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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The thorny debate on justice for Pol Pot's madness

The thorny debate on justice for Pol Pot's madness

In the last issue of the Post Cambodian civic leaders and public officials spoke

about what they wanted to see from a trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders. In the

second part of the series, researcher Laura McGrew collates the results of

a survey of Cambodians, information from discussion groups and interviews on justice

and reconciliation for the Pol Pot years.

"My father, two brothers, 15 cousins, three aunts and five of my uncles died;

I suffered from not enough food, starvation, sickness of me and my family, forced

marriage, too much work, no schooling, lack of care from parents, separation from

family, not enough medicine or health care.

"But I rate what happened to me between 1975 and 1979 as the same as what happened

to others (if I compare to the villagers living together)." This is just one

of many stories that were told and heard during this study of what Cambodians think

can be done to heal society after the trauma of the Khmer Rouge (KR). Every participant

stated they had lost family or friends.

Cambodians are beginning to grapple publicly with the thorny issue of how to find

justice for the 1.7 million victims who died during the KR regime, without turning

the society upside down or returning to war.

For the first time since 1979, former KR leaders are speaking out and former KR are

becoming less isolated - some participants now acknowledge that many KR were victims

as well as perpetrators.

The clear message from the majority of those who participated in discussions and

in the written survey was a desire for: the truth about why the KR behaved as they

did and on whose orders; secondly, a credible international tribunal; thirdly, now

there is peace civil leaders should be responsible to society.

Cambodians who participated in this study were primarily educated people from cities

(Phnom Penh, Battambang and Kampot). The purpose of this preliminary study was first

to consult leaders of civil society, who could begin to define the questions and

problems, and from here, further studies would follow.

However, five groups of 3 - 16 persons living in the countryside participated in

discussion groups, as well as more than 20 NGO representatives who work at the village


Included in this preliminary report are opinions of: 48 people who filled out the

English language survey, over 180 people who participated in discussion groups, (over

90 of those watched videotapes on the Adolf Eichman trial and/or the South African

Truth Commission).

Over ten interviews were held with expatriates who have had long-term experience

in Cambodia, the majority of whom speak Khmer. More than 25 Khmer language surveys

have not yet been tabulated. Following is an analysis of some of the key issues that

arose during the study.

What is justice, what is truth?

The Cambodians who participated in this study said they want justice and they want

truth. But how can this be achieved? A trial may not find out the overall truth about

the KR as a political movement, rather the individual responsibility of a few senior


A trial is an adversarial process, and defendants may not admit guilt even if faced

with overwhelming evidence. Will denials by former KR leaders cause Cambodian people

to feel more frustrated about the process?

Also, since the presumption of innocence and a fair trial with rules of evidence

etc., are not concepts that Cambodians have much experience with - a problem could

arise if accused persons are found innocent. Cambodians know that millions died,

and the majority lost family members. It would be inconceivable to the Cambodian

people that the KR leaders could be found innocent in a trial.

A common view is that villagers are only thinking about their next meal, and how

to survive, so don't think about their times during KR rule or about justice for

what happened.

However, in the few discussions held with villagers, several started out by saying

they didn't think about the trial (several had not even heard about the possibility

of a trial), but by the end of a several hour discussion, they shared their views

on the issue of accountability for the KR regime, and the majority felt strongly

there should be a trial.

A few participants said they did not want a trial, because they were afraid of war.

These people were living in areas that had been in war zones for decades, and had

repeatedly been internally displaced. There was a strong message from all participants

that they were tired of war.

"I don't want a trial because I live in the countryside. I don't want to face

this problem. I want to stop this problem. I don't want the people in the countryside

to be very cold," said one participant.

"I don't understand these international problems. I want the people to reconcile,

to build the country. The people here suffer a lot, they stepped on land mines, they

have no land, no houses.

"When war happens, the Khmer society doesn't support the widows, the orphans,

the handicapped people, it just wants to do business. If we have war again, they

will put more landmines in, and we will lose more legs."


In this study, the vast majority of respondents brought up impunity as an important

issue. Many said that a trial could not be fair unless the government dealt with

impunity in today's society - several brought up the apparent lack of investigation

and prosecution in the murder of Piseth Pelika and the acid attack on a young female

associate of Svay Sitha.

Some others also mentioned the grenade attack against the Sam Rainsy Party in 1997,

the killings and disappearance after the coup d'etat in 1997 and the election in

1998, and the crack down on peaceful demonstrators after the election in 1998.

