It may be the road to justice. But when evidence and testimonies
eventually begin rolling out
from trials of the likes of Ta Mok and Duch, it
will not necessarily be the road to peace for
a large number of Cambodians.
Anette Marcher talks to people dealing with the mental health
of the KR
INSTEAD of laying their ghosts to rest, mental health
experts say, the process of revealing the truth behind Khmer Rouge atrocities
will for many people open old wounds, force them to relive their personal
nightmares and possibly throw them into an even deeper vault of trauma and
Psychiatrists Dr Kirsti Oskarsson and Dr Ka Sunbaunat
Psychiatrists worry that although judging the Khmer Rouge regime
may bring relief to some people, it will inflict new damage on victims as they
are reminded of their past.
They point out that reliving and talking
about haunting experiences is a western way of dealing with traumas and that it
doesn't necessarily work in Cambodia.
Others agree that opening the Khmer
Rouge can of worms, crawling with mind-numbing stories of brutality, torture and
suffering, will be a painful and harrowing ordeal for thousands of victims.
However, they argue that the process is necessary not only to create a
sense of conclusion, but to show that crime and injustice will be punished in
Cambodia and at the same time preserve the memory of Khmer Rouge atrocities for
Dr Kirsti Oskarsson is Senior Psychiatrist with the
International Organization for Migration (IOM). She coordinates a project,
sponsored by the Norwegian government, that educates Cambodian
The idea is to select qualified doctors with at least two
years' working experience and give them three and a half years of post-graduate
training in psychiatry. The graduates - or psychiatric residents - treat
patients from the first day of the training course. Ten fully fledged
psychiatrists have already completed the training and another ten began a new
course eight months ago.
Through her work with mental health issues in
Cambodia, almost daily sessions with the psychiatric residents and a recent
workshop on the affects of a Khmer Rouge tribunal, Oskarsson finds reason to
believe that the proceedings of such a trial will spark a rise in mental
disorders throughout Cambodia.
"When details of the past are revealed
publicly, it will open up a lot of old wounds that people have so far managed to
live with," she says. "It will reactivate the old traumas and create new ones -
what we call retraumatization.
"We don't know the magnitude of this
phenomenon, but I'm convinced that we will see a lot more post-traumatic stress
disorders in the wake of a Khmer Rouge trial."
She points out that
post-traumatic stress disorders, where victims suffer from flashbacks,
nightmares and severe anxiety, are not common in Cambodia today. But 20-year-old
traumas lurking behind the surface can easily become full-blown if victims are
reminded of their experiences.
To illustrate her point, Kirsti Oskarsson
refers to one of her graduates who recently drove with her to Pursat.
was the first time he'd been back to the area where he was forced to live and
work during the Khmer Rouge regime.
"Along the road he pointed out places
where he'd been and spoke about how his father had been hacked to
"In a very relaxed and detached way - almost like he was reciting
somebody else's story. But at the same time, it unconsciously brought the
experiences back to him. And weeks later when I asked him to repeat his story to
his fellow graduates, he simply couldn't. It had suddenly come too close," she
"Getting over terrible experiences through reliving them and
talking about them is a western way of dealing with the problem. I think it is
very important to ask the questions 'Is this also the Cambodian way?' and
'Should western values be applied in Cambodia?'."
Dr Ka Sunbaunat, one of
the first batch of IOM-trained psychiatrists, also expects a rise in mental
disorders in connection with KR revelations. And he doesn't see the western
perception of healing traumas as a solution to the problem for
"Some will feel better after they've talked about their
experiences, but most won't. In general, Cambodians think it's useless to talk
about the past. They don't gain anything from it. It only makes them suffer
"Many women lost their virginity during Khmer Rouge times, but they
will find it more painful to talk about it than to live with it in silence," he
Both Sunbaunat and Oskarsson point out that it is not a common
practice for Cambodians to talk about the horrors they went through during the
KR regime - not even with their spouses or close relatives.
culture we want to hide our weaknesses and never show them to anyone
"When you talk about your own horrible experiences, you often start
to cry. That is considered to be weak and instead we must always show that we
are strong," explains Sunbaunat.
Ok Serei Sopheak, Co-Chairman of the
Cambodian Centre for Conflict Resolution, acknowledges that Cambodians are not
accustomed to talking about their torments and problems - mainly because it has
never been part of the social pattern in Cambodia.
He, however, believes
that the process of revealing and speaking out about Khmer Rouge atrocities is
vital for many Cambodians to improve their lives.
"The majority of
Cambodians are not living yet. They are only just surviving. I agree that many
people will feel their traumas coming back and in my opinion it represents a lot
of courage for this generation to go through this process.
"But that is
a small price to pay for a cleaner future where crimes of the past have been
punished. It is the future of our children and grandchildren and they deserve
some sacrifices," he says.
