Matters of Morality: The Case of a Former Khmer Rouge Village Chief



In a Khmer village located in Cambodia's southwest, an elderly man is blamed for the executions of his neighbors and extended kin. He is said to have killed these people when he worked as the village chief under the Khmer Rouge in the early 1970s. Using interviews and conversations with this man and others in his community, as well as observations and archival research, I speculatively examine villagers' accounts of the morality of his actions as a former Khmer Rouge village chief.

In a Cambodian village nestled in the foothills of the Cardamom Mountains, a man I call Ta Kam is blamed by his neighbors and extended kin for the deaths of their family members. These occurred during the civil war, when the Khmer Rouge occupied the area before they took power in 1975 and Pol Pot's state, Democratic Kampuchea (DK), was established. Thirty years later some villagers say that, as village chief, Ta Kam tried to score points (sna dai) with the Khmer Rouge and to “gain face”(yoke mukh) by making complaints to his superiors against people in the village. Those he accused were taken away and executed. They say he did this ultimately because he is morally “uneducated”(ât cheah deung), that is, morally ignorant. It is this moral ignorance, they say, that caused him to lead the “wrong” way (“wrong,” that is, in the moral sense). These explanations for Ta Kam's behavior, which were voiced within the village community, are the touch point of this article. Today no one from this village speaks to Ta Kam—he is socially shunned.1

Ta Kam's acts as village chief under the Khmer Rouge have led villagers to place the burden of blame on him for the deaths of their family members in the early 1970s. He was certainly not the only member of his generation guilty of betraying his neighbors and extended kin in the atmosphere of terror and chaos that prevailed during this period. Nonetheless, by focusing on this man, as villagers seem to do, we can see that Ta Kam's case is emblematic in a number of ways. First, he is, as a former leader of his village, an emblem of the former community. As leader, he represented his community both morally and politically. Second, as the object of blame, he is an emblem of the wrongdoings of his entire generation. Villagers say that his generation committed “bad deeds”(thvoe bap) against one another, but they point to Ta Kam as the sole representative of those deeds.

Given the centrality of Ta Kam's role within village history, then, it is worthwhile to consider closely the motivations that villagers ascribe to his actions, while also taking into account his own story. These present-day explanations for his actions are relevant to how villagers themselves (incl. Ta Kam) attempt to understand the violence of the past. Of course, Ta Kam's and his neighbors' accounts are not identical—the villagers blame him and he blames the circumstances of the village's locality and, less explicitly, the Khmer Rouge. But in either case, this accounting for the tragedy that occurred in the past is indicative of people's attempts to reconcile the events that occurred and get on with their lives in the present. It is with this in mind that I attempt to unpack villagers' explanations (to the extent that is possible), exploring their potential meanings and implications, and to analyze them together with Ta Kam's own accounting of his life. Moreover, taking on board the reasons given for Ta Kam's behavior, I speculatively look at how Ta Kam may have understood his choices and actions within these frames and connect this to the ideological worlds he inhabited and the existential circumstances that accompany social and historical change.

Under consideration here are the choices and decisions as Khmer Rouge village chief in the civil war years prior to the establishment of Pol Pot's government. Of course we can never know for certain what motivates people; however, it is nonetheless reasonable to examine his choices in light of villagers' explanations, which are themselves grounded in local knowledge and practices, and also within the moral order under which Ta Kam lived before the DK period.

I begin with the assumption that his critical decisions were at least tacitly shaped by a set of beliefs and propositions about the world already contained within the existing Khmer cosmos. Although there are numerous beliefs and notions at play, considered here is the subject of moral judgment followed by the themes of merit and patronage.2

In Cambodia the concept of “patronage” is usually ascribed to the political spheres of life, whereas “merit” is generally associated with religious spheres.3 Perhaps somewhat unconventionally, in the following section these two themes are brought together, crossing their normal domain boundaries, to examine features of their structural makeup. Of interest here are the structural similarities between the practice of patronage and merit making—concepts that are in many other ways significantly different from each other.4 Moreover, it should be noted that these topics are not approached here through a hermeneutic study of Buddhism in the sense of the “big tradition,” but are, instead, through the “little tradition”—that is, Buddhism as it is locally practiced and understood. In this sense, I am following Stanley Tambiah (1970), who sees religion in the everyday context as it serves people's everyday needs and is integrated into people's secular lives.5

