Can Cambodia overcome its ruptured past?

Decades after the Khmer Rouge genocide, Cambodia remains a fractured nation with an untold history. An emotive new film, Angkor Awakens, tells this tragic story in full, and finds plenty of cause for hope at the end.

Billy Sawyers
7 December 2016
Image courtesy of PhotoSynthesis Productions.

"The post-Khmer generation holds the keys to Cambodia’s future." Image courtesy of PhotoSynthesis Productions.New York, September 2015. Hundreds of Cambodian-Americans take to the streets in protest as the prime minister of their homeland, Samdech Hun Sen, makes a rare appearance in the city for a UN summit. Appealing world leaders to take “meaningful action against kleptocratic dictators”, they seek a “peaceful transfer of authority” in Cambodia’s 2018 elections, when they hope Hun Sen will be denied a fifth term in office. 

Hun Sen never gives interviews. Quietly, clinically and with tenacity, he has maintained his grip on executive power in Cambodia since 1985, making him one of the world’s longest-serving leaders and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) one of the longest-ruling. The authority of both rests superficially on a redemption narrative: Hun Sen played an important part in overthrowing the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979 and his government has since led back to its feet — albeit unsteadily — a nation utterly devastated by famine and genocide. Today he presides over a country pervaded by silence and repressed memories, free to practice censorship and state violence as international powers turn a blind eye.

But on this occasion, in an extraordinary move, Hun Sen has decided to break his silence towards foreign media. He has agreed to be interviewed during his stay in New York by writer, filmmaker and Cornell physicist, Robert H. Lieberman.  

This rare opportunity rests on a chance encounter between Lieberman and John Gunther Dean, the former US ambassador to Cambodia and an old friend of its long-standing prime minister. Lieberman had been interviewing the retired diplomat for his documentary project on Cambodia when he made an off-hand query about Hun Sen. Obliging, Gunther Dean helped establish a connection, leading to a prolonged exchange of communication between Lieberman and Hun Sen’s office. Weeks later, Lieberman is ready to fly to Phnom Penh with a series of approved ‘softball’ questions, but is startled to find out that Hun Sen himself is coming to America — and plans to meet with him in New York.

In a suite at Manhattan’s Pierre Hotel, Lieberman and his crew set up recording equipment as they await the arrival of Hun Sen. They are greeted by Hun Sen’s secretary of state and translator, H.E. Bun Sambo, who shows Lieberman to a dossier of the previously agreed interview questions — along with Hun Sen’s prepared answers. The room is full of secret service officials and political figures, but there are no bag searches or security checks. Lieberman is intrigued by the sense of assuredness. “Oh, we know all about you,” Sambo informs him, gesturing to a second official dossier.

Undeterred, Lieberman is keen to make the most of the encounter. When Hun Sen eventually arrives he asks if he could bring new, unprepared questions to the table, and the prime minister agrees without hesitation. “Fire away,” he commands. 

“And we did, for two hours, eyeball to eyeball.” Recollecting this story to me in the following August, almost a year later, Lieberman was still energised by the momentousness of his unique conversation with Hun Sen, from which he recorded a document of real historical import. By then his documentary project had taken the form of Angkor Awakens, a probing, psychological account of Cambodia that includes several excerpts from the interview with Hun Sen, whose dogged rule over Cambodia is a central focus of the film’s scrutiny.

Angkor Awakens — produced in Ithaca, New York, where it debuted in cinemas last month — is an arresting new film that tackles Cambodia’s entangled past unreservedly. Redressing the patchy and problematic coverage that Cambodia receives in western media, it offers a profound insight into a Cambodian psyche fraught with trauma and trepidation. 

The film is built around dozens of interviews with Cambodians — from the homeland and the diaspora — which collectively form a vivid historical narrative, unmitigated by state censorship or repressed emotions. The intimacy of this first-hand footage is impressive in itself, given the ingrained difficulties that many Cambodians face in remembering, articulating and overcoming their fractured past. 

For Lieberman, it was the practicalities of filming Angkor Awakens that enabled him to elicit the deep-seated feelings of his interviewees. Like many present-day directors of investigative documentaries, he undertook filming in Cambodia completely by himself, having been forced to practice this technique covertly under the state censorship laws of Burma, where he put together his last film, They Call it Myanmar. “[In Cambodia] I did over 140 interviews, where it was just me and that person,” he explains, “and as a result, people open up in a way they wouldn’t when they’re being intimidated by a crew.” 

