Author interview: Lindsay French on Oral History as a Complicated Form of Social Engagement

In her recent OHR article, “Refugee Narratives; Oral History and Ethnography; Stories and Silence,” Lindsay French describes the nature of her interviews with Cambodian refugees in Thailand after the demise of the Khmer Rouge. Here she answers some of our questions about the challenges she encountered conducting ethnographic interviews in this context.

Please describe the ethnographic fieldwork with Cambodians that you drew on for your article.

I began working with resettled Cambodian refugees in Boston in 1985, as a volunteer language tutor. It was this experience that led me to grad studies in anthropology, when I worked with Cambodians who had been living in camps on the Thai border for the 10 years since the Khmer Rouge was overthrown in 1979. I spent 20 of the next 24 months in Site II, a camp of approximately 185,000 people, working for an American non-governmental organization collecting peoples’ stories about their lives on the border. This was the basis of my doctoral dissertation in Social Anthropology, called “Enduring Holocaust, Surviving History: Displaced Cambodians on the Thai Cambodian Border 1989-91.” It was also when I started working with the main protagonist in my article, Bunthoeun, a resettled Cambodian refugee who worked as a psychiatric social worker; I had bi-weekly language lessons with her to keep my Khmer language skills active. In 1991 I visited Cambodia for the first time; since then I have made 10 additional trips to work in the field. I have focused mostly on the area around Battambang in northwest Cambodia, because many of the people I worked with in Site II were originally from this province, and all the border Khmer were repatriated from Thailand in 2002. But I worked with people from this area who had chosen NOT to go to the border camps after 1979 as well, looking especially at families that had been divided by both the Khmer Rouge revolution, the civil war that followed, and resettlement to a third country. Throughout this time, I stayed in touch with my Khmer teacher in Boston. She became more of a friend and collaborator than a teacher over time.

In the article you recount how in your fieldwork in camps with displaced Cambodians, you did not conduct many substantive oral histories, and consider some of the most insightful interviews as “failed.” Describe what you mean by failed interviews and what you learned from them.

I did conduct a few extended life history interviews in Site II but very few. Although I spent many months in the camp, as an international NGO staff member I was only allowed in the camp between 9:30 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon. This wasn’t conducive to getting to know people well and building rapport and trust. And the camp residents were wary: they had seen many international workers come and go in the previous 10 years, and many were not interested in getting to know another person well, only to see them leave the camp for good after a year or two. People were self-protective, and wisely so. But more importantly, as a westerner, and part of the small army of international staff who were there in some capacity to provide “relief” (other programs in my NGO provided medical and educational services) my interests were somewhat different from theirs, and especially from their leaders, who were the civilian branch of a resistance army, fighting WITH the Khmer Rouge to take control of Cambodia back from the Vietnamese army that had liberated the country from the Khmer Rouge control 10 years earlier. The politics of this low-intensity civil war were complicated, and much was kept out of sight of the international staff. The food, medical, and educational assistance that the camp residents received depended in part on keeping their political and military agenda somewhat invisible. As a result, there was a lot that people couldn’t or shouldn’t talk with me about. It was only from the people I got to know very well — mostly my research assistants — that a got detailed life stories.

Describe how stories recounted in oral history interviews are a “complicated form of social engagement.”

My fieldwork raised many questions: Who was I? Where did I come from? What did I want from the people I approached for an interview? What were they obliged to tell me? What were they obliged NOT to tell me? Ethnographers and oral historians aren’t just generic outsiders, we stand in a particular relationship to the people we interview, and people really wanted to know who I was.

How did the power dynamics of the displaced persons camps, including your own position as a western outsider, affect your ability to conduct interviews?

I discovered that initially many people thought I was a spy. Initially I felt sad that people were so suspicious of me, but gradually I came to realize that there were many people asking questions in the camp, not just me. And many of them were spies, in one sense or another. There were people from western embassies interested in knowing about conditions inside Cambodia, there were Cambodians from different political factions trying to learn about their faction, there were Thai soldiers interested in working out trade routes into Cambodia.

People really wondered why an obviously privileged and educated western woman had come halfway around the world to talk with them, mostly poor rice farmers, without a lot of education. I had to really think about how to answer that question. In the end I usually said that I was there to learn about life in the camp so that I could write a dissertation and get a degree that would allow me to teach in a university. This answer seemed to make sense to most people. I said a little more about why I was interested in their lives to people who could imagine a more nuanced motive. But it told me something about being a refugee that the most instrumental version of my motives was what made sense to most people.

How has your methodology of conducting oral history changed from your experiences with post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia?

I think I am more circumspect about what I learn, and give more thought to what I don’t learn. There is never one story, and the story is never complete.

Lindsay French is an Associate Professor of Anthropology in the Department of History, Philosophy, and the Social Sciences at the Rhode Island School of Design. She teaches courses on mainland Southeast Asia, Buddhism, refugees and labor migration, oral history, and the ethics of community engagement. She has worked with Cambodians since 1984, in the US, in Thailand, and in Cambodia.

Featured image: United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) used with a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.