Healing a Nation

People gather at a river crossing in the 1980s. Documentation Center of Cambodia Archives

People gather at a river crossing in the 1980s. (Documentation Center of Cambodia Archives)

Ly Sok-Kheang was a child of war.

Born less than two years after the Pol Pot government fled Phnom Penh in January 1979 and Khmer Rouge (KR) forces marched to the Thai border, slaughtering thousands along the way, he grew up in a country devastated by conflict among a people weary of fighting.

In his soon-to-be-released book, “Reconciliation Process in Cambodia: 1979-2007,” he tells the story with rare insight. His book recounts how the newly formed People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) sought to rebuild the country while waging war on the western border.

“After the [Khmer Rouge] regime was overthrown, it took several months for Cambodia’s disabled governing system to establish even partial control of the country,” he writes.

“The legacy of genocide drove exhausted, traumatised, hungry, angry and hopeless people into a state of confusion because both the PRK and KR forces’ initial priority was to gain military supremacy,” he continues. “Most of the country remained under constant threat of guerilla warfare. This unstable atmosphere was conducive to acts of vengeance.”

Published by the Documentation Center of Cambodia with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development, Mr. Sok-Kheang’s book focuses on measures taken to address the Khmer Rouge regime’s crimes, mainly in the 1980s, but also up to the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in 2007. The book provides little-known details about how the Cambodian government and people attempted to come to terms with what had happened and to continue with their lives.


In the country the PRK took over in 1979, nearly every Cambodian was mourning friends or family lost to Pol Pot’s program of forced labor and widespread killing. In the countryside, some known Khmer Rouge had not followed their leaders into exile, preferring to remain in Cambodia, and many met a brutal end.

“The state of war…created an opportunity for reprisals,” Mr. Sok-Kheang writes. “Many victims murdered former perpetrators singly or en masse, while some hired assassins…. Their desire for vengeance generally arose from a sense of loss, harm and suffering.”

One man interviewed for the book, Ven Van of Pursat province, spoke of how he would never forget the savage way his teenage daughter was killed.

“Nothing could be comparable to when my 18-year-old daughter was raped, had her stomach cut open and filled with grass in front of me,” he said.

Mr. Van could do nothing to help her. “The reason is that if I save one child, the other children would be mistreated or killed because of me.”

He could have taken revenge, yet chose not to, Mr. Sok-Kheang writes. “Many interviewees stated that their reason for avoiding revenge was that they feared being part of an endless cycle of vindictiveness…an old Cambodian saying is to let wrongdoers instead face their karmic acts in this or a future life. Such wisdom helped many survivors keep their negative emotions in check.”

Remarkably, the killing spree ceased after only four months. “Aided by the government, the people then adopted a ‘rule of law’ approach to dealing with the KR’s crimes,” he writes.

In January 1979, the PRK leaders—who would later rename their party the Cambodian People’s Party—inherited a country of starving people who had worked as forced labor in a system with no schools or medical care. These people were craving justice, both for themselves and their dead.

The PRK came up with two approaches that they have kept to this day: focusing all the blame for Khmer Rouge atrocities on its top leaders in a court of justice, and starting a program to turn Khmer Rouge and other opponents into allies.

In July 1979, Khmer Rouge leaders Pol Pot and Ieng Sary were put on trial. Although there were two major flaws to the proceedings—the defendants were not present and their presumption of innocence was not guaranteed—“the trial was significant for the general public because it was a concrete measure to alleviate their anger, to some degree, toward former regime cadres,” Mr. Sok-Kheang writes.

“People from all walks of life made a substantial contribution to the legal proceedings by providing testimony and evidence about the KR atrocities,” he writes. “The trials helped diminish violent incidents and served as a coping mechanism for the country…people preferred talking about legal justice rather than widespread reprisals that would trap them in the bitter past and thus put their psychological health at risk.”

“People became more willing to speak in a court of law to express their anger and suffering rather than seek vendettas…. [They] breathed a collective sigh of relief when Pol Pot and Ieng Sary were sentenced to death in absentia,” he writes.

One other measure taken in the early 1980s was the Ranakse petition campaign, which intended to ask the U.N. to vacate Cambodia’s seat at the international organization., then occupied by the Khmer Rouge, as the regime was internationally recognized as the country’s legitimate government. The petitions were written in a set format with space for people to add how many had died in their areas due to the Khmer Rouge. A total of 1,898 petitions with 1.1 million thumbprints and signatures were compiled and even though the Cambodian government never sent them to the U.N., people told Mr. Sok-Kheang that the drive helped “extinguish the hot anger” that people felt against the Khmer Rouge regime.

To address the 20,000 or so mass graves filled with Khmer Rouge victims—researchers now estimate that 1.8 million to 2 million people had died through executions, starvation or disease—the government set up 89 memorials around the country, according to Mr. Sok-Kheang. National days were decreed: January 7 to mark the PRK’s victory over the Khmer Rouge—a celebration later marred with controversy due to Vietnam’s role in Cambodia in the 1980s—and May 20 as the “Day of Anger” in reaction to Khmer Rouge atrocities, a date some still observe.

People on K5 projects on a break in Preah Vihear province in 1984. Documentation Center of Cambodia Archives

People on K5 projects take a break in Preah Vihear province in 1984. (Documentation Center of Cambodia Archives)

War Measures

Besides being filled with emaciated and bereaved people, the country remained at war. The government issued policies to ensure the loyalty of Khmer Rouge officials and cadre who had stayed in the country, and also to lure back those on the other side of the border and turn them into allies.

