Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Book review- The Road of Lost Innocence

The Road of Lost Innocence: The true story of a Cambodian heroine who fled sexual slavery and now devotes her life to rescuing others
Somaly Mam and Lisa Appignanesi, 2007

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Somaly Mam is a woman worthy of enormous admiration. Her autobiography, The Road of Lost Innocence, is an incredibly harrowing and eye-opening story as to the reality of the sex slavery industry in Cambodia and South East Asia in general.  Mam has endured a shockingly abusive childhood; left by her parents from a young age, she was sold to a stranger by her only remaining relative to be wed into an arranged marriage and finally sold to a brothel. She has suffered unimaginable violence, rape and cruelty. Yet she asserts that her story is in no way atypical for a young Cambodian girl. The choice of subtitle for her book, The True Story of A Cambodian Childhood, pays testament to this reality. Mam’s writing paints a bleak and unforgiving portrait of Cambodian society, but she also offers insightful explanations into why the sex trade industry may continue to be so accepted and engrained in her native country. First published in France under the title Le Silence de L’innocence in 2005, the English version, translated by Lisa Appignanesi, was first published in 2007.

The Road of Lost Innocence is moving on many levels. Primarily, there is the raw pain of the injustice suffered by Mam, which is accentuated by her simple writing style and humble tone. Then there is the reminder of the amount of suffering endured by women and girls in South East Asia due to the prolificacy of the sex trade industry. It is thought that there are 11.7 million people in forced labour in the Asia Pacific region, the majority of whom are women and girls. Virgins are sold for high prices. Finally and perhaps most significantly, there is the admiration Mam inspires due to her work to counter these trends. Having escaped a life of forced prostitution, she co-founded AFESIP- Agir Pour les Femmes en Situation Précaire (Acting for Women in Distressing Circumstances). Her autobiography recalls the organisation’s inception from its humble origins as a small, overcrowded shelter in the outskirts of Phnom Penh to its current status as a multi-national body that operates across Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. The organisation is largely funded by the Somaly Mam Foundation (SMF), which was established in 2007 as “a funding vehicle to support victim services organizations, eradicate slavery through global advocacy, and to empower survivors to be part of the solution to end trafficking”.

Mam is now a globally recognised humanitarian figure due to her work to challenge the sex trafficking industry and to empower its survivors. She has received countless awards, including the Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation in 1998 and the Glamour Woman of the Year award in 2006. In 2009, she was named as one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People and in 2011 was included in the Guardian’s Top 100 Women: Activists and Campaigners. Yet despite this worldly recognition, in her writing Mam remains very modest; she is frank about the lasting impact of her ordeal on her life today. In this way, it is a poignantly personal story and is very touching. Not only has she suffered physical and emotional abuse based on her gender, she has also endured racism from Cambodia’s majority Khmers because of belonging to an ethnic minority group, the Phnong, and having dark skin.

I found a considerable amount to learn about post-Pol Pot Cambodian society from this book. Most of this was uncomfortably negative. Mam suggests that the legacy of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge era has blown a hammer to family values and left a shattered society overly focused on the individual. Yet traditional views towards the role of women and girls remain: they are expected to unconditionally obey their parents and are often seen as “money on legs”. These two factors, Mam suggests, have allowed the development of a society that deems both the sale of girls into prostitution by their families and the use of prostitutes (often children) by men as acceptable. Consequently, according to a 2005 report by Cambodian non-governmental organisation The Future Group, ‘it can be expected that at least one in forty girls born in Cambodia will be sold into sex slavery’.

Considering this disturbing reality, It is encouraging that AFESIP and the Somaly Mam Foundation now reach as many women and girls across South East Asia as they do. Since its establishment in 1996, AFESIP has “rescued, rehabilitated and reintegrated over 4,000 women and children”, providing them with healthcare, education, psychological support and the means to begin a better life. Besides this, a crucial element of AFESIP’s work is in changing perspectives towards sex trafficking and the use of prostitutes in order to challenge the problem from its roots. One way in which this is done is through sex education classes for men. Another way is through the ‘Somaly’s Family’ radio show broadcast from Phnom Penh, in which trafficking survivors speak out about modern-day slavery to a regional audience. The show aired fifty-nine times last year.

The Road of Lost Innocence is a testament to the importance of the work of AFESIP and the relevance that the issues of sex trafficking and slavery still hold today. Moreover, it is a well-written and engaging story with many tender, heart-breaking moments. Mam’s story is horrifying, but more shocking is the reality that her story is not unique. I would recommend this book to anybody and everybody as a source of information about the unforgivable abuses of women and girls that occur every day around the world. Furthermore, I would recommend this book as the story of an incredibly brave and inspiring women who has turned a horrendous ordeal into an opportunity to help thousands of people who have shared her experiences. It would be too much to call this book uplifting, as the pain Mam evidently still feels resonates through the narrative. Yet Somaly Mam is undoubtedly an awe-inspiring individual, to whom I feel great respect. I would also encourage everybody to visit the websites of AFESIP and the Somaly Mam Foundation to find out more about Mam’s work and to donate to an exceptionally worthy cause.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Book review- Nightmare in Laos

Nightmare in Laos: The true story of a woman imprisoned in a communist gulag
Kay Danes, 2005

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On 23rd December 2000, Kay and Kerry Danes were arrested in Laos and subsequently held for ten months in Phonthong prison outside Vientiane.  The Australian couple had lived in Laos since January 1999, where they had established Lao Securicor security services. The couple’s imprisonment, which was without charges for the first six months of their ordeal, came to global attention as it became evident the Daneses had been wrongly embroiled in a scandal related to a quantity of sapphires that had gone missing when one of their clients, Gem Mining Laos, was nationalised by the Lao government.

