Minor characters, unforgettable voices

The Tuol Sleng Museum, housed in the former Khmer Rouge secret prison in Ph­nom Penh, is Cam­bodia’s memorial to the nearly two million people who died during the genocidal reign of Pol Pot.

Among all those victims, one wo­m­an’s life—and death—has come to sym­bolize the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime. Her name is Hout Bo­phana, and her story is told in a mo­vie shown twice a day at the mu­se­um. Sometimes called the Anne Frank of Cambodia, Hout Bo­pha­na has become a folk heroine, known for the letters and confessions she wrote before her torture and murder by the Khmer Rouge.

Every novelist knows that minor characters have a way of taking over the narrative. But in the years since I first told her story in my 1986 book, ‘’When the War Was Over,’’ a history of modern Cambo­dia, Bophana has taken on a life of her own and shown me the same thing can happen in non­­fiction. Then again, Hout Bo­pha­na was overwhelming from the start.

In the immediate years after the Vi­­etnamese overthrew Pol Pot, re­sear­chers got a first look at the hundreds of secret files kept at Tuol Sleng. Our priority was to reconstruct the history of Pol Pot’s re­gime, which forced confessions of key po­l­i­ti­cal figures. But I also searched for av­e­rage Cambodians, people whose in­dividual stories could illuminate the larger tragedy. When I un­earthed Hout Bophana’s file in 1981, my sto­mach dropped. The dossier was filled with love letters. In the mid­dle of one of the 20th century’s worst in­stan­ces of mass murder, here was a beau­tiful young wo­m­an sec­retly writing love letters to her husband, know­ing full well that in the closed Khmer dictatorship, she would be killed if they were found.

Her voice, crying out from the grave, was impossible to ignore. Al­though Hout Bophana had no role in the po­litical history of her country, I knew she belonged in the center of my 500-page book.

I recounted how she and her husband, Ly, had fled their hometown, East Baray, during the early years of the war and be­come separated. Ly took ref­uge in a Buddhist monas­te­ry. Hout Bophana fled to Phnom Penh, but not before be­ing raped by a government soldier and giving birth to a son. She sold her possessions for cash and worked at a West­ern-run cha­r­ity for women.

Each presumed the other dead, un­til they were reunited af­ter the Khmer Rouge victory. Ly had left the mon­as­te­ry and fought for the Kh­mer Rouge. Hout Bo­pha­na was at the oth­er end of the political hi­er­ar­chy, a citizen of the defeated regime and a near-slave work­ing in the fields near East Baray. For that reason alone, the two should have been wa­ry of rekindling their love. The stakes grew even higher as the re­gime systematically tried to tear apart families, in or­der to exert max­imum control.

But Hout Bophana wasn’t cowed.

Instead, she dared to write letters to her husband. In them she was co­quet­tish, dramatic and very real in her longing for his love. She proposed schemes to evade the rules so they could see each other. Some­times she signed her notes ‘’Flower of Dan­gerous Love.’’ Oth­er times she signed as Sita, after the heroine of the ‘’Ramayana,’’ the Indian epic that teaches the ideal virtues of duty and love in the face of separation and ad­versity. When Hout Bophana was not yet 25 and her husband only 27, they were captured, tortured and mur­dered, just because of their letters, which had been stuffed into Bo­pha­na’s file—the thickest at the Tuol Sleng torture center—as evidence, and left there as a rare, if not unique, ac­­count of the daily indignities and heartbreak under the Khmer Rouge.

When my book first appeared, Hout Bo­pha­na was largely ignored by reviewers, who focused on the larger story of how Pol Pot came to pow­er and ruined Cambodia. But once the book started reaching Cam­bodians, especially in the large e­xpatriate community in France, things began to change.

For one thing, Hout Bophana was headed for the screen. In 1994, a young Cambodian filmmaker, Rithy Panh, called me from Paris to say he wanted to make a movie of her life. ‘’Bo­phana: A Cambodian Tragedy’’ was the first Cambodian-language film about the Khmer Rouge massa­cres, and won several international awards.

As the film gained popularity, so did my book. But I had no idea just how popular it had become until last year, when I began receiving e-mail mes­sages from friends who reported seeing it for sale all over Cam­bo­dia. Fan­cy hotels and airport kiosks ca­­ter­ing to fo­reigners sold the Eng­lish-lan­guage pa­per­back for as much as $30, but in the open-air markets, knockoff co­pies in English and Kh­mer could be had for as little as $3. I had also ac­cepted requests to pub­lish an official Khmer lan­guage edition. Published by the US Em­­bas­sy and the Documen­t­a­tion Center of Cam­­bodia, it will be is­­sued in ad­vance of the trials of the Khmer Rouge, which may begin as ear­­ly as next year.

From a safe distance in Wash­ing­ton, I was hap­py to think of all of those people reading “When the War Was Over,” even if I did fret a bit about pirated co­p­ies that weren’t earn­ing royalties.

I stopped fretting when I re­turned to Cam­­­bo­dia this year af­ter a 10-year absence, and met Reach Sam­bath, a professor of jour­nalism at the Royal Uni­v­­er­si­ty of Phnom Penh. Reach Sam­bath, who had as­signed my book to his class, said Hout Bo­phana was easily one of his students’ fav­o­rites.

“She is very ro­man­tic,” he said.

But he didn’t like asking his students to spend more than $3.50 on the book, the price for pirated editions at the city’s open-air markets.

“I wouldn’t pay any more myself,” he said.

It turned out the ex­pensive editions on sale at the fancy hotels and bookstores were not pirated photo­co­pies, but rather legitimate books pur­chased from my US publisher, Pub­licAffairs, and sold at a small pro­fit by Meng Hieng of Mon­u­ment Books. One of the very few le­gi­timate book distributors in the country, Meng Hieng is waging a lonely battle with the Cambodian government to enforce copyright laws and ensure that quality foreign books continue to be sold in the country.

So why, I asked Meng Hieng, was he trying so hard to carve out a pocket of honest commerce in such a deeply corrupt country?

“You don’t know what it’s like to grow up without books,” he said. Meng Hieng is 34 years old. His entire childhood and adolescence coincided with the Khmer Rouge and Vie­t­nam­ese occupation. As soon as the UN peacekeepers arrived in 1992, he started a book importing business.

I was so impressed with Meng Hieng that by the end of our meeting I gave up worrying about piracy and intellectual property rights, and agreed to sign over exclusive distribution rights to my book.

And then I visited Youk Chhang, the director of the documentation center on the Khmer Rouge, who had just finished translating my book into Khmer. I asked if there was anything from the exhibits at Tuol Sleng suitable for the book jacket. Yes, he said: Bophana.

“The most popular is the movie,” he said. “We show it every day.”

I was overjoyed. In fact, I was surprised at how deeply satisfied I felt, knowing Bophana had evolved from her first appearance in my book to become a national figure. Today, she looms so large in the public imagination that not even Youk Chhang re­membered where he had first come across her story.

“It’s funny,” he said. “I forgot she came from your book.”

We settled on an image for the book jacket. Not Pol Pot, or Lon Nol, the Cam­bodian leader he defeated, or any of the other men who sent the soldiers to battle in those endless wars. In­stead, the cover shows an image of the minor character who promised her husband she would stay with him to the end and then return to Cam­bodia as a ghost and “win total re­venge.’’ She has more than fulfilled that promise.


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