Authorities have done too little to reconcile those who perpetrated crimes with those who suffered them
Khmer Rouge soldiers atop their US-made armored vehicles enter Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, the day Cambodia fell under the control of the Communist Khmer Rouge forces (Sjoberg/Scanpix Sweden/AFP Photo)
Five years ago, in April 2010, I attended a reconciliation day in the small town of Anlong Veng in Cambodia’s far north. The event, organized by a local non-profit, took place at the compound of a man called Ta Mok, a former Khmer Rouge leader of extraordinary brutality.
By then Ta Mok was dead. He had been arrested a decade earlier as the Khmer Rouge finally collapsed, and spent his final years in prison awaiting a likely trial at the international war crimes court in Phnom Penh.
Anlong Veng was Ta Mok’s domain, and home for some of the most hardened Khmer Rouge cadres who stayed with the movement after it was driven from power in 1979. Their 1975-79 rule of violence and paranoia caused the deaths of two million people, and remains one of the great crimes of the 20th century.
The choice of venue for the one-day event was deliberate — the home of a man whom most Cambodians regard as the embodiment of Khmer Rouge evil. Not this audience though: to the dozens of aging revolutionaries, whose weathered faces, rough hands and tired clothes spoke of a lifetime of struggle, Ta Mok remains a hero.
Such are Cambodia’s contradictions, a fault-line running through this damaged country’s social fabric. The reason for this most unusual of days was to ask Anlong Veng’s residents what reconciliation means to them. The most common refrain was that they wanted to be accepted back into Cambodian society.
“The term ‘Khmer Rouge’ is associated with killing and persecution,” one man said. “We are finished if we are referred to as that. Our children’s lives will be ruined, and no one will let their children marry ours. We should just say that we are all Khmer now.”
Forty years after Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge captured the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, on April 17, 1975 — and, with that, took control of the country — that aspiration is far easier said than done. Indeed, given the staggering damage the Khmer Rouge inflicted, that is hardly surprising. Within days of victory, the Khmer Rouge emptied every city and town at gunpoint, and ordered their inhabitants into vast rural collectives where many were executed, worked to death, starved or succumbed to disease.
One in four Cambodians died, a consequence of the leaders’ paranoia, incompetence and pitiless rule, and their view that people had no value, an attitude encapsulated in a phrase common at the time: “To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss”.
The ongoing gulf between survivors and perpetrators makes reconciliation all the more critical. Yet the Cambodian government has done remarkably little to try and reconcile those who perpetrated crimes during the Khmer Rouge’s Democratic Kampuchea regime with those who suffered from them.
A 2011 study by the University of California Berkeley’s Human Rights Center gave some insight into this divide. Most of the 1,000 people interviewed from 250 villages across the country had suffered terribly: a third had seen people tortured, a quarter had been tortured, and one in five had seen people being murdered.
Today, many survivors live in close proximity to former Khmer Rouge whom they blame for the abundant cruelties of those years. The proscriptions of the dominant Buddhist religion mean taking revenge is not an option, but many survivors struggle on a daily basis to accept that perpetrators walk freely among them.
The Berkeley report found two-thirds of people wanted to see perpetrators “hurt or miserable”; half of the interviewees do not want to associate with ex-Khmer Rouge in a work or social setting; and a similar proportion don’t want their children to marry the sons or daughters of ex-Khmer Rouge. One-third dislike the idea of attending the same pagoda as former perpetrators or the thought of their children going to the same school as the offspring of former Khmer Rouge.
The need for reconciliation, then, is obvious enough especially in a country where this term is broadly understood as living together, communicating with each other, and compassion. If nothing else, the Berkeley survey shows Cambodia remains a country riven.
The solution cannot lie with the international war crimes tribunal because reconciliation is not its function. Its role is dictated by its nature as a judicial body that weighs evidence and hands down verdicts against the handful of accused. Reconciliation and justice are not rough equivalents, and the former can at best be a side-benefit of the latter.
Cambodians, including former Khmer Rouge cadres, attend a reconciliation event in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng, in northern Cambodia, in 2010 (Photo by Robert Carmichael)
'A long way to go'
Ly Sok Kheang works for the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), the leading organization researching the crimes of the Khmer Rouge period, and has studied the actions taken by the government and non-governmental organizations on reconciliation between 1979 and 2007. He acknowledges that not enough is being done, saying Cambodia has “a long way to go”.
“[Reconciliation] is a goal and a process and it takes time — maybe a generation,” he says.
He says more research is needed, as is more funding for reconciliation efforts. Educating Cambodia’s youth is vital too —under-30s comprise two-thirds of the 15-million-strong population and have no memory of the Khmer Rouge. Many are skeptical of the horror stories their elders tell, he says; education can help them better understand that suffering.
Despite the shortcomings, Sok Kheang sees some positives. He says most Cambodians now understand the tribunal cannot prosecute everyone who committed crimes, and believes many were comforted when the tribunal handed down life sentences last year against the two surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge — Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan. (The two men have appealed their convictions.)
And, he adds, reconciliation can happen without the involvement of outsiders; in some areas, former perpetrators have acted of their own volition to reconcile with victims.
“A former perpetrator has to do some social or religious activity to express their remorse or repentance to the victim,” he explains of the process. “The victims can then see this, and it is very constructive and useful in the Cambodian context.”