Nightmare in Laos: The true story of a woman imprisoned in a communist gulag is the second version of Kay Danes’ memoir of her experiences as a foreign inmate in a Lao prison, where her eyes were opened to the suffering of Laotians, foreigners and ethnic minorities incarcerated in a regime with appalling human rights records. Her story was first published as Deliver Us from Evil (Crown Content, 2002), before the publication of this, revised, edition in 2005 by Maverick House. Danes has since authored Families Behind Bars (New Holland, 2008) and Beneath the Pale Blue Burqa: One woman’s journey through Taliban strongholds (Big Sky Publishing, 2010).

Phonthong prison outside Vientiane is a mixed sex detention centre for non-Laotians. Between its walls Kay Danes met foreign nationals who had been accused of drug trafficking, money laundering or other crimes while in the country, as well as members of the Hmong ethnic group, who have historically been discriminated against in Laos for their support for CIA forces during the country’s civil war before a communist takeover in 1975. Under Lao law, suspects can be detained for twelve months without charges being laid against them; Danes reports that many of Phonthong’s inmates were held for years without trial. She was convinced that many of these were innocent of any crime. In her account, Danes reports the torture and mock executions of inmates that were a daily occurrence in the prison; for her part, Danes suffered severe emotional and psychological trauma long after her return to her family in Australia.

This story is a moving and poignant one written by a woman with real sensitivity towards the plight of those around her in the prison that was her home for ten months. Kay and Kerry Danes were detained for six months before being charged with embezzlement, destruction of evidence and other charges relating to the gem disappearances. It has been largely recognised that the couple were held as ‘hostages’ in place of Gem Mining Laos founder Bernie Jeppesen and his partner Julie Brunz. In a court trial that lasted five hours, Kay and Kerry were sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment and ordered to pay over one million Australian dollars as ‘compensation’ for the loss of jewels. In a country in which no one has ever been acquitted after being charged, it is hardly surprising that the jury’s summary was produced after twenty-five minutes of consultation, already typed. Ultimately, it was the intervention of the Australian government that secured the release of Kay and Kerry through negotiation with the Laos government. In an unprecedented move in Lao history, the couple were granted a royal pardon in November 2001.

Despite her significant health problems, Danes’ life since imprisonment has been incredibly admirable. Determined to improve conditions for current prisoners in Laos, fight for justice for those who have been wrongly accused and raise awareness of corruption in the system, she has dedicated herself to humanitarian work and activism. As a volunteer for the Foreign Prisoner Support Service and the Childlight Foundation for Afghan Children, Danes has been described by WHO magazine as “an inspiration for giving a voice to the oppressed and unjustly accused of the world, and for shedding light on the struggles faced by the Afghan people, particularly women and children”. In 2012 she was a State Finalist for the Australian of the Year award and in 2013 was again nominated for this prestigious title. More recently, Danes has been inducted into Worldwide Who’s Who for Excellence in Humanitarian Services. Furthermore, she has spoken at US Congressional hearings forums on multiple occasions on the persecution of the Hmong and wider human rights issues in Laos.

Nightmare in Laos is a touching and simply-told story about a woman’s endurance of a hellish ordeal that saw her separated from her children, lose her freedom and be subjected to physical and psychological torture. Perhaps the most moving element of the story is Danes’ continued concern for her fellow detainees throughout her imprisonment. In Phonthong prison, Kay and Kerry Danes fought to improve conditions for others, whom they recognised had fewer privileges than themselves, such as regular consular access and high-profile media interest in their case. There are few rays of sunshine in this tragic story but one may be the Daneses kindness towards others that led to measurable improvements inside the prison. 

If Danes’ primary motive for recording her story was to help to clear her name and that of her husband from any crime accused of them, then she has done well. Her memoir is a very convincing testament to the innocence of the couple; further evidence fully persuaded me that Kerry and Kay Danes were falsely charged in what seemed to be largely a case of appointing culprits, followed by repeated face-saving exercises, on the part of the Lao government. Sadly, controversy still surrounds the case and the couple remain with a blackening criminal record. If Danes’ primary motive was to raise awareness of the disgraceful mistreatment and injustice faced by prisoners in Laos, she has also done incredibly well. Danes’ work through the publication of her memoirs, her other non-fiction works and her involvement in humanitarian organisations has no doubt shed light on the corrupt justice system of a secretive communist state and has hopefully served to improve conditions for the friends she left behind in Phonthong, many of whom may remain there today without justice.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Book review: The Pol Pot Regime (Third Edition)- Ben Kiernan (2008)

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In the case of such a secretive regime as Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea (DK), access to accurate information about the period for historical study can be challenging. Many questions remain unanswered regarding what really happened between the closed borders of Cambodia between April 1975 and January 1979, but studies such as Ben Kiernan’s into the Khmer Rouge era provide valuable sources of information. The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79 is the culmination of extensive research on the part of the Australian historian and author of Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur (Yale University Press, 2007); it draws upon evidence of five hundred interviews with survivors of the Cambodian genocide as collected by Kiernan himself. With this information, Kiernan offers two key arguments that form the basis of this work: that Khmer Rouge conceptions of race overshadowed those of class; and that the regime struggled for top-down domination.

