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Empathy and Genocide Education in Cambodia: A Personal Reflection

In this essay, I want to reflect on the concept of empathy. Can survivors have empathy for the complicity of former Khmer Rouge (KR) cadres in the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979, and what their family has experienced since the collapse of the regime in 1979? Can empathy facilitate individuals to come to terms with the past, and perhaps national reconciliation in post-genocide Cambodia?

The short answer to these questions is yes. I refer to empathy here as an imaginative endeavour in the form of taking another person’s point of view that results in understanding their actions better. There is no shortage of horrors and painful memories during the KR regime that hardens the barrier to empathy in the mind of genocide survivors. Today there are tens of thousands of KR cadres who were complicit, if not direct participants, in the atrocities — and they will not have a day in court.

Cambodian society faces a dilemma: people can learn to acquire empathy for former KR cadres to reduce anger and ease interaction with them or distance themselves from the monsters they despise. From my personal experience, I contend that empathy can be a powerful prosocial process that helps individuals come to terms with the past, and it should be incorporated into genocide education in Cambodia.

As a child, I lived through an unimaginable suffering under the Khmer Rouge regime. As I grew up, I became accustomed to the default perception of the KR as monsters, a sentiment that intensified over the years of reading prisoners’ confessions like the ones left behind at the infamous S-21 prison and recording thousands of survivors’ oral testimony. This remained the case until I had the courage to face the perpetrators and their accomplices by listening to their narratives and their now-adult children’s life stories during my ethnographic fieldwork in the former KR stronghold of Anlong Veng.

While I still experience the cognitive dissonance of a personal encounter with the former Khmer Rouge and my belief that they were once complicit in evil acts, there is nonetheless something positive about talking to these former KR cadres. I have come to realise that imagining the historical context of their circumstances and actions and really listening to their life stories stimulated my empathy for some of them and their families. Pondering over how these KR cadres got involved in the genocidal regime, I came to a disturbing realisation, as Hannah Arendt once observed, that many ordinary people willingly participated or were complicit in the atrocities.

Image courtesy Mr. Khun Ly, used with author permission.*

In post-genocide Cambodia, survivors usually overlook the macro-level context of social upheaval, war, and revolution prior to the genocide or what happened to them after the collapse of the regime in 1979. The Khmer Rouge tribunal from 2006 to 2017 officially limits its temporal jurisdiction to the 1975-79 period, thus offering a limited truth in a truncated historical context. As a result, survivors are not used to imagining actions performed in significantly different contexts to those in which they found themselves. After all, how can one have empathy for the devil? For former KR cadres, the lack of empathy for the victims manifests itself in their court testimony or everyday storytelling. I witnessed this first-hand during a conversation about the past among former KR cadres at a social gathering in Anlong Veng in 2012.

In another setting, around Pchum Ben days (i.e., the days of paying homage to the dead) in October 2012, I found myself in an unexpected exchange between a former KR couple and their high-school daughter during an interview at their house in Cheung Phnom village of Anlong Veng. After observing the interview for about one hour, the daughter interrupted the interview in reaction to her parents comment that ‘the Khmer Rouge regime was very clean’ and free of the prostitution and gambling widespread in mainstream society since 1998. ‘What I have learned at school is different from my parents’ story,’ she said, referring to how the Khmer Rouge regime is portrayed in history textbooks. The daughter also grew up only having heard about her parents’ narrative of heroism in the war against foreign invaders, and the long struggle for their family survival that seemed to never end. This exchange also demonstrated that learning the history of the KR regime at school increases the ability of the children to learn beyond family narratives of the regime.

However, exposing former KR revolutionaries and their children to information about the genocide has a tendency to detach the parents from the evil that occurred during the KR regime, therein contributing to a lack of public empathy toward their family experience in a more complex historical context. The majority of adult children of former KR revolutionaries today grew up during the period of Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia, civil war, and economic hardship in the 1980s and 1990s. They do not have the memory of the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s, but instead see it as extending into the 1980s and the early 1990s.

The urge to place their family memories in the current national reconciliation framework (i.e., the Cambodian government’s 1998 Win-Win policy) entails little critical discussion of their parents’ roles during the KR regime. In fact, the 1998 Win-Win policy of amnesty-for-peace and exoneration of all KR followers from the collective guilt of their top leadership lends support to former KR cadres’ self-portrayal as ‘soldiers’ fighting to defend the fatherland from foreign aggressors or as ‘victims’ of the KR revolution. Some openly aired their apprehension that their share of suffering, hardship, and the loss of their loved ones have not received enough attention in the public sphere. Yet I have found that most former KR cadres are now happy to live and raise their family in peace, choosing to earn money to support their families even if maimed during the war. Over the past five years of interacting with this community, I have experienced empathy toward some former KR soldiers who have shown humility and remorse for what they did, and now see themselves in a different light.

Image courtesy Mr. Khun Ly, used with author permission.*

Drawing on personal experience, I think genocide education can play a crucial role in fostering empathy as a pro-social process that enables individuals to come to terms with the past and foster national reconciliation. I conclude my reflection by emphasising that empathy is an indispensable process of individual healing and national reconciliation in post-genocide Cambodia. The potential contribution of empathy to national reconciliation deserves greater attention from transitional justice practitioners and scholars who look beyond the KR tribunal. In addition to the teaching the history of the KR regime, empathy itself should be taught in genocide education. Furthermore, empathy ought to be better articulated and perhaps drawn from local understanding of the term as a communicable and teachable concept in general education in Cambodia. Teaching empathy becomes all the more important in a country where the culture of dialogue is weak and violence appears to be the norm of dealing with one’s opponents or those they despise.


(c) 2017 University of Nottingham

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