ANGELS IN HELL: The Price of Sacrifice

To give to suffer with- it’s to sacrifice -it is called love in action
Mother Theresa

‘Closer to the country, farther off the nation…’ it must be sarcasm ready on lips of any Vietnamese, inhabitant on the border strip between Cambodia and Vietnam. In the memoirs ‘Dragon of An Nam’ of the late Emperor Bao Dai, Vietnam had imposed ‘protectorate upon Cambodia’: 

‘I’ve found in the royal library a map of Vietnam drawn in about 1835. Empire of Vietnam spreads from the shore of Nam Hai going westward deeply to the riverbanks of Mekong and very close to Burma; it takes the whole Laos in the Northwest, many provinces of Thailand in the center and Cambodia in the South. It is called Dai Viet and painted with one color, from the Chinese border and goes down to Cà Mau, stretching from Dong Nai River to province of Dang Rek in the West and covers over the delta of Mekong River. I thought deeply in front of this map. What did the map convey from the past of our ancestors? Is it merely a dream or a political and economic necessity worth of being carried out?’

And then: ‘The decadence of Vietnam was unavoidable, in 1863 Cambodia submitted herself to French protectorate’. 

I didn’t know whether ‘our ancestors’ were ambitious enough to conquer and dominate the whole Indochina as the last Emperor of Vietnam had wondered or not? However quoted from this same work, Bao Dai said: 

‘Living in the jaws of war and starvation, Communist Vietnam is forced to go deeper into old strategies from the dream to expand of Ho chi Minh which will make Greater Vietnam would include, beside Laos, Cambodia, old provinces of Laos presently belonging to Thailand’.

It should be reconsidered from multifaceted points of view to decipher accumulated from era’s intermingled hatred between Vietnam and Cambodia as such a tradition to keep… Hatred and revenge led to tragic death of Vietnamese on land of Cambodia when they tried to cross border by foot through it, then massacres (Cáp Duon in Viet or Dun in Cambodian to mesmerize Vietnamese) and bloody anti-Viet movements and nowadays, at last, silent deaths are decreed down to innocent girls.

Among old letters of my file, could be sticking out some from my cousin brother who had been sent to fulfill military service in Cambodia in 1980s. In a letter from Thai-Cambodia border he wrote:

‘… approaching predawn, my reconnaissance cell lost 2 personnel, my closest friend had a badly wounded chest, I had to carry him on my back while shooting to prevent and retreat; when we were out in safe area I didn’t realize my friend had died since long before on my back, I had just close his eyelids and we buried him’. 

The International Herald Tribune prints the story about Vietnamese living in border areas killed to be destroyed before Genocide regime being defeated and chased out of Phnom Penh. 

According to author of the account, before the Vietnam War, Cambodians used to trade merchandises crossing borders, to visit relatives living in village in other side of the border, section Ba Chuc, Tri Ton district, in province of An Giang.

In time of war, paths for communication became of infiltration and logistics supply for Northern troops, and so badly destroyed by bombarding shells. After 1975, Communist Vietnam once more used these paths to support their Red Khmer comrades.

On 18th of April, 1978, a Red Khmer numerous force overflowed the border to Ba Chuc and killed mercilessly Vietnamese there. Mme Ha Thi Nga, now at 64 years old, the sole survivor, recounted that dramatic night:

She clearly remembered the faces of two Chinese female troops who were accompanying Red Khmer. She said, these two female soldiers had weapons on them, but very attractive and white skinned, speaking some other dialect neither Vietnamese nor Khmer; they went along side with three deep black skinned Red Khmer troops, by threatening rifles herded her family out of the house.

Her family consists of her parents, husband and 6 children. Suddenly on the way these armed troops used rifle bases to beat everybody. Her daughter was stroked 3 times on the head, she’d just barely cried: ‘mammy, mammy!’…and it’s over. 

She was shot at her neck and fell unconscious at the spot. When she was recovered, the whole family died out, she was covered completely with blood. Bullet went from neck to head but miraculously she survived. Mme Nga crawled to Elephant Mount (núi Voi); along the path she still heard child crying in a pagoda: ‘Daddy! Don’t kill me! I’m no longer crying!’