At the village level, people more often talked about social injustice: land grabbing

by military, poverty, lack of schools and health care - but as a sign of a lack of

equity and a lack of attention from government authorities.

Even villagers who said they didn't really know what a trial was said there was unfairness

in society and that the way some leaders acted with impunity was an impediment to

developing a society.

The majority of participants felt a fair trial of the former KR leaders was an important

beginning to reducing impunity in society - and in reverse - if the trial was not

fair then this could cause an increase in the current level of impunity.


In a group discussion, the participants analyzed the idea of responsibility, and

admitted that accepting responsibility for one's acts was not always present in Cambodian

society. Thus, many people who have made a mistake are hard pressed to apologize

- which could be related to saving face.

One respondent stated that "Cambodians don't take responsibility for their actions,

which is why so many people say 'we want to know who was behind the Khmer Rouge'.

From an early age, children are conditioned to blame others. For example when a child

hits a table and hurts himself the parents will say, 'bad table'. This teaches the

child to blame others for their own mistakes, in the case of the table, their own


But Khmer killed Khmer! and someone must take responsibility for this. Of course

the French had a big influence, although few people talk about this - they more often

blame the Vietnamese or the Chinese. And of course the Chinese were deeply involved

with the Khmer Rouge and they should also admit they were involved. However, it was

the leaders who were in charge of the country and they must be responsible."

Level of Responsibility/Prosecutions

One of the big debates going on in reference to the KR trial today is - how low to

go? Former KR expressed deep concern about getting caught in the 'shrimp soup' (to

mean a complicated situation which may connect many people) and victims of the KR

also expressed concern that trying to accuse too many people might disrupt society.

The question of responsibility for the KR regime elicited widely varying opinions.

However, the majority who supported the idea of a trial, felt that the most senior

leaders including Ieng Sary should be tried, some also felt that anyone who killed,

or ordered others to kill should also be included.

Furthermore, those who were aware of the internal party structure invariably stated:

down to the level of the entire central committee.

Several participants noted that in theory this decision should be left to the prosecutor,

but that the prosecutor would have limitations such as time and budget restrictions,

that would define the scope of prosecutions. Some thought a truth commission would

be the best way to deal with lower level leaders though very few participants knew

exactly what a truth commission was.

But the effect of widespread prosecutions on Cambodian society must be considered,

because if all individuals who killed another person during the Khmer Rouge regime

were prosecuted, then the list would be in the thousands.

The majority of the respondents felt that this approach would not be necessary, and

in fact could be very disruptive for society. "We can't put them all in prison,

not even just the leaders," said one participant.

"Some chiefs of villages were very cruel, but still we can't prosecute them

all. For example, I know two village chiefs who are still alive. The first one was

very good, he protected my mother.

"The second village chief was a problem, but he now works in the province. If

we punished them all there would be thousands; we can't do this.

"I think we should do a truth commission for those lower level people. Now I

don't want to kill anybody. Even prison is not important for me."

In discussions, a distinction was made between 'good' and 'bad' local level leaders.

The 'good' leaders may still have been responsible for the deaths of many people,

but many respondents could still recognize that they tried to do the best that they

could in the circumstances.

Some village and commune chiefs were described as saving as many people as they could

from death, others killing as many as they could, and others in between.

Amnesty and the Former Khmer Rouge Leaders

The issue of amnesty for the former KR leaders elicited widely variable responses.

For those people who focused on knowing the truth, rather than seeking punishment,

granting amnesty was not a problem.

But several people in discussions brought up the issue: if there were a trial, then

Ieng Sary must be prosecuted as well, otherwise people would view the trial with

suspicion since many people believed he was involved.

What do the former KR think?

One topic that hasn't received much attention is the issue of former KR as victims.

Although the numbers of former KR interviewed in this study was very small, everyone

told stories of their own persecution and deaths of family either at the hands of

the KR, or before or after the KR regime.

Long Norin and Suong Sikheun said both publicly and privately that they felt they

were also victims of the KR because they lost many family members.

They, as well as several other former KR interviewed for this project, gave long

stories about the many times they just missed being killed themselves.

However, participants felt that the leaders must be careful not to imply that this

means they hold no responsibility for what happened. With such drastic differences

between the treatment of 'new' people and 'old' people, the majority of Cambodians

who were not in positions of power during the KR regime will not understand if KR

cadre claim they suffered equally.

