Accepted Paper:

Sublime bodies and mortal remains: the nameless dead in the culture of impunity in Cambodia  


Caroline Bennett (Victoria University of Wellington)

Paper short abstract:

Thousands of human remains from the Khmer Rouge regime are displayed across Cambodia. Put to work as material reminders of the violence and horror, their presentation is sublime: transcending imagination and open to narrative manipulation. This paper examines these manipulations.

Paper long abstract:

The remains of those killed during the Khmer Rouge regime have never been individually identified, and there is no push to do so. The care of those excavated has been subsumed to the state, who displays them across the country as reminders of the regime, and material markers of the violent past. Their conspicuous display works not to display the individuals lost, but to demonstrate the overwhelming violence and destruction wrought by the regime. In this the dead are useful not as named individuals, but as anonymous dead. Piled high in stacks that awe the viewer their sublime presentation transcends the imagination, and enables political manipulation of narratives of the regime that subsumes culpability to a small group of individuals, and removes from responsibility the many cadre who remain in positions of authority across the country. Although a state manouevre, this delegation of care for physical remains is not viewed negatively by most people, who care for the spirits of individual dead in the annual ritual cycle. The physical remains are both mortal and sublime, and perform both functions, both for the individuals they represent, and the state who harnesses this power. This paper will explore the tensions and amalgamations this offers in contemporary Cambodia.

Panel P045
Missing persons, unidentified bodies: addressing absences and negotiating identifications