There’s a rather complex and difficult essay on this theme, lurking inside me, waiting for the right time to get out. Maybe that will happen when the part of me that is still in Cambodia decides to travel back to Scotland and reunite itself with me here. It was such an enormous privilege to be invited into the life of a country struggling to develop an education system that will give its children a better chance in the future. But for the moment, here is a ‘starter for ten’: ten aspects of my life in Scotland that make me happy and ten nostalgic memories of life in Cambodia. First of all, the good parts of living in Scotland, not in any particular order:
family; garden; old (i.e. longstanding) friends; open countryside; central heating; real ale; cool weather (well not too cool!); nhs; law abiding drivers; cheese in many varieties…
… and the things I’m missing:
friends and colleagues; shirt sleeve weather every day; VIP sports club; fruit from the market; simple routines and lifestyle; singing in the choir; Mekong River; cycling; sights; sounds and smells; everywhere exuberant youthful crowds.
My first couple of weeks back, everything of my old life seemed strangely new, some of it welcome, some of it causing confusion. Disparities of wealth and opportunity are obviously striking but so are issues of quality in decision making and policy, governance and accountability, social and educational capital. Irrespective of wealth, Cambodia has a vibrant youthful feel while Scotland seems older, more weary, more worldly-wise. In among these snatched impressions are my feelings and concerns about my own changing position in society – I am no longer in full time employment for the first time since 1977, when I was briefly unemployed after my first stint as a VSO volunteer, I am no longer the guy ‘in charge’. In this new condition, I feel I have new opportunities but also some new risks. There is no shortage of worthwhile areas of work: Joan’s centre at the University of Stirling has just lost a member of staff unexpectedly and is facing a massive amount of work to move from being a ‘University spin=off company’ to being a social enterprise, so I’m volunteering there, bringing me into a different type of work from which I am learning. I will also be starting some part-time tutoring and assessment work on school leadership programmes. I have some research and writing ambitions, but still lack any sense of order and progression in my week. It’s early days. As I said above, one day at a time…. and just to show that there are some similarities between Scotland and Cambodia, here’s the vehicle of choice of the Phonm Penh elite, Lexus Cambodiensis, somehow migrated to Scotland (though in this case I did cheat by blanking out the number plate myself:
Joan has arranged a showing at our local Arts Centre (MacRobert) on June 2nd of the stunning Cambodian film ‘Enemies of the People’ (follow the link to see my earlier review), in which the journalist Thet Sambath engages in a lifelong quest to understand the mentality and motivations of the killers of the ‘Killing Fields’.
One of the things that continues to fascinate me about the small scale incidents of the playground or classroom which I had to deal with in my time as a high school heidie (playground extortion or assault, cyberbullying, disruptive behaviour), was that the ‘perpetrators’ of the offence invariably had what they believed to be a strong justification for their behaviour. They almost always acknowledged that, ‘seen from the outside’, what they had done might appear to be wrong, but they believed that they had a special reason / exemption /permission because of previous provocation / lack of respect / obvious inequalities that needed righted.
Here too, on this much bigger stage documented in Thet Sambath’s carefully collected snatches of film, we hear from the mouths of some of the killers themselves the explanations that help them to avoid being burdened by self-blame or guilt, help them to shift the blame, help them to absolve themselves of responsibility. Those who killed people in the camps around the country, and their commanders, speak of a \’false necessity\’ (‘I had no choice’), or find some other easy rationalisation to shift the blame elsewhere. At the other end of the scale, Brother #2 (Nuon Chea) eventually accepts, due to Sambath’s careful and respectful patience, some responsibility: but not for the killings around the country, or the massive number of deaths from starvation and disease. He only acknowledges involvement in the deaths of those executed for plotting against the regime. They were the ‘enemies of the people’. Their ‘plotting’ (actually many innocent victims confessed to CIA links under torture) justified their elimination. It is a chilling and important lesson about the value of democracy, where those who have political power over the use of force in society have to work within a system of rights and accountabilities. For me it is also a lesson in the importance of individuals accepting responsibility for their choices and their actions. We all have things to learn from Cambodia’s suffering.
I am looking forward to hearing the comments and reactions of the friends who are able to attend the event.