Mother's Milk in War and Diaspora


Ten years after Samine Sophat arrived in the United States as a war refugee, her daughter planned to get married. Following the Cambodian custom, the groom offered a monetary gift that Mrs. Sophat could have retained as mother's milk money, in recognition of the work of bringing children to adulthood. As a widow and a remarried woman, Mrs. Sophat had struggled against great odds to ensure her children's survival in the 1970s war, starvation and flight to the United States. But she confided, "I couldn't bring myself to keep the money. I gave it to my daughter." In war and diaspora, mother's milk exacted a price in blood; it was also the overwhelming motivation for women to learn autonomy in order to save their children.

Mrs. Sophat's story of arduous mothering through the Pol Pot years charted her gradual emancipation from the role of a sheltered wife to that of an independent woman. She was among the dozen of Khmer refugee women I interviewed in Northern California in 1988-90. Although my concern was to discuss their cultural adjustments to American society, the women invariably plunged into their stories of death and survival in the war years. Clearly, those stories remained part of the survivor's everyday existence in the United States. The stories were told repeatedly to remember the dead and to strengthen the living, as Khmer women, many of them heads of households, struggled with other ways of surviving in inner-city America. In many ways, the stories came to define their development from dependent daughters and wives to autonomous women through war, flight refugee camps and resettlement in a new country.

The takeover of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge in 1975 ripped apart the orderly existence of many families. Urban men were often taken away to be killed or they were separated from their families while in flight. War conditions made it difficult for many men to fulfill their role as household heads. These circumstances compelled Khmer women to unlearn the lessons of the dependent wife. For many women, the role of providing mother's milk became a singular preoccupation that drove them to make many decisions on their own.

In the time before Pol Pot, male authority appeared to be entrenched in the family, exerting strict control over wives and children; "A man enjoyed submissive and unchallenged obedience from his wife." A male refugee explained:

"The men, we had the authority over women. Whatever we said, the wives had to obey... Whatever the husband ordered, the wife must obey. The laws set the husband higher than the wife."

Khmer refugees remembered that both urban and rural women were confined to the home and occupied with raising their children. Their husbands made major decisions without consulting them. The authority of husband over wife limited communication between them.

Furthermore, many men had second wives; an informant estimated that about three out of ten men had secondary households. Although a man may decide to seek a second wife or mistress, if his wife took a lover, many believed that "he could go to court and get permission to kill both." Some female refugees claimed there was some legal protection for women. "During the Sihanouk years (1955-1970], we had laws. If you beat your wife or your children, the police could be called and you'd arrested." However, they conceded that this rarely happened.

In the pre-1975 Khmer society then, gender relations were determined by kindship roles of the husband's total authority over his wife and children and by cultural constructions of male an female differences in sexual behavior and freedom of movement. The greater prestige and honor of masculinity was derived from men's roles as husband and father. In their capacities as heads of family, men controlled their wives and children and had the right to physically punish them. As wives, women submitted to their husband's authority and had no separate legal status as individuals.

Such domestic order was over-turned during Pol Pot time (1975-79). In women's stories, war and flight also created conditions whereby women, often bereft of customary male protection, took personal responsibility for their own lives and the survival of small children. Some even sought protection through liaisons with other men. These strategies required the abandonment of customary behavior associated with the obedient, deferential wife.

Pol Pot time represented a total reversal of Khmerness as a continuing cycle of Buddhist karma and the accumulation of merit. Pol Pot time came to symbolize a period of widerness and great reversals foretold by the 19th century prophet Puth. Houses and streets would be emptied, the illiterate would condemn the educated, the infidels (thmils) would persecute the priests and rule the land with absolute power. The Khmer Rouge sought to destroy traces of the pre-1975 society that they associated with feudalism and Western domination: Buddhism, the military, professional and business classes.

