Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Khmer Rouge trials could renew trauma

Khmer Rouge trials could renew trauma

Khmer Rouge trials could renew trauma


It may be the road to justice. But when evidence and testimonies

eventually begin rolling out

from trials of the likes of Ta Mok and Duch, it

will not necessarily be the road to peace for

a large number of Cambodians.
Anette Marcher talks to people dealing with the mental health


of the KR

INSTEAD of laying their ghosts to rest, mental health

experts say, the process of revealing the truth behind Khmer Rouge atrocities

will for many people open old wounds, force them to relive their personal

nightmares and possibly throw them into an even deeper vault of trauma and


Psychiatrists Dr Kirsti Oskarsson and Dr Ka Sunbaunat

Psychiatrists worry that although judging the Khmer Rouge regime

may bring relief to some people, it will inflict new damage on victims as they

are reminded of their past.

They point out that reliving and talking

about haunting experiences is a western way of dealing with traumas and that it

doesn't necessarily work in Cambodia.

Others agree that opening the Khmer

Rouge can of worms, crawling with mind-numbing stories of brutality, torture and

suffering, will be a painful and harrowing ordeal for thousands of victims.

However, they argue that the process is necessary not only to create a

sense of conclusion, but to show that crime and injustice will be punished in

Cambodia and at the same time preserve the memory of Khmer Rouge atrocities for

future generations.

Dr Kirsti Oskarsson is Senior Psychiatrist with the

International Organization for Migration (IOM). She coordinates a project,

sponsored by the Norwegian government, that educates Cambodian


The idea is to select qualified doctors with at least two

years' working experience and give them three and a half years of post-graduate

training in psychiatry. The graduates - or psychiatric residents - treat

patients from the first day of the training course. Ten fully fledged

psychiatrists have already completed the training and another ten began a new

course eight months ago.

Through her work with mental health issues in

Cambodia, almost daily sessions with the psychiatric residents and a recent

workshop on the affects of a Khmer Rouge tribunal, Oskarsson finds reason to

believe that the proceedings of such a trial will spark a rise in mental

disorders throughout Cambodia.

"When details of the past are revealed

publicly, it will open up a lot of old wounds that people have so far managed to

live with," she says. "It will reactivate the old traumas and create new ones -

what we call retraumatization.

"We don't know the magnitude of this

phenomenon, but I'm convinced that we will see a lot more post-traumatic stress

disorders in the wake of a Khmer Rouge trial."

She points out that

post-traumatic stress disorders, where victims suffer from flashbacks,

nightmares and severe anxiety, are not common in Cambodia today. But 20-year-old

traumas lurking behind the surface can easily become full-blown if victims are

reminded of their experiences.

To illustrate her point, Kirsti Oskarsson

refers to one of her graduates who recently drove with her to Pursat.


was the first time he'd been back to the area where he was forced to live and

work during the Khmer Rouge regime.

"Along the road he pointed out places

where he'd been and spoke about how his father had been hacked to


"In a very relaxed and detached way - almost like he was reciting

somebody else's story. But at the same time, it unconsciously brought the

experiences back to him. And weeks later when I asked him to repeat his story to

his fellow graduates, he simply couldn't. It had suddenly come too close," she


"Getting over terrible experiences through reliving them and

talking about them is a western way of dealing with the problem. I think it is

very important to ask the questions 'Is this also the Cambodian way?' and

'Should western values be applied in Cambodia?'."

Dr Ka Sunbaunat, one of

the first batch of IOM-trained psychiatrists, also expects a rise in mental

disorders in connection with KR revelations. And he doesn't see the western

perception of healing traumas as a solution to the problem for


"Some will feel better after they've talked about their

experiences, but most won't. In general, Cambodians think it's useless to talk

about the past. They don't gain anything from it. It only makes them suffer


"Many women lost their virginity during Khmer Rouge times, but they

will find it more painful to talk about it than to live with it in silence," he


Both Sunbaunat and Oskarsson point out that it is not a common

practice for Cambodians to talk about the horrors they went through during the

KR regime - not even with their spouses or close relatives.

"In our

culture we want to hide our weaknesses and never show them to anyone


"When you talk about your own horrible experiences, you often start

to cry. That is considered to be weak and instead we must always show that we

are strong," explains Sunbaunat.

Ok Serei Sopheak, Co-Chairman of the

Cambodian Centre for Conflict Resolution, acknowledges that Cambodians are not

accustomed to talking about their torments and problems - mainly because it has

never been part of the social pattern in Cambodia.

He, however, believes

that the process of revealing and speaking out about Khmer Rouge atrocities is

vital for many Cambodians to improve their lives.

"The majority of

Cambodians are not living yet. They are only just surviving. I agree that many

people will feel their traumas coming back and in my opinion it represents a lot

of courage for this generation to go through this process.

"But that is

a small price to pay for a cleaner future where crimes of the past have been

punished. It is the future of our children and grandchildren and they deserve

some sacrifices," he says.

