​Fighting for the sake of truth and justice | Phnom Penh Post

Fighting for the sake of truth and justice


Publication date
14 September 2001 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Robert Carmichael

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The Phnom Penh Post is interviewing leading opinion-makers in Cam-bodia. In

this issue we talk to Youk Chhang, Director of the Docu-mentation Center of

Cambodia (DC-Cam).

'The younger generation has the right to know their history.'

How did you come

to be involved with the Documentation Center?

I lived through the

Khmer Rouge (KR) period and afterwards went to America. When I was in the US I

wanted to tell people what had happened to me under the KR, but people tended to

question it - when I told them what had happened I had trouble putting it into


To give you an example: my sister was killed because she was

accused of stealing rice. The KR wanted proof, so they cut her open with a knife

to see if the rice was in her stomach. This happening to your own family member,

you could not imagine, and people could not believe it.

In the beginning

it made me angry because this type of thing happened to all of us. I wanted

people to accept the truth, but it was very difficult. I realized that I had to

do research so people could see the facts.

My mother is my second

motivation. I was the youngest child and usually in our culture you treasure the

little boy, but that wasn't so in my case, because I grew up in the war and all

the attention went to my older brother and sister. I was 14 years old when the

KR came. I was home alone and was evacuated with the whole town. I walked for a

couple of weeks and tried to locate my mother in her own home village.


were reunited after four months, but were then separated again by the KR. One

memory that remains with me was this: one of my sisters was pregnant and had not

had enough food for several months. So I went out to the rice field and picked

up some watergrass, some mushrooms. In the eyes of the KR, that was a crime

because even grass belonged to the Angkar. If you picked it up without

permission you would be considered an enemy of the revolution and would be


They spotted me in the field and arrested me, hit me with an

ax and put me in jail. I will never forget this - they tortured me in front of

my mother and she was too afraid to cry because even crying was a crime. She

tried to hold back the tears seeing the KR torturing her youngest son.

Finally, I wanted to tell the KR that human beings are capable of

surviving and resist dying under any circumstances. I want to tell them that I

am back - you can torture me, you can kill my sister, you can kill members of my

family, but you cannot destroy my soul. I have not come back for revenge, but to

tell them that as a human being you cannot just tell people to stop having

feelings, to love, being with the family.

For these reasons I wanted to

come back and do this work. I also wanted to tell my mother: I am educated, I am

strong, I am fine and I am doing this for you and you should not worry about me

any longer. Through my research I found that my mother is not alone. We have

thousands and thousands of mothers and many sons who had similar experiences.

In 1987 while I was living in the US I started to contact scholars. I

simply wrote to them, asking: What can I do? How can I help? Just let me know -

I can speak Khmer and English, and I know some people in the community. That's

how I started.

You spent many years living in the United States. Were

there any particular attractions the US held?

One of my

relatives was the Minister for Information in the Khmer Republic [1970-75],

which meant there were always [foreign] reporters coming to my house. These men

and women were tall and blonde. I really wanted to become a reporter and I

wanted to speak English. I heard of Kennedy, America and Israel during the war.

I heard that Israel was very strong, very brave, and heard America was very

aggressive, dedicated and independent.

It built a dream for me. I had a

dream that one day I would go to America, be able to speak English, be educated

and then come back. It was a little boy's dream. My first major was in

journalism, but I switched to political science. I went to Texas. Where I worked

in Dallas was just a couple of blocks from where Kennedy was assassinated. Can

you imagine? For years I would go to that bookstore every November 22nd to write

my thoughts on his assassination.

How many years has DC-Cam been in

existence and how would you describe your accomplishments?

We started

around six years ago, and I would say that the one achievement I would most like

to highlight is that we have touched the hearts of the victims. We have reached

out - not to all of them, but to many of them. Just being there to talk to them

is for me our main achievement.

What materials have you


We estimate we have about 600,000 documents (which can be

anything from a personal notebook to telegrams and confessions) and about 30,000

photographs as well as documentary footage.

