Cambodia: Reality TV Reunites Families Torn Apart by Khmer Rouge

Harnessing the emotional trauma of one of the 20th century’s most tragic episodes — a nearly four-year ultracommunist revolution that left a quarter of Cambodia’s population dead — the reality TV show “It’s Not a Dream” is jarringly raw

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Brendan Brady

Moung Ramary cries as she holds the arm of her long-lost father Moung Sokhem

The television host asked Moung Ramary about her estranged father as cameras zoomed in on her anguished face and panned across the studio audience. Moung Ramary, who today is a photogenic and expressive 33-year-old woman, was in her mother’s womb when in 1979, in the days after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, her parents separated, she explained to her inquisitor. As the host teased out tears by prodding her to talk about her sorrowful childhood, the father she had never met was just a few yards away, hidden by a wall but watching her talk through a live video feed. Harnessing the emotional trauma of one of the 20th century’s most tragic episodes — a nearly four-year ultracommunist revolution that left a quarter of Cambodia’s population dead — the reality TV show “It’s Not a Dream” is jarringly raw.

Three months earlier, Moung Ramary was flipping through channels when she came across the television program on which she would soon appear. “I started watching and saw how they helped people find lost family members, so I decided to call in,” she told TIME the day before her reunion. The show, which airs on the Cambodian network Bayon, debuted in 2010 and is modeled on a program in neighboring Vietnam that reunited family members who were separated during the country’s years of civil strife in the 1960s and ’70s. Most people in the Cambodian version were separated during the Khmer Rouge’s rule from 1975 to ’79, during which some 2 million Cambodians died from starvation, overwork or execution. The regime often forcefully split families as part of a wider policy to destroy traditional bonds. It also banned schooling, religion and any other belief system or institution it deemed a threat to its authority. By the same Orwellian logic, they frequently arranged marriages between strangers to ensure their union was purely procreational.

(PHOTOS: Displaced: The Cambodian Diaspora)

That’s what happened to Moung Ramary’s parents. “I hadn’t known her, I didn’t have any feelings towards her,” Moung Sokhem, now in his 60s, said matter-of-factly of Moung Ramary’s mother, speaking to TIME at his home on the outskirts of Phnom Penh a few days before he appeared on the show. Moung Sokhem was unschooled but skilled at menial labor, which made him a model citizen in the eyes of cadres who oversaw their village. Moung Ramary’s mother, on the other hand, was a classic class enemy: urban and educated, a fact that she hid in order to avoid being targeted. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, their forced marriage unraveled.

Moung Ramary’s case is unique in that her parents chose to separate. Most of the more than 1,000 cases submitted to the television show involve loved ones who were torn apart against their will. After the Khmer Rouge were toppled in 1979, most Cambodians marched for days or weeks back to their birthplace in search of estranged family members. Others sought refuge in sprawling camps along the border with Thailand as remnants of the fallen Khmer Rouge army continued to wage war in parts of the countryside. To this day, most Cambodians have a close relative whose fate is uncertain.

Yet, the country has never had a top-level initiative to help estranged family members reunite. Most Cambodians still survive on a couple of dollars a day and lack the resources to conduct far-flung investigations. Prak Sokhemyouk, the reality show’s producer, says “It’s Not a Dream” is designed to fill this gap. She also hopes it will teach young Cambodians about a horrific episode of their country’s history that they may know little about. Many parents avoid talking about this dark era, and younger generations’ ignorance of what happened has been compounded by the absence of Khmer Rouge history in the national curriculum until just a few years ago. Addressing those years remains sensitive for the government because many current officials, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, participated in the revolution. Even the producer Prak Sokhemyouk admits that until she worked on the TV show, she avoided hearing about the Khmer Rouge years because she found the facts of her country’s self-destruction too painful and inexplicable.

(PHOTOS: The Rise and Fall of the Khmer Rouge)

Some Cambodians and international observers hoped that a war-crimes court opened in Phnom Penh in 2007 would provide a foundation for national reconciliation. In 2010, the chief of an infamous torture center was sentenced to 35 years in jail — a term that was recently extended to life. Tens of thousands of Cambodians attended his trial and many more followed testimony on television. Legal wrangling, political interference and delays have beset subsequent prosecutions. Besides, argues Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center for Cambodia, a nonprofit group that collects research about the Khmer Rouge, the tribunal has a narrow scope. The goal is to prosecute crimes within a limited jurisdiction, he says, not to provide a venue for national catharsis.

The absence of wider venues for Cambodians to address their suffering has exacerbated the psychological toll, say mental-health experts. For survivors of the Khmer Rouge’s rule, simply discussing what they experienced is therapeutic, says Chhim Sotheara, a psychiatrist with the Phnom Penh–based NGO Transcultural Psychosocial Organization Cambodia. Various studies have found that between a third and more than half of Cambodians who lived through the 1975-79 revolution subsequently suffered from posttraumatic stress. However, few receive care. Though some have access to help from NGOs, government assistance for mental health is essentially nonexistent. “It’s Not a Dream” then treads a fine line between stirring up pain for the cameras and, sometimes, providing a form of joyous resolution.

The reunions, of course, are not always jubilant. In one of the most emotional episodes — there have only been 17 so far — a brother was reunited with his two sisters. Holding her brother on stage, one sister’s first words to him were: “Our parents are dead. The rest of our siblings are dead. It’s just us.” Moung Ramary’s reunion was less painful, but equally dramatic. When her father went on stage, she prostrated herself before him, according to Cambodian tradition, and he fell to his knees to embrace her. They could barely form words for one another. “I want to live with love and warmth, I don’t want to feel hatred or malice,” Moung Ramary had said in an interview before her reunion. Since being reconnected with her father, she has regularly visited him and his new family — meetings that she says have helped give her closure.

In contrast to the ever more scripted and trivial reality TV that’s proliferated in the U.S. — shows built around loud personalities and dubious everyday scenarios — “It’s Not a Dream” produces the kind of convulsive sobs and clenched hugs that’s the stuff of genuine documentary. But even when working with such profound material, a bit of stagecraft is needed. At one point in the middle of Moung Ramary’s shoot, Prak Sokhemyouk walked onto the stage and whispered a message to the host. She was telling him to hurry up, the producer explained after the show. “We were losing the emotion.”

MORE: Why Some Khmer Rouge Suspects May Never Face Trial