Begrudgement, Reconciliation, and the Khmer Rouge





Searching for the truth (Khmer version) August, Number 20, 2001

A Magazine of the Documentation Center of Cambodia




Alex Hinton

Department of Anthropology

Rutgers University



When anger controls us, we harm ourselves and the people around us. Anger burns the mind and body. The face becomes flushed, the heart weakens, and the hands tremble.

            -- Maha Ghosananda, Step by Step


To outsiders, and often to ourselves, Cambodia looked peaceful enough. The farmers bound to their planting cycles. Fisherman living on their boats . . . The wide boulevards and the flowering trees of our national capital, Phnom Penh. All that beauty and serenity was visible to the eye. But inside, hidden from sight the entire time, was kum. Kum is a Cambodian word for a particularly Cambodian mentality of revenge - to be precise, a long-standing grudge leading to revenge much more damaging than the original injury. If I hit you with my fist and you wait five years and then shoot me in the back one dark night, that is kum . . . Cambodians know all about kum. It is the infection that grows on our national soul.

                -- Haing Ngor, A Cambodian Odyssey


            A 1976 September-October Special Issue of Revolutionary Flags warned, “The state power of the worker-peasant class state power was won by shedding blood over a long period. And the oppressing classes both outside and inside the country are holding anger against us (châng kamhoeung); they are holding grudges (kumnum) and will try to take back state power” (Jackson 1989:282; Revolutionary Flags:70). A few sentences later, the tract calls for “organizational” measures (kar chat tang) that would “purify out the enemy among the people to be clean, to be good, to be tough, to be strong” (Jackson 1989:282; Revolutionary Flags:71).


Clearly, the Khmer Rouge recognized that, because of their genocidal policies against certain groups, ranging from “new people” to rich peasants to Chams who were to be “purified,” these victims would become tied in anger and hold a grudge against them. This proved true, as immediately after they fell from power many Cambodians, both “old people” and “new people,” acted upon their grudge and took revenge against Khmer Rouge cadre throughout Cambodia, sometimes even decapitating particularly brutal cadre.


            Many Cambodians who suffered greatly and lost family members during Democratic Kampuchea continue to hold a grudge the Khmer Rouge. These feelings were often further inflamed by the long civil war, by educational texts, by memorial sites, and by state ceremonies such as the “day to remain tied in anger.” With the defection of the Khmer Rouge in the mid-1990s, the problem of “remaining tied in anger” against the Khmer Rouge has become even more complicated. On the one hand, some cadre who had terrorized villages returned there (or nearby) to live among those they abused. On the other hand, the prospect of a tribunal now looms in the near future, when the top leaders of the Khmer Rouge, who implemented this policy of genocide, will be tried. Because these events have raised strong emotions in many Cambodians, particularly feelings of begrudgement (kar kumkuon) and a desire for revenge, it seems like an appropriate time to pause and reflect on what a grudge is and whether those Cambodians who continue to be “tied in anger” against the Khmer Rouge can ultimately reconcile with their former enemies.


What is a grudge? As Haing Ngor notes in the above epigraph, one of the most chronic and volatile sources of violence in Cambodia is a “grudge” (kum, kumkuon, kumnum) that leads to the desire for “disproportionate revenge” (karsângsoek). The Khmer Buddhist Dictionary (1967:170, 171) defines kum as “the desire to do something bad or harm another person, to be tied in a grudge (châng kumnum)” that leads one to “prepare oneself to take disproportionate revenge (sangsoek).” A kumkuon, the dictionary continues, is a kum that is “long-lasting and can’t be forgotten.” One Cambodian women’s rights worker succinctly described the origins of a grudge as follows: “A person will hold a grudge when he or she understands that another person has done something very bad to him or her; he or she will have this one thought kept inside his or her heart.” While such a grudge most often arises when another person (or group) makes the individual in question (or that person’s group) suffer (for example, by murdering a family member), lose power (for example, by deposing that person from office), or lose face (for example, by dishonoring that person by a slight), it almost always involves a degree of anger, shame, and the desire to “defeat” (chneah) a foe. 


