The Persistence of National Memories of Trauma
Photo Credit: The Middle Ground
By Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim

The Persistence of National Memories of Trauma

Mar. 02, 2017  |     |  0 comments

In February 2017, two events occurred in Southeast Asia which highlight the persistence in national life of collective memories of trauma. First, in Singapore, the name of an exhibition on the Second World War had to be changed following a public outcry over their perception of the historical insensitivity of the exhibition’s name to the victims and survivors of the Japanese Occupation of Singapore. Just a day after the change in the exhibition’s name was announced, Netflix premiered in Cambodia its film adaptation of First They Killed My Father, the bestselling memoir of a child survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide. This movie premiere was well-received by the genocide survivors among its audience, who reportedly received a form of catharsis from the vivid cinematic depiction of their collective suffering during the Khmer Rouge period.

On February 9, 2017, the National Archives of Singapore gave a media preview of its new exhibition on the Second World War, “Syonan Gallery: War and its Legacies.” This replaced the earlier exhibition “Memories at Old Ford Factory,” which had also chronicled life under the Japanese Occupation. This previous exhibition was located at the Old Ford Motor Factory at Upper Bukit Timah Road in Singapore, which was the site of the colonial British government’s surrender to the invading Japanese army (Wong, 2004a; “The Syonan Gallery,” 2017). The inclusion of the “Syonan” in the name of the new exhibition gave rise to complaints from the public, as Syonan-to (“Light of the South”) was the name assigned to Singapore by the Japanese military following Japan’s capture of the island from the British. “Syonan” hence became a synecdoche for the 44 months of the Japanese Occupation of Singapore during the Second World War — a period which is remembered in Singapore’s national consciousness as one of mass killings and great suffering (“Syonan years,” 2017).

On February 15, speaking at the official launch of the Syonan Gallery, Dr. Yaacob Ibrahim, Singapore’s Minister for Communications and Information, addressed the public outcry, explaining that the name “does not express approval of the Japanese Occupation”: “The name ‘Syonan Gallery’ has evoked some strong reactions in our community, and quite understandably. Some among older Singaporeans who lived through that dark period feel that the name legitimises the Occupation. Others among them say that Syonan was a painful fact of history, and we should call it what it was” (“Name of Syonan Gallery,” 2017). Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in a social media post, further explained that the Syonan Gallery “documents the horror and viciousness of the Japanese Occupation, and the suffering and bravery of our pioneers. They know what it means for Singapore to lose its freedom and even its name” (Lee, 2017).

On February 17, the decision was made to change the name of the exhibition. Dr. Yaacob noted that while “Syonan” had been used without incident in names of previous exhibitions, including “When Singapore was Syonan-to,” the 1992 exhibition at the National Museum marking the 50th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore, its appearance in the name “Syonan Gallery” had “provoked a strong reaction” from members of the public: “While they agreed that we need to teach Singaporeans about the Japanese Occupation, they also shared that the words ‘Syonan Gallery’ had evoked deep hurt in them, as well as their parents and grandparents.” Expressing the need to “honour and respect the feelings of those who suffered terribly and lost family members during the Japanese Occupation,” Dr. Yaacob announced that the exhibition would be renamed “Surviving the Japanese Occupation: War and its Legacies” (“Syonan Gallery renamed,” 2017).

Indeed, as the passage of time sees the gradual replacement of the generations of Singaporeans who had lived through the Japanese Occupation with those who were born in its aftermath, this traumatic event remains foundational in Singapore’s national consciousness. In Žižekian terms, the Japanese Occupation functioned as a point de capiton for Singapore’s self-understanding, restructuring its narration of itself from that of a complacent British crown colony to a nation yearning for independence (Lim, 2013, p. 56). As Prime Minister Lee explained of February 15, 1942, the date of the British surrender of Singapore to the Japanese, “Every year, we observe Total Defence Day on this day, so that we will never forget that darkest time of our history … Singapore will always be small and vulnerable. No one owes us our sovereignty or security. These are truths we must never forget” (Lee, 2017).

