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Forty Years after Khmer Rouge Victory, Has Cambodia Dealt with Its Past?

April 22, 2015

By Terith Chy

Terith Chy is a 2015 Asia Foundation Development Fellow and an executive officer at the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam). Since 2004, he has met with thousands of survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime to update them on developments at the Khmer Rouge tribunal and inform them of their right to participate in the proceedings. Since 2008, he and his staff have helped over 1,500 survivors of the Democratic Kampuchea regime to submit accounts of suffering under the regime to the tribunal. He is a former Sohmen Human Rights Scholar and Fellow, and has worked for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. This article originally appeared in longer form in The Cambodia Daily on April 18. It is excerpted here by permission.

TChy Headshot (1)

Terith Chy

On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh, beginning their nationwide campaign to implement arguably the most radical form of communism ever attempted.

Their plan to achieve a communist utopia failed terribly. In essence, their “revolution” became nothing more than a campaign of destruction and murder. As a result, nearly two million people died and many more suffered horrible physical and mental injuries.

Now that it has been four decades since the Khmer Rouge came to power, and 36 years since the regime collapsed, there is a need to look back and assess the extent to which Cambodia has dealt with its painful past.

Success Stories

Almost immediately after the Khmer Rouge was ousted, the new Phnom Penh regime established what was known as the first genocide tribunal in the world – prosecuting in absentia two Khmer Rouge leaders, Pol Pot and Ieng Sary.

The little known and much criticized tribunal in 1979 sentenced both the accused to death. The verdict, which was met with wide disapproval, could not be enforced, because the two accused were living along the Thai border, fighting a continuous guerrilla war that would not end until the late 1990s, when Pol Pot died and others surrendered.

The new regime also took immediate steps to expose the crimes of the Khmer Rouge to the world. The secret Khmer Rouge prison, S-21, eventually became today’s Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, and the widely known execution site called the Killing Fields eventually became a memorial. A nationwide campaign was launched to collect survivors’ support to condemn the crimes of the Khmer Rouge and to appeal to the U.N. to “de-recognize” the Khmer Rouge as official representatives of the Cambodian state. By the early 1980s, the campaign had amassed survivor petitions, known later as the Renakse Petitions, containing more than one million thumbprints.

During the early 1990s, the history of the Khmer Rouge regime was removed completely from the national curriculum for the sake of national reconciliation. Until 2007, any teaching of Cambodia’s modern history was virtually nonexistent. In 2004, the Genocide Education Project of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) began independently drafting what was later known as “A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979),” published and endorsed by Cambodia’s Ministry of Education.

The ministry and DC-Cam started the major task of training the country’s high school teachers to teach the history of the Democratic Kampuchea period. Since that time, the Cambodian government has made the history of Democratic Kampuchea a compulsory subject at the university level nationwide.

Since 1999, civil war and armed struggle have all but disappeared, and all remnants of the Khmer Rouge armed forces have long been demobilized and reintegrated into society. Meanwhile, the Khmer Rouge tribunal, dealing with legal accountability and collective reparation, is fulfilling its important mission of bringing justice to victims of the Khmer Rouge. The tribunal is critical, not only to putting an end to Khmer Rouge impunity, but also to opening up space for dialogue about justice and the past.

The Road Ahead

Although much has been done to integrate former fighters into the population, there is still a degree of distance between former Khmers Rouge and their victims, as well as the rest of society. The Khmer Rouge identity remains embedded deep within the psyche, combined with the fear of being discriminated against or implicated in some way that might bring them before the tribunal. Shame, denial, and fear are real walls that encourage former Khmers Rouge to avoid discussions of history, particularly when such conversations turn to their personal experiences.

For the same reasons, many former Khmers Rouge discourage their children from learning the relevant history. This has made genocide education all the more challenging in former regime strongholds like Pailin, Malai, Anlong Veng, and other areas where many former Khmers Rouge still reside.

Work must be done to bring down these walls and create a more meaningful interpersonal and national reconciliation. Before we can have a culture of empathy and understanding, we must first have an environment that permits and encourages dialogue. This should not take place only between victims, but also with former Khmers Rouge. This open discourse could take place either in less formal spaces, such as homes or villages, or in more formal ones, such as schools or public forums. And for the former Khmers Rouge to open up without fear of repercussions, more efforts need to be made to ensure public understanding of the scope of the tribunal, which prosecutes only the most senior and most responsible persons.

Although the post-tribunal period will probably be the most crucial time for this dialogue, efforts to build trust must be encouraged now. Only when open dialogue across generations takes place can the Cambodian population get out of the mindset of being victims and move forward to embrace the future. Without effectively dealing with the horrors of its past, Cambodia will struggle to take on the problems of its present and the future.

Suyheang Kry and Terith Chy are both researchers at DC-Cam, the Documentation Center of Cambodia. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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