In the first five years we

cataloged about 250,000 documents, but it is a long process. However, we don't

do any analysis. I am purely a researcher and all of what we have is raw data

for anyone to use. Our main focus is the KR period, but our documents run across

the period before and after that.

We go out to the provinces at least

three times a month to hear people's stories, which are also documents. We have

a very broad definition of the term 'document', from people to mass graves and

pieces of materials.

All this material constitutes trying to keep history

alive so that the younger generation can learn from it. It is done to provide a

guideline, a direction so that they can do more searching.

Have all

the materials collected been copied so that there are sets outside Cambodia? If

so, where are they?

Yes, we have backup in several parts of the

world, but we make sure the originals remain here. They are protected by

fireproof cabinets, by safeguards, in different locations, things like that.

There are complete sets around the world: in the US, Europe, on CD-ROM and at

several embassies.

You rightfully have some security concerns for

yourself, your staff and DC-Cam's material. Have you ever received threats and,

if so, what was the nature of these?


Personally I don't believe in life insurance companies. I believe in God and

that He will protect us. However, I came to the decision that if I am targeted

by the KR, I am willing to sacrifice for truth and justice, even if I have to

trade my life for it.

But there is no need for anyone to be afraid of us.

This project is for the good of humanity and the people of Cambodia - we have no

wish to harm anybody. If we ever feel unsafe we call the government or we might

hire private security. Personally, I leave it up to God.

How much

funding has DC-Cam received to date and who were the most important


All our supporters, regardless of what they give us, are

equally important. The main countries that support us are the US (core funding

of $50,000 a year), the Netherlands ( $90,000 a year), Sweden, Britain, Norway,

Denmark, New Zealand, Japan and Canada.

Among the Asian countries, the

only one that gives us any help is Japan. I am a little shocked... This is not

about Asia, Europe or America - it is about all of us. Human rights violations

are perhaps right now the most troublesome [of countries' problems] and we

should all take a very strong interest in it. This is about the cause of

justice, about the future. It is about dedication for better human rights and a

better society.

Have your efforts been hampered by a lack of funding,

and if so, what would you do if you had more?

Our work is based on

volunteers and dedication. All of the staff including myself had to start as a

volunteer. But of course we need money to implement other projects. So we ask

for money, but we do not beg for money. I ask for dedication but we do not

compromise ourselves with any unjust commitments. We would not compromise the

search for justice. We do not commercialize, because this is not a market, it is

about liberty. We need money but money is not everything.

Another point

is that the money we receive is taxpayers' money, which we are honored to

receive. We have a responsibility to account for every penny we have spent and

we want to show this can be done. If we had more money, it would mean we could

take on more professionals which would speed up our work. We also want to build

a museum, obtain supplementary funding for a school textbook [to explain the

history of the KR period]. We want to talk to every single former perpetrator,

to hear what they have to say. We would also like to record our interviews on

video camera.

[My point is that] if the killings could happen here, they

could happen anywhere in the world. When I was a young boy I had not heard about

the Holocaust. Imagine if when I was nine years old - before the country fell

into the hands of the KR - I had learned of the Holocaust at school, perhaps we

could have helped prevent [the atrocities]. Who knows? Knowledge is a strong

weapon and people should be aware of what has happened.

There has much

speculation over the years that the Vietnamese took documents back to Hanoi

after their arrival in Phnom Penh in 1979. Has DC-Cam received cooperation from

the Vietnamese government?

I don't know how much material is in

Hanoi. We have a very small list of the material that I think was involved in

the tribunal in 1979 and that their expert was involved in collecting. Perhaps

that material was taken to Hanoi in 1979, but it is not clear yet how much they

have. The Vietnamese recently announced that they will open their archives to

the tribunal.

On a personal basis, what would you like to see out of

the proposed KR trial?

