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  • Interactions with a Violent Past: Reading Post-Conflict Landscapes in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam ed. by Vatthana Pholsena and Oliver Tappe
  • Martin Stuart-Fox
Interactions with a Violent Past: Reading Post-Conflict Landscapes in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Edited by Vatthana Pholsena and Oliver Tappe. Singapore: NUS Press, 2013. xii+300 pp.

Wars do not end with peace treaties and the demobilization of armies. Nor do they reverberate only in historical debate. The traumas of body and mind and the scars of landscape last long after the events that caused them. But memories endure only for so long, unless passed on — at first by witnesses, and then through narratives anchored in material remains, in letters and souvenirs, in medals and memorials, and in the decaying detritus of war. This book is about how memories of war both linger and continue to be created through interactions with the landscapes of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

In their introduction, the editors provide a brief background to the Second Indochina War before outlining the themes interwoven to a greater or lesser extent into each of the subsequent chapters — the lingering violence associated with the landscapes of war, the contested interpretations generated by memories and memorials to the conflict, and the transformations of communities and landscapes that have occurred since. These unifying themes bring the contributions of anthropologists, sociologists and historians together within an interpretive framework drawn from theorists of the interactions that occur among landscape as an active influence, personal memory and historiography.

Of the nine chapters that comprise this volume, four deal with Laos, three with Cambodia and two with Vietnam. The order presented by the editors groups three chapters on the interpretation of memorial sites, one from each country, followed by four on the continuing destructive effect of the war, again covering all three countries. [End Page 483] The last two chapters focus on the way that ethnic communities in northeast Cambodia and southern Laos deal with the impact and aftermath of war.

It is impossible to separate war from revolution in any of the three countries. Not only is revolution a thread that runs through all three of the Indochina wars (1946–54, 1960–75, 1978–89), but it has also continued, since their conclusion, to influence the ways in which these wars have been memorialized and interpreted. Somewhat surprisingly, however, revolution hardly figures as an analytical concept in this volume: there is not even an entry for it in the index. Yet the first chapter, entirely fittingly, deals with the most confronting of all memorials of the revolutionary aftermath of war: the torture prison of Tuol Sleng and the killing grounds of Choeung Ek. Sina Emde shows how these two sites provide powerful stimuli for the personal memories recalled before the tribunal established to try senior Khmer Rouge leaders, and how these accounts and associated ritual commemoration of the dead feed into the construction of collective memories with the potential to challenge the hegemony of state historiography.

In all three countries, ruling “revolutionary” regimes have sought to impose official historiographies of the war years — beginning with the naming of the war itself. While for Americans the “Vietnam War” conjures up a faraway country, in Indochina the “American War” recalls defeat of a powerful adversary. For the Lao, the caves of Vieng Xai, the wartime headquarters of the Pathet Lao in northern Laos, act as a “site of memory” contributing to a heroic image that serves to reinforce the legitimacy of the regime. Yet, as Oliver Tappe demonstrates, this portrayal masks both the lingering violence embedded in the landscape in the form of unexploded ordnance (UXO), and the poverty of rural life that war and revolution have failed to alleviate.

In the third chapter in this group on memorial sites, Markus Schlecker reveals how stelae (bia) erected by local communities in Vietnam to commemorate “martyrs of war” also reinforce the patrilineal descent groups comprising each community — thus incorporating [End Page 484] the experience of war into the continuity of ancestral lineages. The sacrifices of war are in this way culturally appropriated to create localized forms of collective memory.

In the first of four following chapters on the continuing legacy...


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pp. 483-486
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