To this end, lessons on the Japanese Occupation remain an essential part of the national curriculum for Singapore’s schoolchildren. I still remember class trips to visit national memorials like the Civilian War Memorial, which honors the civilians who died during the Japanese Occupation, as well as the Lim Bo Seng Memorial, which honors a resistance fighter who died after torture at the hands of the Kempeitai, the dreaded Japanese military police (Cornelius-Takahama, 2004; Wong, 2004b; Wong and Chew, 2004). Back in school, I recall my classmates and I learning about the wicked atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army in Singapore, including a massacre of over a hundred doctors, nurses, and patients at Alexandra Hospital; and Operation Sook Ching, a massacre of thousands of Chinese civilians who had fallen under suspicion of involvement in the anti-Japanese resistance movement (Ho, 2013; “Alexandra Hospital massacre,” 2014).

Following the Japanese defeat at the end of the Second World War, various Japanese war criminals including General Yamashita Tomoyuki, the “Tiger of Malaya,” were tried for war crimes and executed (Tanaka, 2005). Under postwar American tutelage, Japan transformed itself into a Western-style democracy and underwent an economic takeoff, and through foreign direct investment and technology transfers, helped lead other economies in East and Southeast Asia — including Singapore — to achieve economic takeoffs of their own (Lim, 2017). Over the years, Japan’s influence in Singapore has spread beyond its economic investments. Today, Singaporeans have embraced Japanese technology, cuisine, and popular culture, and Japan is a major destination for Singaporean tourists.

The Syonan Gallery incident, however, reminds us that deep collective memories of trauma can complicate otherwise smooth bilateral relations between nations. Elsewhere in East and Southeast Asia, memories of Japan’s wartime atrocities continue to haunt bilateral relations with Japan, including the anger of the affected nations at the Japanese political establishment’s continued patronage of the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors almost a thousand war criminals from the Second World War; as well as anger from countries like China, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines over Japan’s continued refusal to deliver justice to their “comfort women” — women who had been forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army during their occupation of these territories (Borowiec, 2017; McMullen, 2016; Tiezzi, 2016; Woolf, 2013).

In the case of Cambodia, the historical event of trauma that was remembered by Loung Ung’s memoir First They Killed My Father and its subsequent film adaptation by Netflix was the genocide that occurred under the Khmer Rouge’s communist revolution of 1975-79. While the exact number of victims may never be known, demographic analyses of the Khmer Rouge period indicate that “estimated values of excess mortality within the range 2.2 million to 2.8 million should probably be considered as equally plausible … although values as low as 1.2 million or as high as 3.4 million cannot be excluded on the basis of demographic accounting alone” (Heuveline, 1998, p. 56). A separate survey of Khmer Rouge-era mass graves suggests that “the original Cambodian estimate of 3.3 million deaths during the Khmer Rouge regime might be very nearly correct” (Etcheson, 1999).

While the survivors have since gone on to rebuild their devastated families, many have chosen not to speak with their loved ones of those terrible years, with the effect that many Cambodians of the post-genocide generations remain unaware of the extent of the trauma Cambodia had suffered under the Khmer Rouge (Lim, 2010). Such familial silences have resulted in “sustained myths, unanswered questions and denial in Cambodian youth” (Münyas, 2008, p. 428). As Phloeun Prim (2017) recounts: “That past was too far from me to remember, and yet too close to my parents for me to ask. I have never been able to share that part of me to my children (because I didn’t know it).” The memoirs and testimonials of genocide survivors like Loung Ung hence serve a key function in transmitting the traumatic memories of the survivors to those who were absent from or who were born after the event.

The film adaptation of First They Killed My Father follows the book in fulfilling this function. Produced by Angelina Jolie and Cambodian genocide survivor and film-maker Rithy Panh, and with its screenplay written by Jolie and Loung Ung herself, the film had its premiere on February 18 in the ancient Cambodian city of Angkor Thom, with Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni and Queen Mother Norodom Monineath as the royal guests of honor. The genocide survivors who attended the film premiere relived the suffering of the period, but also experienced catharsis.

A psychiatric nurse in attendance reported: “Looking at the back of the survivors, most of them were crying … It makes them remember the past” (Sek and Wright, 2017). Such purging of emotions encouraged some of the genocide survivors to share their traumatic memories with their loved ones. Phloeun Prim (2017), for example, describes how the film had prompted his mother to share with her family how she and Phloeun’s father had spent “three days and three nights” fleeing through the jungle — with “gunshots and bombs exploding” around them — to escape the Khmer Rouge.

