Remembering Ancestral Past Provides Path to Uneasy Reconciliation

In 1991, Cambodian factions that had fought each other for decades signed the Paris Peace Agreements to end their conflict. But peace would not truly return until the last Khmer Rouge forces surrendered in December 1998.

How did ordinary Cambodians handle the unease of the 1990s, especially in villages where political allegiances had left deep rifts in the community? U.S. anthropologist Eve Zucker will explore this topic tonight at Institut Francais in Phnom Penh.

As she explained in her 2013 book “Forest of Struggle: Moralities of Remembrance in Upland Cambodia,” past violence still marks the present in some communities, such as those she studied in Kompong Speu province. But there are routes to healing beyond the Khmer Rouge tribunal, where the regime’s leaders are on trial for crimes including genocide.

When Ms. Zucker first came to Cambodia in 1994, the Khmer Rouge had long broken the 1991 agreement they had signed and resumed fighting from their bases along the Thai border.

When she started her research in the early 2000s—completing it in 2010—Ms. Zucker, an affiliate researcher with the Council of Southeast Asian Studies at Yale University, focused on an area where peace would not arrive until the conflict finally ended in the late 1990s.

Located on the edge of the Cardamom Mountains, the two villages she studied had split their allegiances. Some villagers joined the Khmer Rouge in the early 1970s while others enrolled in the Lon Nol government army to fight the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge remained a force in the region until the late 1990s, drafting another generation of young men.

“So you have this complicated history during these different periods and under these different regimes with lots of evacuations,” she said.

While many anthropologists studying the fallout of the era look at rituals as a source of healing and reconciliation, her goal was slightly different. What she looked into, she said on Monday, “was more the resumption of ritual practice…the normalizing, you might say, of life, and where it was happening and where it wasn’t.”

Although some villagers today have lost interest in local traditions, many can still tell the history of the region through the landscape, she said. They point to stones or trees and tell of events that occurred there, or recall people who lived there and their side in the conflict.

“This way to reconnect with the ancestral past provides a pathway to recovery,” Ms. Zucker said.

When: 6:30 p.m. tonight

Where: Institut Francais, #218 Street 184

Price: Free

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