A Return to Cambodia
By Botumroath Keo Lebun, B.A. '98
Editor's note: Cambodian-born Botumroath Keo Lebun, whose family fled the Khmer Rouge in 1979, is working on several projects linked to her identity as a Cambodian-American. She has published variations on an essay describing that exploration in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Washington Times. Here she describes her work last summer observing changes in her native country—including a national election—and her continuing work on a documentary film. Currently living and working in Cambodia, she plans to stay there for a year, then return to the U.S. for possible studies in film, journalism or law.
Nineteen years ago, my mother, older brother and I left Cambodia as refugees from the genocide of the Khmer Rouge, who had come to power on April 17, 1975, a few months after my birth.
Over the next three years, nine months and 22 days, more than two million Cambodians would perish under Pol Pot's murderous rule. My warm, gentle and beautiful country became known as "The Killing Fields." (Many Americans will remember the depiction of this horror in the 1984 film of the same name.) No one knows what happened to my father, but he was taken away; if the norm applied, he was executed.
Following the Vietnamese invasion of January 7, 1979, my mother, brother and I escaped Cambodia, fleeing across the border to Thailand, where we remained in a refugee camp for more than two years. In 1981, we were sponsored by the International Rescue Committee, a relief agency, and we were resettled, penniless, in the Bronx. My mother found work as a seamstress in a Chinatown sweatshop, which enabled her to feed and clothe my brother and me, but little else. Still, we struggled to achieve the American dream.
This past summer I went back.
It was one thing to read books and write research papers on Cambodia; experiencing the country on a personal level, I found, was an entirely different matter. I wanted to discover who I was and experience who I had been. When the United Nations accepted an invitation from the Royal Government of Cambodia to provide coordination and support to international observers of the July 26, 1998, National Assembly Elections, it presented an opportunity for me that I could not miss. I thought it would be a great challenge to do an internship with the United Nations Secretariat News in Cambodia, rather than in their New York office, which would have been another option. So, after receiving my B.A. in political science from UB in May 1998, I traveled to Cambodia and hit the streets of Phnom Penh, a 23-year-old Cambodian-American in search of her past.
To clarify, the July election was not a U.N. election; it was a Cambodian election run by Cambodians. The U.N. was in Cambodia to help support the growth of democracy—not as a security force, but to offer its assistance in several ways: through human rights work, coordination of electoral observation (through the office of the electoral assistance secretariat), logistics coordination of international assistance to the elections (through a United Nations Development Programme trust fund), and political monitoring (through the office of the secretary-general's personal representative in Cambodia [SGRC]).
For four months, I worked as a volunteer intern in an office with 15 U.N. monitors who served as the eyes, ears and voice of the SGRC. In a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the Cambodian government had stipulated that all returning politicians who had fled Cambodia during the July 1997 coup would now be free to return and campaign without fear of arrest or intimidation. The SGRC's primary mandate was to monitor these assurances.
One of my tasks was to record the activities of monitors who accompanied the returning politicians on the campaign trail. Understandably, many of the politicians did not want to travel through the countryside without a monitor. While the monitor would not be able to block a concerted attempt to harm a politician, his or her presence would nonetheless attract international scrutiny should an incident occur.
Politicians like Sam Rainsy (Cambodia's former finance minister and the head of one of the two opposition parties) and his ally Prince Norodom Ranariddh frequently told monitors that their presence served as a deterrent to intimidation. The monitors' position was that not only the politicians, but also their party activists, must be allowed to campaign freely, without intimidation. It's one thing for the candidates and politicians to be able to travel during the afternoon, make a speech and safely return to Phnom Penh in the evening; it's quite another for the party members out in the countryside to freely carry out their day-to-day political activities.
There was a great deal of variety in my own daily activities. When I was out on the road with a U.N. monitor, I would wake up early—early indeed, compared to college days, I thought. We would crank up the white 4WD Land Cruiser at 5:40 a.m. and be on the road in time to watch the sun rise. Unlike the Cambodians, who traditionally are early risers, I tended to be the last one to struggle into the marked vehicle bearing a U.N. flag. The car was operated by a designated U.N. driver and also carried one interpreter. Being part of a monitoring mission could be distinctly unexciting: It could mean, for example, a long, hot day of bumping over bad dirt roads, standing in the blazing sun listening to the same speech for the fourth time and not finding a bathroom except behind some banana trees.
If I were spending the morning at the U.N. office, however, which is located on the beautiful Tonle Sap Lake, I would begin at 9 a.m., situating myself in the conference room to write about the elections and work on my documentary film. I liked traveling with monitors and also being on the road seeing Cambodia at the province, district and commune levels. While I don't have any vivid childhood recollections of Cambodia, I have since discovered that it is a beautiful country. I would sit at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Phnom Penh for hours, gazing out on the beauty of the Mekong River.