Ignorance and Moral Judgment

What does it mean when the villagers say that Ta Kam was morally ignorant? Elsewhere (Zucker 2007) I have suggested that moral ignorance implies amorality: the inability to “know right from wrong,” a state of being normally associated with children, or “the wild” as opposed to “the civil.” Here I would like to expand on this idea briefly and connect it with the “modern” Buddhist notion of sâtisampajania as it is described in the Cambodian text the Gatilok (Ways of the World), drawing on the work of Anne Hansen (2003, 2004). The Gatilok was written in the early 20th century by the Khmer scholar and poet Okna Suttanataprija Ind. Composed of moral tales, it is an ethical guide on how to live morally in the modern world. As a vernacular Theravada Buddhist text, it relates more to the “little” Buddhist tradition. The Gatilok is concerned with sâtisampajania, the practical application of moral judgment. The word sâtisampajania is composed of sati, meaning “mindfulness and clarity,” and sampajania, meaning “discrimination” or “attention” or “awareness” (Hansen 2003:819). Hansen tells us:

While in the various Pali suttas [sic]satisampajañña[sic] is explained as a moral possession that must be cultivated gradually by monks who have attained higher levels of skill in meditation, in the Gatilok it is a moral attribute necessary to anyone who wants to live as a good person in the world. Although some exemplary characters may be endowed with satisampajañña by birth, for most it is a moral virtue that must be cultivated through life experience and education. [2003:820]

As an ability that the ordinary person may possess, sâtisampajania is the ability to practice moral judgment or discernment, which is developed through the experience that generally comes with age and also through formal and moral education. Therefore, babies and ignorant people lack this quality. In essence, sâtisampajania allows the mature individual to know how to act morally in varied and changing situations and contexts (2003, 2004:55).

Thus, when villagers say that Ta Kam was morally ignorant, it is plausible that they are suggesting he lacked the quality of sâtisampajania in the sense used in the Gatilok tales. That is, he lacked the ability of moral discernment in responding to situational contingencies appropriately.

It is interesting to note that sâtisampajania, as described in Hansen's analysis, is similar to the Aristotelian concept of “phronesis,” as described by Michael Lambek (2000) and also by other scholars. Lambek translates phronesis as “moral practice or judgement” (2000:309) and emphasizes that it provides an intersection between “contemplative thought, reasoned action (praxis), and creative production (poesis) characteristic of any given social setting” (2000:309). Rosalind Hursthouse notes that Aristotle's intended meaning for the term phronesis remains the subject of much scholarly debate, but that the modern usage of the term, which she translates as “practical or moral wisdom” implies the requirement of experience that normally comes with adulthood (2003). That is, children lack the necessary experience to know when doing what is morally right can be wrong in certain situations. A person who possesses practical wisdom, then, knows how to behave in a manner that does not bring harm to others across varying situations (Hursthouse 2003). Here we see that the “modern” usage of phronesis may share some features with the “modern” usage of sâtisampajania. Of course, this must remain little more than a passing insight, given that the two are derived from entirely different historical and cultural backgrounds (although it is interesting to wonder whether similar types of ideas exist cross-culturally or whether the similarity is a result of the cross-fertilization of concepts that came with colonial encounters and later globalization).6 What is important here is the emphasis, which both cultures seem to make, on the link between moral ignorance and some deficiency in the ability to apply moral distinctions contextually. Failed sâtisampajania, like failed phronesis, means the lack of the moral wisdom needed to practice “right” behavior in changing contexts.

Applied to the case of Ta Kam, this idea of “failed sâtisampajania,” the lack of the ability to judge, is in accordance with villagers' statements that Ta Kam was morally ignorant and hence made the “wrong choices.” This theme provides a vital backdrop to understanding villagers' interpretations of his actions.

There are a number of implications of following this through. It would imply that the villagers are describing his choices and actions as if they were derived from considered judgments of right and wrong action to achieve particular ends. But what would these ends be? I confine the discussion here to what are considered meritorious acts within Khmer Buddhism as it is practiced in the village of this study, and “right” behavior within Khmer hierarchical relations.

Crucially, how does the explanation of behavior arising from moral ignorance relate to villagers' other statements? Are they competing explanations, or do they ultimately potentially resolve under the wider idea that Ta Kam lacks the wisdom to judge when ordinarily “right” behavior could become wrong in different contexts? What do villagers mean when they say that Ta Kam was seeking to “gain face” and “score points,” and how are these ideas situated within the world of understanding in which they live now and that in which Ta Kam might have lived before?

