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Justice and forgiveness

Meas Muth earlier this month in Battambang.
Meas Muth earlier this month in Battambang. Heng Chivoan

Justice and forgiveness

A critical question that arises after the Khmer Rouge’s fall in January 1979 is whether forgiveness can rein in and thus heal this once divided nation, and whether or not it has to be in parallel with the notion of justice. While forgiveness may be possible for some individuals and a good indicator of reconciliation, justice, especially holding middle- and high-ranking officials accountable for the crimes, remains a challenge.

The KR regime still lingers in the psyche of many Cambodian people, constantly reminding them of one of the worst human rights violations in human history. The most challenging question for them is who to forgive and why it is important. Besides the almost insurmountable struggle for survival, the survivors of the regime have also had to endure the losses of family members. It was estimated that approximately one quarter of the total Cambodian population died under the KR notorious policies and extremist ideologies, and most citizens in modern-day Cambodia have lost at least one member of their families as a result of the KR.

Since 1979, the country has sought to heal by relying upon coping mechanisms found in numerous aspects of our society, ie the celebration of the Day of Remembrance, the teaching of KR atrocity in an informal and formal setting, the non-verbal expression of apology in the Cambodian context, and other peace-building processes. Many of these guide individuals to forgive each other and the past, though forgiveness is a personal matter. Religion – namely Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, to name a few – is, among other things, observed to play a fruitful role in helping heal past wounds in accordance with their beliefs and practice. Not only the victims but also perpetrators who always claim to be victims have sought forgiveness. Meas Muth, a former navy chief during the KR regime, is one of the recent examples. He talked about his efforts to construct a pagoda for his community (The Phnom Penh Post, March 12, 2015). Perhaps, it’s a generous gesture that many former KR members have taken to seek for forgiveness. Those former KR members, at least, may get a sense of relief for the social and religious achievement in their respective community. In turn, the victims may notice this generosity and view it as a non-verbal apology. Forgiveness can be possible for some victims.

What is striking is Meas Muth made a bold statement about forgiveness. In many ways, he may be right in that many former KR were made to commit crimes or not in a position of authority to make any decisions. However, it is also undeniable that many others acted on their whims or went beyond their superior’s orders to commit human rights violations and crimes against humanity. That’s why the levels of crimes during the KR rule varied from one place to another. This might be owed to the morality and personality of those in authority at that time.

However, forgiveness and court discretion are different. Justice does not act on personal understanding, but the fact and evidence. Now that Meas Muth faces criminal charges on war crimes and the crimes against humanity at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia as a suspect in Case 003. The enforcement of his legal responsibilities in this Case may provide other former KR with a good model to end the habit of blaming external factors for individuals’ own misdeeds. This judicial process could deepen forgiveness, while memorialising the past is needed in our society. As Muth’s intention to seek forgiveness through his actions is a good thing, we should not discount the court’s discretion in summoning him to reveal the truth.

Dr Sok-Kheang Ly is the director of the Anlong Veng Peace Center, Sleuk Rith Institute.