For the film’s cast and crew, the production of First They Killed My Father also functioned as a venue for group catharsis, as “many of the actors had survived the horrors of the genocide or were children of survivors.” Jolie herself had a familial connection to the genocide through her adopted Cambodian son Maddox; as she explained: “I wanted to understand what my son’s birth parents may have gone through” (Rach, 2017; Regan, 2017).

With a textbook on the Khmer Rouge genocide only having been introduced into the Cambodian school curriculum in 2009, Cambodians from the post-genocide generations who wanted to learn about the period have long had to turn to other sources (Cheang and Wilkins, 2009). The burgeoning genre of genocide survivor memoirs and testimonials — of which Loung Ung’s book is a good example — is one major source; another is the growing collection of films made about the period, including recent films like Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture and Thet Sambath’s Enemies of the People. Cambodians also have access to numerous genocide memorials located around the country, including the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.

Choeung Ek is also the site of Cambodia’s annual Day of Remembrance (previously known as the Day of Hatred or the Day of Anger), held each May 20, when families remember their loved ones whose lives were lost during the genocide, and when public reenactments of the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities are performed (“Cambodia marks,” 2015; “Cambodians gather,” 2016). Mydans (1999) recalls a dirge performed at the 1999 Day of Hatred:

They were hit with spades, they were bound and thrown into wells, without pity.

Small babies were dragged from their mothers’ arms and stabbed, spitted together on sticks, smashed against trees, without pity.

Young women were raped as if in a game, without pity.

O Cambodia, do you remember? Do you remember your bitter history?

Some observers believe Cambodia may only have closure once the perpetrators of the genocide have been brought to justice. Loung Ung’s narrative includes an incident following the fall of the Khmer Rouge when “a crowd of angry peasants in grim silence execute a captured Khmer Rouge soldier with a hammer and rusty knives” (Sillars, 2017). While the defendants at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal are not facing the death penalty, the Cambodian people are arguably not receiving much justice from the tribunal either.

As Wallace (2017) notes, despite having spent USD 300 million thus far, “the tribunal has convicted only three people: two senior leaders and the regime’s chief jailer. A fourth elderly suspect died during prosecution, while another was declared unfit for trial because of dementia. Three midranking suspects are also under investigation but have not been arrested.” In late February 2017, the tribunal dropped charges of “crimes against humanity, including mass murder, extermination and enslavement” against one of these suspects — a decision experts fear may have been due to “pressure from the Cambodian government, which … has fought efforts to prosecute anyone beyond the Khmer Rouge’s senior leaders and one notorious prison chief.”

Figure 1. Genocide Memorial Stupa in Siem Reap. Photo taken by the author.

One event that is expected to occur once the Khmer Rouge Tribunal concludes its work is a national referendum on the long-proposed cremation of the remains of the Khmer Rouge victims, especially those that are on display in memorials and stupas around the country. As Chy (2016) notes, Cambodian Buddhists, who constitute the majority of the country, believe that such cremation will “help transition the dead to rebirth.” Hence the cremation of the remains of the Khmer Rouge victims will “bring some sense of closure and healing to the living victims, knowing that the souls of their family members and relatives no longer wander around and can now transition to rebirth.” Indeed, Guillou (2012) reports that in the decades following the Khmer Rouge genocide, Cambodia’s peasants have started to regard the restless spirits of the genocide victims as neak ta (guardian spirits of the land) (pp. 219-226).

While some Cambodians believe that “preserving the remains is a critical reminder of the crimes of the Khmer Rouge and serves as an educational tool for future generations of Cambodians,” it is debatable whether this pedagogic function necessitates the public display of the actual bones, or whether survivor literature, films, and museum exhibitions can fully take over this function (Chy, 2016). The reaction of Cambodian audiences to First They Killed My Father suggests that the memories of trauma of the survivors may certainly be captured and transmitted through the medium of cinema, thereby allowing the bones of the genocide victims to be cremated, and for this lingering tension in Cambodia’s national consciousness to finally be laid to rest.


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