Photo by: AFP
Psychological expert Chhim Sotheara testifies on Tuesday about the trauma endured by Khmer Rouge survivors.
Every time in their dream they see the khmer rouge, who are chasing them.
MENTAL health problems resulting from the trauma of the Khmer Rouge years have largely been ignored and, if untreated, could continue to fuel social ills such as alcoholism and domestic violence, a psychologist who has spent years counselling survivors and relatives of victims told Cambodia's war crimes court Tuesday.
"Some foreigners probably are in doubt why, after 30 years or so, Cambodian people still suffer from this trauma, and the answer is that Cambodian people have not had the appropriate opportunities to be treated," said expert witness Chhim Sotheara, executive director of the mental health NGO Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation.
He cited the Kingdom's lack of psychological experts - he said there are 32 now - as well as victims' struggle with dire economic circumstances, which he blamed for diverting attention away from mental health problems.
"The majority of the victims are living in poor conditions. Their living standard is poor. They are busy dealing with their daily life," he said. Later, he added, "They might forget the trauma, but this trauma does exist with them, and one day they will realise it."
Chhim Sotheara said survivors whom he has counselled have exhibited problems ranging from depression and recurrent nightmares to physical conditions such as hypertension.
"A victim told us that he saw [his] dead wife and children in his dreams," he said.
"And the wife and the children cried out for help, asking for justice in the dream. And many victims shared with us that every time in their dream they see the Khmer Rouge, who are chasing them."
Chhim Sotheara also pointed to high levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among Cambodians.
A University of North Carolina School of Medicine survey of Cambodia released earlier this month found that more than 14 percent of respondents older than 35 and nearly 8 percent of those aged 18 to 35 met PTSD criteria on a common questionnaire.
The effect of the tribunal
Chhim Sotheara said he believed the trial of Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, and the four other Khmer Rouge leaders being held at the tribunal could jump-start the process of coping with nationwide trauma.
He said Duch and other accused persons brought before the tribunal could facilitate reconciliation by being honest.
"The psychological healing by the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime is dependent on the honesty that the accused or former leaders of Democratic Kampuchea show or express or acknowledge," he said. "We all know who are responsible for the killing of the Cambodian people."
Duch's Cambodian co-lawyer, Kar Savuth, asked the witness whether he believed the tribunal could actually heal psychological wounds, particularly given that only a handful of Khmer Rouge were set to be tried.
In response, Chhim Sotheara said the tribunal would offer "symbolic justice", adding that a mechanism should be established to administer justice at the local level.