The impact of Year Zero on families was incalculable. Families were dispersed, shattered, thrown in chaos as teenage Khmer Rouge soldiers enforced out-migration, ran labor camps and sought out "enemies" of the Angka regime (the Communist Party of Kampuchea). The Khmer Rouge tortured and killed suspects, arranged forced marriages and generally created a daily theater of arbitrary brutality and generalized terror. Ordinary Khmers were reduced to struggling for sheer survival which entailed learning vigilant lies, disguises, silences and subterfuges. Men and women became adept at the art of dissimulation and double consciousness: the concealment of family origins, disguising of class status and acting like deaf mutes to escape unwelcome attention to their families. These survival tactics transformed what it meant to be a woman in Khmer society.

When she was a child, Samine Sopht's father moved from the provinces to Phnom Penh where he worked as a policeman. She was the only girl in a family of five boys and spent only a couple of years in school. At seventeen, her parents arranged her first marriage. AFter the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh, Mrs. Sophat and her family, like tens of thousands of others, were herded out of the city. Her father just "disappeared." Then she got separated from her husband. She fled with her two children and her mother. "I mst contact with my husband forever. I only received news that he had died. Even if he had made it out to the countryside, he would not have survived the Pol Pt period because he did look the type, like a person of some consequence. By his look and demeanor, they would not have let him live. His entire family died, they killed all of them." Perhaps because every family suffered in the catastrophe, Samine accepted the seeming inevitability of her husband's death. Suddenly widowed, she suffered a miscarriage. She had to carry on to ensure the survival of her children. Samine buried family pictures and address that linked them to her husband. After weeks of wandering, the family was ordered to settle in a labor camp.

Samine was next forced to confront a totally new domestic situation. "The Pol Potists" decided to arrange forced marriages in an effort to get people to put down roots and raise children, to introduce some stability to the new society. They were not discouraged by the fact that starvation was widespread. In a crude ceremony, seven couples, all strangers to each other, were married under raised bayonets.

"I was in the fields; we were transplanting rice. The Pol Potists called a meeting but they never said anything about marriage... When I got here I was given a pair of pants and a red scarf. I was happy because I haven't had anything to wear... They said, `Samine, they've arranged for you to take a husband.' My heart sank but I didn't dare argue for fear of being killed. Such things were not allowed."

Her new husband had been a Lon Nol soldier who had survived by hiding his identity. Although many couples which were forced to marry had later separated, Samine stuck by her new husband because he decided to help care for her family. To escape starvation, the family fled to different sites but were finally caught and put into a "re-education camp." For months, the couple was forced to dig earth with their bare hands, until Samine's brother, who was working as a machinist for the Khmer Rouge, won their release. Samine's experiences reveal the larger burden of mother's milk in times of war. Besides learning to make decisions on her own, all her strategies were motivated by the concern to protect her family and to escape the arbitrary violence and the deprivations of war.

The Vietnamese invasion of 1979 broke up the Angka regime and kept the Khmer Rouge on the run. Fighting and chaos provided cover for an outflow of Khmer refugees to refugee camps on the Thai border. The journey to the Thai border began with starving refugees walking, stumbling and crawling out of the jungle towards the camps. There were the surviving members of families, bands of orphaned children, escaping soldiers, war merchants and smugglers, all were preyed upon by Khmer Rouge and Thai soldiers. Many died on the way, either from exhaustion, sickness, hunger, banditry or mines.

The chaos set Samine's family free. They went to Battambang to check on her husband's family. "Only two sisters had died." Then they walked three days and nights towards the Thai border, stepping carefully around hidden mines all the way. Samine was pregnant with her third child. In the New Camp, which had formed on the border across from Khao-I-Dang, the main refugee camp in Thailand, her husband used some hodden gold to buy rice and other food-stuffs in order to trade on the Kampuchean side. The baby was born in the New Camp. When her husband returned for them, fighting had broken out and the Vietnamese prevented them from crossing into Thailand.

