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Analysis: Can murderers be forgiven?

Analysis: Can murderers be forgiven?

Kok-Thay Eng

I am delighted that on September 15, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia announced that the four remaining senior Khmer Rouge leaders currently in custody – Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan and Ieng Thirith – were indicted for crimes against humanity and genocide, among other offenses.

I hope that they will be tried fairly and punished justly according to the law. What they did to the people of Cambodia was beyond hell on earth. They were the devil of humanity. But can they be forgiven by the people?

The four accused invited monks to their cells to preside over an offering ceremony during the Pchum Ben holiday. This is an indication that they might be seeking forgiveness for their next lives or somebody to take care of them when they die.

On Pchum Ben people send food to bret (lost souls or wandering ghosts) who have committed serious sins during their lifetimes and cannot be reborn.

The enormity of the crimes committed by leaders of the Khmer Rouge could make them the worst bret of all, who would always be hungry and wandering without destination.

If they can be forgiven by survivors, their prospect for life after death could be improved.

Forgiveness does not call for release or dissolution of the ECCC. Forgiveness is a very sensitive question. It is almost a taboo to ask victims or the public to consider. But I would like them to try.

Complete justice after genocide is never possible. Without such justice, people are forced to live with a sense of injustice, grudges, anger and frustration.

Complete justice after genocide is never possible. Without such justice, people are forced to live with a sense of injustice, grudges, anger and frustration.
Those mental conditions negatively affect survivors to such an extent that without measures to cope, they can destroy them from inside.

Much like the Khmer Rouge’s own oft-cited slogan that the most contemptible of enemies are those “burrowing from within” and must be rooted out immediately, the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge genocide created mental conditions that have been burrowing inside survivors, for some people causing acute cases of mental disorder.

On the other hand, whether admitting it or not, some people have been able to forgive the perpetrators.

During the Duch verdict announcement, I visited a remote village in Kampong Thom province in which Pin, a former Khmer Rouge and perpetrator, and Pai, a survivor, have lived together for almost 30 years.

Pin was involved in killing Pai’s one-legged husband in 1977. Although Pin never admitted that he killed Pai’s husband, simultaneous interviews with both of them revealed the chilling story of how Pai’s husband died.

On a cloudless afternoon in Kampong Thom, Pin and his comrade walked up to Pai’s house, tied her husband to its central column, interrogated him for a short time and then took him into the bush not far away from the village.

Pin said Pai’s husband did not resist. He and his comrade escorted him to the bush with a hoe, and he knew full well that the hoe would be used as an execution tool. Pin said Pai’s husband’s hands were tied behind him fairly loosely, but that he did not attempt to escape.

Arriving at the bush, Pai’s husband was made to sit down and struck with the hoe. Pin did not describe clearly how Pai’s husband was killed, he just said, “My comrade did the job.”

In the early 1980s, Pai excavated a shallow grave and found a one-legged skeleton with broken arms and fractured skull. Pin never said anything about the manner of his death, but judging from the trauma on the skeleton, Pai’s husband died a brutal death.

Pin’s comrade who supposedly committed the act died many years ago. Pai witnessed Pin killing another person in the village. She saw how cold-blooded he was when taking a rifle and shooting the man like “a raging dog in full daylight”.

Today Pin is living with his wife and two children. During the day he works in a pagoda to help the monks. He is old and frail. Pai’s four children have grown up. Two of them are able-bodied men.

Overall, the family is much better off than Pin’s, meaning they could physically take revenge on Pin and few people in the village would consider it to be an injustice, or they could use their better social status to make Pin’s life much worse than it already is.

But Pai said, “I don’t want to kill him, and I have stopped my children from doing so. I want him to live so that he can take care of his wife and children.”

Pai does not want to see another woman become a widow and go through her same experience.

Pai said that Pin is being punished by the Buddha for what he did. His mental capacity is weak, and he is virtually an outcast in the village. Only the pagoda provides a haven for him.

Even though Pai never talks about forgiveness, in many respects she has forgiven Pin and has moved on with her life.

Pai does not have to love Pin to forgive him. She does not have to communicate with him to forgive him. To Pai, Pin is a sad case of Buddha’s example of living sin, to be rejected forever by survivors, society and his own self.

Anyone falling into this category should be pitied.

Perhaps one day, Pin will realise that the only way to rid himself of his sin is to continue collecting merits from the pagoda and repay Pai anyway possible. When that happens, a complete forgiveness and reconciliation may be possible.

If Pin chooses the easy way by denying his crime, then complete forgiveness is not possible.

For Pai, denial from Pin does not affect her, but admission increases her sense of enlightenment.

I believe this example is being

lived in many other locations in Cambodia.

People do not want to admit that it is happening because they would be seen as weak and surrendering to the perpetrators.

Forgiveness is a very personal matter. The path varies from person to person. It depends on how much harm was done, the demeanor of the perpetrators and the life philosophy of survivors.

It is possible for one to forgive entirely by oneself without interaction with the perpetrators.

Also, forgiveness does not mean abandoning legal accountability. Forgiveness can be taught if one sees enough successful examples.
However, forgiving the four Khmer Rouge leaders is a different story.

Will the devil of humanity be forgiven? Will Case 002 lay such a foundation for Cambodians in general to move beyond grudges?
It will be a difficult test for for-giveness and reconciliation in Cambodia.


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