Anew generation of Cambodians is growing up largely ignorant of what their parents
lived through during the Khmer Rouge regime of 1975-79 and the years of war either
side of that period.
"When I was 17 my mother would cry, and I didn't know the reasons," said
Chea Vibol, 22. "When I was 19, I saw her crying and I had heard some things
of the past from talking to people, so I understood a little. But I thought Vietnamese
and Chinese had been killing Khmer, not Khmer killing Khmer."
Increasingly, young people are seeking out the truth, and flocking to the Documentation
Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) as if it's suddenly in fashion.
Vibol is a member of Youth For Peace. Along with 24 other students, he has just finished
watching the documentary S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, directed by Rithy
Panh. Throughout the screening there were gasps of horror from the students, even
some surprise. Afterwards, talking to the Post, Chea said he didn't trust the history
he'd learned at school, but accepted the documentary as a truthful account. The film
shows former S-21 guards talking in detail about their experiences at the prison,
and acting out some of their daily duties.
Vibol described growing up with a degree of ignorance about the Khmer Rouge period.
After visiting DC-Cam he was frustrated with the level of education concerning life
under the KR that he received in public school. "I must come here more. Every
day I want to know more about what happened."
DC-Cam researcher Meng Try Ea has spent his life trying to find out what happened
in the years between 1975 and 1979. Just nine years older than Vibol, Meng Try's
curiosity was sparked at an early age when he was stopped from playing with neighbouring
He was born in 1973. Recalling his curiosity as a child he said: "I wanted to
learn the full story of how and why they killed the people. When I was young my mother
only let me play with certain children because of their parents' history with the
KR regime." Ea said four of his uncles were killed at the hands of the KR.
"For many, justice is finding the one who was personally responsible for killing
a loved one." He said the KR Tribunal would be important in "fighting the
culture of impunity". More and more young people simply wanted to find out for
themselves what happened. Ea said people at the center found more solace in being
able to discover the past for themselves, rather than have it handed to them on a
Makara, 25, is in the leadership program of Youth for Peace.
"When we know what happened we can look towards the future," she said.
"In government schools there is no education on the Khmer Rouge, nothing real,
like this." The tribunal "is important so that we can make the past real".
In the considerable archives of the center lie 10,519 Toul Sleng photos and 42,592
pages of prisoner confessions.
DC-Cam opened its public center four months ago, and now there are around 200 people
visiting each month. Families come from all over Cambodia to trace lost relatives.
Ea described a man from Takeo province who came to search for records of his older
brother and found pictures of him, as well as long notebooks of confession, written
while he was a prisoner at S-21.
On September 11 Bou Meng, a former S-21 prisoner, will deliver a public lecture.
On October 9 a former guard will recount his experiences. The talks are aimed at
secondary school and university students, and DC-Cam will be showing documentary
films throughout the year.
"It's a center for the survivor, where people can find a source of closure,"
said Youk Chhang, director of the center.
Chhang said that there had been a shift in the thinking at the center from accountability
to history. "We support any legal process but maintain a neutrality while working
with the government and the United Nations." Chhang hopes that in five years
DC-Cam will be a place for academics, both Cambodian and foreign.
DC-Cam operates a grassroots outreach program, meeting some 40 people every day to
discuss individual stories, and assist in putting the pieces of their past together.
DC-Cam's magazine Searching For the Truth serves to inform families of victims by
printing their pictures and stories.