"There were about two hundred of us. So we field out secretly that night without letting the Vietnamese know. We waded in water up to our chest. I was carrying the little one all the way across. My mother said, `I can't go on. You all go without me,' but my husband just carried her over. He also lugged a pail of clean water. I had a bag of rice which I clutched along with the baby and some clothes. At one point, the Vietnamese gave chase... we scattered all through the jungle until we ran into the Khmer Rouge..."

Their terror was compounded by the fact that they had difficulty distinguishing between Thai soldier-bandits and the Khmer Rouge. Thai soldiers engaged in banditry by disguising themselves in Khmer fatigues. When the fighting died down, the family crept back into the New Camp. There, Samine began trading in contraband goods. During the next attack, they fled again into the jungle. "The next day my ten-year-old son almost drowned in the river." But they finally entered Khao-I-Dang. Samine, who had carried her son all the way, rushed him to the hospital.

Like many women who succeeded in bringing their surviving families into Thailand, Samine had to learn a whole new set of strategies in dealing with the international voluntary agencies (volags) helping refugees. There appeared to be more adult female than male Khmer survivors in the camps and they had to compete to get attention for their families. Life in the refugee camp revolved around getting enough food and daily amenities, besides protecting family members and personal property. Khao-I-Dang was considered the "Hilton" of refugee camps and was very well supplied with medical services. However, although the aid agencies brought some order and peace during the day, at night, many refugees were at the mercy of Thai soldiers. Refugees were beaten if they broke rules like engaging in smuggling and selling alcohol. Young girls were often raped by the camp "guards." Law was erratically enforced; it depended on the particular humanitarian groups and administrators who were running the camps. Women found that developing ties with these agencies, rather than depending on their own men, would ensure greater security and access to resources.

One lesson women learnt was that by obeying institutional rules, they could often improve their family's planning program introduced the injectable Depo Provera, which has been linked to cancer, to "maintain the health and well-being of the Khmer `illegal aliens.'" A Khmer nurse observed that some husbands did not want their wives to have the injections because they feared that they would further reduce the number of Khmers. Nevertheless, some refugee women came forward for "the shot" in return for a chicken to increase their children's health. A major source of help for the refugees were the voluntary agencies organized by Christian churches. Khmer women were especially willing to attend church services, without their men, in order to obtain different kinds of assistance. Mrs. Sophat remembers that:

"When I was in Khao-I-Dang, I went to church. The church people helped us, they gave us things and clothes. I didn't know which church it was but it was American. They came to help us in our homes, giving us food and clothing. They brought them right to our homes. Sometimes they even gave us money."

Her mother added:

"They bought food filled our cabinets. Sometimes they gave us $20. Every two to three days, they'd give my son, who was at the hospital, some money. They'd exchange the dollars for bahts to give us. They felt sorry for us."

Unlike men, who could more easily engage in smuggling, trade and construction work, many women with children turned to the churches for help, viewing any American institution as a potential helper and benefactor. This new division of gendered labor and the increasingly female-biased form of church patron-age offered by church workers increased tensions between Khmer husbands and wives.

Furthermore, the family structure had undergone severe strain as many of the women were left to fend for their children because their husbands were frequently absent as soldiers for the Cambodian opposition factions. Some women took rather desperate measures to earn income needed by their dependents. Sometimes men returned to the camps to find their wives living with another man, gambling or involved in prostitution. Furthermore, many of the men who remained in the camps were unemployed and idle. Women began to wield "tremendous power," according to an aid worker; they household and shopped to feed the family. Incidents of domestic violence flared out frequently over the husbands taking second wives. Thus, the husband's role was weakened as newly assertive wives challenged the customary prerogatives of having more than one wife. A church had set up a "depression center" for women who had been abused. Meanwhile, "the parents are mostly uneducated; their children go to United Nations schools and learn to read and write and then find it hard to respect their parents." Over 8,000 children were orphans or had single-parents, most of whom were mothers.

