Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Sereysothea, Yol Aularong, and scores of nameless others were once the core of a vibrant music and arts scene in a young Cambodia—one of the many nations that would form in the wake of global politicking and nationalist movements after World War II. Embodied by Sinn Sisamouth, but others as well, Cambodia is once, again, a country on the rise—yet the majority of us when quizzed about Cambodia can only remember a genocide in a remote Asian country. However, even here in Ohio, where I’ve become acquainted with many more intelligent and insightful than myself, the future of Cambodia seems brighter than ever simply from the hard work and enthusiasm from those in the Cambodian community. With the highest growth rate in Southeast Asia, 21st-century Cambodia is experiencing rapid economic growth. Indeed, the difference between Cambodia in 2011 and 2015 were staggering: construction of skyscrapers, growing numbers of cars and motorbikes, and an entire lake drained to make way for development—demonstrating both the positive and negative sides of extraordinary growth. This extraordinary growth coupled with the vigor of a young nation on the move is no longer a playground for those keen on poverty porn or atoning their guilty conscience of first world sins.
Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll was released in 2015 by Virgil Films and took director John Pirozzi nearly 10 years to make. It is a survey of the Khmer art scene, leaving a knot in your throat at the tragedies of the Cambodian 20th century, while at others you become caught up in a war you’ll never understand—enraged at an America emboldened to commit atrocities by its victories in World War II. These young artists were old enough to live, but many, in fact an entire generation, were left decimated by war. However, the realities and intensity of the war across the border would eventually spoil the innocence, ruining the vibrancy and life of a city bustling with activity and hope.
But mark it well…if I shall die here [in my country I love]…I have only committed the mistake of believing in you, the Americans.
These remarks were drawn from a letter penned shortly before the fall of Phnom Penh in 1974 as Phnom Penh fell to angry, young peasants. Closely following the rock and roll scene and the players involved, the camera pans over yet another nascent Asian metropolis, yet Phnom Penh in 2014 is uncanny in appearance. Political confrontations are often violent affairs, and the political leaders of the country have adopted the style of spineless American politicians. The current government of Hun Sen, the Prime Minister of Cambodia for almost 20 years, thrives on corruption and is a power unto itself as Sebastian Strangio discusses in Hun Sen’s Cambodia—an excellent read if one is looking to delve into Cambodian politics.
Perhaps, and this seems to be the movie’s message, we must remember and respect the past—the majority of individuals never stopping to inquire into circumstances. One of the greatest follies of the 20th century was the strengthening of the system of nation-states. In many cases, this model simply did not and will not fit and furthered racist ideologies. Reacting to what seemed rational in the face of an exaggerated Communist threat, the United States became heavily involved in the region.
French Indochina and the end of the beginning
French Indochina was the name of the territories that the French conquered during the latter half of the 19th century. Historical Southeast Asia, with its mandalas of power, and especially its ethnic divides, presaged the Indochina of the late 20th century. French involvement in the region during the 19th and 20th centuries culminated in the formation of French Indochina in 1887, in which the French Protectorate of Cambodia remained a relatively isolated and dominated by the French and other foreigners. However, World War II saw the end of colonization and the beginning of century of nations, which were quite simply pawns in a game played by the United States, the Soviet Union, and China.
Cambodia gained the coveted status of a newly-formed nation-state in 1953, and the next 15 years seemed limitless in possibilities. Cambodia was a nation on the move and progress, however defined, was occurring. According to David Chandler, a Western historian of Cambodia, many foreigners often remarked that Cambodia was the “prettiest capital of Southeast Asia” and this capital was the site of an intermingling of cultures that would influence the music of Sinn Sisamouth and his contemporaries.
By 1973, the United States had begun one of its most intense bombing campaigns of the Vietnam War, dropping hundreds of tons of explosives on the Cambodian countryside. In turn, this incensed a peasantry already angry, and in many ways resentful, of their status in comparison to their urban counterparts. Finally, 1975 marked the end of the beginning of a vibrant and burgeoning musical culture that only recently has come to light as the memories aft by the Khmer Rouge resurfaced and gained new life. Sin Sisamouth and his contemporaries allow Cambodians and those from outside Cambodia to understand Cambodia through something other than the genocide—invariably the only thing that the majority of people understand about the country.
From 1979, the year of the Vietnamese invasion, until 1993, the year of UN-sponsored elections, the Khmer Rouge were indeed sponsored by China, the United States, and other Southeast Asian nations—much to the despair of the ordinary Cambodians. In 1997, Hun Sen seized power in a coup that has led to a largely stable, yet almost criminal, political regime. But, his rule is increasingly being questioned both within Cambodia and within the larger regional and international communities.
The Meaning of Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Sereysothea, and Yol Aularong
The ascension of the Khmer Rouge was fueled by American, Chinese, and Soviet interventionism and politicking, not to mention vitriolic nationalism and racism coming from both the right and the left sides of the political spectrums. Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Sereysothea, and Yol Aularong all met tragic ends. They died with an estimated one to three and a half million other individuals who were all caught up in a game they could hardly comprehend. The Khmer Rouge, despising those who even appeared to be educated, emptied what was once the most beautiful capital in Southeast Asia into a city of ghosts.
All of this goes to say that to be a member of society and culture, one must be educated and understand his or her circumstances so that leaders like the murderous Pol Pot and the halfwitted Norodom Sihanouk, who was more concerned with directing movies and winning self-awarded statuettes made from the country’s supply of gold, cannot have the fate of millions in their hands. Though the film itself focused on the vibrancy and life of an artistic community indulging in the atmosphere of the 1960s, it speaks to a larger truth in that having incompetent leaders in power is never a good idea. The best defense against those that wish to use their power to harm others or for their own personal gain starts with a society flourishing in artistic and intellectual energy. Tomorrow’s Cambodia is once again unbounded, yet Cambodians and others alike would do well to remember the past as to act ethically now.
As some friends have relayed the political situation to me in Cambodia, the key political players in Cambodia offer little hope of progressive change—the opposition lacking any essence to their arguments. To end this commentary, politics over the world seem to be at a pivotal point in which the sole goal of those in power is to enrich themselves, while the the opposition serves as a vehicle through which mass resentment and grievances are aired. Forever trapped in a Phnom Penh frozen in time, which was imaginatively captured by Pirozzi, they represent a Cambodia that could have been, but never was.