When Cambodia was newly reborn
Photos John Burgess took soon after the Khmer Rouge were ousted go on view in Siem Reap
American author and former Washington Post journalist John Burgess shares a glimpse of regional history in “Cambodia Reawakening – One Year After the Khmer Rouge”, an exhibition of his photos from 1980 that’s opening in Siem Reap on Wednesday night.
The show is organised in collaboration with Anjali House, a Cambodian educational NGO, and the US Embassy in Phnom Penh.
John Burgess arrived in Phnom Penh in April 1980 with one of the first reporters’ visas issued by the country’s new Vietnam-installed government following the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime the year before.
Water was usually not available from taps. These children helped with the very difficult job of collecting it from ponds and rivers. Photo/John Burgess
He spent two weeks exploring the capital and travelled by car around the Tonle Sap with stops in Siem Reap and Battambang.
Burgess says he found a country in some places still struggling with the horrors of the Khmer Rouge’s five-year reign and in others rapidly springing back to life, driven by “the boundless energy and ingenuity of its people”.
His photos from that tour give an instant impression of how everyday life was being reorganised after the Khmer Rouge attempted to forge an agrarian utopia but ended up committing genocide.
Remnants of war, such as this disabled Vietnamese tank, were common sights along the highways. Photo/John Burgess
Today’s younger generation of Cambodians inherited what was reconstructed, Burgess says, but questions remain. What do they feel about the past? Do they think it represents part of their identity? Do they want to nurture a general amnesia or are they eager to learn about it and express themselves?
“I made these photos in 1980 to help people in the United States understand Cambodia’s reawakening from the Khmer Rouge horrors,” he says.
“It’s a real thrill for me that today the images can help younger Cambodians appreciate the events their parents and grandparents endured and grapple with their own feelings about a history that’s increasingly distant in time but never far from the heart.”
The young people ages 14 to 19 in the care of Anjali House represent a generation that didn’t witness the atrocities of 1975-79. But they have studied the photos in the exhibition and expressed their feelings in poems, short stories and essays. These have been printed in English and mounted next to the photos that inspired them.
The Phnom PenhBattambang train was running, with every square centimeter filled. Photo/John Burgess
“We support underprivileged children and young adults in Siem Reap,” explains Anjali House director Simon Ke. “Our educational programmes are based on acquiring knowledge and also – perhaps more importantly – on developing independence and critical thinking.
“John Burgess’ photographic record of his visit a few months after the end of Khmer Rouge rule gave a wonderful opportunity for our young adults to link their country’s past to its present and future, link the idea of reconstruction to stability, and hope to ambition.”
The exhibition “Cambodia Reawakening” continues through May 17 at the Footprint Caf้ in Siem Reap. Admission is free.
Find out more at www.John-Burgess.net and www.Anjali-House.com.