That the truth will prevail and provide

answers to the questions that have been posed by the victims over the past 20

years. I also hope we have equal participation, so that it does not just involve

the UN and the government. The people themselves should take an equal role. Even

though they don't have a legal right, they should have a civil right to see, to

hear, to watch and to know the whole process.

What we want to know is

why they killed our family members? Why my sister was killed? Why they tortured

me as a young boy just for taking grass from the rice field? Who gave the order

to do that? That is as important as knowing what happened and I think knowing

this will set us free.

In the streets of Cambodia there are question

marks everywhere [about that time]. But the tribunal by itself will be nothing

without a support program involving the people. I have raised this issue with

the King suggesting that the people should have a role in the tribunal process,

and I think he has forwarded my letter to Prince Ranariddh to take into


What do you think the outcome of the trial will be?

This depends on the [support] program. If you allow the tribunal to

go by itself without a support program, the outcome will be very difficult to

accept. The number of people to be prosecuted does not really matter, but the

process itself and what it reveals is most important.

And the tribunal

must ensure that it is a fair trial. People like Ieng Sary and Nuon Chea should

have good lawyers. The outcome of the tribunal depends on the participation of

the public, and the program for that should start now so that we can ensure that

the process will not be jeopardized.

If a trial gets under way, what do you think the relationship would be

between DC-Cam and the prosecution and defense teams?

We will serve

both the defense and the prosecution. They can have access to all our material

because ours is not analysis material - it is historical data. We hope some

countries will help with funding to expand our facilities.

There has

been some talk of a 'smoking gun' in terms of evidence collected by the DC-Cam.

Are you confident that material held by the DC-Cam can be used to convict former

Khmer Rouge? If so, what is it?

First, we never use the word evidence

- we use the word information, and we have that from village chiefs all the way

to Pol Pot. The prosecutor and defense can only decide what is evidence and what

is not. But I am very confident that the information will tell more than half,

if not the whole story, of what happened under the Khmer Rouge regime.

And this is speaking only in terms of material [already held], not about

possible witnesses, not about possible physical evidence. Prosecutors and

defendants don't have to start from scratch with a blank piece of paper - they

can start today with 600,000 pages, visit 13,000 mass graves and examine 157


Do you think that the trial will prove as important in

telling what happened as South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation


I am a bit troubled by the terms 'truth commission',

'reconciliation' and 'healing' - with that language. Maybe I am a non-academic

person, so I am not up to that terminology. But look what people have done since

1979: they have built their own memorials, built stupas, written songs. Every

survivor has their own personal story. More than one million people signed a

petition telling the government what happened to them under the Khmer


It is clear to me that people have coped with the trauma by

practicing their own version of a truth commission in Cambodia. When people talk

about what happened they make their own truth commission. The effort itself is a

healing process. People offering to their ancestors, praying and talking - that

is a truth commission. People writing their story - to me that is truth


Perhaps their should be a more public nationwide forum -

people could meet every month in every village and talk about it. People could

watch a TV broadcast of the court process or a film about the Khmer Rouge.

Before we could not do this, but now Cambodia is a free country. So to me,

invisibly, a truth commission is already being practiced in Cambodia.

Why is the DC-Cam so important for Cambodia and what long-term plans

do you have for the organization?

We are working together with the

Tuol Sleng (S-21) genocide museum in Phnom Penh. We have a piece of land and we

are hoping to build a permanent center in conjunction with Tuol Sleng to create

an educational exhibition - not propaganda, but an official history of the

genocide in an educational way.

I think the younger generation has the

right to know their own history and the government has the obligation to provide

the whole truth. For example, in the history book for Grade 9 (age 16 and 17)

there is only one paragraph about the Khmer Rouge.

[The proposed new

center] would also be the permanent documentation center of Cambodia where

people can come for research and to write books and papers. We also want to work

closely with the history department of the Royal Phnom Penh University to

encourage students to study this topic. We envision that in 15 years DC-Cam will

become a part of the university - not collecting documents, but producing books

and reaching out to people around the world.

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