This indirect approach is important in a culture that struggles with asking for or getting direct apologies. When people want to apologize, they use non-verbal methods.
“For example, if I do something wrong to you then I do something directly or indirectly in support of you or your family. That gesture is a sign of seeking forgiveness from you — but to say sorry is difficult,” Sok Kheang told ucanews.com this week.
Just how difficult was made clear in 2011 when two Cambodian organizations put together a pilot project to reconcile villagers in the southern province of Kampot. Two women in Village A blamed a former Khmer Rouge cadre from Village B for taking the husband of one and the father of the other away for execution in the 1970s.
In a culture that avoids conflict, the women had frozen out the alleged perpetrator, not speaking to him for decades. Reconciling them was a tricky process, says Tim Minea, who heads Kdei Karuna (KdK), one of the non-profits involved. He recalls asking one woman at the beginning of the six-month process whether she wanted to meet the alleged perpetrator (who was nicknamed ‘Grandpa’ to ensure his anonymity).
“I don’t want to see him, not even his footprints,” she had replied.
Reconciliation was achieved by means of a video diary. The staff from KdK filmed the two women talking about their experiences, then showed that to Grandpa, videoed his responses, and took those back to show the women. Initially the women had insisted that Grandpa apologize — a difficult task — yet as the months passed and both sides understood the circumstances of the other, that became less important.
Eventually the three met at the local pagoda. By then Grandpa, while denying he’d killed their loved ones, acknowledged his actions as a young cadre had caused them enormous suffering. The women saw that the brutality of the movement had left him little choice but to obey or die.
“Please don’t be angry at me,” he said. “They ordered me to do these things. I’m not a smart person and I didn’t know what to do.”
KdK’s effort is unusual. For a start, it’s an expensive process and there is limited money for reconciliation efforts. Figures are hard to come by, but it seems that donors give around US$2 million a year, most of which comes from Germany and the United States.
Sonja Meyer, a German anthropologist with Germany’s Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit’s (GIZ) civil peace service project and an advisor to KdK, says reconciliation isn’t a donor priority.
And, although the existence of the tribunal has helped raise awareness of the need — and in that way has helped to secure funding for reconciliation — much more is required in a country where many survivors see former perpetrators on a daily basis.
A handful of organizations are working on an array of linked projects: from education to mental health; and from public forums for victims of gender-based violence to advocacy for reparations.
In addition, the tribunal last year approved nearly a dozen donor-funded reparations projects, some of which have a reconciliation component. Among these is a traveling exhibition designed to inform villagers of the tribunal’s work and provide a platform to allow survivors and perpetrators to talk to each other.
KdK’s Minea hopes it will promote reconciliation, a process that starts with the young and the old knowing what happened in their village.
Survivors’ stories can inform the youth, he says, and promote the reconciliation that is needed “to move this country forward”.
Overturning the narrative
There is much more that can be done. DC-Cam’s Sok Kheang, for instance, says Cambodia must move beyond the simplistic “all Khmer Rouge are bad” narrative, and recognize that people from both sides suffered. Many former Khmer Rouge consider themselves victims “because they all lost family members”, he says, and that sense of shared victimhood can prove helpful when it comes to reconciling.
That commonality of loss was apparent at the Anlong Veng reconciliation event whose audience wasn’t comprised solely of former revolutionaries (some of whom had surely joined the Khmer Rouge in the 1960s in its stated pursuit of a better Cambodia for all). There were youngsters too, the children and grandchildren of these ex-cadres, some at university, eloquent and well turned-out, their lives far removed from those of their elders.
Towards the end of the day the microphone went from person to person. Most handed it on, but some stood and talked. As the wind picked up, whipping the dust under the plastic chairs, one man got to his feet and sang a song of suffering, an elegy from a mother to her child about the years spent after 1979 as the remnants of the Khmer Rouge spent their years in the forest and in camps:
We ate yet were never full; we could not sleep;
And as the years passed our health worsened.
We had just one pair of clothes, worn and tattered and torn.
Each time we washed them we had to sit and shiver
Until our clothes were dry and we could return to our village and work.
When the enemy surrounded our fishing holes,
We ate banana shoots and leaves instead of rice porridge.
Exhausted, hungry and malaria-ridden,
We became thin and pale and deathly white.
And yet we persevered.
More than a decade after the Khmer Rouge’s final collapse, the outlook from these aging cadres pointed toward the future: “We must look forward, not back,” one speaker said. Others hoped for peace and economic development for their impoverished corner of the country.
But notably, particularly given the day’s purpose, there were few words of regret about the damage the Khmer Rouge had wrought.
Of all the messages emanating from these aged former revolutionaries that day at Ta Mok’s compound, the one most commonly stressed was that they no longer want to be known as ex-Khmer Rouge; they simply want to be known as Cambodians. Forty years after the fall of Phnom Penh, that still seems a remote proposition.
Robert Carmichael is the author of When Clouds Fell from the Sky: A Disappearance, A Daughter's Search and Cambodia's First War Criminal. He has worked as a journalist in Cambodia for eight years. From 2001-03 he was the managing editor of the Phnom Penh Post, Cambodia’s oldest English-language newspaper. He left Cambodia in 2003, returning in 2009 to cover the trial of Comrade Duch, the former head of the Khmer Rouge’s torture center S-21. Read an excerpt from When Clouds Fell from the Sky here.
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