A Poet, Purged

There is no body in Khun Srun’s tomb.

Perhaps his bones lie in a killing field. Perhaps his skull is among those in the cupboards at Tuol Sleng. All that is known is that he disappeared in the last days of the Khmer Rouge, a victim like so many others. A brilliant life, snuffed out in the chaos.

A scene from the film ‘A Tomb for Khun Srun’
A scene from the film ‘A Tomb for Khun Srun’

Yet unlike so many, his words live on—in essays, poetry, a novel and a documentary film, “A Tomb for Khun Srun,” to be shown Saturday at the Institut Francais.

“I’m afraid that behind the abundance lies a lot of distress,” Khun Srun wrote, wary of the veneer of prosperity around him. “Because development has perverse results. It constantly requires raw materials. More forests, land, fish, minerals…. Humans are never satisfied.”

Khun Srun’s warning, which could be applied today to Cambodia and many other parts of the world in the midst of frantic development, was written in 1971.

“Progress is so rapid,” he added. “I’m afraid the world will take a fall.”

And in Cambodia, the descent had begun. Civil war was raging at the time and the country would soon be captive to the Khmer Rouge.

French filmmaker Eric Galmard, on hand to answer questions after Saturday’s screening, employs Khun Srun’s words from his volume of poetry, “The Beauty of Life,” as well as excerpts from his other works, including a novel “The Accused,” to help illuminate the intellectual—a mathematician and teacher as well as a writer—who worked casting train parts under Pol Pot.

A scene from the film ‘A Tomb for Khun Srun’
A scene from the film ‘A Tomb for Khun Srun’

The 67-minute film, presented in Khmer with English subtitles, tells both the story of Khun Srun and his daughter Khun Khem, his only child to have survived the Khmer Rouge, as she discovers her father and struggles with life in Pailin.

The film blends vignettes of Ms. Khem’s life today with excerpts from her father’s books and archival footage of his time. The treatment enables viewers to follow the story of father and daughter across the decades.

This mingling of past and present highlights some of the anomalies that war and “reconciliation” created in the country, including the fear some still feel for the wealthy former Khmer Rouge cadre who thrive in their old Pailin stronghold.

The film starts with a view of empty, drab corridors and a stark interrogation room at S-21, the Khmer Rouge prison that now houses the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum where Khun Srun was taken 38 years ago, in late November 1978.

“The inspector questions me in the minutest details,” a voice narrates, quoting from his 1973 novel. “I have one hope left though. A tiny one. I know I’m innocent and am wrongfully accused. So I try to kid myself. I try to be optimistic. The inspector is Khmer: He has dark skin and the same blood as me.”

Khun Srun was arrested in 1971 and again in 1973 by then-President Lon Nol’s authorities. As his brother Dr. Khun Ngeth mentions in the film, “He voiced too many truths.”

Fearing for his life, he fled to Vietnam after his release in 1973, and joined the China-backed communist forces nominally led by Prince Sihanouk after his 1970 ousting.

A scene from the film ‘A Tomb for Khun Srun’
A scene from the film ‘A Tomb for Khun Srun’

During Prince Sihanouk’s regime in the 1950s and 1960s, corruption and repression had helped turn the country’s youth and intellectuals against his regime, writes political scientist Ros Chantrabot. Yet corruption, being endemic in Cambodian society, was likely to resurface, he writes in his book, “The Khmer Republic.”

After parliament voted the prince out of power in 1970, he says, “old habits were revived…corruption returned with a vengeance, unchecked, out of control.”

Lon Nol’s regime lost the support of students and intellectuals such as Khun Srun as it became clear that little had changed. The republic would end with the Khmer Rouge’s victory in April 1975.

Khing Hok Dy, a researcher and expert on Cambodian literature prior to 1975, was a classmate of Khun Srun. He described him as “a truly nice person,” but not a revolutionary at heart.

“He was a brilliant student, idealist, hardworking, honest, liberal—but not communist,” he said.

Born in October 1945 in a poor farming family in Takeo province, Khun Srun first studied to teach mathematics. He later obtained a degree in literature and humanities, and taught pedagogy—the science of teaching—at a Phnom Penh university.

A scene from the film ‘A Tomb for Khun Srun’
A scene from the film ‘A Tomb for Khun Srun’

Like others of his generation, he was “able to study because the Prince had put in place—and this is one of the positive aspects of his regime—a true education system that enabled people to attend schools and universities,” Mr. Galmard, the filmmaker, said. “This generation of the 1960s produced writers such as Soth Polin [author of the famed 1980 novel “L’anarchiste” or “The Anarchist”]…who had access to literature, philosophy, the world.”

