Farina So believes in the power of oral history. Collecting and studying historical information through interviews with Muslim and non-Muslim communities in the three restive southern provinces of Thailand, for instance, can help officials in charge of reconciliation better understand the issues residents are facing. And So ought to know, because the 33-year-old heads the Cham Oral History Project at the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam).
Home visits are one way to connect with Cham communities.
The term oral history can include written, audio or videotaped interviews, she said, which record memories, stories and reflections that can assist people to get a clearer picture of an otherwise complex situation. The researcher said it was equally pivotal to engage the youth in this endeavour.
"In no manner am I saying oral history is the answer to the issues Thailand is facing in the three southern restive provinces [Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat] or anywhere else in the world," So said.
"Oral history is unique in that unlike memoirs, personal papers, or speeches, through a dialogue between an interviewer and interviewee we are able to document family histories, community histories, past experiences of human rights abuses and reconstruct the past to educate the younger generation. So the information you get enables outsiders to understand the mindset of the people and know how to approach them."
In her opinion, the root cause of the southern Thailand unrest stems from integration, the effects of integration and economic, ethnic and religious differences. While it is important to know your identity, she said it was equally important to know how to integrate with people of different faiths and ethnicities harmoniously. This complex issue requires multiple approaches. Oral history, said So, documents the unheard voices and human experiences.
A member of the Cham ethnic minority in Cambodia with 13 years of experience in the field, the nature of So's work remains emotionally draining. Getting residents in her community to speak about a subject most would like to forget is a mammoth task for a petite researcher born after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. For one, she said, most interviewees did not trust her to completely understand the atrocities they encountered.
"I was born one year after the Khmer Rouge fell in 1980. I might not have been a direct victim of the genocide, but I was affected by the legacy of the war in one way or another, like a number of my peers.
Farina So speaks about her Cham Oral History Project to a gathering of elders from mosques around Cambodia.
"To have greater empathy, I had to start from understanding my own roots. For this type of work it is crucial to be empathetic, and be an understanding listener, otherwise they can experience a recurrence of the trauma. My team and I had to slowly gain their trust. The feedback was great, many felt a heavy stone had lifted from them after they shared some very painful moments, which also included sexual violence on women."
So said these records not only preserve the heart-wrenching stories of the Cham Muslim people during the Khmer Rouge regime for potential use as evidence in the legal accounting of the crimes, but can also serve as documentation for future generations to remember the genocide and to see it is never repeated.
The hijab-clad 2012-13 Asian Public Intellectuals fellow said her work gives a voice to the unheard, especially empowering women to speak up about their emotionally painful pasts to the younger generation.
She said the Cham Oral History Project's three goals were to preserve the memories of the Cham under the Khmer Rouge, use the information gathered during the interviews to bring perpetrators to justice, and educate the present generation through the sharing of victims' experiences.
When asked how oral history can help address pressing issues of war and political turmoil, So explained: "In addition to the multiple facets of oral history, post-conflict societies or conflict-affected areas can jointly do a multicultural or cross-cultural oral history to find similarities or differences in the dynamics of conflicts and experiences that people have lived through or are living with. For instance, Myanmar, Nepal, southern Thailand, Syria and Cambodia should do something together."
So is the author of The Hijab Of Cambodia: Memories Of Cham Muslim Women After The Khmer Rouge, a book which uncovers stories of survival and resistance. The Khmer Rouge's genocidal policies ruptured ethnic and religious identities and resulted in the disproportionate killing of the Cham group. So found that Cham women, guided by their desire to preserve their families and cultural identity, sometimes complied with Khmer Rouge policies, and sometimes secretly resisted.
"Given the lack of women's voices, getting them to tell their own suffering as human beings and women was one of the most poignant reasons for the book. Apart from that, it was to give them a chance to speak out and recognise the atrocities they suffered as a community, bringing them together to share their common experiences. Another aim was to bring people's attention to women's issues and the Cham community. My book has so far received positive feedback from readers, judging from events organised by DC-Cam in the form of community book reviews and a book distribution in July 2011 and subsequent events.
"Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen sent me a thank-you letter. Hundreds of books in Khmer and English were distributed free of charge to members of the Cham Muslim community, university students and selected embassies in Cambodia. They are also available for sale at DC-Cam and Monuments Book.
"I would say readers unanimously agreed that the voice of women who have experienced trauma under the Khmer Rouge [should] be heard and that such stories can serve as a platform to educate the young generation about how women managed to survive the Khmer Rouge. But this is not the end of our work. It is important to share our work experience in the region and help build the role of women to lead in post-conflict societies."
Empowering women to speak up about their experiences under the Khmer Rouge requires trust.
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About the author
- Writer: Yvonne Bohwongprasert