In this article I view Ta Kam's case by seeing his choices and actions as if they were derived from considered judgments of right and wrong action to achieve particular ends. The discussion focuses on meritorious acts in Khmer Buddhism, and to “right” behavior in hierarchical relations. I suggest that Ta Kam's actions can be seen as instances of failed sâtisampajania because he lacked the moral wisdom to practice “right” behavior situationally. This idea of “failed sâtisampajania” is in accordance, with villagers' statements that Ta Kam was morally ignorant and hence made the “wrong” choices.7 With these ideas in mind, I give a brief overview of Ta Kam's life as he told it to me during an interview, with some additions from other villagers.

Ta Kam's Story—Abridged

Ta Kam was born in O'Thmaa village in 1923, to a family that had lived in the area for generations.8 In an interview with him, he told me that he has relations in every village across the two neighboring communes. However, when asked about his relations in O'Thmaa village, he said there are only his daughter and a couple of nephews. In fact, he is related by blood or marriage to all of the original O'Thmaa village families.

His account of his childhood is sparse, but one significant childhood event that Ta Kam remembers is seeing a French hunter astride an elephant and accompanied by some Khmer soldiers. He explained that he hid himself in the forest at the time because he feared the Frenchman just as he would soldiers or policemen. Some years after this incident, a delegation from the district governor's office came to the area to conscript boys for military service, but here again, Ta Kam managed to evade them although he says he “doesn't know how” he did it. In each of these encounters with outsiders of higher social rank, representing larger systems of power, Ta Kam acted in self-preservation by avoiding them.

As I learned from other villagers, however, Ta Kam accrued a certain amount of power himself. These villagers said that he was the vice village chief in 1970 when Lon Nol took over the country, and that he was selected by them to be their leader under the Khmer Rouge who arrived early that same year. The Khmer Rouge then gave him the official title of village chief. Ta Kam himself, however, denies ever having been a village chief. According to him, after the Khmer Rouge took control of the area, he only pulled carts or carried things as he was ordered. Ta Kam said that later, in the DK period when the Khmer Rouge controlled the state, his activities were limited to farm work. Several years later, after the fall of DK and numerous moves to different places as a result of another civil war, he eventually settled in the commune neighboring his own to live with his sister's family, which had settled there. People from both communes say that Ta Kam is now a Buddhist layman (achaa) in the temple in this commune. But when I asked Ta Kam about his religious activities, he replied simply, “I am only looking after my next life.” He says that he is not really an achaa, but that he just does as he is asked to do by the temples' senior laymen and monks.

The Road to Immortality

Within Buddhism, focusing on merit means that individuals strive to accumulate merit throughout their lives, not only to secure their immortality through rebirth onto a higher level than in their present lives, but also to influence their present lives (Keyes 1983; Tambiah 1970). Merit making may be achieved through performing virtuous deeds (thvoe bon), such as respecting one's elders, becoming a monk, or making offerings to ancestral spirits and the Buddhist temple. Buddhist laypeople may also earn merit by collecting religious donations (Marston and Guthrie 2004:128). The antithesis of meritorious behavior is committing wrongdoings or sins (thvoe bap). Thus, committing good or bad deeds contributes, or subtracts, one's store of merit that secures one's fate in the next life, as well as influencing the current one.

The structural relationship between the patronage system and the Buddhist concept of making merit deserves consideration. As Hanks (1962) observes, those at the higher end of the patronage system, who have goods, wealth, or favors to distribute, increase their status and reputations, and therefore gain face and social position, by distributing to those beneath them. Alternatively, those below make offerings to those above them in the form of services, small gifts, respect, and loyalty. In return for their deference, they receive protection and favors that may lead to an improvement of their situation. In this respect, religious merit making and political patronage systems in some ways resemble each other, even though they are not the same. That is, in both the religious realm and the political realm, protection and the betterment of one's situation are provided in return for deference and offerings as service or gifts.

Generally, Khmer people see those with power and potency as potentially dangerous and therefore to be avoided or appeased. “Those” include not only people with political power or a higher social rank but also potent guardian and ancestral spirits that have the power to inflict harm. Within Buddhism, however, power is closely associated with morality, and those who have power within its sphere are, therefore, to be respected rather than feared. This is not to say that there is no danger within Buddhism; in fact, a failure to earn merit through virtuous deeds or the accumulation of bad deeds causing demerit can lead to a lowly and miserable life on reincarnation.

Returning to Ta Kam, we see that avoiding confrontations with powerful people, whether they are state representatives or colonial figures, is integral to the practice of living. In his account of his formative years, he said he avoided French hunters out of the same fear one would expect him to have for policemen. Later on, Ta Kam also managed to avoid the state representative who came to draft him to serve in the army. By avoiding these confrontations, he protected himself from those who clearly had more power. Was Ta Kam providing a service to the Khmer Rouge leaders in return for protection and to better his lot? Ta Kam would not have been able to avoid the Khmer Rouge. Therefore, following the social norms with which he would have been familiar, he would have had to appease them by deferring to them and offering his services with the hope of gaining their protection and benevolence.

