Written by Eve Monique Zucker.
Anlong Veng is the famous last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge and the site of Pol Pot’s final resting place. As a settlement perched on an escarpment over the Cambodian plains, and with its back to the border with Thailand, its location is strategic. Because of this, the Khmer Rouge seized it in 1970. Ta Mok, the longtime Khmer Rouge leader, commanded the area of Anlong Veng throughout the civil war of the 1980s and 1990s and continued to fight the government until his eventual defeat in late 1998. The soldiers and their families fought under him to protect their villages, their lives, and way of life from their enemies. To honour and commemorate the heroism of these soldiers, in the mid-1990s a monument was constructed that still stands today at the foot of the road that ascends to Anlong Veng. The monument, which, is the subject of this piece, depicts a group of male Khmer Rouge soldiers and a single female soldier.
The transformation of the Khmer Rouge woman from a protector of the Khmer Rouge into a protector spirit suggests the triumph of the spirit world over the Khmer Rouge past.
In 1998, the Khmer Rouge era came to a halt when Anlong Veng, the final bastion of Khmer Rouge power, started to assimilate into Cambodian society. After nearly 30 years of living under Khmer Rouge ideology, the residents became part of contemporary Cambodian society through Hun Sen’s ‘Win-Win Policy’. Today, 20 years after the end of the civil war, Anlong Veng remains a home to many former Khmer Rouge cadres and their families. No longer closed off to Cambodian society and the world, the locale has been transformed from a well-guarded physical and ideological Khmer Rouge base to a site for commerce, gambling, and tourism—all anathema to the Khmer Rouge thought and value system. However, there are other transformations taking place, transformations I suggest demonstrate the resiliency and potency of Cambodian culture and the spirit world. One of the sites where these transformations can be seen is at the site of the monument to the Khmer Rouge soldiers.
I visited the site in early 2017, together with Prof. Kosal Path and a group of his students. Remarkably, the site has now become a shrine where travellers stop to make offerings. On closer inspection, the statues themselves are largely damaged, some missing limbs, others missing heads. However, one statue in particular has been notably altered. The female figure’s Khmer Rouge uniform is covered by colourful clothing, her damaged visage is masked by tinted sunglasses, and red lipstick or paint is smeared garishly over her damaged lips. She appears as an eccentric granny. By contrast all of the male statues are unadorned with the exception of one who wears a bright coloured orange scarf. This in itself is notable for reasons discussed subsequently. But returning to the female statue, we see that her new clothes would be familiar to any Cambodian for they are the garments associated with Buddhism and the realm of the sacred. The white lace shirt, the orange cloth of the monks that forms the skirt, the monk’s sack—all come together to form a holy figure with the exception of the tinted sunglasses and red lipstick. Why the combination of the profane lipstick and sunglasses with the sacred clothes of Buddhism? The answer is found in the identity of the representation: Yeay Mao (Black Grandmother), guardian spirit of the mountains and the protectress of travellers. As a guardian spirit she is sacred, however, as with many spirits in the Cambodian imaginary, her character is imbued with contradictory elements.
There are many versions of the story of Yeay Mao, but in most stories, her husband is said to have fought against the Thais in the 19th century, and then goes missing or is killed in battle. In several stories Yeay Mao is said to have successfully fought the Thai battalions herself, thereby protecting the Cambodian people. Remembered for her strength and loyalty, she has become over the years a guardian spirit who provides protection for travelers and will help those in need if given proper respect and offerings. She is well-known and widely respected and her image can be found in other parts of Cambodia. The Yeay Mao shrine in Anlong Veng, was created by local people in the area after numerous traffic accidents on this road. Now drivers regularly stop at the shrine to make an offering in exchange for a safe journey.
The clothing, accessories that suggest Yeay Mao, covers a statue that was originally intended to commemorate the brave Khmer Rouge women who fought to defend Anlong Veng. Beneath the colourful adornment, the female Khmer Rouge soldier carries spikes under her arm and on top of her head. The bamboo spikes were used to prevent the advances of the enemy during the civil war. Women would transport these spikes to the frontline for the soldiers there who would use them to make traps to ensnare the enemy. Sometimes the spikes would be poisoned, the lethal version ironically being described by the Khmer Rouge as ‘their sacred weapons’ and hailed for their potency.
Whether as a female Khmer Rouge soldier or as the spirit of Yeay Mao, the female statue signifies a protector. In one form, there are two female protectors. Given that women are often the bearers and representations of culture; this statue-shrine becomes even more provocative in what it implies. We see here the durability and resilience of culture played out through the changing statues. Cambodian society, represented in the Cambodian woman, mutates and endures these transformations. The transformation of the Khmer Rouge woman from a protector of the Khmer Rouge into a protector spirit suggests the triumph of the spirit world over the Khmer Rouge past. The shift from the a-spiritual world of the Khmer Rouge into the spiritual present is clear in the representations of these two female figures.
Yeay Mao’s style of dress belongs to the Buddhist monastery. She wears the colors and cloth of a monk, and the white blouse worn by women on Buddhist holidays. She is therefore absorbed by the world of Buddhism as well as the world of the ancient spirts. The remaking of the Khmer Rouge female soldier into a holy spirit is a form of redemption and transcendence. Moreover, it is evident that for the people who considered themselves victims of the Khmer Rouge this triumph is empowering. They have regained access to the spirit world, an act forbidden by the Khmer Rouge, and through their ability to make offerings to the re-empowered spirits, worshippers regain the ability to administer some sense of autonomy over their lives.
Perhaps reflecting gender equality, it is notable that one of the male figures, is also adorned, wearing not the scarf of a Khmer Rouge but a scarf in the cloth of a monk as mentioned earlier. It is as though he has been himself ordained. I do not know whether in fact there was any blessings by monks over these statues (something to explore in the future) but the transformation from Khmer Rouge soldier to a holy spirit is striking. It causes one to pause to think about the former Khmer Rouge village chiefs who have earned their way back into society through their service in the Buddhist temples and to their communities. An illustration of this is found in comparing the monument/shrine during my visit in 2017, and a photo of the same site a year earlier by another scholar. In the earlier picture the male Khmer Rouge soldiers wear no scarves or other embellishments, unlike the female who had already morphed into Yeay Mao. At some point in time it was decided that the male Khmer Rouge statue would also become a shrine and included in the sacred. Can this be a further absorption of the Khmer Rouge soldiers into society and into the transcendent imaginary of Cambodian culture? Regardless it is clear that a portion of the moral world that had been cracked by the violence of the Khmer Rouge has now been righted.
Eve Monique Zucker (@emzucker) is a research affiliate with the anthropology department at Columbia University. Her research focuses on how people respond to and recover from mass violence and trauma and has conducted extensive research in Cambodia (2001-2003, 2010) on the topics of memory, morality, and recovery from war and genocide. Her book, ‘Forest of Struggle: Moralities of Remembrance in Upland Cambodia’ tracks the recovery of a village community in Cambodia’s southwest, a site that was a Khmer Rouge base and battleground for nearly thirty years. Cover image: CC by Narith5/Flickr; all other images courtesy the author.