            The root of the word sângsoek, sâng, refers to the moral obligation “to return (an object), to pay back (debt), to pay for damage” (Headley 1977:1039). One of the greatest virtues in Cambodia is repaying (sâng) the “kindness/good deeds” (kun) of others. Thus, people are morally obliged to “repay the good deeds” (sângkun) that their parents, relatives, teachers, and patrons have done for them. An ingrate who ignores this debt (romilkun) is widely detested. Such moral debts frequently create a personalized relationship between the two parties involved. Those who receive a good deed will ideally acknowledge their debt through greater respect, loyalty, and attachment to the benefactor, although the intensity and structure of the bond will vary according to the situation and the respective status of each person in the dyad. The increased respect given to the person who does the good deed signals the benefactor’s elevation in hierarchical standing vis-ŕ-vis the debtor.


            By extension, we can see that revenge is the moral inverse of gratitude. Just as people must return a good deed, so too are they morally obliged to repay a bad deed. The word sângsoek literally means “to pay back” (sâng) “the enemy” (soek). Moreover, the injured party’s obligation to repay an enemy for whatever the latter has done creates a bond between them. A Cambodian bearing malice is often said to be “tied/linked” (châng) to an enemy by anger or a grudge (châng komhoeng, châng kumnum). During the PRK/SOC communist period, for example, the government sponsored a national holiday on May 20 that was popularly known as the “Day to Remain Tied in Anger” (or, sometimes, just the “Day of Hate”). In each district, people would gather at the local DK killing field to listen to government officials and victims speak about the atrocities that had occurred under the Khmer Rouge regime. Villagers often carried knives, axes, clubs, or placards saying things like, “Defeat the Pol Pot, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary Clique” or “Remember Life under Pol Pot who tried to Destroy the Cambodian Lineage.” The holiday served as an effective device to keep many people “tied in anger” against the Khmer Rouge who were still engaged in guerrilla warfare against the government at the time. The ceremony continues in a more modest form into the present.


            This type of grudge can result from either a single “happening” (preuttekar) or a series of smaller events that gradually add up. On the one hand, a person will often desire revenge when someone else does “something very bad” to him or her. Thus, in the story Tum Teav, Tum has a grudge against Ârchoun who is attempting to remarry Teav to his son, and many Cambodians continue to bear malice toward the Khmer Rouge who were responsible for their great suffering and the deaths of family members. Similarly, in November of 1994, when the American evangelist Mike Evans arrived in Cambodia promising to cure the blind and heal the crippled, people from all over the country sold their possessions to come to Phnom Penh to attend his healing and proselytizing rallies. While he gave out free Bibles, Evans failed to provide any miracle cures. By the third night, the attendees realized that they had been duped by a foreigner and began to riot. Evans barely escaped Cambodia with his life and continues to have enemies who want to pay him back for his bad deed. (After Evans had returned to the U.S., he reported to his American congregation that his trip to Cambodia had been a great success!)


            Alternatively, a grudge may gradually develop as a person endures a series of small, yet memorable, “happenings.” While usually able to manage their anger so that open disputes do not break out, people do not always simply forget about a matter. As Lim once told me, “Cambodians never forget -- they remember things forever. After several little anger-provoking happenings, they will begin to hold a grudge.” This pattern of silently harboring resentment may be initially modeled for children when they fight. Parents will separate quarreling children and tell them not to argue, but often do not tell them to apologize to or to reconcile with their adversaries. To do so would involve a slight loss of face both for the child and his or her parents. As one informant explained, “To say ‘excuse me’ makes them too lowly. It is like saying ‘please let me lose.’ Sometimes the parents of a kid who loses a fight will become extremely angry.” The result is that children often “do not learn how to forget their anger” and will occasionally hold a small grudge and may stop speaking to those with whom they have been fighting for several days, months, or even forever afterward.


            In Khmer, there are a variety of phrases that express the idea of storing away the memory of events that have angered a person. Cambodians sometimes say that a person takes such anger (or a grudge) and “hides it inside the body” (leak tuk knong kluen), “puts/keeps it in the head” (tuk knong khuor kbal), or “buries/hides it in the heart” (bângkap/leak knong chett). For example, a young man named Tech, who was from a moderately poor family, was invited to attend a wedding at the home of one of the richest families in Kompong Cham city. When Tech arrived at the receiving line, however, the parents and the bridal couple did not smile or politely greet him. He stated, “I lost face and had a small heart. These rich people were not paying adequate respect to me because I am poor. I got drunk at the wedding and hid my anger so they wouldn’t know.” While Tech said that he did not have a grudge against the family, he was nevertheless “hiding his anger inside his heart.” A series of such minor incidents can make a person resentful and angry, a condition that Cambodians sometimes call being “seized with painful anger” (chheu chap). As I discussed in an earlier article in The Truth, such a build-up of class resentment proved quite lethal during DK when Khmer Rouge ideology incited the poor to take revenge upon the rich for past abuses.


