The Place: Cambodia

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 government.

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?

The Process:

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 Rouge:

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.”