Interview from CRG FaultLines newsletter, Spring 2017 issue.

Khatharya Um

Khatharya Um is an Associate Professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies in the area of Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies. Prof. Um recently published two major volumes advancing the political discourse on migration and refugee studies in Southeast Asia, and exploring themes such as war, exile, belonging, and genocide. Prof. Um’s research not only intervenes in the telling of complex histories of conflict, it offers crucial insight into ongoing debates about migration, accountability and justice. 

– Desirée Valadares, CRG Graduate Student Researcher

CRG: How did your edited volume, Southeast Asian Migration: People on the Move in Search of Work, Refuge and Belonging (2015) come about?

Prof. Khatharya Um: The idea for this volume came out of an international conference on migration. It was evident that despite the importance of Southeast Asia as both a migrant sending and receiving region, relatively few stud-ies exist that address the complexity of Southeast Asian migration within and beyond the Asia-Pacific region.

The contributors are scholars from Asia, America, and Europe, and from different disciplines, many of whom have done pioneering work on these topics. Some are not simply scholars and researchers but also advocates and refugees themselves. The insights that they infuse into their scholarship are enriched by cultural and linguistic access and deep ethnog-raphy that make them invaluable.

CRG: How do trends/themes in Southeast Asian migration and refugee studies compare with global migration?

KU: As the volume reveals, Southeast Asian migration is compelled by many and different factors that include economic, political, environmental and other catalysts. It shares many features and concerns with economic migration from other parts of the world, and it also includes conflict-engendered displacement similar to what we witness in the Middle East, Europe, Latin America, and Africa. There is voluntary as well as forced migration and human trafficking both within and beyond the region.

CRG: This edited volume contains a range of interdis-ciplinary voices and methodologies. Do you think there is a particular field of study or method that lends itself to migration and refugee studies?

KU: Despite recent shifts in the field, migration studies remain overly preoccupied with policies, state actors, and global forces. However, migration is not reducible to legis-lation and statistics, nor is it just about economic motiva-tion. It is also about rebuilding lives, community, a sense of home and belonging. Arts, religion, psychology, for example, can add much to the discourse on migration. An interdisciplinary approach allows us to capture migrants’ multifaceted and textured experiences. The more exciting works are those that critically push against disciplinary boundaries and prevailing assumptions. Critical Refugee Studies, for one, is an exciting emergent field.

CRG: How did your interest in refugee and migration stud-ies develop?

KU: I am a refugee. I did not just choose the field; I live that experience. I have dedicated much of my academic and advocacy life to refugee works, but the multi-campus Critical Refugee Studies initiative that I co-lead is spurred by the resurgent interest in and current hypervisibility of refugees. Rather than adopting an ahistoricized, problem-oriented approach, we re-conceptualize the refugee as a site of critical interrogation of the nexus between imperial formations, militarization, and dislocation. The scholars in-volved have pioneered works that are foundational to CRS and brought refugees to the center of the ethnic studies concerns. Most are refugee scholars and not just scholars on refugees. This is a much-needed intervention. We aim to expand this intellectual community through grants, and faculty, graduate and undergraduate student engagement in the many activities that we are planning over the next four years on different collaborating campuses. It is an exciting moment for people working on what is decidedly one of the most critical issues of the 21st century.

CRG: Your book From the Land of Shadows (2015) is about the Cambodian genocide and the making of the Cambodian diaspora. Can you speak more about it?

KU: From the Land of Shadows is about the pathology of power and its ravaging effects on individuals and social system. Specifically, it is about state-sponsored violence against its own people – the kind that is perpetuated in many parts of the world today, and that exposes the limitations of international laws.