Likewise, longtime observer Craig Etcheson of
the International Monitor Institute in USA, argues that seeking and unfolding
the truth about the Khmer Rouge regime is an essential step for Cambodians to
come to terms with their horrific past - even though some of them might suffer
"Some medicine tastes bad. But only through punishing those who
were responsible for the original traumas can we help people heal their old
"Otherwise the frustrations will keep festering just below the
surface," he says.
Even if unearthing and speaking about past atrocities
does provide clarification and inner peace to some victims, Oskarsson points out
that some traumas are simply too serious to ever stop haunting their
"We have seen it in American veterans from the Vietnam War. Some
never get over their ordeals, no matter how much treatment they
While a Khmer Rouge trial will hopefully provide legal justice
to the victims of the communist cadres, the question still remains whether that
will be satisfactory to all.
"It is not unusual to hear Cambodians say
that they want Khmer Rouge killers and torturers 'killed' or 'chopped into
little pieces'. And after the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, a large number of
Khmer Rouge were brutally killed when their victims sought personal
Dr Ok Vannaka, psychiatric resident, was 16 years old when the
Khmer Rouge took power. Her parents who were affiliated with the Lon Nol
government were immediately killed. Later her brother and sister also perished.
Ok Vannaka herself was forced to work hard and was threatened with death several
One recent day, a woman her own age walked into the clinic with
severe depression. She was the daughter of a high-ranking Khmer Rouge officer
and had been a carefree actress during the Pol Pot regime.
"In my mind, I
got very angry with her. Her father had died and I thought she deserved it. But
I tried to cope, respected the ethics of my profession and treated her
nevertheless," says Ok Vannaka.
"I want to revenge myself, but I know I
can't. I think most Cambodians who suffered want revenge, but they cannot have
it, because we have rules and laws. Instead, we now get justice."
Serei Sopheak understands the wish for revenge among Cambodians as opposed to
"Justice is a very new concept in Cambodia - especially to
people who are not well educated. It is simply not a reference in their
"Revenge is the only way they know to express the pure resentment
in their hearts," he explains.
Youk Chhang of the Documentation Center of
Cambodia agrees that the often heard vengeful remarks are merely an expression
of how much people hate the Khmer Rouge. Just like some tend to exaggerate the
number of victims of massacres or purges as a symbol of their own
"But time is the greatest healer and the 20 years that have
passed have also created a certain distance between victims and perpetrators. It
is therefore no longer a question of personal revenge between two people," he
But even if Cambodians are willing to settle for justice instead of
revenge, some psychiatrists doubt whether sentencing a number of top Khmer Rouge
leaders to life imprisonment will provide a sufficient sense of justice to many
victims - especially if the local village chief or lower-ranking officer who
tortured them or killed their relatives walks free without being
"I think educated people will understand that punishing Khmer
Rouge leaders will also bring them justice for their personal suffering," says
Dr Yin Sobotra, psychiatric resident.
"But for illiterate people in the
communes it is different. I'm not sure they will understand."
acknowledges that some sort of education process must also take place in
connection with a Khmer Rouge tribunal, so that everybody understands the legal
proceedings and recognizes that the court will provide justice for
He downplays the scenario where former Khmer Rouge cadres that are
now integrated into villages and communities will be singled out and persecuted
when their past is once again brought into the open - thus dividing Cambodian
society instead of reconciling it.
But Oskarsson is more doubtful about
the reconciliation process in connection with a Khmer Rouge
"The Khmer Rouge cadres who were killed in Tuol Sleng also had
families, who are also victims of the atrocities," she says.
will be perceived as being on the wrong side, and what, then, will happen to
them? Will they get any sympathy?," she asks.
She stresses that sometimes
victims are also perpetrators and perpetrators are also victims.
Buddhism there is no such thing as forgiveness. You are automatically rewarded
or punished for your deeds in a future life. But these people all have traumas
and they all need absolution."
She illustrates with the case story of a
man who volunteered his story to a western stranger on the bus to Siem Reap. He
was a very young child during the Khmer Rouge regime and was indoctrinated to
inform on his parents when they were marched off to the rice fields.
father had originally told the Khmer Rouge that he was a moto driver, but the
child revealed that he had actually been a government official. The father was
"The fact that this man has an urge to tell his story
to a complete stranger on the bus shows a big need to be forgiven for his deed.
He suffers from a very serious trauma and will go to pieces the moment something
While opinions remain divided as to whether a Khmer Rouge
tribunal will provide peace of mind or create further mental disorders, one
thing that everybody hopes for is answered.
"The terrible experiences of
the past are definitely not behind the Cambodians," says Kirsti Oskar-sson. "The
reason they want a Khmer Rouge trial is often that they don't understand how it
could happen and they want to know."
Craig Etcheson points to another
psychological consequence of bringing former Khmer Rouge to
"Even if it brings no sanctions against foot soldiers and
village chiefs, a trial against the top leaders will still determine that what
the Khmer Rouge did was wrong.
"That will allow people all over the
country to point their fingers at their local tormentors and say 'What you did
was wrong'. And that will be a liberating experience for them."