Cambodians finding peace with their past

Davey Meelker

Between 1975 and 1979 the Khmer Rouge violently ruled Cambodia, causing the death of around two million people (some even estimate three million). Around a quarter of the population died, meaning that every survivor knows at least one person who died during this regime. Many people experienced torture, famine, extremely hard labour and terrible diseases. 30 years later survivors are still silently suffering from their unimaginable experiences. It is time that the silence is broken.

The Khmer Rouge forced the population out of the cities to work in the countryside to establish an agricultural society. All intellectuals, former governmental officials and many others, were considered enemies of the regime and were consequently killed. Others died because of famine or disease, since food was scarce, most doctors had been killed and all western technology and medicine were banned. As a result, the Khmer Rouge is responsible for one of the worst genocides in recent history. No other genocide within a single country has counted as many casualties in relation to the total population.

For a long time many Cambodians did not talk about their bloody past. Cambodians say that they have the culture not to talk about the traumatic past.  I’m not sure if this only counts for Cambodian culture. In the Netherlands I heard so many times: “we didn’t talk about the holocaust at home”. The first decades after the war were dominated by the rebuilding of the country. Only after 30 or 40 years more and more people started to reflect on what happened.

The same is happening in Cambodia right now. After more than 30 years people are starting to open up. Youn Sarath, the manager of the TPO project that helps survivors deal with their past, stressed in The Phnom Penh Post of this weekend that the demand for counselling is rising. “This is one of the steps in breaking the silence about psychological issues in Cambodia” he adds. One survivor stressed that after she accepted therapy and started talking about her experience – and even witnessed at the court – she is able to smile again and psychologically it is getting better.

Another aspect of finding peace with the past is that the Khmer Rouge leaders who are still alive are finally facing justice. At this moment UN backed tribunal is holding them accountable for their deeds. Unfortunately, the tribunal suffered from a lot of criticism. Some say that the current prime minister, Hun Sen, is objecting to the court because he has a Khmer Rouge past himself.

The German judge Siegfried Blunk resigned after he accused the court of being influenced by the government. To make it worse, the Swiss judge Laurent Kasper-Ansermet quit last Friday. He stressed that he had “reason to believe that several individuals, both current and former staff members (…) have interfered with the conduct of the investigation” and that he worked “in a highly hostile environment”. Many journalists and scholars are flooding the tribunal with criticism.

It is terrible to see that such an important tribunal is losing legitimacy. The Cambodian population that suffered so much deserves a fair trial. Nevertheless, the court is still of huge importance in the healing process. Partially or not, finally people started talking about their past. The court helps in breaking the silence. Only by recognizing and talking about what happened victims can finally find peace.

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