The benefits of this approach are unmistakable throughout Angkor Awakens, as is Lieberman’s drive to understand the full extent of the trauma that acts as a cage for so many survivors of the Khmer Rouge — but also for their children. This instance of postmemory — the intergenerational transmission of trauma — is an underlying subject of interest for Lieberman, who himself was a child of the Holocaust, and who still feels a sense of impermanency inherited from his refugee parents. Not only did his background help Lieberman find a personal interest in Cambodia’s unique story, it was also a crucial link in the chain that brought him to Hun Sen: the former ambassador John Gunther Dean was also a child of European refugees, and the two were astonished to discover that they grew up in the same district of Queens, New York.

Image by J. Eames, courtesy of PhotoSynthesis Productions.

Image by J. Eames, courtesy of PhotoSynthesis Productions.“How did the trauma of this autogenocide reflect itself in the next generation?” Lieberman asks aloud. “There’s both nature and nurture here.” If postmemory represents the ‘nurture’ of this equation, then it is epigenetics that helps explain the ‘nature’. For his film Lieberman investigated this developing science, which grapples with the possibility of environmental factors impacting genetic development and expression. Angkor Awakens hints at some interesting conclusions on the transgenerational effects of the Khmer Rouge regime on younger Cambodians, who never experienced its terror nor have heard its full story, but whose lives have been profoundly altered by the legacy of the Killing Fields. 

The post-Khmer generation holds the keys to Cambodia’s future, and takes centre stage as Angkor Awakens slowly uncovers the fragments of a past that has for so long held the country back.


In the opening act of Angkor Awakens, we are steered into the past by an evocative portrait of a proud country that somehow lost its way. It is hard to ignore the sense of saudade as we listen to the longing testimonies of Cambodians, which form the only narration as we are shown sweeping shots of luscious, sometimes blissful landscapes. In towns and farms, we see peaceful, cheerful people. “How did that happen to them?” a voice asks.

It is not long before the totality and sheer ineffability of Cambodia’s suffering becomes abundantly clear. Survivors of the Khmer Rouge — many child soldiers and labourers — fight for words as they try to describe the pain and misery that few could escape for the four long years of Khmer Rouge rule. There is a cathartic quality to many of their revelations, as if each testimony acts as a release for the unshakeable anguish of the speaker. This damaged state of mind is given a useful denotation later on in the film: as baksbat, meaning ‘broken courage’, which is understood by many Cambodians as a form of post-traumatic stress that is specific to their psyche.

Baksbat is a subtle yet crucial theme in Angkor Awakens. Though an unfamiliar term, it proves very effective as a gateway to understanding Cambodia's trauma in its own terms — whilst hinting at why those terms are so hard to articulate for many survivors. “To put yourself out like that in such a raw form I think is a very foreign situation and a very uncomfortable one,” says Moeur Leakhena, describing her grandma’s difficulties having lost her husband and five of her children to the Khmer Rouge. “Within our culture people don’t really speak openly about they’re feelings … It’s memories on a very superficial level versus the actual heaviness.”

Angkor Awakens leaves us with little doubt of the fatalism — the baksbat — that has grown from this austere approach to remembering, and which Hun Sen’s cynical regime continues to thrive upon. The film’s interviewees are candid as they speak of Cambodia’s struggle to harness its history — tragic though it may be — as a source of learning and identity for new generations as they take their society forward. Engulfed by trauma and CPP rhetoric, the insistence on forgetting is pervasive among survivors of the Khmer Rouge, whose lives appear in Angkor Awakens to be emptied of meaning and optimism. With just a glance at the ever-increasing violence and corruption of the Hun Sen regime, it is easy to see why such an emphatic reclamation of Cambodian history is needed. 

Image courtesy of PhotoSynthesis Productions.

Image courtesy of PhotoSynthesis Productions.In Hun Sen’s Cambodia, history begins in 1979 — the point at which he and his fellow renegades dragged Cambodia out of the darkness. To this day the atrocities of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge often remain a untold story, recalled only as a brutal reminder of what might happen to the country were it not for Hun Sen.

Cambodian history is in reality a much more complex picture, and in its ruptures and nuances there are plenty of lessons to be learned for the future. This is the history that Angkor Awakens presents so cogently. 