Likewise, longtime observer Craig Etcheson of

the International Monitor Institute in USA, argues that seeking and unfolding

the truth about the Khmer Rouge regime is an essential step for Cambodians to

come to terms with their horrific past - even though some of them might suffer

from it.

"Some medicine tastes bad. But only through punishing those who

were responsible for the original traumas can we help people heal their old


"Otherwise the frustrations will keep festering just below the

surface," he says.

Even if unearthing and speaking about past atrocities

does provide clarification and inner peace to some victims, Oskarsson points out

that some traumas are simply too serious to ever stop haunting their


"We have seen it in American veterans from the Vietnam War. Some

never get over their ordeals, no matter how much treatment they


While a Khmer Rouge trial will hopefully provide legal justice

to the victims of the communist cadres, the question still remains whether that

will be satisfactory to all.

"It is not unusual to hear Cambodians say

that they want Khmer Rouge killers and torturers 'killed' or 'chopped into

little pieces'. And after the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, a large number of

Khmer Rouge were brutally killed when their victims sought personal


Dr Ok Vannaka, psychiatric resident, was 16 years old when the

Khmer Rouge took power. Her parents who were affiliated with the Lon Nol

government were immediately killed. Later her brother and sister also perished.

Ok Vannaka herself was forced to work hard and was threatened with death several


One recent day, a woman her own age walked into the clinic with

severe depression. She was the daughter of a high-ranking Khmer Rouge officer

and had been a carefree actress during the Pol Pot regime.

"In my mind, I

got very angry with her. Her father had died and I thought she deserved it. But

I tried to cope, respected the ethics of my profession and treated her

nevertheless," says Ok Vannaka.

"I want to revenge myself, but I know I

can't. I think most Cambodians who suffered want revenge, but they cannot have

it, because we have rules and laws. Instead, we now get justice."


Serei Sopheak understands the wish for revenge among Cambodians as opposed to


"Justice is a very new concept in Cambodia - especially to

people who are not well educated. It is simply not a reference in their


"Revenge is the only way they know to express the pure resentment

in their hearts," he explains.

Youk Chhang of the Documentation Center of

Cambodia agrees that the often heard vengeful remarks are merely an expression

of how much people hate the Khmer Rouge. Just like some tend to exaggerate the

number of victims of massacres or purges as a symbol of their own


"But time is the greatest healer and the 20 years that have

passed have also created a certain distance between victims and perpetrators. It

is therefore no longer a question of personal revenge between two people," he


But even if Cambodians are willing to settle for justice instead of

revenge, some psychiatrists doubt whether sentencing a number of top Khmer Rouge

leaders to life imprisonment will provide a sufficient sense of justice to many

victims - especially if the local village chief or lower-ranking officer who

tortured them or killed their relatives walks free without being


"I think educated people will understand that punishing Khmer

Rouge leaders will also bring them justice for their personal suffering," says

Dr Yin Sobotra, psychiatric resident.

"But for illiterate people in the

communes it is different. I'm not sure they will understand."

Youk Chhang

acknowledges that some sort of education process must also take place in

connection with a Khmer Rouge tribunal, so that everybody understands the legal

proceedings and recognizes that the court will provide justice for


He downplays the scenario where former Khmer Rouge cadres that are

now integrated into villages and communities will be singled out and persecuted

when their past is once again brought into the open - thus dividing Cambodian

society instead of reconciling it.

But Oskarsson is more doubtful about

the reconciliation process in connection with a Khmer Rouge


"The Khmer Rouge cadres who were killed in Tuol Sleng also had

families, who are also victims of the atrocities," she says.

"But they

will be perceived as being on the wrong side, and what, then, will happen to

them? Will they get any sympathy?," she asks.

She stresses that sometimes

victims are also perpetrators and perpetrators are also victims.


Buddhism there is no such thing as forgiveness. You are automatically rewarded

or punished for your deeds in a future life. But these people all have traumas

and they all need absolution."

She illustrates with the case story of a

man who volunteered his story to a western stranger on the bus to Siem Reap. He

was a very young child during the Khmer Rouge regime and was indoctrinated to

inform on his parents when they were marched off to the rice fields.


father had originally told the Khmer Rouge that he was a moto driver, but the

child revealed that he had actually been a government official. The father was

immediately killed.

"The fact that this man has an urge to tell his story

to a complete stranger on the bus shows a big need to be forgiven for his deed.

He suffers from a very serious trauma and will go to pieces the moment something

rattles him."

While opinions remain divided as to whether a Khmer Rouge

tribunal will provide peace of mind or create further mental disorders, one

thing that everybody hopes for is answered.

"The terrible experiences of

the past are definitely not behind the Cambodians," says Kirsti Oskar-sson. "The

reason they want a Khmer Rouge trial is often that they don't understand how it

could happen and they want to know."

Craig Etcheson points to another

psychological consequence of bringing former Khmer Rouge to


"Even if it brings no sanctions against foot soldiers and

village chiefs, a trial against the top leaders will still determine that what

the Khmer Rouge did was wrong.

"That will allow people all over the

country to point their fingers at their local tormentors and say 'What you did

was wrong'. And that will be a liberating experience for them."



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