Several participants provided anecdotes that they had heard stories from former KR

and could sympathize with their hardships: "Many KR soldiers were sent to the

border, even as young as 12 years old. Pol Pot killed their parents, and the kids

didn't know, when they came back from the border they were very surprised."

Some Cambodians told of real sympathy towards the former KR, especially towards young

people who were too young to understand what was happening to them.

"I had a young Cambodian who worked with me," one of the participants said.

"The family was living in extreme poverty, they even had to share clothes, one

couldn't go out while the other did because they wore the same clothes.

"When he was 9 years old he was recruited as a soldier.

"The KR took these kids, told them they would give them food. These kids were

then brainwashed. They were the real killers. They taught them to kill with sticks

- forced them to do this. He said he was so scared the first time, he peed in his

pants. They told him, you need to be strong, we can feed you.

"You have to defend your parents, you have to be strong. Then his team leader

died, things broke up, the team broke up. He found his family again. They rushed

to get to Thailand.

"On the way, someone in his family stepped on a mine, and his sister was raped.

His mother survived but six or seven brothers and sisters died.

"I cried non-stop for one week, I couldn't sleep, his story was so sad, so traumatic."

One group of lower level KR leaders participated in the study. Not surprisingly,

two out of three said they were against a trial. All three said they had joined the

government side in the 1990's because they had been promised amnesty.

All three told personal stories of narrowly escaping death themselves.

On the issue of responsibility for the KR regime, they felt that the regional leaders

should be responsible, because they were the ones that had chosen ignorant and illiterate

district, commune and village leaders. This ignorance allowed them to follow orders

blindly and that is why so many people were killed.

Thinking makes it worse, but I want to tell the world

Almost every single Cambodian who participated in the project stated that they still

think of their time living under the Khmer Rouge (although many said they tried to


Everyone lost family and friends [46/46 on the survey form], and many lost close

family members such as husbands, wives, brothers, sisters and children [30/46].

The majority of Cambodians in discussions and on the survey, said that talking and

thinking about the KR made them feel worse.

The western concept of talking therapy was acknowledged by only about one fifth of

the people surveyed.

However, when asked if they would be a witness on the survey form 24 out of 48 replied

yes, and, on the question as to what the purpose of a trial would be, people said

"to tell the world what happened" was a primary purpose.

When a group of widows was invited to come and tell their stories about the KR, five

to ten were requested, but 16 showed up. "Why did so many of you come?"

I asked.

"Because I want to tell the world about what happened to me!" they said

in chorus in loud voices. In the same breath they said talking made them feel worse.

Although they could not articulate what would make them feel better, they "voted

with their feet" by coming to the meeting, and openly sharing their experiences

and losses under the Khmer Rouge.

Although an August 1999 article in the Phnom Penh Post quoted mental health experts

as saying that talking about the past may not help Cambodians, and in fact may renew

their trauma, other Cambodians and expatriate mental health workers disagree with

this view point.

The NGO Social Services of Cambodia (SSC) has social and mental health programs in

several villages in Kampong Speu province.

Although many people are suffering from mental health problems that have obviously

arisen at least partially as a result of trauma people suffered at the hands of the

Khmer Rouge, SSC emphasizes that its view is holistic and that people in Cambodia

have suffered from many traumas including war both before and after the Khmer Rouge


Ellen Minotti of SSC stated that: "People under the Khmer Rouge experienced

feelings of entrapment and lack of power. They lost sight of what they thought were

truths in society.

"They had to live under this changed society for several years, and after it

was over, the feelings of helplessness are persistent and long term.

"Talking to a sympathetic listener can help a person to relieve tension and

to decrease feelings of isolation and loneliness.

"Counseling can take away some of the terrible power that flashbacks can have

on a person's psyche.

"We've had several people come to us to say that their meetings with our counselors

have helped, that they no longer notice the symptoms for which they had to take medication.

Talking therapy definitely helps some people."

A trial can also be a form of healing, if it is perceived as providing justice. However,

Minotti cautions (as have many other observers and victims themselves) that a bad

trial will not be a positive move if not done well with appropriate public education

it can in fact cause problems instead of curing them.

Several respondents felt that finding justice with a fair trial was of primary importance

in dealing with the past and healing society. One participant said: "The most

important thing to heal society is a fair trial.

"I would be happy if this could happen, this is a very, very crucial role."