Twelve days later, she was rescued by Vietnamese troops; she was one of the two rescued survivors after the massacre, but unfortunately the other later died because of the chest wound. The child that cried in the pagoda likely died with both its parents’ bodies exploded. In this incident, there were 3157 victims, both Vietnamese and Khmer, destroyed by Red Khmer in schools and pagodas of Vietnamese administrative sections close to the border. 

For reprisal, General Chu Huy Man started campaign into Cambodia on 24th of December, 1978, when some divisions of armed forces of Hà Noi crossed the border into the province of Kratie in the Northeast Cambodia. To 4th of January, less than 2 weeks Vietnamese had occupied 7 provinces in eastern river bank of Mekong; 3 days later, Vietnamese troops with a small band of some Khmer units had destroyed totally Red Khmer Genocide regime and conquered and occupied Phnom Penh. Remaining elements of genocide Pol Pot retreated to Northwest frontier area close to Thailand.

On 7th January, 1979, Vietnamese forces installed a Cambodian government that could merely operate under leading role of Vietnamese cadre and this continued on until 11 years later.

Vietnam had erected a ‘house of reminders’ of Red Khmer crimes in Ba Chuc, like the one of Killing Fields which Vietnam direct Phnom Penh to install.

Through glass windows we could see 1700 skulls arranged in ascending age order, from 3 years old up. The scenery seems much more tragic and horrible than pictures of war crimes. Nearby is a museum that presents pictures of rotten victims due to interrogation and execution.

Nowadays Mme Nga makes a living by selling refreshing drinks to visitors, Vietnamese and foreigners to this museum that preserves proofs of Red Khmer crimes. 

Who were those two Chinese military women? Of course, at that time it was unlikely they were Chinese Cambodians, because Red Khmer didn’t trust them and had chased more than half of Chinese residents out of Cambodia. They could be Chinese cadre, because in that period, Peking had at least 1500 technical and military advisers in Cambodia and at the same time Chinese were arms and military equipments suppliers for Red Khmer. An unknown numbers of Chinese had to accompany Red Khmer units in front line.

However up until now, Vietnam has not assisted Cambodia investigating crimes done by Red Khmer. Perhaps Hanoi had not liked to remind of 11 years of occupying this country and also didn’t want actually to harm the relationships with Peking, although in 1979 it had to confront them at the frontier gate due to Cambodian problem.

It is very clear that Peking doesn’t support the idea for bringing in front of an International Tribunal Red Khmer leadership who at a time were their close comrades. Both Red Vietnamese and Red Chinese do not like to see mount of white bones and red blood to soil or stink their cups of tea. 

At present, many traders shuttle in and out Ba Chuc when crossing border. Vietnamese and Cambodians are returning to their old peaceful life like in half century ago, before the days troops of the North (VN) occupied the South… 

For what purpose, the Vietnamese Youth has fought and sacrificed? When their siblings and their offspring after that are going to be mistreated on the land they had liberated? 

With these wondering questions, it’s understandable that Vietnamese troops who had sacrificed for ‘international duty’ on Cambodian land and had died without being able to close their eyes! 

From Phnom Penh you can choose bus or boat to go to Siem Reap; because Sapaco Tourist schedule has no trip to Siem Reap today, I have to be transferred to bus of Paramount Angkor Express Company.

Once on the bus, I was being lullaby by the same sleepy Cambodian Bolero beats but dared not closing my eyes; because Back Pack Westerners surrounding me seemed to behave very free with their legs open and extended and there were very few passengers on the bus; it was nearly almost deserted.

Though having sent me to another bus system, but when arriving at Siem Reap (it was almost 10 PM) Sapaco had sent a driver of tuk tuk to welcome me and drove me to a hotel they had found for me in advance (a good point for a Vietnamese travel agency!). 

