I traveled to Pailin for the first time last week and the trip helped me understand, to a greater extent than I have grasped before, the need for reconciliation in this country.
The former Khmer Rouge stronghold still feels a world apart from much of the rest of Cambodia. Even geographically, it remains isolated. I rode to the northwestern town on a bus with Center for Social Development staffers and nearly 12 hours passed before we entered the outskirts of our destination. The road from Battambang to Pailin is every bit as bad as people had told me it was -- endless, jarring potholes. All the bus' passengers had to get out to walk when we came across rickety bridges, for fear they might collapse with us onboard.
"Circled by heavily forested hills, a natural barrier against government attacks, Pailin achieved a near mythical status," according to a recent article about the area's decline. The landscape has not changed. As our bus approached Pailin, I was struck by the long, overgrown, undeveloped stretches of land.
There isn't much to Pailin city. I felt it lacked some of the natural beauty and newfound bustle of Anlong Veng, the other well-known former Khmer Rouge stronghold. CSD's forum took place in the Hang Meas hotel, a cavernous and dilapidated building, but probably the only establishment in town with a large meeting space.
The forum was well-attended -- with around 150 local participants -- and while they seemed hesitant to participate at first, that changed as the day wore on.
I was particularly impressed, in many cases, by what seemed to be a genuine desire to learn. Around a third of the forum participants had recently visited Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields for the first time, and much of the audience seemed struck by photos of mass graves and skulls in a film that was screened at the forum's opening.
"People are being very fair in processing new information," CSD Executive Director Theary Seng said after the forum. "They are starting to understand that maybe there was a system in place and they didn't see it because they only saw their limited experiences."
No doubt some of those who defend the Khmer Rouge today knew of the atrocities that were committed. But I tend to believe that many honestly did not -- or were not aware of the extent of Cambodians' suffering.
As one former Khmer Rouge solider said during the forum, "if I'd known they were bad, I never would have joined the Khmer Rouge."
Pursuing reconciliation with such people must be an ongoing, and delicate, process. They will have to be exposed to new information -- information that casts those they previously respected in a horrendous light -- without feeling overly stigmatized. I did feel that many forum participants were truly struggling psychologically, trying to reconcile beliefs they had held for decades with the new evidence placed before them.
As Seng said, "part of reconciliation is to meet their pain. We can't believe they didn't suffer."
While some lower-level cadres inflicted suffering on others of their own free will, many were indeed forced to commit atrocities, and others may have been completely unaware of what was happening in more violent provinces.
We can't believe they were all monsters.
* Pictured: CSD Executive Director Theary Seng engages with a former Khmer Rouge soldier (above); forum participants mingle during a coffee break (at left).