I am often amazed at human nature and how cultural differences such as education, religion, and culture affects it. Rousseau, for instance, believed in the noble savage. I have read so many memoirs of missionaries in far-off lands, histories of the wild west, and war stories that I have come to believe that innate human nobility is a rare find. Sure there are those one-in-a-million tribes and countries where everyone in the clan is like a living saint but usually it’s not that way with we humans. Especially when power and money is involved.
In The Road to Lost Innocence, Somaly Mam’s account of her life in Cambodia before and after the Khmer Rouge, we see this kind of savagery. Now, I’m not an expert in Southeast Asian history and born even before the war it seemed that certain cultural cruelties were pretty ingrained, as if they were a part of a thousand-year culture. Specifically, the oppression of women, racial prejudice against dark women and dark tribes.
Somaly belongs to the Phnong, a dark tribe that lived in the deep forests of Cambodia. Unlike the Khmer, who were lighter, the Phnong were considered savage, stupid, dirty. Yes, yes, I know. Sounds familiar, but as Somaly Mam writes, all these Asian countries like light or white skin. War and poverty, of course, only made these racial prejudices and the oppression against women even more cruel.
After a harrowing childhood of whippings, cruelty, and abuse, the author’s “grandfather,” a Muslim man who has been abusing her, sells her into a brothel. He had originally sold her to an abusive husband to pay off a debt but when the soldier didn’t return from a battle, the grandfather came by and sold her to a Muslim woman, a meebon, a keeper of a brothel. Somaly then became a srey kouc, a “broken woman” who could never be fixed.
I don’t know much about American prostitutes, their johns, their drug addictions, or their pimps but it seems to me – from American movies, anyway — that American prostitutes don’t suffer as horribly as their Asian counterparts. They aren’t thrown into dark sewage pits, for instance with snakes crawling over them. They don’t have cruel men beating them or murdering them. They don’t have Chinese men renting their services then taking them to a room somewhere to service twenty other Chinese men. They weren’t forcibly aborted. And generally, the mothers of American prostitutes aren’t prostituting their daughters. Neither do American johns seek young virgins to sleep with in order to be cured of AIDS. The trouble is that after war ends, and sophistication and education supposedly arrives, prostitution still exists.
Somaly Mam tells about how she gradually lost all her heart and soul as an abandoned child and sex slave. Slowly, through the help of barang, “foreign” men, she began to gain her heart. This rebirth of her heart began through her compassion toward other sufferers like herself and through her contact with other foreign men who perhaps used her but who were not as bad as the men she knew as a child when she was working off her grandfather's debts. Through contacts at Doctors without Frontier, she stumbled into her life's work: preserving women from prostitution and rehabilitating them.
In the end, I came from this book with two strong opinions. The first was truly a painful one, but it’s a truth I have always somewhat known. I suppose I only had to be reminded of it again. It is this: that humans need to be spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically trained to love their neighbors — and even their children — as themselves. When one reads of women selling their own daughters into sex-slavery or fathers raping their own daughters to “hurt their mother” (because “the woman carried the child, not me”) one has to shake one’s head. Perhaps living in the United States where the US media continue to train its viewers how to live in the shoe of the other — other races, other sexes, other religions, and even others in our family — has contributed to the opening of the human mind.
The second truth is that humans can be emotionally healed of anything and after they are healed, they can help to heal others. Somaly Mam became a great hero and is the cofounder and preident of AFESIP (Acting for Women in Distressing Situations) in Cambodia. Under her inspiration and leadership, she has saved, rehabilitated, and restored many former victims of secual slavery in Southeast Asia.
We get a glimpse of the history of Cambodia, of course. But that isn’t what is important. We in the west are too used to studying war as the strategies of good men versus evil men. That may or may not be true, but here is a war from the point of view of those indirectly involved – non-combatants in a war-torn country where the old evil mixes with the new evil. And aside from the specifics of a particular war, we see the ongoing eternal war in which the powerful oppress the weak.