come down in formation, like a flock of cranes over green wet rice fields blanketed by fresh rains, and the dots become larger by the second, and then you hear a series of sharp whistles, and the sky falls apart in thunder and lightning and fire and smoke, and the only world that you knew blow up on your face. And this continues every night for over two years, 1971-1973. What will you do? Will you not rise up against the only symbol of this misery that you can identify, the city folks led by the American stooge, Lon Nol, who betrayed the prince who abdicated his throne to embrace democracy, who had to flee to a foreign country because he wanted Cambodia to be neutral in the war across its borders, and yet those city folks led by Lon Nol and his cronies made secret pacts with a country thousands of miles away who rains fire and destruction on your dreams?

So they did. That much is reasonable.

But what was not reasonable is what happened afterwards.

What happened afterwards was the result of nothing but the last throes of primitive thinking influenced by historical determinism—the sense of historical inevitability, and the ideal that our future can be planned in a grand scale.

Primitive determinism was already rejected by our western philosophers at least half a century before the fall of Phnom Penh, but in real life, its rejection is still to come, even after we countenanced what happened in Cambodia.

For now, I must go back to bed, to be ready for my driver tomorrow.

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