One item on the government’s Salvation Front policy, issued in December 1978, decreed the government would “welcome and facilitate traitorous government’s armed forces, cadres and staffers who defect and join forces with the people” and “provide leniency to the loyalists who understood and remedied their past mistakes faithfully.” The policy also stated that captured Khmer Rouge soldiers should be re-educated “to be good persons and to serve society.”

Within a year, more than 500 committees had been formed with the mission of contacting resistance groups and convincing them to return to the country—each one, at first, assisted by a Vietnamese expert, Mr. Sok-Kheang writes.

The campaign included a radio broadcast, the “Motherland Appeal Program,” beginning in the early 1980s. “Each presenter was specifically selected for his or her voice and the background music was chosen to fit the Cambodian culture and mentality,” he writes. Their role was to describe progress, promising that returnees would not be punished, and highlight the dangers they faced living in jungle camps along the border. The horn, which holds a special significance in Cambodia as it has been used to herald danger or call elephants, was often played. Most former refugees interviewed by Mr. Sok-Kheang recalled the “horn program.” As one man told him, “the fact that the program was broadcast at night made the people and the resistance forces even more nostalgic and homesick.”

The Khmer Rouge and the non-communist factions under Son Sann—prime minister and finance minister in the 1960s—and Prince Norodom Sihanouk, which had set up refugee camps and armed forces along the border, reacted with their own information and infiltration efforts to thwart the PRK appeal.

But the PRK continued its campaign, which was formalized in a 1984 sub-decree to create a multilevel “Committee on Bringing Back Those Losing Their Ways with the Enemies.” The goal was to make returnees welcome so they would urge others to do the same—a few returnees were placed under surveillance to determine whether they had been sent as spies. Returning soldiers had to attend “School of Justice Light” re-education programs set up in 1982, after which they were issued papers guaranteeing their safe return and were allowed to go back to their home villages.

A former Khmer Rouge soldier from Kompong Thom province told Mr. Sok-Kheang that when he returned to Kompong Thom province, the community leader kept an eye on him to make sure he was happy and “even found him a wife.”

Those measures often proved effective. For instance, one chief of a Khmer Rouge battalion who had decided to return to Cambodia was followed by 500 of his soldiers, and he later led efforts to convince other Khmer Rouge to do the same.

K5 Plan

One program launched by the PRK government proved especially unpopular. It was called “The K5 Plan,” the letter K referring to Kar Karpea, or defense in Khmer, and “5” to five phases to end the war, which included destroying enemy bases along the Cambodian-Thai border.

“The controversial plan’s leadership was shrouded in secrecy, perhaps because the leaders wished to avoid being held accountable for the numerous deaths that occurred during its implementation,” Mr. Sok-Kheang writes.

Part of the plan consisted of clearing the jungle along the western border to remove the forest cover protecting enemy camps and force their armies to retreat into Thai territory.

This required thousands of workers, which led to conscription as there were few volunteers. A February 1985 PRK document indicated the program had 380,000 laborers, including militia and state workers. “Popular discontent with the K5 Plan stemmed largely from conscriptions and the high mortality rate of those sent to malaria-prone forests, mine-infested areas, and war zones,” Mr. Sok-Kheang writes.

One government official he interviewed estimated that at least 60 percent of the laborers became ill from malaria while others died of sexually-transmitted diseases. Researchers disagree as to how many people died due to the K5 Plan, but the death toll is believed to be in the thousands.

And yet, the plan was a war strategy that served a purpose.

“When I interviewed people inside the country [well away from the Cambodian-Thai border], the plan seemed quite problematic, and people seemed to be really, really afraid of that conscription policy of the government at that time,” Mr. Sok-Kheang said in an interview on Monday.

“But when I interviewed people along the Cambodian-Thai border, for example…in Battambang and Pursat, they said they felt more secure and relieved because the forest had been cleared. The people could see the resistance forces moving,” he said, enabling them to better protect themselves.

Into the 1990s

The departure of the Vietnamese forces in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, which shook the old Cold War stances and principles, eventually led to the signing of the Paris Peace Agreement in October 1991. This put an end to open warfare between Cambodian factions except for the Khmer Rouge, which soon regained its western outpost.

Following the 1993 elections won by Funcinpec headed by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, an uneasy co-rule was established with Prince Ranariddh as first prime minister and the CPP’s Hun Sen, who had headed the PRK government since 1985, as second prime minister.

Funcinpec still maintained its army that had fought along the border for years, while the CPP still ran the government military units—a state of affairs that would lead to armed confrontation in 1997.

Since the Khmer Rouge was still waging war, the party was outlawed in 1994, offering Khmer Rouge members amnesty for their property and positions if they defected within six months. This proved ineffective. It was only in December 1998 that the last Khmer Rouge would surrender.

Finally, in 2006, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal began, following negotiations between the Cambodian government and the U.N. that had started in 1997. Again, as in 1979, the CPP insisted on only trying the Khmer Rouge’s most prominent figures, such as head of state Khieu Samphan and the regime’s second-in-command Nuon Chea, as well as Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, who ran the regime’s extermination camp Tuol Sleng, or S-21, in Phnom Penh.

The tribunal, whose work continues, also involves programs to help victims of the regime cope with the pain of the past. Bringing former Khmer Rouge leaders to trial “has challenged the general concern that a retributive approach would cause more instability and jeopardise the country’s hard-earned peace,” Mr. Sok-Kheang writes. “The debate continues, however, on whether the [Khmer Rouge Tribunal]…will actually effect reconciliation,” he added.

While it may be up to the next generation to accomplish this, the author says most victims and former Khmer Rouge members he had met since early 2000 “have expressed a strong concern that future generations might forget their country’s troubled past,” and hope education programs will ensure this will not happen again.

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