National Day of Remembrance Candlelight vigil honoring the lives lost in the Cambodian Genocide

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By Danielle Nease
Tacoma Daily Index

April 17, 2017 is the 42nd anniversary of the Khmer Rouge’s 1975 march into the city of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. They evacuated the entire city, forcing people into labor camps and executing former government officials, doctors, artists, scholars and others.

Tonight, in Tacoma and other cities across the US, a candlelight vigil will be held to commemorate the estimated 2 million or more people who died under the brutal conditions of the regime, through execution and starvation, and the countless others who died while escaping and seeking refuge in other lands. Monday’s vigil is being held downtown at the Spaceworks Gallery, 950 Pacific Ave; doors open at 6 pm.

About a month ago, I visited the Gallery for the first time, to see Scars & Stripes, an impactful exhibit that explores the cultural contributions of Cambodian Americans impacted by war, genocide, resettlement, and deportation efforts that continue to this day.

Red scarf adjacent to: "Camp Circa 1979" by Anida Yoeu Ali

Red scarf adjacent to: “Camp Circa 1979″ by Anida Yoeu Ali

As I walked through the exhibit, I felt I was learning so much that I didn’t know about the history of the people of Cambodia, from the ancient Khmer kings who built the temples of Angkor Wat to the French conquest, and then independence in 1953 and the following Golden Era of growth amidst relative peace. Then the Vietnamese war afflicted the region, spilling over into both Laos and Cambodia, bringing years of instability and civil war, laying the groundwork for the rise of the Khmer Rouge.

photo courtesy Ruoth Thach and family; in front of the bus that would take them from Thailand to the Philippines

photo courtesy Ruoth Thach and family; in front of the bus that would take them from Thailand to the Philippines

Red kramas (scarves) were hung throughout the gallery, many shades of red, different patterns, lengths, reminding me that there of multiple layers of meaning in everything. For me, they signified a taking back of the heritage and meaning of Khmer (“descendants of the ancient Khmer empire”), an understanding of a strong people and culture that refused to be erased, despite years of friends and neighbors being fenced in behind barbed wire, tortured and interrogated, presumed guilty from the moment of accusation, regardless of whether a person proclaimed their innocence or falsely confessed to stop the pain.

Tuol Sleng, high school turned prison; photo courtesy Dara Duong

Tuol Sleng, high school turned prison; photo courtesy Dara Duong

As I continued my journey through the gallery, stories of Cambodian people and families pulled me along, from Sothy Youk, a US Embassy worker who had to stay at receiving camps in Thailand and Marine base Camp Pendleton before being sponsored out, to Tuol Sleng, the high school turned into a prison at which over 17,000 Cambodians were killed; from Nam Keo and family, who encountered dynamite, bombs and quick-sand during their escape from tyranny, to Bory Cheng and family, and their Khmer/English dictionary purchased at the UW bookstore and repaired and re-covered time and again. And to the stories of the diaspora of Khmer people today, like Tuy Sobil, who gives back by running a break dance class for street kids of Phnom Penh; Kosal Khiev, a poet and artist exiled from America in 2011; and artist/ musician Silong Chhun, whose vision and hard work brought about the Scars & Stripes exhibit, which runs through April 20th.

Photo courtesy Nam Keo and Rouen Mol; Rouen's mother wove the silk sarongs the family is wearing.

Photo courtesy Nam Keo and Rouen Mol; Rouen’s mother wove the silk sarongs the family is wearing.

The Khmer/ English dictionary purchased by Bory Cheng and family

The Khmer/ English dictionary purchased by Bory Cheng and family

The story of the Cambodian people is the story of all of us. We want lives of peace, to live and let live, to go about our merry way in pursuit of our passions, our life, liberty, happiness. These things aren’t accomplished through repression, bullying or braggadocio that spreads hatred and fear, but by being peaceful and kind ourselves, spreading joy and kindness. Maybe start tonight by spending time with your neighbors at the candlelight vigil at Spaceworks Gallery, 950 Pacific Ave. Doors open at 6 pm, with performances beginning at 7 pm.

Vigils are also being held in several cities across the US, including in Seattle and Chicago. Find more information at: http://www.yearzeromemorial.com/