Making the srok: resettling a mined landscape in northwest Cambodia
Arensen, Lisa Joy
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This thesis is an ethnographic study of place-making in a war-altered landscape. It describes over a decade of resettlement efforts in a village in northwest Cambodia. As war drew to a close in the late 1990s, land on the former frontlines was allotted to those willing to risk occupancy on possibly mined terrain. Area resettlement was driven by need, forged by hope, and fraught with physical risk and material dangers. Food security and the prospect of acquiring land rights required settlers’ physical presence in and active engagement with the materialities of a forested landscape strewn with the remnants of war and the ruins of earlier settlements. Residents' conceptual and corporeal engagements with place were influenced by longstanding Khmer depictions of the srok, the ordered and cultivated landscape of agriculture and human dwelling, and the prai, the wild and fecund landscape of the forest, replete with powerful but often malevolent spirits. The srok was the landscape that the inhabitants of Handsome village longed to dwell within and struggled to create. The area’s pre-war reputation as a famously fertile agricultural zone had drawn many of its residents to risk the hazards of resettlement. The dream of the srok drove residents' actions in the actively dangerous, ever fluctuating terrain. In addition to being envisioned, the place was intimately known and directly experienced through the corporeal bodies of its inhabitants and their engagements with its material assemblages. Making the srok involved arduous physical effort in a constantly shifting material environment along with concentrated social and conceptual work. Resettlement did not merely entail hewing fields out of forests and removing mines and ordnance, but also encompassed attempts to transition into peacetime—to move from soldiering to farming, to come to rest after years of mobility and displacement, and to recreate social and moral order. This study analyzes successes and failures in place-making processes, illustrating how different aspects of landscape posed both affordances and constraints to these processes. Particular attention is paid to the ways in which material assemblages contributed to uncertainty in place-making efforts, illustrating that the material dimensions of landscape may resist as much as they acquiesce to human alteration. On a material level, place-making was a struggle that pitted human agency and will against an active and agentive landscape. Village residents were interacting with material environs in a constant state of change and becoming. The unsettling material traces of the past and the continuing threat some remnants posed in the present contributed to the ongoing indeterminacy residents experienced about the state and contents of the once famous ground. The landscape that residents sought to form and fix was always in danger of undoing its formation and categorization and revealing itself to be something else. Yet despite their failures at establishing and fixing the srok in the constantly shifting landscape of Handsome village, residents maintained their quest to transform the present configuration of place into the landscape and the future that they desired.