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What need for a truth commission?


Dear Editor,

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The exterior of the main courtroom at the Khmer Rouge tribunal earlier this month.

The idea of creating a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has been raised and considered as a possible substitute for the ongoing legal proceedings at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. (‘KRT suspect hearing cancelled', June 3). 

A TRC can be an important process for investigating widespread and systematic human rights abuses committed by a former regime. Its work is believed to contribute to national reconciliation and unity, and to help victims achieve a certain, but not complete, degree of closure. The "truth" produced by a TRC can foster reconciliation and has done so, at least in the South African context. But the South African TRC was shaped by its unique cultural characteristics - political pluralism (competing powers) and the rule of law (universal standards for judging behavior). As such, TRCs may come into existence, and prove successful, only because of cultural and institutional attributes and support.

South Africa's TRC was regarded as effective because the work fit its Christian culture and politics. Most post-atrocity countries where TRCs have been established are predominantly Christian. Hence, it may be asked whether mostly Buddhist countries like Cambodia would benefit from taking up the same idea as South Africa and to what extent doing so would help Cambodians find truth and healing.

Notably, before the establishment of the ECCC, Cambodians and their government carried out many social, political, religious, traditional and cultural activities to address the legacy of the KR. Although not called a "TRC", these efforts were designed to help people overcome trauma, loss, hopelessness and the tremendous suffering Cambodians experienced during the KR regime.

Previous attempts

For example, thousands of survivor accounts (known as the Renakse petitions) were collected in the early 1980s. Both individual and collective petitions describe the sufferings of that era: the loss of family members and community members; the destruction of property; and the prohibition of culture, religion and tradition. The process was undertaken to publicly reveal the truth about the KR crimes and to seek acknowledgment from the international community.

Also, on the annual celebration called the "Day of Anger/Remembrance",  people gather together to speak out about their losses and sufferings and to condemn the Khmer Rouge crimes publicly. The local government officials acknowledge their hardship and sufferings. During the gatherings, the Buddhist ceremony baing skol has also helped the victims mentally.

These two instances can be understood as aspects of an informal truth commission that Cambodian people have participated in since the end of the regime. Up to now, what Cambodians most lack is a sense of justice. Therefore, punitive justice at ECCC should be complementary to the many local efforts made since the fall of the KR regime in 1979. In this respect, all stakeholders should keep offering constructive comments for the sake of an internationally and nationally accepted justice. Afterward, symbolic collective reparations supplementing the ECCC verdicts should also be a means of assisting victims in gaining a sense of closure.

A national-level TRC appears unrealistic considering Cambodia's culture, religion and political climate. Therefore, continued commemorations, ongoing work at the grassroots to collect and share accounts from the period, and assistance to the ECCC process are more constructive efforts than pressing for the creation of a national-level TRC.

Sok-Kheang Ly

Phnom Penh



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