Just stepped off the bus, I’ve recognized my name on a board the tuk driver raised high overhead, this employee was sent in your wandering service in your journey stay in Siem Reap. Of course, you had to pay this diligent service. Whenever you need, just call the cell phone and this employee should report to you right away, and you pay as you please. As I had asked in advance, he led me to a ‘safe’ hotel, Thunborey Hotel, near the Old Market zone before I could communicate to VOICE office.

Siem Reap is the old Capital of Cambodia; there are many hotels in this area that surrounds the Old Market zone; it’s a concentration point for Back Pack Westerners, it has many different services and it’s near the center of the city. According to building code here, a hotel should not be higher than 3 stories and than Angkor Wat. Hotel room price is a little higher than in Phnom Penh so room would be cleaner and more beautiful.

Along the main street of Siem Reap, row and row of hotels of which business name would start with or end with Angkor or Aspara, such as Angkor Palace, Angkor Victory, Goldiana Angkor, Aspara Palace, Little Aspara, Aspara Spa… Gods are exploited laboriously, but Alas! If Gods survive in this environment, they have to hurry off. Hotels are of deluxe rank, but streets have plenty of trash and are very dusty, traffic is tumultuous, among 10 cars 7 ones have no matriculation board and 5 ones are illegally imported from Thailand with drive wheel in opposing side.

For gifts and novelties, you can come to this zone and you should merchandise like in Vietnam. Here are shown many souvenirs, mostly sculptures of Angkor and multicolored sarongs, jewelries… and miscellaneous items found in any souvenir and gift shop. I chose a small stone Buddha statue.

The Siem Reap River that traverses the city had been a romantic place before, now it is trashy and dirty. Like in Phnom Penh, this city has many French colonial type structures or combination of French and Khmer traits.

Buildings in Siem Reap are inclined to be painted in hot flamboyant colors like red, yellow, orange in assorted shades that would detach huge chandelier tubes made of white fabrics hang on the walls. The weather is sunshine and hot year round; houses over here have canopies in front color painted in harmony with painted walls and furniture surrounding them.

There are not many taxis in service, to get around here relies on tuk tuk; it costs 5 bucks to ride a tuk tuk to sight Siem Reap by night. Siem Reap at night is not melancholic like Phnom Penh because it has Old Market noisy and busy and bright lighted, many dishes and you can wander about in this zone or go to market at night, Night Market, if you like.

And here it is only on a short street (Pub Street), but coffee houses, bars and restaurants are close knit shoulder and almost any of them are very beautifully designed and furnished. It can be said that nearly all tourists in Siem Reap gather here at night and a very active and passionate atmosphere would be created right there. At this place, you can eat dinner, drink beer or read, listen to music, sip a cup of coffee (Western customers call it Vietnam kick start) and you could chat with anyone happen to come from any corner of the globe. There are some nights; a stage could be set up in open for live songs.

Host Thuy Duong had welcomed and later said goodbye to me at the Soup Dragon Restaurant, because I didn’t know how to reach Voice office and moreover due to my unspecific alibi. Owner of this restaurant has rented a newly built house to Voice as a kindergarten for young toddlers, boys and girls, living in surroundings.

The Soup Dragon is very well known here on Pub Street, not only to Western customers and employee of international organizations in Siem Reap, but also to government officers, Cambodian business people, they come to eat here rather in great number because of many delicious dishes, Cambodian as well as Vietnamese. 

In Soup Dragon is none, but in other restaurants you can take dinner while listening and watching seducing traditional Aspara dancing sessions. In Cambodia, it seems that almost every restaurants or grand hotels would provide Aspara dance to serve customers who love arts. When the traditional tune goes up, young girls, clad in radiant color garments, gild skirts and shirts, attractively step out on stage and perform artfully and softly on traditional royal melodies. Beyond guessing, you wouldn’t know all those ‘fairy Aspara’ dancers are truly Vietnamese not Cambodian.

In particular Siem Reap has 24 schools or nests (lò= oven, bakery) to create ‘fairy girls’ for restaurants. If you’re on Tour, tour guy will introduce: So far, Aspara dance had been reserved to royal court. Aspara embodies into fairy girls, dancers the Court had chosen, strictly trained in lesson after lesson since they are only at 9 or 10 years old. 