In Khun Srun’s volumes of poetry and philosophical essays published between 1971 and 1973, there are references to Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as well as to French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, British playwright William Shakespeare and French author Victor Hugo, Mr. Galmard said.

“What set him apart from many other intellectuals is that he came from the countryside and a very poor family. He had a sentimental fondness for Cambodian traditional culture, which he knew quite well, and for Buddhism that is at the core of his reflection.”

During the Khmer Rouge regime, Khun Srun headed the division that cast train and railroad parts at the Phnom Penh train station. Fluent in French and having studied mathematics, he was able to read the French technical manuals stored at the station, Mr. Galmard said.

As a man who worked with Khun Srun explains in the film, the only way they survived in that unit, as in any other in the country, was by working to exhaustion each day. An archival film segment shows Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Sary along with Vorn Vet, who headed the railway division, touring the train workshop, as it depicted workers toiling day and night to ensure that the railway network was in perfect order.

A few minutes into the film, Ms. Khem visits the train station complex where her father had taken her a few times during the Khmer Rouge regime, and there, the words of Khun Srun about the darker side of prosperity resonate. People living along the railroad track speak of having lost their modest homes through evictions in recent years. “They want to hide the poverty, so they’re expelling the poor from Phnom Penh,” a woman explains.

When Vietnamese forces and Cambodian rebels were preparing to attack Cambodia in late 1978, Khmer Rouge leaders conducted what would be the last purge of the regime. In November 1978, Vorn Vet, Khun Srun’s boss at the train station, was taken to S-21 prison for interrogation.

In typical Khmer Rouge fashion, those under him were also arrested. Khun Srun was brought to S-21 on December 20. His wife and their three youngest children were rounded up as well. They would all be killed in the days before the Khmer Rouge leaders fled Phnom Penh and took refuge in Thailand in early January 1979.

Ms. Khem was saved because, at 12, she was at a Phnom Penh boarding school for the children of Khmer Rouge managers, Mr. Galmard said. “And what saved her afterwards—probably—was the disarray, the confusion,” as the Khmer Rouge forced thousands of people to flee to the border with them, he said. “Otherwise, they would probably have arrested her as well.”

Swept away with no knowledge of what had happened to her family, Ms. Khem was adopted by another Khmer Rouge family, and she would spend the next two decades in a Khmer Rouge colony near the Thai border, not even knowing her father’s last name. She married a Khmer Rouge soldier, from whom she is now separated, and had two sons, now grown, who both appear in the film.

She works as a vendor and lives in a modest wooden house on stilts in Pailin City that she claims, in the film, others tried to wrest away from her by using fake documents.

Although her uncle, the doctor, who was in Phnom Penh in the 1980s and 1990s, has helped support her, her life in Pailin has not been easy. As the film depicts, “At each step of her memory journey, there always is someone to remind Ms. Khem that she is on ‘the wrong side,’” both socially and economically, Mr. Galmard notes. Had her father survived, a relative explains, her status would have been very different.

As Ms. Khem contemplates her father’s life—and his death—she discusses holding a traditional Buddhist rites for him. An aunt tells her, rather coldly, that a big ceremony would cost thousands of dollars, and that she had better opt for a small one, “like poor farmers do.”

She proceeds with the ceremony and, as depicted in the film, the neighborhood’s old women cluck that this small ceremony will buy only a small amount of karma. Of course, some Cambodians will question the idea of linking money and karma, Mr. Galmard said, “but this popular belief is very strong here.”

The importance of status and her lack of it also become apparent in the film when she attends a ceremony at the Khmer Rouge tribunal compound the day before the verdict was announced against Kaing Guek Eav, the S-21 prison boss known as Duch, in July 2010.

As she attempts to talk to a representative of the victim-assistance program, the woman responds that a journalist is expecting her and she must leave. Ms. Khem then talks to another representative, and asks whether her presence that day might cause her problems in Pailin. The woman interprets this as a query about psychological problems and, giving Ms. Khem her contact information, tells her to call if she gets nightmares.

Throughout the film, which premiered last year at the Cambodia International Film Festival, the words of Khun Srun resonate: “How I wish men would stop killing each other…. Only compassion can save the world.”

It is such lines that prompted Mr. Galmard to shoot the documentary. “His voice seems to whisper to us that everything has changed and nothing has changed,” he said. “And that is troubling.”

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