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Venerable Testament

Book cover - painting by Mr. Chantha Khem O! Maha Mount Dangrek by the Venerable Ly Van Aggadipo
Translation by Samkhann Khoeun
Cambodian Expressions and the Glory Buddhist Temple, Massachusetts, 2010


In January 2008, a Cambodian Buddhist monk named Ly Van Aggadipo passed away in Lowell, Massachusetts. A pair of lengthy manuscripts, handwritten in Khmer, were found among his personal effects.

Impressed by the quality of the writing, Samkhann Khoeun edited both manuscripts and translated them to English.

One manuscript is a compelling account of one of the most horrifying incidents from the exodus that followed the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime: the brutal forced repatriation at Mount Dangrek. In 1979, as more and more refugees poured across the Thai-Cambodian border, Thai authorities feared the destabilizing effects of the influx. Determined to discourage the refugees -- and determined to spur the international community to assist in coping with the crisis -- the Thai rounded up thousands of the Cambodians and trucked them to a remote section of the border in the Dangrek Mountains, then forced them over a cliff, back into the dense forest on the Cambodian side of the border. Many were shot; many others died from their injuries as they fell down the mountainside, or perished of disease and hunger in the forest.

Ly Van Aggadipo was one of the survivors, and his poem "The Khmer Rouge Regime: A Personal Nightmare" tells his family's story.

The second manuscript, "The Unfortunate Love of Sophoan Chea," tells the story of Sophoan and Akphirom, two lovers separated by war and political turmoil.

O! Maha Mount Dangrek is a combination of these two manuscripts. It's a beautiful book, with the original Khmer and the English translation printed side-by-side. It's liberally illustrated with exceptional black-and-white photos. Particularly noteworthy are images from the Khmer Rouge time, provided by the Documentation Center of Cambodia, and images from refugee camps on the Thai border, taken by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Jay Mather.

In sparse, eloquent language, the book vividly depicts the hardships of the Khmer Rouge time:

"Young women were bereft of their beauty, resembling their aging grandmothers;
Young men too were transformed into aging grandfathers;
With kneecaps bigger than their thighs, their heads broader than their shoulders,
Having lost all, including their hair, their bodies became withered."

The stories are infused with some of Buddhism's most important tenets. It is a testament to the author's integrity that, in spite of the Thai role in the tragedy at Mount Dangrek, the heroine of his story is a Thai woman; and in "Personal Nightmare" he includes Thailand in the list of countries which "mercifully saved the desperate refugees from drowning in an ocean of fear."

Several appendices are included as well: a glossary, a history of Khmer refugees in the United States, links to online resources, and other helpful information.

Because of its theme of tragic love, The Unfortunate Love of Sophoan Chea lends itself to comparisons with Tum Teav, one of the classics of Khmer literature. Time will determine whether or not the Venerable Ly Van Aggadaipo's work will be similarly regarded. At the very least, it's a beautiful book that deserves a place in the library of anyone who is passionate about Cambodia.


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