Organizer: Lindsay French, Dartmouth College
Chair: Judy Ledgerwood, East-West Center
Discussant: A. Thomas Kirsch, Cornell University
Cambodia is in the midst of a period of profound transformation. Having survived the American war in Indochina, the holocaust of Pol Pot, the devastations of an externally sustained civil conflict, and the international whirlwind of a U.N.-sponsored national election, Cambodians are now struggling to construct a new and lasting political and economic infrastructure, and to re-establish stable social and cultural lives. This panel looks at Cambodian culture and social relations at this particular moment in history and asks, how is this process of transformation experienced in the towns and villages in Cambodia? What are the consequences of two and a half decades of violence, fear, and tremendous human suffering? What challenges are presented by the convergence of (some) new areas of political openness, (some) new economic opportunities, (some) new cultural movements, and many very familiar political, economic, and cultural constraints? How are "traditional" forms brought to bear on current issues in Cambodia, and what familiar characteristics do we find in innovative practices? The papers on this panel address questions of continuity and change directly, through a re-visitation to the one village in Cambodia about which we have a full-length ethnography in English; an analysis of the cultural models that underlie the violence of the Khmer Rouge years and after; and an examination of the effects of a changing economy and greater political openness on patterns of sexuality among young people, and the implications of these changes for the spread of AIDS in Cambodia.
Plus Ça Change?: Social Relations in a Khmer Village
May Ebihara, City University of New York
Using material from recent field research in a Khmer village I originally studied some 35 years ago, this paper explores the issue of how and to what extent certain "traditional" forms of social organization have been reconstituted at the village level in a specific Cambodian peasant community. On the surface, many features of village life are very similar to what I knew several decades ago and seem to bear out the French adage: "Plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chose." Closer examination, however, reveals transformations of customary practices that are the consequences of the traumatic upheavals of the Pol Pot period and of various socioeconomic developments within the past 15 years. The discussion will examine these points with particular focus on the nature of social relationships and moral obligations within the family/household, the kindred, and the community.
Political and Economic Change in the 1990s and Risk-Related Sexual Behavior Among
Chou Meng Tarr, University of Fine Arts, Phnom Penh
Ten years ago the threat of AIDS was negligible in Cambodia, and even five years ago there were no reported cases. As of April 1995, however, 1,000 people were officially reported as HIV-positive in Cambodia, with unofficial figures closer to 6,000 or 6,500. These figures are not high by regional standards, but the spread of AIDS in Cambodia has been linked to recent economic changes and greater political openness that have affected Cambodian society in significant ways. There is a well-founded fear that should the AIDS pandemic intensify in Cambodia, given a very poorly funded public health system, public discourse on risk-related sexual behavior, and the failure (thus far) to deconstruct traditional notions of sexuality, a new chapter in Cambodia's suffering may be opened.
My research focuses on developing a more nuanced understanding of the cultural dimensions of sexuality in Cambodia, specifically among young people. In particular I seek to transcend simplistic representation of commoditised sexual relationships between young Cambodian males and mostly ethnic Vietnamese commercial sex workers, and to render more 'visible' the sexual cultures and identities of young Cambodian females. My research to date suggests that we are dealing with both continuities and discontinuities in such matters, but that appeals to 'tradition' are less than successful as Cambodia seeks to reinvent itself in the 1990s. However, I argue that young Cambodians may be proactive in addressing the problem of AIDS today in a way that earlier generations of Cambodians could not have been.
The Psychosocial Origins of Cambodian Violence
Alexander Laban Hinton, Emory University
Drawing on recent ethnographic fieldwork in a rural village, a provincial town, and the capitol city of Phnom Penh, this paper will examine how cultural models of behavior inform Cambodian political life. In particular, the paper will attempt to help explain-from a psychosocial perspective-why so much violence took place in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge years and why it continues into the present. Kompong Cham, the province in question, is particularly known for its high level of political violence in recent years as well as during the 1970s; the range of field sites links local level motivations and actions to national political agendas. The paper will conclude with some thoughts about how cultural models may have changed over the last twenty-five years and about what the above psychosocial analysis can tell us about the prospects for lasting peace and democracy in Cambodia's future.