Impact of explosive violence on civilians

“Those who suffered the most were the people” – composer Him Sophy on the impact of explosive violence in Cambodia, and the power of music to heal

Him Sophy is an internationally acclaimed Cambodian composer, who has dedicated himself to helping heal the trauma of violence in his country through music. Commissioned by Cambodian Living Arts, Him Sophy has written a moving piece to honour those who lost their lives during the civil war and under the Khmer Rouge regime. Bangsokol: A Requiem for Cambodia, combines the musical ritual of a Bangsokol – a traditional Khmer ceremony that accompanies Cambodian Buddhist funeral rites – with a Western requiem, culminating with a plea to recognize impermanence as the only path to peace. You can listen to the album trailer here, and save the album here.

Him Sophy speaks with AOAV about the impact of explosive violence and armed violence on a society, and the importance of accountability, justice, and the international community in empowering survivors to heal.

Chiara Torelli: Can you please start by introducing yourself and your work, as well as
the Bangsokol project more specifically. How did you come to connect trauma, music, and recovery in this deeply meaningful composition?

Him Sophy: My name is Him Sophy, I am a composer. I graduated with a PhD in Composition from Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory in 1998. Now I am living and working in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Besides my job as a composer, I also established a school of music called Him Sophy School of Music in 2014, which is still running. Before I wrote Bangsokol: A Requiem for Cambodia, I had already written a rock opera called “Where Elephants Weep,” which was also commissioned by Cambodian Living Arts. With both pieces, I was responding to my knowledge that the Cambodian people are people who have suffered, lived in fear and deprivation, and been massacred by the civil war and life under the Khmer Rouge genocidal regime, led by Pol Pot (1975-1979). In addition, in Cambodia, there is not yet a major musical work written to dedicate to the souls of all those who lost their lives. I myself was also a victim of the Civil War and suffered so much during the communist Khmer Rouge regime. I am also a survivor of that dark period. For all of these reasons, I decided to write this piece of music, with great emotion, trembling in my heart, with the support of Cambodian and foreign friends, and especially Cambodian Living Arts, who commissioned the piece. Taking this opportunity, I would like to express my deep gratitude for the support from American philanthropists to make this work come true.

CT: How did armed and explosive violence shape the course of your life?

HS: As a child, I lived through a civil war in Cambodia. Speaking of my daily life at that time, as well as that of the whole Cambodian people, it was a time full of fear, shock, and horror. First, we feared the Khmer Rouge. Second, we feared the US-backed South Vietnamese army. Third, we were afraid of the shooting and bombing of American planes that flew around us every day. Fourth, we were also worried about the arrival of the Khmer Republic Army, the enemy of the Khmer Rouge. The Cambodian people at that time were a focal point waiting to be attacked by different parties. During the Cambodian Civil War, I remember practising the piano at a music school when I heard a shell explode nearby, and I was forced to jump to the ground to escape from the shrapnel that exploded. Then, coming to the Khmer Rouge era, Pol Pot was the worst time in the world for Cambodians, nothing can compare. I was threatened with death by two Khmer Rouge soldiers when the Khmer Rouge invaded Phnom Penh, leaving my brother and I separated from our parents and family. Later, my parents and I were reunited, living in a rural area where the Khmer Rouge forced us to work hard, with no time to rest or eat. Sometimes I only got 18 kernels of corn for lunch. I remember in 1976, I fell ill from starvation to the point where I could no longer walk: I walked only 20 meters and then I had to rest for a while before I could move on. My body was very thin, if they looked at me, they could only see my knees, they looked bigger than my head. At that time, when I was sick, there was no cure at all, I observed only traditional medicine that was made by hand, but it was not effective in treating the disease. It’s always true that, during a war, an armed conflict, or in an era ruled by a dictatorship, those who suffered the most were the people.

CT: In your experience, what are the immediate consequences of armed and explosive violence, and how do they impact longer-term recovery and renewal? What do you think are some of the lasting impacts of armed and explosive violence, on survivors, on cultures, on societies?

HS: When there is violence or the explosion of weapons, it first causes the loss of human life, the loss of family, close relatives, loss of property, damage to infrastructure, mental illness that is difficult to treat. And it will take a long time to rebuild those losses. Think of human beings as a special resource that can build everything for our world, but when human beings are killed by violence or gunfire, it greatly affects the civilization of mankind, making it difficult to flourish as before.

CT: How important do you think accountability and justice are for healing?

HS: Normally, those responsible for armed violence must be found and brought to justice. This justice must be for the victims, otherwise strong countries can still hurt weak countries, just like in the past. Now we can consider the war in Ukraine, which is a clear demonstration of a complete invasion by the Russian military. And the United Nations voted against the invasion, with 142 countries voting against it. Russia, on the other hand, refuses to withdraw its troops and continues to invade Ukraine, so can we find justice for the Ukrainian victims who die every day? At the end of the war, will Russia be responsible for the devastation of Ukraine and the deaths of its people? Personally, I am very concerned about the current world order, and what will happen to the world, especially the small and weak countries, if any larger country invades. In Cambodia, justice and healing have been important. A special international tribunal has already arrested and tried Khmer Rouge leaders. The Cambodian constitution states that Cambodia opposes the invasion of one country by another. Not only that, but there are also works of art that can help heal the emotional well-being of those Cambodian victims, such as the music that I wrote, “Bangsokol: A Requiem for Cambodia” and the music for accompanying dances called “Phka Sla”, “Memory From Darkness.”

CT: What do you think would have helped to prevent the armed atrocities of the Khmer Rouge? What would have helped Cambodia and Cambodians to heal and recover from the violence?

HS: As far as I can remember, those who lived under the brutal armed regime of the Khmer Rouge could not stand up against them by demonstrating or expressing themselves in public. When the Khmer Rouge dictatorship lost power, another revolution came to overthrow it. Granting people the freedom of the right to life helped to heal the emotional wounds caused by the destructive violence of the Khmer Rouge regime. Mutual tolerance, maintaining peace, providing opportunities for citizens to learn, and, generally speaking, maintaining political, military, economic, social and cultural stability. On the other hand, as a music composer as well as a cultural figure, I strive to create meaningful works of art that help to reconcile and cure the mental illnesses that result from the violence of the Khmer Rouge Regime. The works of art that I have written and related to the treatment of mental illness include Reminiscences of Cambodia, Khmer rock opera “Where Elephants Weep”, Memory From Darkness, and music for accompanying a dance called “ Pka Sla”, The Strike etc…

CT: What is the role of the international community in preventing armed violence and healing from armed violence?

HS: The international community has a role to play in the following tasks: first, it must be actively involved in providing all kinds of assistance to the affected countries, for example, the actual situation of the Russian invasion war in Ukraine today. Second, we must resolutely oppose the aggression and demand that the invading country immediately stop the war and withdraw its troops from the invaded country. Third, to try and weaken the invading country by imposing various sanctions, especially on the political, military and economic spheres. The aggrieved country then has to seek justice for the victims of the war. In short, we must adhere to the rules of the world so that the world will be in order forever.