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The Khmer rouge legacy: How then shall we live?


We are the victims, perpetrators and heirs of 20th century's evil incarnate - maimed, broken both in body and spirit. Everyone of us.  All 14 million of us.  Many of us with blood on our hands.  Thirty years on, we are still living in a land thoroughly soaked in blood - haunted by the cries of our dead, by what we did or were forced to do, by what we witnessed and our hellish experiences; we have done little to wash away this stain from our environment and in our hearts; we have paid scant attention to the destructive mentality - violence, fear, impunity compounded over these many years - it produces in ourselves and visitors individually and in society collectively.

This is how the world knows us.  Just eavesdrop on the expat's conversations; consider their ulterior motives, meaningless deference, condescending act- ions, implicit and explicit pomposity and superiority, sophisticated manipulations; ponder the humility, patience and compassion of those who visit prisoners, care for trafficked girls and AIDS/HIV-infected patients; admire the courage of those who raise awareness through films and other forms of media of human rights abuses, environmental destruction, sexual exploitation, impunity, injustices. 

This is how we know ourselves.  Look into the eyes of any Khmer; read the expressions on our faces; listen carefully to what we say; feel the fear, mistrust and mistreatment we have toward each other and of/by the authority; think of the self-hatred as reflected in the way we treat the most vulnerable, disregard human life, hide behind and chase after materialism, decadence, superficiality over substance and depth.  Consider the greed, the selfishness in the frantic, furious grabbing of land, the heartless selling and degradation of persons.

I hear often negative superlatives attached to our current society - how it is the most vulgar, most degenerate, most cruel toward their own people, most violent, most racist, most materialistic and superficial, most shameless, most petty, most laden with gossips, backstabbing, etc.

This is our Khmer legacy.  We can deny it, or pretend it doesn't exist.  We can hide it by dressing it up with pretty roads, pretty buildings, pretty clothes, pretty phones, pretty cars - with all the pretty bling-bling things of modernity.The reality remains; the blood stains are still with us; the dark mentality continues to guide us.

Do we remain indifferent and vaguely hope for change - that our society would miraculously change from one of fear to courage,  impunity to justice, vulgarity to decency, violence to peace - with no efforts on our part?  Yes, if we are uncaring and delusional.

How then shall we live?


The answer is not magical but practical; the answer is not unknown to us, but requires us to move from lip service to courageous action. How, then, shall we live?  We must return to first principles.

Courage is not inevitable.  Justice is not  inevitable.  Wis- dom is not inevitable.  Decency is not inevitable.  Neither are peace, love, excellence, free- dom, perseverance, character.

Each requires hard work - deliberate, persistent, persevering, humble, passionate work.  And it must start with each one of us - Theary, Sophea, Chan- than, Chantha, Seila, Chariya, Cheat, Chhay, Dara, Sen,  Vann- ath, Kheng.

The answer to fear is not more fear, but courage.  We receive justice not by analyzing, witnessing, engaging in injustice, but by giving justice.  We are noble not through superfluous, long empty titles, but by living with dignity and bestowing dignity to all, especially on the most vulnerable.  Excellence is not had by sloth, envy but by training, perseverance, dedication.

Living Well


How then shall we live?  We want to live well.  We shall live well.  What does "living well" look like?  We must focus on and bring about the four ideals of the ancient world - Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and Unity -  which address the four dimensions to life - the intellectual, the aesthetic, the moral, and the spiritual (in the sense of being connected to a purpose larger than ourselves).  Where there is truth, where there is beauty, where there is goodness, and where there is unity, we Khmers of the globalized, porous world of 21st century, traumatized by the 20th century evil incarnate, may live well.  (See www. "Voice of Justice Program - Leadership: To lead is to serve", Dr. Mark Strom).

Everyone of 14 million of us has an important role to play in living well.  But I'd like to single out and plead with four influential groups of individuals:

Elected Leaders:  Please, be our role models - full of character, justice, imbued with humility and genuine nobility.  Be our model of compassion for the vulnerable, the weak, the widows and orphans - this being the hallmark of a great society.

Civic Leaders:  Please, be our role models - of integrity, unity and humility.

Parents:  Please, be our role models.  Invest in our education; make sacrifices for the children, for the future.

Foreign Guests:  Please, do no harm.  You are greatly welcom- ed here.  But, please, do no harm, intentionally or inadvertently.

We are a generation uniquely occasioned with an awesome responsibility and opportunity - to determine and shape the Khmer Rouge legacy, positively or negatively. 

How then shall we live?  Let us not live darkly.  Let us live well.  Let us live in truth, with beauty, with goodness, in unity.  Let us live with a just peace - not only a peace defined as the absence of war, but peace that includes the presence of justice.  Let us live in awe of life, with a respect for life.  Let us live with grace and freedom.


Theary C. SENG

Executive Director



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