Today only one professional Aspara dancer is still alive; she’s among 10 living in Siem Reap and chosen by Royal Court, and is now nearly 80 years old; she is an Aspara dance trainer who produces younger generation in Dancing School of Aspara Lip Phi Rout. Em Theay used to be a lead of Royal Dancer Group, a living cultural emblem of Cambodian country, the last surviving dancer of the royal court after the Red Khmer Massacre.

We can read in the English ‘The Gardian’ her story to be told:

Mme Em Theay started her first Aspara dance lesson in the Royal Court since 4 or 6 of age, had performed on stage; at 15 she was lead as well singer of the Royal Dancer Group under the reign of Sihanouk. In time of Red Khmer, 90% of artists were killed that included artists of Royal Court. Among 300 artists of royal court, only 30 survived by disguised or hidden personal records. Among 10 dancers, 9 were killed by Red Khmer, only Em Theay was spared. She was on active performance in royal court when the Red Khmer were advancing into Phnom Penh: 

‘When my performance has just ended, I went out and heard that everybody must leave the city within 24 hrs, while mass of people are scared, push each other to run for life on the streets’. 

Old wound is still instilled in the mind of Mme Em Theay. When the Red Khmer occupied the Royal Court, she left and followed groups of people for countryside of Battambang province, with a traditional sarong, some incense, and 3 books recording songs and Aspara dancing figures as the sole belongings pack.

She was thrown into concentration camp to work and she succeeded to well hide the 3 books put in a pillow and the whole thing was squeezed behind the wall of the camp. She knew it would be very dangerous to do so, because if those books were unearthed by red soldiers, her status of a Royal Court dancer would be discovered and death unavoidable. Fortunately, once discovered by a female cadre, this woman spared her because of the woman’s passion for Aspara dances.

Mme Em Theay has 4 children. When piled up into concentration camps, mother and children were all separated, with the youngest one not yet milk seceded. When informed in camp, her last son had been killed, she requested camp supervisors to let her pay the last visit to him, and she was refuted. The day after, she was forced to work on the field, no more strength neither tears to drop for the lost child. Day after day, she was told of another child killed, she dropped unconscious. When opening her eyes, she found herself in a first aid medical station.

Life in a concentration camp was merely an unlimited series of hard working days until the war ended. She was wandering about and tried to get some bit of information on and search for other two her surviving girls. She walked barefoot 170 miles from Battambang to Phnom Penh. Nobody knew the poor stoic woman had been performed Royal Dance Aspara all over Europe in along trip of former king Sihanouk.

In 1979, the whole family of Em Theay was to live in extreme poverty. And by chance she met one former student of her dancing class in the old days who had advised her that for actual time she had to reopen dance lessons to survive. Every day she had to teach and perform right on the streets for the sole surviving purpose. After a long time, she was recognized and invited her back to royal court in Phnom Penh. She said:

‘It is a tragic thing to acknowledge that under the rule of Red Khmer, everything related to the Art of Aspara was lost, all dancers of my promotion were killed, and here remain some students but due to unbearable hardships of life and worn physical shape, we do not fit to the dance. I have to call upon and gather students, feed them and retrain them for restoration’.

Mme Em Theay has great merit in restoring what the world has known as Aspara Dance through her persistent long performances. In 2003 the Aspara Dance was crowned by UNESCO as an immaterial cultural heritage for humanity. All present dancers in royal court are her creation and training including Royal Arts School. 

In Aspara dance, every act or movement bears a meaning or a symbol. A bent finger direct to above sky means ‘today’, an arm lies across the chest means ‘happiness’, a hand raises up ‘death’, a hand down ‘life’, two hands nodule fast one after another along fast beats of periods of a human life means the turning wheel of birth-old age-disease-death. 

It’s a pity! Siem Reap is a place where many fairy girls could only freshly experience ‘Birth’ not live until Gold age… they have to loose their lives very early. Killers of innocent people have been named Red Khmer, but what name tag have we for human traders and merciless baby killers of present days with not less lower level of atrocity?

Chuyên mục:Tác giả, tác phẩm, Thân hữu, Xã hội

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