            What is common to the above examples of malice is a pattern in which an event or a series of smaller incidents causes a person to suffer or be shamed which, in turn, leads to anger, resentment, and, ultimately, the desire for revenge. Those who have a big grudge are sometimes said to want to “eat the flesh and sip the blood” (si sach hot cheam) of their enemy. Despite this strong desire to take revenge, however, people recognize that it is often not propitious to repay a bad deed immediately. A grudge thus contains an element of latent potentiality and is frequently long-lasting. One religious wise man (archar) explained, “A grudge is packaged anger that has not yet come out; it remains inside, always hot, but it doesn’t leave. It keeps waiting until ‘I’ (ânh) have the opportunity to strike immediately.” Many Cambodians say that, twenty years after DK, they still have a grudge against the Khmer Rouge, and the “Day to Remain Tied in Anger” was clearly an attempt by the PRK/SOC government to keep this “packaged anger . . . hot” and ready “to strike immediately.”


            To maintain an element of surprise and to prevent a powerful adversary from taking the initiative, Cambodians bearing malice will often try to hide their animosity from their foes. Like anger, a grudge is usually kept hidden. During everyday interactions, a person may therefore smile and act politely toward an enemy; when the appropriate occasion arises, however, they will act. Those who are unable to exact revenge in person may decide to hire a killer or order a subordinate to perform the deed. Several Cambodian journalists have been murdered by assassins weeks or months after having written insulting articles about government officials and businessmen. In another horrific example, young Cambodian women have been disfigured in acid attacks that are alleged to have been perpetrated by the wives of powerful Cambodian men who are supposedly having affairs with the beautiful, young women.


Alternatively, people sometimes hire sorcerers to cast black magic upon their adversaries. After Mike Evans had fled Cambodia, for example, it was reported that some Cambodians harassed and attacked his Christian followers with black magic. A number of Cambodians are extremely frightened of black magic, which, they believe, can make a person fatally ill, and will try to protect themselves by wearing magical objects such as a pig’s fang, a fragment of an elephant’s tusk, a piece of gold, a magical string, an inscribed cloth, a Buddha amulet, or some combination of these items.


            Why does a Cambodian grudge sometimes lead to revenge that is “much more damaging than the original injury?” Earlier I pointed out that benefactors gain respect, elevate their status, and create moral debts by performing good deeds. Conversely, perpetrators of bad deeds show disrespect toward, lower the status of, and “defeat” (chneah) the recipient who, in turn, has a moral obligation to repay the bad action. Merely to repay this debt with an equivalent act, however, would leave the parties on an equal footing. Because people often desire to be “higher than” others, they will strive to defeat, and thus rise above, their adversary by doing something even worse to them. As Haing Ngor explains, “If I hit you with my fist and you wait five years and then shoot me in the back one dark night, that is kum” (1987:9). Such an action can at least partially “purify one’s honor” (star ketteyos) and destroy the enemy’s reputation. Thus, the head of a Khmer Buddhist Society explained that Cambodians who hold a grudge “desire to take vengeance in a manner that exceeds the initial offense because they want to win and not to be ashamed before others. When they win, they have honor and others will look at them and not think that they are inferior.”


            One night, for example, a provincial policeman named Hong got drunk and began arguing with someone. After the conflict escalated, Hong began firing his AK-47 in the air and yelling loudly. Another policeman, Moly, went to intercede. Hong pointed his gun at Moly and threatened him, “If you come any closer, I’ll blow you away.” Moly was extremely angry and, when he returned to his station, said, “So, little Hong was trying to be hard (khlang) with me (ânh). Well, I’m strong, too, and I’m going to defeat him.” Moly called a relative who was Hong’s superior and explained what had happened. Perhaps twenty minutes later, the chief and several policemen arrived on the scene, arrested Hong, and threw him in jail. To frame this example in terms of my argument, Hong did “something bad” to Moly that made him lose face and appear “inferior” (an). Moly’s resulting shame and anger quickly developed into a grudge. Moly took revenge that exceeded Hong’s original bad deed by having him imprisoned. By doing so, Moly restored his own honor, “defeated” Hong, and demonstrated that he was the superior person.