There is no indication from the villagers or Ta Kam himself that his reporting his neighbors as enemies was motivated by any previous grudge or desire to seek revenge.9 Villagers do say, however, that Ta Kam thereby sought to improve his position by “gaining face” and “scoring points” with the Khmer Rouge. Ta Kam himself never admitted to me that he was a village chief, but the story he told me is consistent with the themes of self-preservation, betterment of his situation, and a stoic deference to powerful persons and entities. He consciously avoided situations in which his livelihood might have been jeopardized, and he presents his decision to serve the Buddhist monastery as a means to secure his next life. We can see, then, that Ta Kam employs a degree of agency in his efforts to provide himself with security. Yet his accounts systematically downplay this agency. Nearly every instance in which he indicates that he made a decision to act is, in fact, clothed within stoic claims of deference toward more powerful persons, forces, or entities. For example, he says he avoided the draft delegation but “doesn't know how” he did it. He says he worked for the Khmer Rouge but only did as he was ordered. He also says he served the Buddhist monastery but only at the behest of the temple laymen and monks. In these crucial moments, as he presents them, he did not make a choice but was, rather, propelled to act either by forces unknown to him or by political and religious entities greater than himself.

Ta Kam became a pious Buddhist late in life: why this turn toward religion? In the Khmer context this question would at first seem to be fairly obvious. As people progress and become grandparents and elders (chah tum) within the community, it is quite usual and expected for them to take a greater interest in religious affairs and to increase their participation in the activities of the Buddhist temple.10 At this juncture in life, many people become more concerned with their future in the karmic cycle and go about preparing for their next life by participating in meritorious activities such as assisting the monks.11 Ta Kam told me that his greater participation in Buddhist practices was simply an attempt to “take care” of his future. When I asked him whether he considered himself to be more religious now than in the past, he replied, “I don't know. I am just preparing for my next life.” This statement indicates that this grandfather is just like anyone else of his age that has turned toward religion in the late hours of life.

But is he? Ta Kam is an achaa at the temple. Generally speaking, achaas are allotted considerable respect by the populace as a whole. Although the majority of elders make donations to the temple and attend Buddhist holidays, not all invest the time and effort that accords them the title of achaa. Ta Kam's decision to become a Buddhist layman must also, therefore, be seen as placing him at a socially and morally elevated level in this life, as well as helping him to secure an elevated position in the next. Hence, although he remains socially shunned in his own village, in the other commune he has acquired an elevated social position and status that bring with them a degree of respect within his new community.

Ta Kam's successful turn toward religion later in his life introduces large questions about the role of religion in ameliorating moral sins—questions with implications far beyond this article but worthy of consideration. It would seem that religion in this context provides a means of redemption, not only after death but also in life. For Ta Kam, Buddhist practice has provided a means of elevating and securing his position in his present life within his new community, as well as potentially in his next. He denies the title of achaa, but reaps the benefits. It is interesting to consider, then, that Ta Kam may be serving the Buddhist temple in somewhat the same way as he served the Khmer Rouge leadership. In each of these he used his position to secure his longevity (survival and immortality) and position.


I have argued that Ta Kam was acting within the sphere of the moral order with which he was familiar; turning in his neighbors for execution can be seen as a form of offering to those in power, and his seeking, in return, of security and betterment of his position. Later Ta Kam can be seen as making offerings to the Buddhist temple in exchange for protection and assistance in raising his stature and well-being in this life and the next.

Through Ta Kam's narration of the choices and actions he took in life, we can see that he portrays himself rather stoically by denying his agency and therefore, in a sense, also his selfhood. He resists being labeled or objectified, claiming he was never a commune chief, monk, or even achaa. He also said he never did anything for the Khmer Rouge, but always only did what he was told or ordered to do. In a further understatement of identity, he articulates his ties to place (and therefore his ancestors and kin) in vague but also broad terms. When I asked him where he considers his home to be, he answered:

Hmmmm. . . . It's difficult. . . . I feel like my home is here a little, there a little. . . . If I go there I feel like my home is here, and if I am here I feel as though my home is there. If I live here I worry about there, and if I live over there I worry about here. I can't decide which one carries more weight. I just go here a little and there a little.