Thus between 1975 and their final destination in the United States, Khmer families who endured life under the Khmer Rouge and then fled to border camps had undergone many losses, disruptions and situations which required the learning of new coping skills. The deaths of male household heads or their ineffectual protection of the family compelled many women to take independent action to care for their children and sometimes aged parents. By the time they arrived in the refugee camps, they had developed the confidence to openly negotiate for favors with Western agencies. All these developments shattered the pre-Pol Por ideal of male authority and privilege in the family, as well as women's unquestioning obedience to their husbands. In many cases, Khmer women discovered their own strength to care for themselves and their children, without seeking male guidance. At the same time, many men found that they were unable to protect their families, or even make a living to support them.

This pattern of women's increased access to Western institutions and decreased dependence on male kinsmen reflected the economic division opening up between husbands and wives and the overturning of the man's role as sole breadwinner in the family. This separation of women's economic strategy from her husband's was increased as Khmer refugees settled down in the United States and came to depend upon refugee aid, the welfare system and menial jobs for survival.

Samine's family was sponsored by a Mormon church in Florida. She worked in a cannery, while her husband installed car windows. When their son was born, they paid close to $4,000 for hospital costs. "We were broke so we fled to California in order to get Medi-Cal for a while..." They have lived with their mother in Oakland for over a year and her husband has not looked for a job. Although Samine was on welfare, she used the time to improve her skills. She became a regular participant in the Mormon church in order to attend the English and homemaking classes so that she can eventually get a job as a house cleaner or dress-maker.

In California, welfare support or individual earnings allowed Khmer women an autonomy in making economic decisions that affected their families. This sometimes pitted wives against husbands. Like many Khmer refugee families, Samine received an AFDC (Aid to Family With Dependent Children) check, while her husband remained unemployed. She complained that her husband often got drunk and picked fights over the children from her first marriage. She felt that he resented her children because they consumed a significant share of her welfare check. The marriage has deteriorated, but Samine has no plans for divorce because she does not want the children to be without both parents. Her economic independence is conditioned by concerns to keep the family together.

Although Khmer women like Samine and her family live in relative security as refugees in America, they have not forgotten their relatives back home. "Last month, we all contributed $200 to send to relatives in Cambodia. They are facing so much hardship, some don't even have enough rice to eat. We always try to set aside $20-$30 each month to send home." This strong sense of reciprocity among women is traditional and it has survived the war in a remarkable way. Many Khmer women, for the first time, have the resources to play a major role in sending remittances. This has enabled women to expand their role in providing mother's milk to young relatives still caught up in war conditions in Cambodia. "The only relatives left are my nieces and nephews who lost their parents during the Pol Pot time. They are in need of everything. They're miserable. Some went into business and were robbed, others got shot at and are now crippled. So I worry a lot. I have to send them money because they are orphans. They write me, addressing me as `mother.' What can one do? So I pinch a little here, a little there and send them money just to keep them from having to engage in smuggling and getting shot at."

With the resources of a poor refugee, women like Samine and her mother have managed to provide motherly care to orphans in different sites. Mother's milk continues to flow from Khmer women who have learned to be independent householders and decision makers in California. At her daughter's wedding, Samine's refusal of milk money expresses her sense that a price cannot be placed on mother's love when it had been expended in the extraordinary circumstances of war and exile. She remembers her first husband: "I was in tears during the wedding ceremony because her father couldn't see her get married. If he were alive, he would love her so much." And he would recognize Samine's great efforts to save her children, a role that was customarily expected of the husband. In this way, she had fulfilled her obligation to her dead husband. Not only had she brought up her children through war and emigration, she continues to struggle with her current husband for their interests. She had in a sense become the mother and the father to her children. Samine understands that her daughter, a young American woman who wants to go to college, needs her own money. She will not be a dependent wife, but perhaps will learn the Khmer lessons of mother's milk and its engendering of resourceful, independent women in diaspora.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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