Nightmares were prevalent amongst the participants filling out the survey (headaches,

panic attacks and other psychological or physical effects of starvation, torture,

and stress were not inquired about, but may very well also be present and problematic).

In the recent Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace meeting in January, which

was being taped for national television, several of the discussion members were shy

to bring up their own personal stories of suffering from nightmares.

Several participants in the study, especially those who had contact with western

forms of counseling and psychotherapy, felt that many more such programs were needed

in Cambodia. "Maybe Cambodian people need programs like the Red Cross did in


These programs encourage people to talk about what happened to them and to share

their feelings. After the fighting, they went to talk with people in the villages.

If people just keep things inside this is not helpful."

Indeed experience from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission showed

that counseling services were of key importance - for both victims and perpetrators.

Much work and research is needed in this area.

Culture and healing

Culture, in forms such as art, music or theater has proven an effective tool in

other countries going through healing after trauma.

Although there have been relatively few examples in Cambodia, in Phnom Penh, an innovative

art exhibit opened in January at the Reyum Gallery, titled "The Legacy of Absence:

A Cambodian Story."

In the Legacy exhibit, the curators noted in the exhibit catalogue, that in Cambodia,

art shops are filled with scenes of "Angkor Vat and scantily clad young girls"

and that "the many dead - or the circumstances of their disappearance - are

not pictured in popular imagery nor widely represented in most of the visual art

currently being produced".

The curators suggested that "for those who survive perhaps the missing and the

circumstances of their disappearance remain un-presentable."

In the period of stunned numbness which follows a terrible shock, repetitions of

the most obvious beauties (monuments and maidens) crowd out the space of thoughts.

"Our exhibition, instead, insists that to go on should mean neither to forget,

nor to refuse engagement with the long processes of mourning necessary to set such

events to rest."

Transparency - public education

In discussion groups especially, Cambodians expressed frustration that their ideas

would not be listened to, that they are afraid a trial will be pushed forward for

political reasons but will not mete out true justice.

Many said they want their opinions to be heard. An important step was the announcement

by Monh Sophon of the National Assembly calling for input on the Khmer Rouge law,

and the unprecedented move to send the draft law to NGOs for input.

A newly released newsletter from the Documentation Center of Cambodia is of key importance.

But much more needs to be done, and needs to be done by the government and study

participants are worried about unrest in the former KR areas.

The lack of public education is already causing confusion. In Pailin, there was reportedly

increased agitation amongst government officials after a public forum on the Khmer

Rouge Trial and Reconciliation was held - presumably, since it is still not determined

nor discussed publicly how wide the prosecutorial net may be spread, some lower level

officials seem to be in fear that they too will be brought to trial.

In Chamkar Bei, Kampot, after Col Chouk Rin was arrested for his alleged role in

the attack on the train in which three foreigners were kidnapped (and later killed),

along with 13 Cambodians, the villagers under Chouk Rin's control were upset and


These fears have been compounded by movements by Kampot government officials to prevent

the villagers from leaving the area, or to circulate petitions. In order to avoid

fear and panic in the lower levels of the former KR , public education about the

justice process is imperative.


The many organizations working in former KR areas have made important first steps

in building relationships, through providing training, opportunities for dialogue

and exchange, and development projects that increase access for these isolated areas.

These organizations recently stressed the urgent need for development projects in

the former KR areas, so as not to close this new window of opportunity, and not to

lose the trust that the people in these areas are slowly gaining.

The road to reconciliation is long however; even if physical re-integration has occurred,

it takes a long time to re-build relationships and trust.

In some areas, people were fighting each other as recently as 1998, there is a history

of not only mistrust, but fear, hatred and deep stereotyping.

Working towards reconciliation implies that both sides must be ready to move forward,


Both sides must be asked their perceptions, needs and fears and then steps taken

to find common ground. Training, development and culture are important in these processes

and can be vehicles to build reconciliation. Creativity is the key, as there is no

one formula that can work every where.

One group of participants included several former KR and one former government (SOC/PRK)

soldier. All had been injured and had met each other because they participated in

training together. "Yes, we are very good friends.

"We talk about everything. Even about how we used to fight each other.

"We have even found out that some of us were at the same place at the same time.

"We have learned to laugh together. When we were fighting together, we couldn't

see each other's faces.

"We were each influenced by different leaders. We were told we must defend our

houses from being destroyed. But now, we are very good friends."



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