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The impact of the ECCC

A teacher reads a book at a Khmer Rouge history training session at a school in Takeo town last year
A teacher reads a book at a Khmer Rouge history training session at a school in Takeo town last year. Kevin Ponniah

The impact of the ECCC

We have come a long way in forging a number of valuable instruments and policies to meet the challenge of responding to and punishing violence and mass atrocity. Recognising that the root causes of mass atrocities often stem from the inequalities between identity groups, we have put emphasis on the legal and governmental aspects of violence prevention. In terms of punishment as well, a variety of courts have been created to shed light on the atrocious acts of criminal regimes, and punish leaders who were most responsible.

The proceedings now under way at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), known as the Khmer Rouge tribunal, represent one example of how Cambodia has sought to address the horrible crimes perpetrated from 1975-79. The court’s work can be broken down into four cases. Case 001, which was completed in 2012, centred upon the prosecution of the notorious chief of a prison/security centre (S-21), who was sentenced to life imprisonment.

The trial court also recently issued its judgment for the accused senior leaders in the first set of charges in Case 002. Case 002, which has been broken up into separate trials reflecting different charges against the accused, holds importance in Cambodia’s struggle to understand what happened and why during the horrific Democratic Kampuchea (DK) period. Finally, cases 003 and 004 continue to be investigated.

While the court still has much work to be done, we can see a number of tangible impacts on Cambodian society. One of the most significant effects has been in the form of generating discussion and raising awareness. Over 35 years after the fall of the DK, Cambodia is still suffering from the trauma of that time period. It is difficult for the young today to relate to the crimes that were perpetrated so many years ago. Likewise, it is also difficult for victims to open up on what they experienced. While the court has been criticised for its many imperfections, no one can deny the fact that it has opened up new dialogue on the past.

But while courts hold immense importance for the overall struggle for justice, we need to be realistic in what the courts can deliver. When we scan the field of potential options for helping post-conflict societies recover, we are often drawn towards the instruments that focus directly on punishing the crimes of the past. There is a common deference to such instruments because they promise measurable results in the forms of judgments and sentences, and they also give us some understanding of what happened and why. But while courts provide enormous value by way of isolating facts from fiction and determining an individual’s culpability for a specific criminal act, we would be wise to recognise that courts are limited in their jurisdiction to investigate the history and culture that precipitated the descent into violence and mass atrocity.

Discrimination, racism, bullying and the entire spectrum of inhumanity that leads up to the legitimisation of violence on fellow human beings must be examined. But how do we do this? Can we put an entire society on trial? If we frame this investigation in terms of punitive or formal legal procedures, we expose ourselves to the same limitations. Rather than demand solely justice, we should also demand education.

Genocide education is the missing piece in our campaign to institutionalise a culture that values human rights. Genocide education can be a medium for justice, reconciliation, memory and, most importantly, empathy for the individual. While genocide education is not a panacea, it is certainly a medium that deserves greater attention.

It is easy for us to pay lip service to education and dialogue, but when applied to an individual country, it is much harder to transform our commitment into results. Armenia, for example, is often, even to this day, a difficult subject to raise in certain circles, and I ask why? If we are truly committed to our crusade against genocide and mass atrocity, then how can we make exception for certain countries or topics. Political and cultural sensitivities may always be a consideration in our investigation, discussion, and education of human affairs, but they must never cloud our commitment to the truth.

Indeed, how can a country profess to have the courage to take on the problems of the present and future, if it does not even have the courage to face its past?

Education is the one and only medium for overcoming this fear.

Of course, there have always been a variety of different peace curricula that have floated through post-conflict countries, and the study of the Holocaust has always been a critical piece in our struggle to build an appreciation of human rights. But to be truly effective, genocide education must be localised. A localised curriculum is a curriculum that works with local culture, teaching styles and, most importantly, local history. Genocide education that is imported from abroad, with foreign history, culture and pedagogy, can conjure up the same oppressive context that precedes mass atrocities.

Human rights, empathy and an appreciation for diversity are values that can only be internalised when individuals are trusted with the freedom and responsibility to learn them on their own.

Localisation is not easy. The Documentation Center of Cambodia has struggled with implementing its own education program in Cambodia since 2004. The history of the Khmer Rouge regime has been taught off and on over the years in Cambodia.

In 2007, however, DC-Cam published a textbook on the history of the Democratic Kampuchea regime and later, in 2009, it began training teachers across the country on this history.

Since 2007, over 500,000 copies of the textbook have been distributed to all secondary schools throughout the country and over 3,000 teachers have been trained in the curriculum. It is now a required subject in all secondary education schools, undergraduate universities and the police and army academies.

The challenge of making genocide prevention a local endeavour, through genocide education, has not been easy and we still have a great deal of work to do. However, the value of genocide education, in terms of promoting justice, reconciliation and memory, cannot be overstated, which is why DC-Cam has begun its transition to the Sleuk Rith Institute, a permanent centre for documentation, education
and research.

Situated in Phnom Penh, the institute will become the permanent home of the largest collection of genocide-related material in Southeast Asia, up to a million documents archived by the Documentation Center of Cambodia. The institute’s name, “Sleuk Rith”, means “the power of leaves”, referring to the dried leaves that Cambodian intellectuals used to discreetly document and disseminate knowledge and culture during periods of oppression.

Human rights and history are interconnected, because to have a conversation about one inevitably requires an interpretation of the other. For genocide prevention to be truly sustainable, it must not only be universally acknowledged at the international level but also cultivated at the grassroots. Education must be the next step forward in our collective work to realise a world without genocide and violence.

Youk Chhang is the executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia.

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