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Manoa 16.1 (2004) 177-187

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Ten Gems on a Thread

For the past ten years, I have been writing plays about Cambodia. In early 2001, I went to Phnom Penh on a playwright's residency grant from the Asian Cultural Council. During the two and a half months I was there, I did two plays with Khmer actors from the National Theatre and conducted research for a new play, Silence of God, which would be produced at the Contemporary American Theater Festival.

Hall of Fame

These are the women I place inside my personal hall of fame. Chanthol Oung, the director of the Cambodian Women's Crisis Center, is wearing a well-pressed white blouse that highlights her dark and youthful face as she shows me upstairs to her cool office. As though uttering a mantra, she does not stop to breathe until she is done: "Confidential crisis shelter, legal representation, reintegration, vocational training, community education, monitoring violence, capacity building." She says there are men who will appear in her office, dressed in police or military uniforms, to demand she give their battered wives back. She tells me she says to them calmly, "We will let your wives know you are looking for them." There is a foreigner, she says, who raped young women, paid off the police, bribed the court, and then came to find her, yelling at her through his car window. She couldn't hear what he was saying because she was outside the center, driving away in a closed Jeep. A general in the government owns a brothel where women and girls are locked up. Two women inside the brothel throw letters out the windows, asking for help. She says that the mayor has closed down the brothel, but it is still open.

The second woman in my hall of fame, Kek Galabru, is dressed in a purple, floor-length, iridescent silk dress and a white silk scarf, which she drapes around herself in various ways. She is the founder of LICADHO, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights. When she speaks about the Cambodian prime minister, she looks toward the city of Phnom Penh, as if he is there, hanging in thin air outside the curtained window. I can see him in her gaze. Her face moves from radiance to shadow. Information suggests that he could be involved in kidnapping, [End Page 177] theft, bribery, and drugs. The French, who donate money to human-rights programs, don't want to know about this corruption.

I ask her about hope, and she looks at me. "Yes, you must have it," she says.

I meet Vannath Chea, the president of the Center for Social Development, on my birthday. Also gracefully dressed, she serves tea at a round table in her office. She's curious why I want to meet her. She says she is humble before the problem of "reconciliation" in Cambodia: the question of how to move on from the genocide. She bought land for a house. The house is near Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge extermination center, now a genocide museum. As the construction crews were digging the foundation, they found bones of arms. The bones were tied together with electrical cord. She shows me how by putting together her own lower arms. She had the bones burned on her property, and the ashes were placed in a pagoda in Kandal Province. Every day, she prays to the bones at an altar in her house. She hopes that what she accomplishes each day will honor the spirits of those who are under her house. She gets Kleenex tissue for us as we sit together at the round table. Maybe we can go to the pagoda, she says.

She cannot read my plays, she says, because she has no time to read. She glances at the piles of paper on her desk: she doesn't even have time to read the newspaper. When I tell her I have come to Cambodia to do theater, she says that the arts are like women: the first to...


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