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Pulling At The Fringes: Reflections on Cambodia

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The USA's Dark History in Southeast Asia

President Obama made a quick trip to Southeast Asia over the weekend, hitting Thailand, Cambodia, and Burma – one day in each country. That is hardly enough time to drop one bead of sweat from the tropical heat, much less get any real sense of the respective cultures of the countries, but it has generated much press nonetheless. The US media, however, seems to be ignoring the fact that Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta are in Southeast Asia mainly to pressure ASEAN nations into accepting a NAFTA-like free trade agreement and as an attempt to stem China's influence in the region. As someone who has spent a considerable amount of time in Southeast Asia over the last few years, it did cause me to reflect on one particular experience.

I only spent three days in Cambodia but it had a profound effect on me. And the reasons for this are multi-pronged. Like many people from my generation, growing up in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the first images or awareness I had of Cambodia were from seeing reports about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge and the killing fields on the nightly news. Of course, I was too young to understand the history of the region or the reasons for the atrocities taking place, but the Vietnam era has always struck me as a major turning point not just in the history of the United States, but of its place in the world.

The Vietnam War has always seemed to be the point at which the US undeniably turned from being a force for good in the post-WWII landscape of shifting world powers into the ultimate face of evil imperialism. It was a Jekyll and Hyde moment in which the dark side emerged for all to see. The war surreptitiously killed off the peace and freedom movement of the '60s; that cultural fork in the road. It was the culmination of a steamroller of dark forces at work – the assassination of JFK, MLK, Kent State, et cetera – and in the end, Colonel Kurtz went up the river, took that final step over the edge, and humanity was irrevocably cast into the abyss.

Cambodia was the ultimate victim of this crazed Western bloodlust. A previously peaceful Buddhist kingdom for over a thousand years, they were inexplicably colonized by the French - who even renamed Kampuchea to a more palatable Cambodia - as well as Vietnam and Laos. The British occupied Burma and Singapore. As tensions rose during the Cold War with the communist governments in Russia and China, Southeast Asia paid a steep price. France was determined to maintain their control and presence and when they felt threatened by the new government of Vietnam, they enlisted the help of the United States, who were still in the throes of the McCarthy era anti-communist paranoia. The rest, as they say, is history, which voluminous texts and many films have attested to in the years since.

Cambodia, though, was not a player in the Vietnam War, they just happened to border Vietnam. And when the unerring minds in the United States intelligence services determined Viet Cong soldiers were possibly crossing the border into Cambodia, they didn't hesitate to quite illegally bomb the hell out of that country so severely that it completely destabilized the already impoverished region. The result was that the Cambodian government collapsed in a violent coup by Pol Pot and his army, known as the Khmer Rouge. Under the Pol Pot dictatorship, 1 in 5 citizens were summarily killed and the entire country was terrorized and repressed for the next 20 years.

So, when I stepped out onto the dirt runway into the hot, humid night air of Cambodia, the ghosts were trenchant. The more I travel this world, the more my nationality has felt like an albatross around my neck. There's a deep sense of shame and anger I feel toward the actions the United States has undertaken in countries like Cambodia. There's a long history of the US going around the globe and shitting on cultures it doesn't like. And I think partly this has to do with the fact that the US itself has no real culture, therefore it doesn't appreciate places and people and ways of life that have existed for thousands of years. The US is still a relatively young country, and does not have a single identity but rather is an amalgam of different pieces its residents have brought with them. It has been the youngest stepchild, lacking in self-awareness, acting with impunity in a wild-eyed attempt to squelch its inferiority complex. If the result was an inward self-loathing it could be written off as merely regrettable; unfortunately for the rest of the world, the victims are now innumerable.

Seeing the faces of the children who live in the dirt and detritus of these places, where the sun glints off of corrugated tin shacks like shards of diamond, the images pierce more than just my eyes. I am left with haunting visions of a past and present that the country I grew up in helped construct, or deconstruct. It makes me directly confront the distinct difference between the history I was told, that I was indoctrinated with, and that of reality. And that is powerful, powerful stuff because I feel that I am actually getting a sense of truth that I wouldn't otherwise have, for it is in these very moments that I can either gloss things over with rationalizations, or accept reality for what it is and not what some person or some institution or some book or some society has told me. I am faced with reality in the present moment and physically being here, it is almost impossible to turn away.

Then, there are moments when I see the children play, the laughter and smiles of the locals. I visit ancient and immense temples and feel a sacredness that doesn't exist in the place I was born. I witness a sense of community and collective friendliness that is completely foreign to me. I feel the resilience of the human spirit, if only as an outsider, and I'm heartened. In the dead of night I hear the cawing of the monkeys in the trees just outside my window, and I know I'm experiencing the world as it should be, unvarnished by the colors others have attempted to paint on.

This is why I travel, why I must travel, and why I will continue until my dying day, because it is along the journey that I find these nuggets buried under the folds of history. I am reminded that truth, and the true self, is not defined by where I grew up or what I've been told or sold. The true self is hidden beneath the layers that other people have painted. It can take a lot to knock the shell off. Sometimes it can take a trip halfway around the world to a place like Cambodia. I may have only been there for three days but the experience will last a lifetime.

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