28 July 2013

In the spotlight... Cambodia

When King Sihanouk died in October last year, it put Cambodia in the spotlight. I spoke to Mora Gibbings - a survivor of the Pol Pot regime - about escaping the killing fields, post-Khmer Rouge poverty and the King's legacy for Prime Minister Hun Sen. 


Bustling around to find her glasses, she puts the thin black frames on her wide, open face before sitting down. It's a bright, early morning. Mora Gibbings tells me how she heard about the King's death: "I was in the office and my husband sent me an email, 'Did you know that King Sihanouk passed away?' and I just started to cry. I always loved Cambodia. I still want to go back."

King Norodom Sihanouk died in Beijing in October 2012 aged 89. His legacy is mixed: part anti-colonial hero who secured his country's independence from France, part political opportunist who disastrously supported the Khmer Rouge to get back into power - but always to his people 'Papa King'. Mora was nine-years old when the King was toppled from power in 1970; but she loved and respected him. She is not alone. Huge crowds lined the streets to watch the gilded float carry his coffin back to the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh from China. Hundreds of thousands turned out for his funeral in February.

Tears form even now as she talks of his death. "He was a very exciting king for Cambodia and Cambodians." Mora talks of her country with affection - her eyes almost disappearing as she smiles. Wearing a plain black t-shirt, no adornments, Mora - now 51 - looks like a regular working mum. She lives in Melbourne with her two daughters and husband, Paul, an Englishman she met in Cambodia before settling in Australia. Even while recounting the horror of Pol Pot, and the desperate poverty that followed, she giggles at moments of absurdity in her life. 

Most of her family died under Pol Pot; she and her two younger sisters survived. Like most young people she was separated from her family in Phnom Penh and taken to live in army teams where they ate meagre food rations and were forced to work in the fields. Mora was not allowed to see her family - family relationships under the Khmer Rouge were considered as bad as class ties and had to be severed - she didn't know her mother had died until 1988 when she returned to the village where they had been sent. "People disappeared all the time then. I used to share a room with nine cousins. All of them are gone except me," she adds, "No-one can describe the fear."

Sitting in her large, cream-coloured kitchen the kettle gurgles in the background as her husband makes breakfast: "Did you know that I was engaged to be married? I don't think I even told Paul before that I ran away from my own wedding," she says, smiling at this long-forgotten episode. After the Pol Pot regime was thrown out in 1978 by a Vietnamese invasion, she and her sisters went to live with their only surviving aunt who had eight children of her own. "It was too much for her to have us too. So she arranged for me to get married. I was only 17."

"I came from Phnom Penh, the city where my parents were educated. He couldn't read or write in Khmer - I really couldn't marry him. So two days before the wedding I ran away." Her family were left to deal with the rumours that she had had an affair with a Vietnamese soldier. 

Mora joined the Socialist Women's Movement against the Vietnamese. She admits she had no interest in politics but with no home, and no way to get food, joining the group was the only way to survive. She spent the next two years with them in the forest living with villagers who fed and hid them from Vietnamese forces. 

If life was precarious under Pol Pot it was no better after. Social structures were destroyed by the regime and rebuilding was difficult as the international community refused to recognise the Vietnamese-backed government. Deciding to return to the capital, Mora found one of the women from the Movement, now married to a powerful man in Prime Minister Hun Sen's government. She helped Mora to get a job as a secretary in the Education Ministry - by pretending that she was her cousin. 

She tells me how she learnt to read and write in English. The Minister for Education wanted Mora to study Marx so she could join the Young Communists - "the Soviet Union sponsored students to study there and in East Germany. When they came back they were so cool and trendy!" - but Mora wasn't interested. Instead, she persuaded the Minister to write to Phnom Penh University where a Quaker NGO was training Cambodians to be English teachers. What was her English like at the time? "I had none whatsoever! When the classes started, I couldn't speak at all," she says leaning back and laughing at her audacity; "The teacher was so angry; he accused me of corruption in getting a place because I worked in the Ministry. He said the training was meant for poor people." But Mora was poor. At the Ministry everyone was given two pens a month for work - Mora kept one for her studies: "And I stole two pieces of A4 paper a week for my studies - two sheets."

Mora loves her country, despite the tragedy she went through, and talks keenly of returning. I ask her what the King's death means for Cambodia and Hun Sen's strongman government: "I don't think his death will change politics in Cambodia; the King lost power a long time ago. Cambodians put up with Hun Sen because of what they suffered under Pol Pot."

President Obama visited Cambodia in November 2012 as it hosted the ASEAN and East Asia summits. His visit raised questions about political prisoners and the government's violent evictions and suppression of protests against land grabs. It stands in contrast to the King's legacy: "He was one of us," Mora explains, "The King went to the farms and saw the people. We are grateful to Hun Sen for going to China and bringing his body back; he will be more popular for this gesture." As memories of the horrors of Pol Pot begin to fade, and opposition protests grow, the Prime Minister may need more gestures like these. 

No comments:

Post a Comment