The Documentation Centre of Cambodia is the country’s continually expanding repository of archival material relating to the Khmer Rouge. Assisted by Ezecom and USAID, the archivists are currently in the process of uploading all the documents – about 166 terabytes stored on various hard drives – to multiple servers in different secure locations with the aim of making all the files searchable online. This week, five of DC-Cam’s researchers shared the secrets of the archives with Harriet Fitch Little and Audrey Wilson, revealing the stories contained in the documents that inspire them to keep digging
‘I try to imaginewhen she wrote it’
Youk Chhang, Executive Director
I read through the documents in our archives every morning just to know what’s in them. When I read the files about crimes, prison, arrests and ideology ... it’s work. But when it comes to personal letters, they really touch me. I collect them.
This letter is from a woman called Met, a Khmer Rouge cadre who is three months pregnant. She’s writing to her head of unit asking for permission to abort the baby. In the Khmer Rouge time, you cannot fall in love without permission from the Angkar.
She’s pregnant without a group wedding, and the pregnancy is getting bigger. If people notice, she will be prosecuted for having an affair. So to save her life, she argues that the baby is the enemy and writes that she doesn’t want to be linked to the blood of the enemy by having the baby.
She wanted so much to live that she would kill her own baby. I cannot imagine my mother would do that. I can’t imagine any mother would do that.
You can tell a lot from handwriting about how educated someone is, and she looks like someone from the village. I try to imagine when she wrote it – maybe at night time, maybe without the light. Because if you got caught writing a letter, it is also a crime.
To me, in this letter she is no longer a Khmer Rouge person, she is just a person. When it comes down to these personal things, she is a woman, and she fell in love with someone, and now she wants to save her life. So this letter touches me a lot more than reading the files about relations with China or Vietnam, things like that.
You can see the clip when they clipped the letter to the original file. I think she ended up being killed and that’s why the letter is left here – it’s become part of the Khmer Rouge’s secret files. I think there was no forgiveness in her case.
‘It becomes more about humanity when they tell a story’
So Farina, Centre for Gender and Ethnic Studies
My special interest is in women’s experiences. I’ve written a book about the experience of Cham Muslim women called The Hijab of Cambodia. This picture is of Mousa Sokha and her sister – two Khmer Rouge cadres who were also Cham Muslims.
It was very hard to locate female Khmer Rouge cadres in the Cham Muslim community, so this is very rare and special. It tells a powerful story. We tend to view the Cham Muslims as victims under the Khmer Rouge, but we also need to look at the roles some of them ended up taking on.
I learned about Sokha from her photo and story written by the Promoting Accountability team. Then I conducted a field trip to her residence in Kratie province and interviewed her about her experience as well as about the photo. Later, I brought her to observe the trial hearing at the ECCC. She told us that she joined the revolution when she was very young. She didn’t want to join, but her grandpa told her nice things about the revolution.
You see, there were different groups of Khmer Rouge supporters: hardliners, sympathisers, and then those who just supported the King. Her grandpa thought the Khmer Rouge would bring the King back to the country, so her and her sister joined the Khmer Rouge as singers.
She was upset when she joined and everything turned upside down. She said that if she had known that, she would not have joined. Her sister died during that time.
She was very happy to share her experiences with me because she could express her past. She wanted to tell me about the victim side of things – she lost her family and her relatives, and she joined expecting the Khmer Rouge to be something other than what it was.
I have observed that it becomes more about humanity when they tell a story. It’s not necessarily about crimes – it’s about what someone suffered and experienced as well as looking forward.
‘Some of them feelvery scared when we come to meet with them’
Long Dany, Promoting Accountability
At DC-Cam, we store around 12,000 biographies of Khmer Rouge cadres. These are documents that we’ve collected from individuals, or from researchers, or from scholars, or from the government or the private sectors that came after the regime. The biographies, they contain basic information: name, home village, parents, siblings, the year they joined the Khmer Rouge movement and where they worked.
For the Promoting Accountability project, we divide into teams and carry these biographies with us to the provinces to search for the biography owners. In Cambodia, in one village there’s only around 200 or 300 households, so most villagers know each other very well.
This biography is of Sum Chea. In 2003, this was a case where we carried a biography to the village and found somebody who had survived. Sum Chea was a little bit surprised when we came. But we explained where we came from, and that we wanted to share what happened with Cambodians, especially the younger generation.
