40 Years After KR Victory, Has Cambodia Dealt With Its Past?

Forty years ago, on April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh, beginning their nationwide campaign to implement arguably the most radical form of communism attempted in history.

Their plan to achieve a communist utopia failed terribly. In essence, their “revolution” became nothing more than a campaign of destruction and murder. As a result, nearly 2 million people died and many more suffered horrible physical and mental injuries. 

On January 7, 1979, the Khmer Rouge regime, known as Dem­ocratic Kampuchea, was ousted from power. After the regime, the country was in a state of complete devastation, with little to no re­sources or even sustenance to feed itself. The economy was in shambles and the financial assistance that was desperately needed for rebuilding the country was wanting.

The most critical resource to rebuilding the nation—human capital—was lacking. The vast majority of civil servants and intellectuals were either executed by the Khmer Rouge or fled the country. This severe brain drain overshadowed Cambodia’s prospects of rebuilding in nearly every sector and, in truth, this legacy of the Khmer Rouge regime continues to pervade Cambodian institutions today.

Now that it has been four decades since the Khmer Rouge came to power and 36 years since the regime collapsed, there is a need to look back and assess the extent to which Cambodia has dealt with its painful past.

Success Stories

Since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Cambodia has taken considerable efforts to deal with its past and the following points are only a summary of those significant measures. Almost immediately after the Khmer Rouge was ousted from Phnom Penh, the new Phnom Penh regime established what was known as the first genocide tribunal in the world—prosecuting in absentia two Khmer Rouge leaders, Pol Pot and Ieng Sary.

The little-known and much-criticized tribunal in 1979 sentenced both accused to death. The verdict, which was met with wide disapproval, could not be enforced because the two accused were living along the Thai border, fighting a continuous guerrilla war that would not end until the late 1990s when Pol Pot died and others surrendered.

For various reasons, the new regime also took immediate steps to expose the crimes of the Khmer Rouge to the world. The Khmer Rouge’s secret prison, S-21, eventually became today’s Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, and the widely-known execution site called the Killing Fields eventually became a memorial.

Immediately after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime, the new administration made some arrests of former Khmers Rouge members and tried to stop revenge killings that had taken place. The regime also ordered the creation and preservation of many memorials and documents across the country.

Among these efforts, a nation-wide campaign was launched to collect survivors’ support to condemn the crimes of the Khmer Rouge and to appeal to the U.N. to “de-recognize” the Khmer Rouge from their title as official representatives of the Cambodian state. The campaign in the early 1980s had amassed a bulk of survivor petitions, known later as the Renakse Petitions, containing more than 1 million thumbprints.

During the early 1990s, the teaching of history of the Khmer Rouge regime was removed completely from the national curriculum for the sake of national reconciliation. Up until 2007, such teaching of Cambodia’s modern history was virtually nonexistent. In 2004, the Documentation Center of Cambodia’s (DC-Cam) Genocide Education Project began independently drafting what was later known as “A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979),” published and endorsed by Cambodia’s Ministry of Education.

Both the ministry and DC-Cam started a major task of training the country’s high school teachers about the content and methods of teaching the history of the Democratic Kampuchea period. Since that time, the Cambodian government also made the history of Democratic Kampuchea a compulsory subject at the university level nationwide.

Since the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979 and after another two decades of civil war and internal strife, Cambodia has made great strides toward securing peace, stability and top-down political reconciliation. The U.N.-administered election in 1993 brought a sense of democracy to the country, opened its borders and freed up its economy.

Since 1999, civil war and armed struggle have all but disappeared and all remnants of the Khmer Rouge armed forces long been demobilized and reintegrated into society. Meanwhile, the Khmer Rouge tribunal dealing with legal accountability and collective reparation is fulfilling its important mission of bringing justice to victims of the Khmer Rouge.

Some people will be satisfied with whatever the outcome of the tribunal may be, while some will not be satisfied. Others will be indecisive. This is why the tribunal is so critical, not only by putting an end to the Khmer Rouge impunity but also opening up space for dialogue about justice and the past.

Road Ahead

To some extent, Cambodia has dealt with its past, although the process is an ongoing effort. In terms of educating young Cambodians about the country’s modern history, the work has only just begun. This effort must be continued, evaluated and improved, as it will contribute to a long-term measure of reconciliation and genocide prevention—not only for Cambodia but also other post-conflict countries.

Although much has been done in terms of integrating former fighters into the population, there is still a degree of distance between former Khmer Rouge and victims, as well as the rest of society. Greater efforts have to be made toward creating bridges between and within communities, where former Khmer Rouge can open up on their history without fear of reprisal, and victims can discuss their experiences in forums that value and respect what they have to share.

The identity of being Khmer Rouge remains embedded deep within the psyche, combined with the trauma and fear of being discriminated against or implicated in some way that might bring them before the tribunal. Shame, denial and fear are real walls that encourage former Khmers Rouge members to avoid discussions on the history, particularly when such conversations turn to their personal experiences.

For the same reasons, many former Khmers Rouge even discourage their children from learning relevant history. This has made genocide education all the more challenging at former regime strongholds like Pailin, Malai, Anlong Veng and other areas where many former Khmers Rouge still reside.

Work must be done to bring down these walls and create a more meaningful interpersonal and national reconciliation, which not only encompasses the process and realization of a nonviolent coexistence, but also building confidence and trust through a shared future based around responsibility and humanity.

Before we can have a culture of empathy and understanding, we must first have an environment that permits and encourages dialogue. Therefore, a full and open discourse is something that remains to be done including creating a more rigorous and favorable space for inter-generational dialogue.

This should not take place only between victims, but also with former Khmers Rouge. This open discourse could take place either in a less formal space such as at home or in a village, or in a more formal one such as at school or public forums. And for the former Khmer Rouge to open up without fear of repercussion, more efforts need to be made to ensure public understanding of the scope of the tribunal that prosecutes only the most senior and most responsible persons.

Although the post-tribunal period will probably be the most crucial time to open a more favorable space for this dialogue, efforts to build trust must be encouraged and strengthened now. Only when open dialogue across generations takes place can the Cambodian population get out of the mindset of being victims and move forward to embrace the future. Without effectively dealing with the horrors of its past, Cambodia will struggle to take on the problems of its present and the future.

Kry Suyheang and Chy Terith are researchers at the Documen­tation Center of Cambodia

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