“School for us was under a tree. There were always human bones around and the boys would kick the skull around like a soccer ball.”
Hearing those words made my heart sink, but Sochea, a marketing manager at the Shinta Mani Resort in Siem Reap continued, “On the day that I received my high school graduation results, I was very happy. I got on my bicycle and went around looking for my friends, but I could not find anyone. That was the day I found out what a university was. My parents never spoke about it before and I didn’t ask about it, as I knew it wasn’t something that they could afford. I just went to the river, sat at a bridge and cried”.
Cambodia’s traumatic period of the Democratic Kampucea era and its aftermath has been forever seared into the memories and conscience of the generations that lived it. However, it hasn’t gone unnoticed that the pain of this period has been lost on the Khmer millennial. Accused of being ignorant about the past, not believing the inconceivably cruel accounts or of just being apathetic, survivors like Mrs. Sum Touch, 71, have stopped trying to tell the young of today of their ordeals. “It hurts my heart that they don’t know what happened”, she says dejectedly.1 They can hardly be blamed, though. With an annual GDP growth of 7.5%2 since the end of the civil war in 1996 and a forecast of the trend continuing, the future ahead looks a lot brighter than the dark past.
However, the question remains why all traumatic events don’t impact the people of the recovering nation the same way. What causes some to stubbornly persist while others fade from collective memory relatively quickly. History, presents us with some interesting case studies. Vietnam, with a political system and social fabric that is closer to China’s than any other country still holds a measure of resentment stemming from a 1,000-year occupation of their country that ended in 938 AD. So deep do those misgiving run that, some demonise mainlanders with the genuine belief that they eat babies.
Children at work during Democratic Kampuchea
The Vietnamese themselves are subjects of revulsion by Cambodians for massacres committed in the early 1900s, up until to this day. This episode is epitomised and propagated in a story, told to scare children, about the Vietnamese soldiers’ practice of boiling water for tea on cauldrons balanced on the heads of Cambodian forced labourers4 buried alive up to their necks. Other examples include the Sino-Japanese wars of the mid 20th century, the vicious violence of the Subcontinent’s partition, the endearing bitterness of Konfrontasi, the Jewish Holocaust and the list goes on. These episodes captivate the social psyche at large and continue to fire up prejudices with no end in sight.
However, there are also other traumatic national events that have largely been forgotten by the general public. North and South Korea have not officially declared a cessation of a state of war and only a fragile armistice along the world’s most highly militarised border is only thing preventing a nuclear confrontation. Even under this constant threat, most youths see the mandatory conscription as an inconvenience and a disruption of their daily lives5. Closer to home, the terrorist acts of the Malayan Emergency6 is now just a footnote in history, even though the communist insurgency ended only in 1989 and the danger of attacks was a source of daily concern throughout the 50s and 60s.
North and South Korea border
Humans have been documented cope in the aftermath of traumatic events in various ways. It can be said that most people choose to avoid things that are unpleasant. In this vein, modern psychologists have put forward two ideas: motivated forgetting and psychological repression. The former is a conscious coping mechanism where the subject actively pushes memories into their subconscious by way of cognitive control7.
Disturbing or painful memories are purposefully made inaccessible and pushed away into the recesses of the mind but remain in storage. The latter is a subconscious defensive mechanism where the memory is no longer recalled but can still exert a subconscious influence on a person’s behaviour. An example would be a child experiencing abuse, not recalling it but having problems forming relationships as an adult.
Rape of Nanking
There is also the other route that many have taken. The aggrieved, the indignant, and arguably more resolute refuse to forget. In a different take of Man’s fight-or-flight response, they hang on to their suffering, drawing anger and strength from it in a quest for justice, redress or to educate others8. At other times, the persistence of a traumatic memory is encouraged by external parties. Political leaders have long stoked nationalistic sentiments to galvanise a country for specific purposes, which could range from the positively macabre like the Nazi party or nation building like China in the last decade.
There isn’t a right or wrong way to deal with traumatic memories. Forgetting, is in some sense a way of forced forgiveness – it can be a way to normalise relations between previously hostile nations; a way of burying the hatchet so to speak. Remembering is also a method of coping. It preserves the lessons of history and honours the memory of those who rose above hostile situations and paid the price, if not made the ultimate sacrifice.
Japanese Invasion into Singapore
The common thread is setting aside the negative feelings and thoughts associated with an event or memory and in this sense, inter-governmental efforts at national reconciliation have proved to truly allowed past misgivings to be resolved. This can be highlighted in the conciliatory actions of participants in the Second World War. Perpetrators and victims of the Holocaust have largely put the past behind them with a dose of accountability, contrition and forgiveness.
On the flip side, rising superpower, China continue to seethe with acrimony at what they perceive as Japanese reluctance to accept the atrocities of the era; even as the generation that survived the period dwindles, a new generation of molly coddled, angsty Chinese youth pick up the banner.