Based on his own evidence and that of other historians, Kiernan estimates that 1.7 million Cambodians, ethnic minorities and citizens of neighbouring countries were killed in the period in which Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge held power over Cambodia in a regime that he describes as an “amalgam of communism and racism”. Cities were emptied and the population relocated to the countryside to work on an ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful national project of dam- and canal-construction to increase dry-season crop yields. Under a regime that “probably exerted more power over its citizens than any other state in world history”, control was maintained by uprooting and dispersing communities and by assigning individualised work targets in a communal setting. “The CPK [Communist Party of Kampuchea] atomized its citizens to assure maximum social control”, Kiernan argues.

During this period, all aspects of the country’s pre-revolution past were effectively nullified; nineteen seventy-five was renamed Year Zero by the new government and those who had been educated, lived in cities or were ethnic minorities were particularly targeted. Cambodia became an agrarian society in which preferential treatment was given to those who were peasants (the ‘base’ people) with no relation to city-dwellers (the ‘new’ people). In May 1979, Heng Samrin, Khmer Rouge defector and chairman of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, established after the Vietnamese overthrow of DK, revealed to the outside world how citizens under Pol Pot had been classified as ‘full rights’, ‘candidates’ and ‘deportees’ in relation to their background, family and ethnicity and their subsequent perceived eligibility for ‘rights’. Furthermore, Kiernan was the first writer to note in print how deportees from Eastern Cambodia, where rebellions against the regime had occurred, were forced to wear blue when relocated to distinguish them for execution.

Besides the devastating death toll (believed to be over 20% of Cambodia’s 1975 population), family life, culture and society was decimated with lasting impacts. The third edition of this book, published 2008, includes a preface that takes the story up to the ongoing tribunal by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) to try former leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Established in 1999, the UN-sponsored tribunal found five former leaders guilty of crimes against humanity in July 2007. However, the KR figurehead Pol Pot died as a free man in 1998 and in March 2013, DK deputy prime minister, minister of foreign affairs and Number Three in the party hierarchy Ieng Sary died of natural causes before he could be found guilty of the genocide crimes he was charged with in 2009. Justice is coming slowly for Cambodians, and the surviving pioneers of the genocide are becoming very old. Fortunately, studies such as Kiernan’s and work by DC-CAM, the largest resource base for information on the Khmer Rouge era, are increasing global awareness of the devastating events of Cambodia’s recent history. Notably, it was Kiernan who founded the award-winning Cambodian Genocide Programme at Yale University which was to become DC-CAM, the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, now based in Phnom Penh.

Kiernan’s interest in Cambodia is far-reaching. He first visited the country in his early twenties, before the expulsion of all foreigners in 1975. He has subsequently learnt Khmer and written several books on the subject of the Cambodian genocide. The Pol Pot Regime is an incredibly detailed work that covers the functioning of the CPK party and state- from government to regional and district levels- living conditions under the regime, the persecution of ethnic minorities, rebellions against the regime and Democratic Kampuchea’s foreign relations. The quantity of information available is impressive and Kiernan’s arguments are convincing. Particularly interesting for me is his assertion that the Khmer Rouge were primarily motivated by racial, and not class, distinctions: “Non-Khmers, who comprised a significant part of the supposedly favoured segment of the peasantry, were singled out for persecution because of their race. This was neither a communist proletarian revolution that favoured the working class nor a peasant revolution that favoured all farmers”. He denounces the claims of other historians that the revolution was peasant-led, favouring the view that the revolution initially held peasant support, but often out of “fear”.

For the purpose of my project, this was perhaps not the best choice of reading for information on Pol Pot’s Cambodia. This is a very academic book and was not easy to read; it took me a long time to get through. I would not recommend it as introductory reading to Khmer Rouge history, only to those who are studying this period in depth. Nonetheless, I gathered a great deal of information from this book and reading it gave me an appreciation of the value of the information Kiernan has collected in the context of such information being difficult to come across and to confirm. Finally, I find the arguments that Kiernan has produced to be well reported and convincing, particularly as they seem to have been drawn from a large pool of extensive and reliable evidence. He has done well to explain the functioning of a regime that was at the same time so devastatingly brutal and curiously self-destructive.

More: Read my reviews of two women's memoirs of the Khmer Rouge period and its aftermath:

To The End Of Hell by Denise Affonco

After They Killed Our Father by Luong Ung