Said, not spoken and inaudible

Annemarie Prins declares in a leaflet on the play that: ‘the main goal of this production is to find a way out of trauma’s silence, contributing to open dialogue is part of the process of reconciliation’. Judith Strasser, one of the mental health consultants for ‘We want (u) to know’ states similar objectives: talking is the path to healing (Gée 2009a, b, c). That talking about the Khmer Rouge for Cambodians is difficult, painful, even dangerous, no doubt about that. Yet, does it mean that ‘silence reigns’ in that country?

For Father François Ponchaud, one of the best experts of Cambodian history and culture, there is no such thing as silence on the subject of the Khmer Rouge. Villagers talk about it all the time (Hertzog 2010). How could it be otherwise when the Angkar has left such a deep a mark on the countryside? Dams and bridges built at that time are still in use today. There is no forgetting, everybody knows everything about the neighbours, but it is not expressed directly in daily life. The coexistence of victims and perpetrators covers a variety of situations, ranging from ostracising criminals to re-integrating them (those who showed some mercy when they were in power) within the community. There are obviously pathologies and post-traumatic disorder syndromes, underlying violence (especially with people who, as children, have been ‘educated’ by the Khmer Rouge). Still communities have found ways to deal with such awkward situation. Villagers have knitted a delicate web, crucial in a context where food supply and survival override many other issues, a web that can easily be torn.

Ponchaud points also to the importance of Buddhist beliefs and rituals in providing frameworks for making sense of the events (Hertzog 2010). These are principles that ground the ‘testimonial therapy’ developed by the NGO Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation, established in Phnom Penh in 1995. The approach takes into account the cultural dimensions of mental health in Cambodia. A survivor talks about what was his or her ordeal in the hands of the Khmer Rouge. A counsellor helps turn the testimony into a written document. The latter is read aloud to other survivors and/or community members during a Buddhist ceremony. The ‘testimonial therapy’ has three objectives: to express the traumatic experience; to honour the spirits of the dead; to document human rights violations. The French psychiatrist and anthropologist Richard Rechtman, who started working with Khmer refugees in Paris in the mid-1980s, considers that there is no silence, but a communication problem. People have some difficulty in listening to what victims say—a way to suggest that responsibility lies also, maybe more, with the addressee. In the Khmer Rouge era, Rechtman argues, ‘people could not say what they had in mind. It was believed that one could prevent people from thinking by preventing them from speaking. It is not possible. Yet, it has some effects: after a whilst, people keep on thinking but they do no longer know what to say.’ It leads him to replaces the idea of ‘unspeakable’ with that of ‘inaudible’. People continuously talk about what is unbearable but nobody hears it (Gée 2009a, b, c).