Following its emotive opening sequence, the film stretches far back in time to the Angkor Empire, an overlooked regional power that boasted the world’s largest city in the thirteenth century (Angkor, with a population of at least 1,000,000). The historical significance of Angkor — as city, kingdom and civilisation — is referenced throughout Angkor Awakens, which from its title alone suggests the existence of a powerful idea of Cambodia that has remained dormant throughout decades of violence and division; the buried spirit of a nation that can still be resurrected. 

One notable resurrection featured in Angkor Awakens is the use of traditional sbek thom shadow puppets, an Angkorian practice that was all but eradicated by the Khmer Rouge regime. These clips combine with archive footage to give a tangible quality to Cambodian history.

The narrative progresses quickly through Cambodia’s colonial period, outlining the dynamics of French rule and culminating in Cambodia’s independence in 1953. We are introduced to Cambodia’s king during these years, “one of the great political personalities of the twentieth century,” Norodom Sihanouk. Personifying Cambodia’s independence and its ‘golden age’ of arts, education and culture during the 1950s, Sihanouk was a strong leader and widely-popular monarch, whose fatal decision to support the Khmer Rouge after several destructive years of the Vietnam War proved to be a critical turning point in his country’s history.

As the war in neighbouring Vietnam begins to spill over into the narrative of Angkor Awakens, the United States enters as a major player. American complicity in the events to come is poorly understood in the US itself, let alone in Cambodia and other parts of the world, and Lieberman's film represents an important corrective to this. We learn of the high-altitude, low-intelligence American bombing campaigns that killed hundred of thousands across Cambodia, leaving a trail devastation that scholars — and the film’s interviewees — attributed unanimously to the rise of the Khmer Rouge.

Foregrounded by an excerpt of Bernie Sanders speaking defiantly against Henry Kissinger, the architect of America’s destructive foreign policy in Southeast Asia, Angkor Awakens proceeds to remind us of Cambodia’s surprisingly important place in US history. For instance, Cambodia was the primary concern of the protesters shot at Kent State University in 1970. The alarming illegality of Nixon's secret bombing campaign in Cambodia was also featured in an early article of his impeachment, before the Watergate scandal emerged.

Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger talk in the Oval Office. Image: public domain.

Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger talk in the Oval Office. Image: public domain.Angkor Awakens rightly integrates this chapter of Cambodian history into Cold War narratives, as an epitome of the proxy wars fought by one or both of the superpowers. When Sihanouk, dismayed by the bombing of his country, gestured towards the USSR, he was cut off by a French- and CIA-backed coup and replaced by the volatile right-wing strongman Lon Nol. History was fast-tracked: Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge quickly emerged from rural obscurity to lead a peasant revolution against Lon Nol, soon winning the support of the beleaguered Sihanouk. The king’s endorsement was influential — speaking to Lieberman, Hun Sen still stands by his initial decision to join the Khmer Rouge on the basis of his love for Sihanouk. With this resolution, Cambodia appeared to be at peace.

Soon after, the US walked out. Even to this day, foreign policymakers follow in Kissinger’s wake and turn a blind eye to the state-led violence that has never fully ceased in Cambodia since this moment, when it was left on the precipice of Khmer terror by the US. As he is interviewed, Gunther Dean speaks with great sadness of America’s mistake in “walking out of Cambodia, thereby turning it over to the butcher,” a decision that was out of his hands as ambassador.

“To keep you is no gain, to kill you is no loss”

As Angkor Awakens enters its central act, we are flung into the dystopia of the Khmer Rouge, a world in which the abolition of private property went hand in hand with social cleansing, where violence and famine were the sole products of a revolutionary process that always failed to succeed, but was never criticised without punishment.

For Pol Pot and his associates, Khmer Rouge ideology was ultimately pure, meaning that only the people of Cambodia could be held responsible for its failure. As dreams of self-sufficiency turned into a nightmare of isolation, three million Cambodians died while international powers turned their backs. Starvation, overworking and torture became societal norms. Human life became brutally expendable, and at times the killing had no bounds. 

“The regime was determined to eliminate all identities other than their idea of what would be a pure Khmer society,” says Nicholas Koumjian, prosecutor in the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. This meant the glorification of a hypermasculinised peasant identity combined with vigorous anti-urbanism and anti-intellectualism. Trust in Cambodian society collapsed as many resorted to lying, stealing and spying as means of survival. In true Orwellian fashion, even children, we learn, started spying on their parents. 