Is a grudge inevitable? If a grudge often leads to violence, it is by no means an inevitable outcome. There are many alternative ways of dealing with one’s anger. Perhaps the most effective alternative, following the tenets of Buddhism, is to control and extinguish one’s anger, which is the outcome of ignorance and desire and which ultimately leads to suffering. Both at home and at the pagoda, young children learn Buddhist norms of nonviolence and methods of overcoming anger. These lessons are reinforced by morality tales, such as the Gatiloke and Tum Teav, that illustrate how people who are “quick to anger” (chhap khoeng) encounter misfortune. In Buddhism, the mindful way of dealing with one’s anger is to recognize its source and to let it disappear since anger, like everything else in the world, is impermanent. The importance Cambodians place upon managing anger is reflected by an elaborate vocabulary of emotion control which includes such terms as: “to block/control the heart” (tuap chett); “to destroy/calm the heart” (rumngoap chett); “to lose/cool one’s anger” (rosay komhoeng/chett); “to turn/cleanse one’s heart” (puat chett); “to melt/calm one’s anger/heart” (roleay komhoeng/chett); “to press down/calm the heart” (sângkat chett); “to become cool in one’s feelings” (nay); “to extinguish anger” (rumluat); “to keep one’s temper” (tâmkal chett); and “to disperse/demobilize one’s anger/heart” (rumsay komhoeng/chett). Likewise, a person with a “heavy heart” (chett thnguan) is said to be slow to anger.


Many people, however, do not have the wisdom and ability to simply let their anger melt away, particularly when the perceived offense is major and has caused them much pain and suffering. There are other ways such people may cope with their anger, without harboring a grudge. Sometimes, for example, people deal with their anger by internalizing it. A person who is unable to directly express such a socially disruptive emotion directly may do so indirectly by exhibiting somatic symptoms like a headache, loss of appetite, anxiety, insomnia, shortage of breath, neck and back pain, or a stomachache. At such times, Cambodians often simply say that they “have pain/hurt” (chheu) and will attempt to restore their physiological balance through such treatments as “coining,” “pinching,” and “cupping.” One man explained to me that after he became angry -- particularly after being reprimanded by his boss or wife -- he would often have headaches and other symptoms that could be alleviated by coining: “Often before coining, I am really angry and have difficulty breathing. When I coin, however, I can breathe more easily. My skin becomes hot and sweaty at the places that were coined . . . and my heart feels better, so that I am not so angry.”


In addition to experiencing somatic symptoms, people also sometimes physically redirect anger back onto themselves. People who are angry can occasionally be seen hitting or swearing at themselves. One elderly mother whose daughter was being publicly disrespectful to her began to repeatedly hit herself hard on the chest while saying aloud, “I really have bad karma, I speak and you don’t listen at all. I have never felt as shamed before others as I do today. I didn’t know your heart was so evil.” The most extreme version of turning anger inward is suicide, an act that sometimes occurs when a person experiences a great deal of anger and shame, such as failing a major educational examination.


Yet another way people sometimes cope with anger is to redirect their antisocial feelings onto culturally approved forms. The spiritual cosmos of malevolent being may provide a convenient target for hostile feelings that could not be expressed because of the strong emphasis on prosocial behavior in daily interactions. While infrequent, spirit possession constitutes an even more direct mechanism for expressing hostility. A person who is possessed is not regarded as responsible for his or her antisocial behaviors since they are attributed to a spirit. Cambodians who exhibit such aggressive and abnormal behaviors over prolonged periods of time are simply said to be “crazy” (chkuot) and allowed to live on the margins of society.


            One common arena for expressing aggression is striking animals. For example, many Cambodians view dogs as the lowliest of creatures and may strike one when irritated. Unfortunately, this redirection of aggression is also sometimes characteristic of human interactions. Parents occasionally hit children when they are upset about a matter. A friend of mine once watched as an angry mother struck her young daughter who, in turn, kicked a passing chicken. Many Cambodians also enjoy cockfighting, which seems to provide a legitimate arena for the projection of hostility. Men pamper and massage their cocks, sometimes even sticking the cock’s head into their mouths, in order to get it to summon up a last bit of energy with which to tear apart its opponent.