We requested an interview and he was so happy because he believed he was a victim of the Khmer Rouge also – he was from the Central Zone, where most of the cadres were arrested and killed.
The court was interested in our interview with Sum Chea because he used to work for the Khmer Rouge at a military airport worksite. They thought he was an important witness for Case 2, and so he went and gave evidence. I think so far we’ve given almost 4,000 interview transcripts of these Khmer Rouge cadres and victims to the court.
The mid-level cadres and also the leaders of the Khmer Rouge, who live in former Khmer Rouge strongholds, some of them feel very scared when we come to meet with them.
They are afraid to give up what they know about their experiences during the Khmer Rouge to the court, because they’re afraid that that will link them to the crimes at the ECCC.
But if they were lower ranking cadres like Sum Chea, they feel that they also were the victim of the regime.
‘Some of them don’t remember anything at all’
Chy Terith, Executive officer
The Renakse petitions form part of the archive at the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam). These documents were collected and compiled in the early 1980s. It was a nationwide effort to document what happened in Cambodia, but also to petition the United Nations to de-recognise the Khmer Rouge as the formal, official representative of Cambodia at the United Nations.
The government that toppled the Khmer Rouge was desperate for international recognition and, after several attempts had failed, the government needed to come up with concrete information and statistics. A crime research committee was formed in 1982.
The researchers conducted research and reached out to survivors nationwide through various meeting forums, through which they had collected individual and collective petitions appealing to the United Nations, supporting the government at that time and condemning the Khmer Rouge crimes.
By late 1983, they had compiled the final reports and counted the deaths by provinces. That’s when the government came up with the figure that 3.3 million died during the Khmer Rouge – it comes from these documents. And the figure became the official death toll.
The total thumbprints and signatures attached to the petitions were 1.1 million people out of about 6 million survivors at that time. I was amazed that the researchers could reach that far. At that time, the Khmer Rouge was still active, fighting the civil war and terrorising populations, and there were landmines littering the country. So I was so surprised by the efforts to reach out to those isolated villages. They often just did the thumbprints with bike oil.
My team and I, we used these documents to identify the people who have signed on to these petitions. They are here, with their names, thumbprints, signatures and addresses. We go back to their village and identify these people.
Some of them don’t remember anything at all. It’s been more than 30 years since they wrote this document, so they’d say: “That’s my writing, but I don’t remember writing this!” But I managed to identify a few people who could recognise their writing, and I spoke to them. They were happy. They were thinking: “I never thought they’d come back to me.”
For some reason, the Renakse petitions were never sent to the UN. They stayed in Cambodia. But many of the stories that we’ve collected thanks to them have now been submitted to the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
‘This is very importantevidence to tell students the truth’
Pheng Pong-Rasy, Mapping the Killing Fields and Genocide Education Project
The aim of this project is to collect all of the information about the mass graves, the Khmer Rouge security offices and the memorial sites in Cambodia. We collect all of this information to form what we call the Killing Fields Map. On the map we have 390 killings fields, 196 security offices and 81 memorials.
Most children don’t know how many people were killed during the Khmer Rouge regime. And sometimes when we tell them, they don’t believe it. So we include this map in the Khmer history syllabus. It is in chapter one of the History of Democratic Kampuchea textbook.
When the younger generation sees the map, first of all, they ask: “What’s happening on the map?” Then when they sit and look at it closely, they see killing sites, memorial sites and Khmer Rouge security offices. And when they look down to the map’s legend, they will see the number of killing sites, security offices and memorial sites.
Thus they could imagine that a lot of people died and were killed during the regime. This is very important evidence to tell students the truth about what the country endured under the regime.
We understand that there are misconceptions by students about the Khmer Rouge. To prove to them that the Khmer Rouge history is really true, first of all I encourage the students to discuss or talk to their parents. Normally the children believe their parents when they tell them about what’s happened in their life.
Secondly, I provide the students with a lot of documents — newspapers, magazines and websites – to show them what many scholars and historical experts have published.
This makes them believe it.Then I ask them to visit the real location of the Khmer Rouge sites, like the killing fields. When they see, they think. And when they think for a second, they will feel connected to the victims. This is very important.
I like teaching. I teach the teachers, I teach the students, I teach the people. I think all of this is very important for my life.