For the play, "Searching for Innocence": Phnom Penh, 1996.
Cambodia was once one of the world's great societies, the measure of which
can be seen in the construction of the temples at Siem Reap. The series of
structures, which include Angkor Wat, Angkor Tom, and the Bayon, are among the
most magnificent and sophisticated historic sites in the world.
In modern times, Cambodia had become a way station for many outside
influences, which have served to destabilize and wreck chaos upon the country. A
colony of the French until just after World War Two, the government of Cambodia
was later toppled and replaced by the American-friendly government of Lon Nol in
order to aid in America's war efforts in Vietnam. When America fled Southeast
Asia, the government again was toppled and the country destabilized, creating a
situation where the communists in the north -the Khmer Rouge -were able to seize
power. Its leader was a man educated at French Universities and taking his model
from the French revolution -Pol Pot.
What then ensued was one of the most catastrophic genocides in the history of
the world. The Khmer Rouge came into the city of Phnom Penh and evacuated
everyone. They separated children from their parents and tried to create a
utopian community in which the Khmer Rouge would serve as the collective family
unit. This was to become an agrarian society where everybody was equal and
worked side-by-side in the fields for the collective good. Intellectualism and
city life were despised within this new mentality. Phnom Penh -a city of more
than a million people –became absolutely lifeless.
Eventually, a paranoia developed within the party and the idealism began to
take an ugly turn. People were killed for wearing eyeglasses, which signified
somehow that they were intellectuals and an enemy of the people. One educated
man with whom I spoke made an effort to hide his intelligence by defecating on
himself each day as a means of protection. (After all, how smart could he be if
he couldn't even use the bathroom properly?)
Soon, there were more people being killed each day than there were bullets
available to kill them. Children were forced to watch the more creative forms of
execution that were developed. A general reign of terror continued unabated
until the Khmer Rouge began incursions across the Vietnamese border, and the
Vietnamese stuck back and defeated the Khmer Rouge and helped to install a new
Fighting with the Khmer Rouge would continue until U.N. peacekeeping efforts
forced the Khmer Rouge into remote areas of the country, where the fighting was
more isolated and controlled.
Part of the peacekeeping effort was to hold an election, in which Hun Sen
lost to Prince Ranariddh. However, when Hun Sen threatened to start his own
country with the support he enjoyed in the eastern part of Cambodia, the UN
capitulated and created a power sharing government between both leaders. In a
country whose political history is that of the warrior king, this was an effort
that was bound to fail. In 1997 Hun Sen seized power completely, and has since
remained the leader of the country.
In 1996, hundreds of non-governmental agencies entered Cambodia as a result
of the United Nations peacekeeping efforts. But the significantly higher wages
of the employees of the NGOs created an inflationary pressure on the native
population, so that many of the local people could no longer afford to live in
their own country. As result, families resorted to such desperate means as
selling their children as prostitutes to service the foreign community who were
there to help them.
This odd juxtaposition, combined with UN effort to install a dual presidency,
raised the question in my mind: What is ‘helping' all about? Can you sometimes
say that you are helping when you are really just promoting your own interests?
Can your efforts to help end up harming more than they are helping?
I visited the country several times during this transitional period in 1996,
and once lived with an NGO called CANDO, which was comprised mostly of
Cambodian-Americans who had come back to help their country.
I remember in particular, evenings drinking on the porch at the Foreign
Correspondence Club, the noise of the city filtering below and the cooler
breezes from the Mekong River somehow making their way through all of it. Phnom
Penh changed its shape several times a day, and in the early evening, the
vendors would come out from who knows where, lining the already crowded streets
with carts lit by a single florescent bulb, as a tangle of extension cords
reached towards some undefined power source that gave the city a whole new life.
While people in other parts of the world talked about sports, family, and
world events, here the talk was of projects: projects that would help the
Cambodians this way or projects that would help the Cambodians that way.
What I eventually came to learn was that the people who were the most
effective in providing real help in a foreign country tended to possess one
common characteristic: they listened more than they spoke. What I found, too,
was that for the people who spoke more than they listened, a subtle change had
often occurred in the nature of their philanthropic efforts. It was not
altogether uncommon for an NGO to begin its work in the service of people, but
then later end up using those same people for the service of the NGO. This is a
subtle distinction, but one that makes all the difference in the world. The
objective of the NGO no longer was to serve a particular population in a
particular way, but rather to have the needs of these people -and the
quantification of such -justify the funding and mission of the organization.
These issues raised in Cambodia would remain with me through my work in other
areas, but they were largely the inspiration for the thrust of "Searching for
Innocence: Phnom Penh 1996." It seemed like the play would be about the
Cambodians who had endured untold sufferings, but it seemed like the more
interesting subject matter was all the worlds' good intentions run amok, a
phenomena to which the Cambodian people had fallen victim again and again.
Certainly the American administration at the time felt they were doing the right
thing in getting involved in Southeast Asia, as did the Khmer Rouge, who thought
they were creating an ideal society, as did the UN when they set up a dual-prime
minister relationship, as did and do all the NGOs working to help Cambodians in
one form or another. (At one point in my play, one of the NGO characters coming
to terms with this phenomena points out that there are more than one-hundred
NGOs present in Cambodia, and wonders out loud to a Cambodian who doesn't speak
his language, what are the one-hundred ways that the Cambodian can be helped?)
I thought there was a similar thread to all of attempts to do good, and
rather than focus on the political issues inherent in earlier examples, I
decided that focusing on the NGO's would provide a more personal window into
this phenomena. I had also become fascinated by the unique psychology of the
ex-patriots living long periods of time away from the place they consider home,
and being a part of trauma and chaos in many settings throughout the world.
While in Phnom Penh, I became friends with an extraordinary poet who, as a
young man, had been taken from his home and separated from his family by the
Khmer Rouge. Chath Piersath brought me to meet people whose stories seemed
unbelievable. We continued the discussion in Lowell, Massachusetts, where I met
with Cambodians who had been taken to the United States from refugee camps in
Thailand. All of these stories were woven into the fabric of the play.
Chath appears in the play both as himself, telling his own story, and as an
actor playing different types of Cambodian characters. In one section, he
recalls being put on a plane to go to America after being rescued from the Khmer
Then, from the refugee camp one day, they took me to another place with big
metal birds. I had never seen these things. Then I am inside, and this thing
is moving, and then it is off the ground. My stomach goes into my throat and I
am vomiting. Afraid, too strange to be a dream, now. I mean, I couldn't even
dream something like this up. They give me food I had never eaten -butter. It
made me dizzy just to smell it. I don't know where I am going, I don't know
what this thing is. How does it go up in the air? I had never seen an airplane
before. The only thing that I know for certain is that with each moment, I am
moving further and further away from my mother, and I know somehow that I will
never see her again.
-Chath Piersath "Searching for Innocence."
Searching for Innocence: Phnom Penh 1996.