Despite all of the aforementioned management strategies, people sometimes desire to express their anger toward another person in an indirect, low-intensity manner. First, Cambodians may show their anger through a variety of non-verbal behaviors that commonly include not smiling, hostile staring, a furrowed brow, withdrawal, and an agitated tone of voice or body posture. Second, Cambodians evince anger through indirect speech. Thus, as the anthropologist May Ebihara noted, a village disputant may shout out his or her “grievances in an angry monologue that is apparently directed to no one in particular but is loud enough to be heard by the entire hamlet (including the offending party).” Such a person is expressing his or her anger by making an indirect criticism that in Khmer is literally said “to almost hit” or “to touch slightly” (bânhchhet bânchhieng).


Alternatively, Cambodians sometimes show their anger by strategically employing speech registers. A person who uses terms of exaggerated politeness or formality toward someone else, for example, can increase the social distance between the individuals and thereby indirectly signal his or her displeasure. Another way to express hostility through indirect speech is through teasing. Perhaps the most prevalent way to indirectly express anger in Cambodia, however, is to gossip maliciously (niyeay daoem) about another person. Finally, Cambodians often express their anger in a low-level manner through avoidance. In its mild form, avoidance consists of one individual not looking at, not speaking to, or moving away from a person with whom he or she is angry until he or she can control his or her anger. In the extreme, two people may completely avoid contact and stop talking.


            A Cambodian man, Rhel, provided another example of such avoidance. One of his three roommates, Lat, became extremely angry after the other two took away the lamp he was studying with in order to cook dinner. Lat didn’t say anything, but he left the room. When Rhel later went to speak with Lat in order to ease the situation, Lat redirected his anger onto Rhel by making a few indirect barbs at him. Rhel explained, “I didn’t want to argue with Lat, so I controlled my heart (tuap chett) and didn’t get mad. During the next few days, I kept trying to speak with Lat, but he would only respond a little bit. Then he didn’t respond at all. One day I came back and found that he had packed up his possessions and gone.” While Rhel was able to successfully control his emotions, Lat chose to express his anger in a low-intensity manner through indirect (and redirected) criticism, avoidance, and silence.


            Begrudgement, Reconciliation, and the Khmer Rouge: In Cambodia, as in other societies throughout the world, people have distinct understandings of and options for dealing with their anger. Each person draws upon these understandings, consciously or unconsciously, when deciding what to do with their feelings of anger.


It is difficult to tell a person who suddenly finds the killer of his family and friends standing before him that he should simply allow his anger to melt away. Likewise, many people harbor an enormous grudge against Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Son Sen, and the other top leaders of the Democratic Kampuchea regime. Can we simply advise them to “forgive and forget?” Just as Buddhism teaches that each person must discover the path to Enlightenment, so too must each Cambodian decide for him or herself what to do if a “knot” of malice (kum) still ties them in anger against such people. Whatever they decide, the trial and conviction of such genocidal perpetrators may go a long way toward melting away the anger of many Cambodians.


            Reconciliation, however, involves more than a trial. It requires a change of attitude. To change one’s attitude, one must become more mindful. To become more mindful, one must broaden one’s comprehension of the conscious and unconscious cultural understandings that guide our actions. This essay has attempted to help facilitate this process by making explicit some implicit Cambodian cultural understandings about anger, begrudgement (kum), and revenge (sangsoek) that can lead either to an attitude of violence or an attitude of reconciliation. As the venerable Maha Ghosananda has pointed out, the path of reconciliation with the Khmer Rouge is a difficult one, but, if done in accordance with right mind, can ultimately lead to right action. I leave you to contemplate his sermon:

     I do not question that loving one’s oppressors – Cambodians loving the Khmer Rouge – may be the most difficult attitude to achieve. But it is a law of the universe that retaliation, hatred, and revenge only continue the cycle and never stop it. Reconciliation does not mean that we surrender rights and conditions, but rather that we use love in all of our negotiations. It means we see ourselves in the opponent – for what is the opponent but a being in ignorance, and we ourselves are also ignorant of many things. Therefore, only loving kindness and right mindfulness can free us.      

    -- Maha Ghosananda, Step by Step