M.Kamuon, Khmer mystery

Clipboard01At over 60 years of age, “Monsieur Kamuon” (pronounced “Kamoun”), a confirmed francophile and employee of Children of the Mekong in Battambang (Cambodia), has been translating on average 2,000 sponsors letters per year since 2006.  Portrait of a mystery with a Khmer soul.


 “M. Kamuon, what would you say if I tell you you’re a child at heart?  I’m sure you would laugh out loud, I can see you doing that.  And then you’d smile.  The same eternal smile as the one on the sculpted face on the main entrance archway of the Battambang temple opposite the old bridge dating back to colonial times.  You’ve lived in Battambang and area nearly all your life.  You were born in the village of Samraong Knong, five kilometres away, way out in the middle of the rice fields.  And you still live there today, with your wife, one of your four children, and two of your eight grandchildren.

On the face on the temple, it’s not only the smile that makes me think of yours, there are also the two big eyes, closed, not slanting or wide, which distinguish a Khmer from a Thai or a Vietnamese for example.  True, the face on the temple doesn’t have your gold-framed spectacles.  Yet it seems to express something of you and characteristic of the “Khmer soul”: inscrutable smile, mysteriously serene yet concealing the trauma of the dark years of the Khmer Rouge regime.  “Three years, 8 months and 20 days”, you once told me.  Times so hard you counted them off by the day.  By the second.  In 1975, you were 23 years old and you owed your survival to your fortunately dark skin – the Angkar thought that excessively light skin was a sign of westernisation and therefore punishable by death – and to your intelligence.  In order to survive, not a word about your studies, or your knowledge of French (punishable by imprisonment, torture and death).  You were forcibly taken 14 km away from Battambang to work in the rice fields, then as a carpenter. At that time, you recall, there was no market, no pagodas, no hospital, no religion.  “We were so hungry we couldn’t sleep at night. We traded our possessions – watches, jewellery – for rice, salt and sugar, with the villagers who had some.  But in secret. If we’d been caught, it was death. The Khmers Rouges tolerated nothing. One man caught in the village meant extermination for the whole village.”  To hide the fact that you could count from the Khmer Rouge soldiers, you added up using pieces of wood, your stomach contracting with fear.  You were numb with fear, unable to trust anyone else, even members of your own family, for fear of being betrayed. This perfectly illustrates the Khmer saying you told me yesterday: “When you fall asleep, you don’t fear anything anymore”.  This period of Cambodian history is part of you.

Clipboard02And yet M. Kamuon, you seem to have a touch of eternal youth! A living being who never jibs at a glass of pastis or cognac, who gets his guitar out of the cupboard as I would get a cigarette out of my pocket, whose throw of the pétanque boules challenges the experts of la Canabière, whose rendering of the songs of Aznavour (“Et pourtant”), Gilbert Bécaud (“Nathalie”) and even Stromae (!), challenges their biggest “fans”… and whose swaying to “Les Marionnettes” (Christophe) is incomparable.

You taught me to look at the nature around us with new eyes because you live with it.  It’s true: the land feeds us and keeps us alive.  It’s very simple, yet I had almost forgotten that.  “You see that tree?  Are there any of those in France?”  You taught me to distinguish between a frangipani bud and a mango or papaya bud, when I can hardly tell an oak tree from a weeping willow. You very thoughtfully brought me “flower of destiny” (pkar somning) plants from your garden for me to plant at the hostel where I lived…  And then simply mentioned that it was “no big deal” if I forgot to water them!  The fact is, looking after a garden does matter.  But I had forgotten that.

Teacher of “biology-mathematics-physics-chemistry” for ten years, teacher of French for 5 years then Inspector of Schools for Battambang province until 2003.  Inspector of the Academy (training school inspectors) in Phnomh Penh until 2005… your return to Battambang in 2006 marked a turning point in your career: you accepted a job translating sponsors letters for Children of the Mekong in partnership with Buddhism For Development (BFD).  A job you enjoy enormously: “I’m very happy as a translator. I learn a lot about your culture and your civilisation from what the sponsors say; and now I know almost all of France thanks to post cards! Pictures which became reality when I made my first and unforgettable visit to France, in December 2013.”

Very considerately you write poems in French to the sponsors you contact.  Or add a more personal note for them at the end of the translated sponsor letter, to give them extra information…

And at the end of the day, you leave the office on your moped, discreetly, without anyone really noticing.  Often with a smile, and always … singing.

Text and photos: Laurence Faure – Illustration: Lucille Vautherin.