Survivor stories

Anjan Sundaram

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From “First They Killed My Father”. Photo: Netflix

Dogs at the Perimeter
Madeleine Thien
W.W. Norton: 2017

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In the midst of suffering, the mind can have an intimation that the suffering is all the result of a dream. It can feel like a revelation — but all too often this connection to what feels like a truth is suddenly lost. The suffering returns, and the moment of insight is elusive: only a receding memory of the possibility of liberation.

The appeal of many religions lies in their promise of a path out of suffering felt by the self, or the ego. They offer a vision that material life — with its ideas, beliefs, dreams and ambitions — can be transcended, and the mind can be freed of its constructed identities to reach a selfless state characterised by humility. In Buddhism, this knowledge itself offers a key to the mind’s liberation. Buddhists call such liberation the attainment of nirvana.

Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime, which ruled from 1975 to 1979, tried to dismantle all sense of self for millions of Cambodians and recast the nation as one of peasant farmers. A communist movement, it tried to return the country to an ancient identity built around the powerful Angkor kingdom. The regime also promised a kind of liberation — from the material desire that it felt was rooted in capitalism. It forced Cambodians out of cities, stripped them of their possessions, separated families and sent them to work in rural cooperatives. Intellectuals were killed. Some 2 million Cambodians died from overwork, starvation and execution, before the Khmer Rouge was overthrown by a group of defectors supported by the Vietnamese army, some of whom still rule the country.

Cambodians today have an awkward and amnesiac relationship with this past. Many parents do not pass stories of the Khmer Rouge to their children, who often learn about the tragedy as adults. This has led to a politically charged Cambodian youth, seemingly free of this past trauma: the youth dare to challenge the government in demonstrations unmoved by official warnings of a return to past violence. Some of the Cambodian diaspora who grew up in the West have also returned and speak of their desire to move the country’s image past its Khmer Rouge history. The economy is growing rapidly, fuelled by Western and Chinese investment. The skyline of Phnom Penh changes each year. And it can seem that outsiders see Cambodians through the lens of the Khmer Rouge more than Cambodians see themselves in that way.

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