Cambodian Gold DiggersJune 5, 2007
English resident Canadian-born author Geoff Ryman is in the running to win the prestigious Hugo award for best science fiction/fantasy story of 2007 for his superb short-story, ‘Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter’. It is truly wonderful – an entertaining tale of the eponymous vapid, wealthy young lady who hangs out at Sorya Mall.
This is the opening paragraph: ‘In Cambodia people are used to ghosts. Ghosts buy newspapers. They own property.’
The author uses the interesting literary device of reminding the reader time and again that this is just a fantasy; the story is not true. And yet the individual components are all real – Pol Pot does have a daughter of the same age (and with a disturbingly similar name) living in Cambodia, and in Cambodia people are used to ghosts. They do own property. Last month some hapless villagers allowed greed to cloud their judgment – and paid the price.
This true tale began in April with a group of Vietnamese soldiers on a mission to find the remains of war-dead uncovered a Khmer Rouge period mass grave in Kampot. There were no Vietnamese in the grave so the soldiers left, but a local helping them on the dig recovered a gold earring from one body. Immediately a host of villagers – many of whom had originally been enlisted by the Khmer Rouge to bury the victims – ‘exhumed’ two hundred bodies – i.e. scattered the bones around in a mad scramble to scavenge jewellery. The total haul was one gold necklace (sold to buy a cow) and 27 small gold earrings, sold for a little food. Most of the diggers dug for days but didn’t recover any booty. Many villagers subsequently returned to gather up the bones and light incense and pray for the victims – too late.
The villagers were soon reporting numerous instances of the angry souls punishing them for such disrespect. Many report being unable to sleep due to hearing screams coming from the grave site. For all that, it is interesting that the older villagers knew – and in many cases personally buried – many of the deceased, yet still adopted the mentality of the sixty-year-old farmer who stated, ”People say this goose has no owner”.
Youk Chhang, who heads the Documentation Center of Cambodia said, “I think it has become a memory, rather than a physical thing any longer,” speaking of the pain of the past. “There will be no more tears. There are no more feelings to express – only a flash of memory when you see a piece of bone.” For younger Cambodians, who know remarkably little about the Khmer Rouge period, he said, “It’s just a dead person.”
What the youth of today need, clearly, is moral guidance. Thank goodness, therefore, that the vice-prime minister and Minister of the Council of Ministers, was officially declared last month as the president of the National Scout Association of Cambodia. Good to see a senior (in both senses of the term) politician taking a hands-on role with such an esteemed non-government organisation ? and very fetching he looked in his pink scarf and woggle too. I couldn?t find out how many knots he knows, but hopefully his wise leadership will result in a reduction of scenes like that at Spark last month where a staring contest culminated in a gun fight, and arrests of princes ? the latest on charges of armed robbery and possession of a samurai sword. Getting young hoodlums busy working towards their ornithology badges can’t come soon enough.