By July 2017, over half a million people have visited The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), widely known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (KRT), in which three top Khmer Rouge leaders were convicted: Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, and Kaing Guek Eav. Nearly 300 million USD has been spent over the past eleven years to sustain this hybrid court operation. As the KRT approaches its end, some Western observers in the transnational human rights community have hailed this court as a successful transitional justice mechanism. At the local level however, the effects of the Khmer Rouge (KR) regime continue to linger to this day.
On Snail Island (Koh Kjang in Khmer), near Sihanoukville, lives Yanna, a victim of the Khmer Rouge regime. She was separated from her children and sent to different concentration camps, as part of the regime’s reeducation programs. Daily activities mostly consisted of manual labor, specifically working in rice paddies and digging canals, from sunrise to sunset. After Liberation Day, January 7, 1979, Yanna returned to her village to personally confront the elderly women whom she believed had starved her children to death during the KR regime. Her strong belief in the Buddhist principle of karma – that everyone will ultimately get what they deserve – allowed her to make peace with the elderly women.
Survivors often contemplate the past, and how their lives could have been without the KR. Yanna, who prior to the KR had been a successful businesswoman, was forced to burn all her money; she spends most nights thinking about “what if’s” and how she could have had a big, healthy, and happy family. A former S-21 guard Khieu Peou, who insists that he has no blood on his hands, is regretful over the loss of his youth. He has lived through and fought in multiple wars and was homesick the entire time; he wishes things had been different. Before the war ended his education, another former S-21 guard Cheam Seur dreamed about becoming a teacher.
While imagining what life could have been without the KR regime, survivors and former KR cadres have begun to see the importance of educating the younger generation about what happened. Yanna believes that it is her duty to educate the youth about the KR regime and that not doing so only reinforces the generational disconnect; she has often met youth who simply laughed at her stories of being put to work in KR concentration camps or were unable to believe that something of that nature could have possibly ever happened. Khung Run, another survivor who lives in Banteay Chheu, a village just in the outskirts of Siem Reap, has also encountered difficulty in educating the youth. Like many survivors, he fears the possibility of another genocide and sees education is a form of prevention. Even his own children cannot fathom how a genocide or a mass famine could have occurred, despite repeatedly hearing the personal accounts of their parents and older siblings.
The children of former KR cadres often find it hard to believe that mass killings and starvation occurred during the KR regime simply because they were told otherwise growing up. For instance, Ngin Sinoun from Anlong Veng, the niece of Ta Mok, one of the senior officials during the KR regime known as “the Butcher,” was never taught about the harsh reality of the regime despite having a father who was a former KR soldier. Her family led her to believe that the KR revolution existed to help the country fight off the Vietnamese invaders, and that “the Vietnamese killed everyone, including Cambodian intellectuals,” an erroneous claim that KR revolutionaries continue to make today. The KR revolution was not just something that she heard about or read in a textbook – she experienced it everyday in this former KR community. Growing up, she would often flee to the mountains to escape the fighting with Vietnamese troops. Ta Mok even told her to be careful and study hard to prevent the Vietnamese from ever brainwashing her or indoctrinating her.
However, it is important to keep in mind that her circumstances are also quite different from that of the children of other survivors. She grew up in Angling Veng, which up to 1997 was still occupied by the KR. The KR regime that she is familiar with, in the 1980s and 1990s, is very different from the KR responsible for developing the Killing Fields in the late 1970s. This raises the importance of writing a collective history for the entire nation to allow a deeper understanding of this historical complexity.
Today both survivors and former KR cadres stress the importance of genocide education for the younger generations, but limited resources significantly hinder their efforts. History teachers emphasize the need to educate children about past events in order to prevent events like the genocide from re-occuring. Education is prevention. In Kampong Tralach district Kampong Chhnang province, the hotbed of KR recruits in the early 1970s, history teachers Sok Saruon and Cum Chandara, both born after the KR regime, bemoan that the current educational curriculum covers too limited a time period. They believe that interactive forms of education can be more effective: bringing in survivors to tell their stories, having field trips to S-21 or the Killing Fields, and using visual media. Peace and reconciliation activist Man Sokkoeun, at Youth for Peace, has adopted such an approach, showing pictures and videos to the youth to raise awareness about the KR regime and draw their interests in learning about their country’s history.
While the United Nations and transnational human rights community have urged for the ending of the prosecution of the KR leadership for crimes of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, Cambodians now have the enormous task of preserving the history of the genocide and the memory of its victims for younger generations. Since 2009, the Documentation Center of Cambodia, a non-governmental organization that has documented the atrocities of the KR regime since 1995, has partnered up the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports of the Royal Cambodian government to work with schools to provide information and resources to educate students. For the first time in their modern history, Cambodians have begun to take ownership in not only documenting but defining their own history.
(c) 2017 IAPS Dialogue