The war that we come to know as the “Vietnam War,” which was not confined to Vietnam, may have ended in 1975 for the US, but for Cambodians, it was the beginning of a spiraling descent into one of the nation’s darkest eras. Within hours of their seizure of power, the Cambodian communists, also known as the Khmer Rouge, began the historically unprecedented process of emptying all urban centers. All residents were sent to the countryside and put to work in labor camps, and all aspects of life were collectivized, including forced marriages that were organized and imposed by the state. The country was consumed by state violence. In less than four years, almost a quarter of the population perished from hard labor, forced starvation, executions, and “disappear-ances.” Another half a million Cambodians became stateless, with over 100,000 finding refuge in America. A whole generation virtually disappeared, leaving the country’s post-genocide population comprised mostly of women and children. In the US, one in four Cambodian refugee women was a widow. In a country of oral tradi-tions, physical death also means cultural rupture for when people die, they take with them the rich cultural memory that can never be retrieved.

CRG: Could you discuss some of the other themes in the book, particularly absence and silence?

KU: Absence is a theme that threads through the book – the absence engendered by mass disappearances, of Cambodia and Cambodians in US history books, in the academy, and popular consciousness in the West. Cam-bodia studies remain a colonized space. So much of the country’s history is written by non-Cambodians. We are, to borrow from Helen Zia, the “missing in history.”

The book is also about silence – the conditions that produce and perpetuate silence, and the multiple sites and registers of silence – the silence of humanity as it watched, unmoved, the crimes committed against itself and in its name in Cambodia, the silence of generational death, the silence of words, evacuated of meaning by the magnitude of the experience, the silence in the homes that hovers across generations.

Part of the silencing that contributed to the tragedy was the dismissing of refugee testimonies about mass atroci-ties as self-serving and unreliable. The book is based on substantive interviews and the lived experiences of survivor families because it is important for me to fore-ground Cambodian voices and presence in it. I also made a deliberate effort to end critical chapters in the book with a Cambodian voice, for we Cambodians are rarely seen in, and rarely allowed to speak to, our own history.

The book also moves beyond the question of what produces mass violence that is the focus of most geno-cide studies, to looking at the impact on, and responses of, individuals and social systems to historical traumas. Genocide wounds the nation physically and metaphysi-cally, and tears asunder the normative fabric that gives coherence and cohesion to the social order. Forced migra-tion and the physical, psychical, and spiritual disconnect from land, history, and identity that it entails renders this historical trauma even more acute for diasporas. What we often fail to see is what I call the heroism of quotidian life – that is the ability to recover the sense of communalism and sociality after social death, to emerge from under the rubbles to carry on – to live with dignity and compassion – as a refusal to submit.

This historical haunting provokes critical questions about healing, which is tied to the question of justice and ac-countability. Over $200 million and over three decades later, only three convictions for crimes against humanity have been handed to Khmer Rouge senior officials. Many of the Khmer Rouge leaders and many of the survivors had already died. What kind of possibility does that per-mit or preclude for the delivery of justice and what kind of justice, and for whom? We often speak of justice, recon-ciliation and healing as if they are mutually reinforcing. In fact they can be conflictual, for the search for justice has been argued to thwart reconciliation, and what is needed for justice – like the exposed remains of the killing fields – can preclude healing. If justice delivered through juridical processes can only be imperfect, where then does accountability lie, and who will be there to demand it?

CRG: What is the larger significance of the book?

KU: When we turn on the news these days, we see images of bombed out cities, refugees crammed into unseawor-thy boats, and faces of desperation. They were not unlike what we saw four decades ago with the refugee crisis in Southeast Asia.

What we don’t hear enough is the why. Refugees are not ahistorical apparitions. They are the human and enduring legacies of war, conquest, and occupation, the debris of empire. We often think that conflicts are over once the im-ages stop appearing on our TV screens but violence has its own temporality. The legacies of conflict persist long after its declared ending. It is not just about the bombs that rain over cities but that also remain in the fields and orchards for generations to come. Though extreme, the Cambo-dian tragedy is not an aberration. Mass atrocities, death camps, statelessness, and refugees tragically are features of modernity. The global responsibility is not only to stop mass atrocities but also not to create conditions for them to erupt in the first place.