On Killing Fields anniversary, vigils and dissent

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Dary Oun, Bryant Ben and Kano Nuon, from left, outside Wat Vipassanaram in Long Beach after they were denied entrance for a Killing Fields memorial. The temple said that no one had obtained monks' permission to use the property for the event. (Vanta El/For the Press-Telegram)

By Greg Mellen, Staff Writer
Long Beach Press Telegram (California, USA)

LONG BEACH - The solemn commemoration of something like the beginning of the Killing Fields genocide would seem like the kind of thing around which all Cambodians could rally. But in Long Beach's Cambodian community nothing is ever quite so simple.

So, while two Cambodian groups staged effective and heartfelt commemorative events Saturday, which marked the 35th anniversary of the rise of the Khmer Rouge, they were underscored by dissent, or perhaps apathy, in the community that still grapples with divisions even during what would seem a unifying event.

At the United Cambodian Community about 80 residents came to a commemoration that featured Reps. Adam Schiff and Laura Richardson, 4th District Councilman Patrick O'Donnell and a number of other dignitaries.

And while UCC Executive Director Sara Pol-Lim was pleased at the turnout and proud of the dignitaries who came out, others in attendance groused at the absence of many Cambodian business and civic leaders.

Indeed, several days before the event Kimthai Kuoch, executive director of the Cambodian American Association, said his group shied away from commemorative events because he feared it would somehow be construed as political and cause dissent.

Seven blocks away, members of the Killing Fields Memorial Center also staged a commmemoration event at Mark Twain Library, with a film, slideshow and other events. That event was attended by 35 local residents.

Earlier in the day, the Killing Fields Memorial organizers had planned to attend a Buddhist ceremony at Wat Vipassanaram, as has been the custom for the past three years, but in a stunning rebuke were turned away.

Leaders of the temple were unavailable for comment, but witnesses said they claimed to deny access because the Killing Fields Memorial members had not requested the monks' permission to use the property before member Bryant Ben showed up and was barred access.

Ben and other members of the Killing Fields Memorial group attributed the dispute to an ongoing battle within the temple over its control.

Paline Soth said his group did not protest the barring because they didn't want it to tinge the rest of his group's commemoration, which also included an evening candlelight vigil at the proposed future site of the Killing Fields Memorial garden next door to the library.

Those who did attend either of the events were reminded of the tragedy of the Cambodian genocide between 1975 and 1979 that left upwards of 2 million dead from execution, starvation, disease and deprivation.

At the UCC event, survivor Phansy Peang talked of being just one of seven members in her immediate family to survive and of the horror of watching her 6-year-old son die of disease and her husband being executed.

Pol-Lim, who was staging a commemoration for the second time, said it was important for her group to engage the community in such events and to try to help residents begin to heal by sharing their stories.

"I challenge (survivors) to have a voice for those (victims) who don't have a voice," said Pol-Lim, adding that putting on the commemoration is her way of honoring the father and three brothers she lost to the genocide.

Schiff, who represents the Glendale and Pasadena areas and has been a strong voice in urging the U.S. to recognize the Armenian genocide, said it is important for all cultures that have been to remember and not ignore the past. "The 20th century will go down as the apex of state-sponsored industrial killing," Schiff said.

There were similar messages being shared at the library, where a film of the play "A Journey Across the Minefields to America," by local survivor and poet Chantara Nop, was aired. The drama, as its name suggests, details survival in the Killing Fields and eventual immigration to Long Beach.

When talking about the reason for such events, Soth said that while Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge have met their fates, "history will escape us if we don't remember. We have to do this every year we have to instill in children what happened to our gentle people."

Or as Pol-Lim puts it, April 17 needs to be remembered because "it was the day we lost our innocence."

When the day comes that those simple messages will be more widely accepted as unifying and apart from whatever divisions there are in the community is anyone's guess.

As Cambodian newsman Narin Kem said somewhat cryptically, "Cambodian soup is a complicated mix of tastes, you can't know what it is until you eat it."

greg.mellen@presstelegram.com, 562-499-1291


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