Whether Ta Kam is here, or there, or moving in between, whether he is a small boy hiding from a French hunter, a Khmer Rouge village chief sacrificing his neighbors and extended kin, or a Buddhist layman serving the local monastery, he is constantly affirming his self.12 He is, and he continues to be, in a very existential manner. It is of course possible that Ta Kam's discourse of stoicism is a relatively recent response to the terror of the past (Feuchtwang n.d.:n. 4). The discourse allows him to smooth the moral contradiction between his actions as village chief and his greater concern of looking after his well-being. Ironically, however, it also is probably the part of his identity that allowed him to persevere through the critical moments that punctuate his difficult past, and that will secure his future.

By disclaiming agency, Ta Kam escapes the contradiction between the real and potential immorality of his actions and his greater moral project. However, he nonetheless lost social recognition in his own community, which denies him social and moral personhood. Although community members see his actions as immoral, they also see him as amoral and hence not a full social and moral person. By shunning him socially they are erasing him and therefore the immorality of his actions from village memory.13 He of course was not the only one of his generation guilty of such crimes, and therefore it is the immorality of the generation as a whole that must be blocked out.14

This article speculatively considered how an individuals' moral concerns and practices within particular historical and existential contexts may provide clues as to how some people are capable of commiting acts of violence against their community, and also how those acts are understood in the present by their community. Ta Kam and his community represent only a single case. However, the argument could be extended to other former Khmer Rouge village chiefs, many of whom continue to live among the families of their former victims, and help us to understand why these individuals are allowed to live and even prosper.


  • Acknowledgements. I am grateful for the support I received for this research from the Luce Foundation, Center for Khmer Studies, Blakemore Foundation, and the University of London Central Research Fund. I also appreciate the comments and suggestions on earlier drafts from Charles Stafford, Maurice Bloch, David Chandler, Casey High, and Beverly Brown; and the organizational efforts and talent of Neil Whitehead and Michael Harkin who both contributed to the making of this special issue on violence. Finally, and most importantly, I thank the people of ‘O'Thmaa’ village and its surrounding communities where I conducted fieldwork in 2002–2003. Given the sensitive nature of the subject of this article, I have adopted pseudonyms for all persons mentioned and for all localities below the provincial level.

  • 1

    No one speaks to Ta Kam apart from his daughter, who lives in the village.

  • 2

    Two additional key themes are “face” and “sacrifice.” For a discussion of all four themes, see Zucker 2007.

  • 3

    For a full discussion of patronage, see Marston 1999 and also see Hinton 2005. For a discussion of merit, see Marston and Guthrie 2004 and Ebihara 1968.

  • 4

    This is not, however, to argue that there are not other relationships between Buddhism and political power, as I discuss further down.

  • 5

    See Tambiah 1970.

  • 6

    Michael Lambek (2000) suggests that the concept of “phronesis,” as in his definition above, may prove useful in the anthropological study of religion because it weds Bourdieu's ideas of “practice” with notions of “morality,” allowing the anthropologist to view the subject as a morally driven agent acting within specific and varying historical and social circumstances.

  • 7

    For an interesting comparison with similar ideas found in Buddhism and articulated through Khmer folktales, see Anne Hansen's discussion of the early 20th-century text the Gatilok (2004:55–58).

  • 8

    The name of the village is a pseudonym.

  • 9

    Alexander Laban Hinton (1998, 2005) argues that begrudgement and revenge are one of the key motivators behind the Cambodian genocide.

  • 10

    For an in-depth discussion of the roles and behavior associated with different age groups, see May Ebihara's (1968) doctoral dissertation, “Svay, a Khmer Village in Cambodia.”

  • 11

    People will also often say, more pragmatically, that their elderly status puts them in a position in which they are now able to participate more in temple activities: they no longer have children to look after and do not need to work as they once did, now that their grown children support them. This freedom from responsibility allows them to devote more time to Buddhist practices and merit-making activities within the temple.

  • 12

    For an interesting comparative analysis of how masking actually allows the individual to “come out,” see Strathern 1979.

  • 13

    The idea of erasing elements considered to be immoral from the communal historical consciousness is evidenced also in other forms. At my field site I was told about a former village in which many people died during the 1960s because of a cholera outbreak. Most of the people believed, however, that the deaths were a result of immoral actions on their part; they moved from the old village and created a new one, with the desire to forget that the old one ever existed. I also was told how the Khmer Rouge destroyed the Phnom Yong mortuary tower, which suggested a moral order that countered their own. I was told this was done to “completely erase” the towers, “not leaving a trace.”

  • 14

    See Zucker 2008.