Image courtesy of PhotoSynthesis Productions.

Image courtesy of PhotoSynthesis Productions.As the failures of Khmer Rouge multiplied, so did the numbers of people it considered enemies. At one extreme, bespectacled Cambodians were hunted down for their perceived intelligence, and officials would look for dents on either side of the nose as a sign of glasses use. “We still have that mindset,” admits present-day student Sonita Men. “We still fear that if you are too highly educated, that you can somehow be hurt.”

The regime’s combination of arrogance and paranoia eventually drove it to its own destruction when it decided to attack the Vietnamese border in 1978, provoking a landmark conflict between two ostensibly socialist nations. By December, Vietnam had invaded Cambodia with the backing of political exiles, and within one month had captured Phnom Penh. The terror was finally over. Hun Sen, then a young figurehead of Khmer Rouge defectors, was one of a handful of exiles elevated to government by Vietnamese authorities. “I had never thought of becoming a politician … but we could not stand by and be killed.”

A generation for hope

As Angkor Awakens follows Cambodia’s stunted return to political order in the 1980s and 1990s, the full extent of the wounds inflicted by the Khmer Rouge becomes palpable. Interviewees describe the baksbat, the survivor guilt and the ingrained sense of mistrust that now governed a deeply-ruptured society. In one of the film’s most harrowing sections, we are shown footage of land disputes, acid attacks and brutal violence on the streets between ordinary citizens.

This Cambodia is concerned solely for survival, with little conception of its past or its future. With family units broken down and aspirations severely curtailed, it is not hard to see why the country could not meet the lofty expectations held by the UN and other international powers following the overthrow of Pol Pot. Instead of embracing the normative road to modernisation and democracy, Cambodia reverted to closed-off hierarchies and systems of patronage, this time under the rule of Hun Sen, which by the end of the Cold War was looking more and more like a dictatorship. “The democratic system as it exists is basically an empty vessel for these relationships,” we are told.

As we return to the interview with Hun Sen, it is hard not to be exasperated by the arrogance with which he defends his record as prime minister, an arrogance so obviously paralleled to that of Pol Pot. “I have come into the position in accordance with the constitution,” he declares. First-hand footage of rampant police brutality is cleverly interwoven with these excerpts. Punctuated by screams and gunshots, we see peaceful protesters against Hun Sen’s regime attacked viciously by heavily-armoured riot squads. 

In the film’s most striking scene, Hun Sen becomes incensed when questioned about this state-sanctioned violence. “In America when a person is shot by the police … is it Obama doing the shooting?” he asks Lieberman provocatively, moving to the edge of his seat and pointing at the director. “You say people are doing it under my orders. So how many people has Obama killed like that?”

Image courtesy of PhotoSynthesis Productions.Hun Sen’s stranglehold on power, and all the pessimism and cynicism it represents, cannot last forever. Many of the interviewees in Angkor Awakens speak with optimism about the resurgence of a vibrant, educated and networked generation that threatens to upturn Hun Sen’s power from below. As a result of famine and genocide, Cambodia now has an extraordinarily young population: 50% are under 25 years old, while 70% are under 35. In interviews and field footage, a sense of hope is rekindled as we see young people facing up to their country’s past, taking to the streets in protest and embracing every opportunity for education. “I see possibilities, I see that people are interested in learning,” reflects sculptor Sopheap Pich.

Breaking free from the conservatism of the previous generation, Cambodia's youth sees hope and opportunity in the future, and this comes across energetically from the younger interviewees in Angkor Awakens. The psychology behind this generational change is also apparent: for the first time in decades, young Cambodians can imagine a better future and, from an understanding of their nation's past, they know how such a future can be enacted. Baksbat, in their eyes, no longer places limits on possibility. This transformation is what makes the story encapsulated in Angkor Awakens so staggering to behold.

Angkor Awakens leaves us with many important questions, the answers to which we can only observe as local elections approach in Cambodia. Eager to secure his legacy and emboldened by the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, Hun Sen has escalated his war on dissent, which shows no signs of letting up before the next general election in 2018. If plans to screen Angkor Awakens in Cambodia go ahead, Hun Sen’s response to the documentary to which he supplied interviews, but which criticises him so fiercely, will certainly be illuminating.

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