June 16, 2010, Phnom Penh. Long March Project met with intellectual and educator Ly Daravuth at Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture. The night before, the project’s team of travelling artists and thinkers engaged in a heated three-hour debate in a public conference at Metahouse gallery with Cambodian social activists, architects, school teachers, and filmmakers. The speakers wrestled with local feelings of unease about the open nature of the project, as well as questions about the reasoning behind the naming of the Ho Chi Minh Trail project. In Long March Project’s dialogue with Ly Daravuth, discussion topics from the previous night developed into deeper issues about history and narration surrounding the historical Ho Chi Minh Trail today. The following text is a partial transcription of their dialogue at Reyum Institute.
Ly Daravuth: The Khmer translation of Ho Chi Minh Trail on your T-shirt literally means, “Ho Chi Minh secret road.” I think it is a good translation, because it is a cultural translation.
Lu Jie: We were very surprised that in the official history of naming here, Cambodia does not have an official naming of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. How, then, do you describe that part of the country when you talk about the last fifty years of history?
Ly Daravuth: There is no history book about that part. You should look at the high school history textbook. There is an expression in French that says “name a cat a cat.” But in Cambodia, we don’t name a cat a cat. There are many things you don’t name, you don’t directly point at somebody like that. In history, there are many things that are still unresolved. This trail is linked to a period of history that is not clear yet.
Lu Jie: Last night we were speaking with local architects, social workers, and filmmakers from Phnom Penh. Most people chose not to communicate about this part of history. They wanted to know what we were here for, and questions kept twisting around and around. Foreigners yesterday pointed at us right away and questioned the idea of radical politics. Are you able to talk to us about the Trail?
Ly Daravuth: What do you want me to tell you about?
Lu Jie: Your relationship, encounters, memories, imagination. I propose that we try to imagine all of us to be synchronized in a moment that is international.
Ly Daravuth: I only have a certain imagination of the trail—historical facts I read from books. It is in the domain of the imaginary for me, and I can say that is also true for many people, except for some who were close to the Trail or the older generation. But you cannot talk about the Trail without talking about the history between China, Cambodia, Vietnam, and the U.S.A. So one needs to open up all this.
I would say that your topic is in the middle of the issue about history in Cambodia. The problem is how you write history, and today we are in the middle of this problem, and we do not discuss it. On the same trail, you can write so many histories. But history is the most politicized field, and it is within the social sciences. The social sciences are nothing like mathematics.
Lu Jie: History is an extension of politics; as we are situated in the middle of it, we find history ever more difficult to describe.
Ly Daravuth: In Cambodia, the face-to-face is confrontational. There is a word, mok, meaning the mask, or face. When you show the face, you go to the deepest identity of someone. When you name something, you lose the fluidity for conflict resolution. Because when you come face to face, you have to kill. In Cambodia, people can kill each other when they come face to face. Many things cannot be shown openly; you have metaphors and examples. There is a religious sculpture facing the river near the Royal palace, and it has four faces. Maybe this is very different from China.