My inspiration to return to Cambodia can be traced to my years at UB and, earlier, to the influence of the late Mrs. Muriel Kabcenell, a social worker in the Bronx, who generously shared things of beauty and elegance from her own life with me. She took me to various New York art museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where in my senior year of high school I enrolled in free art classes and landed an apprenticeship. Mrs. Kabcenell's intervention allowed me to follow a rigorous course of college-preparatory studies and, ultimately, to attend UB through the Educational Opportunity Program, a state-funded initiative for economically or otherwise disadvantaged students.
Moving from the inner-city projects of the Bronx to suburban Amherst was like moving to a foreign country. During my freshman year, I found it very difficult to focus. I felt lost among the 20,000-plus students on campus and was without a mentor. This changed—as did my grades—in my sophomore year, when I met senior academic advisor Charles Bland. He counseled me in time management, establishing priorities and choosing courses wisely. As a result, my grades showed immediate improvement. Next, I was guided by two other wonderful mentors, Claude Welch, Distinguished Service Professor of political science, and Robert Dentan, professor of American studies and anthropology. Each of these individuals pointed me in directions I might otherwise not have pursued. They nurtured me academically and supported my efforts to learn more about Cambodian history and culture.
My exploration of my personal history began in earnest in the summer of 1994, following my freshman year at UB, when I received a scholarship from World Learning that allowed me to volunteer as an English teacher for Cambodian and Laotian refugees at Phanat Nikhom Refugee Camp in Chon Buri, Thailand, where (although I had only a distant memory of this experience) I had been a refugee myself in 1979–81. Now, as an American citizen, I was helping individuals who were about to be resettled in developed countries. In 1995, I was awarded the Bruce Lee Scholarship from the United States Pan-American Chamber of Commerce as a person "with strong character who had persevered and prevailed over adversity." Winning this scholarship encouraged me to further explore my identity as a refugee. It made me realize how my mother's horrible experience during the Khmer Rouge reign was inexorably linked to my own identity.
My understanding of Cambodia's recent history deepened when, during the summer of my junior year, I secured an internship at the Cambodia Genocide Program at Yale University. I was part of a team that cataloged individual cases of torture and execution at the Tuol Sleng, an execution center of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh. I half expected to see some documentation of my father, but I never did.
Back at UB in 1997, I organized a Cambodian classical dance presentation called "The Living Ancestor" that brought me recognition from the university. The next summer, I worked for His Excellency Sisowath Sirirath, Cambodia's ambassador to the U.N. I was able to apply my academic knowledge in a professional environment at the Cambodian Mission in New York, where I served as one of the ambassador's personal assistants.
Although I had planned to visit Cambodia after graduation, this dream did not immediately come true because of the July 1997 coup. Instead I went to Washington, D.C., where I interned with Edelman Public Relations Worldwide and met individuals who prepared me for Cambodia and helped me to begin my film project.
"Building Bridges from America to Cambodia" is a film that documents my journey in locating a place between two cultures. The objectives of this film are threefold: to portray life as it is today for a generation of young Cambodians; to document the common ground that exists between Cambodian-Americans and Cambodians; and to help Americans become more knowledgeable about Cambodia and Indochina in general.
Of course, Cambodia's July 1998 election played perhaps the most direct role in leading me back to Cambodia. I was excited to travel to this country, especially after taking part in, witnessing and engaging myself in its history. After all, this was Cambodia's first self-organized, multiparty election. It offered hope for bringing peace, stability and legitimate rule to the country. (Hun Sen and his Cambodian People's Party won by a slim margin and recently formed a coalition government with Prince Ranariddh.)
Since completing this assignment, I have interned at the Cambodia Daily, which is published in English, Khmer and Japanese. In my journalistic work, I have enjoyed an advantage over other expatriates because I speak both Khmer and English; when I go out to do a story, I don't need a translator. I covered an international forum on land mines and also wrote about the flooding problems in Cambodia. (When it rains here, it's impossible to travel around the city. Cars break down and motorbike engines stop running. The water is about one meter high. A French businessman commented to me, "City officials should take serious action on this problem. My shoes get ruined and wet and my motorbike gets stuck.") I also worked on a story about 2,000 poor people from various provinces who came to Phnom Penh to beg for rice. They would not leave until they obtained some kind of assistance from the king. "I am hungry, my child is sick," one woman said. "I am not leaving. There isn't anything to eat in my village."
Although I enjoyed the internship at the paper, I soon refocused on the main reason I am in Cambodia: to work on my film. At this writing, I'm working for a nongovernmental organization called SILAKA that promotes democracy and nonviolence, and I continue to write for the United Nations Secretariat News, an in-house publication for U.N. staff members. I'm also taking Khmer classes, learning how to read and write in Khmer. I can actually hear myself speaking Khmer with a New York accent! When I get on a motor taxi, for example, I try to bargain, but it doesn't work—the driver knows I'm from the U.S. because of my accent.
So much was riding on my quest to rediscover Cambodia: the truth about my identity, and the possibilities of my future. I left Indochina at age six, so essentially I grew up in the United States. But there was a part of me that has always seemed incomplete.
With this experience, I have completed a circle that began with my birth. I know that I am forever changed by it. I can only hope that Cambodia, too, has changed for the better.