For the last week, Terith Chy has been trudging through Kompong Thom province villages following a frail historical thread.
Team leader at the Documentation Center of Cambodia’s Victim Participation Project, Terith Chy is searching for some of the 1.1 million people who lodged complaints against the Khmer Rouge in 1982 and 1983 at the behest of the Vietnam-backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea.
He wants to know whether those victims want to file another complaint, this time with the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
“We believe such activities contribute to national reconciliation: Knowing this testimony they gave 28 years ago has not been forgotten,” he said.
So far, he says he and nine other DC-Cam staffers have gathered more than 100 new petitions, which they will pass on to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.
Today, DC-Cam has about 1,200 petitions from the 1980s in hand, which together represent the voices of 1.1 million people. In the coming months, DC-Cam plans to canvass the entire country, using these documents as a starting point to collect 10,000 new victim complaints for the ECCC.
Known as the Renakse (“the Front”) petitions, the complaints were collected by a government commission tasked with documenting the crimes of the Khmer Rouge regime. Today, the documents form a sweeping—and deeply politicized—record of suffering.
The papers speak of mountains of bones, families exterminated by the hundreds, throats slit with palm fronds, babies bayoneted by laughing cadre, a crematorium where people were burnt to ash and used as fertilizer.
But this wash of grief was neatly channeled into support for the PRK government.
The statements are salted with praise for “the brilliant hero Heng Samrin,” then the head of the PRK, and currently president of the National Assembly, as well as oaths of fealty to the new regime, which petitioners thanked not only for freedom, but also for food.
Several complainants signed off above their thumbprints with the words: “Bravo the People’s Republic of Kampuchea.”
Petitioners wrote sweeping condemnations of what they called the “Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan clique,” the “Sihanoukists” as well as “the paranoid Beijing expansionists.”
Complainants asked for memorials, for a day to commemorate their anger, and above all, for the UN to oust the Khmer Rouge from Cambodia’s UN seat and give it to the PRK instead.
The petitions were supposed to be delivered to the UN headquarters in New York, but DC-Cam Director Youk Chhang says they never left the country. Officials at the time didn’t know whom to send them to, he said.
Even through the clatter of politics in the Renakse papers, Youk Chhang believes he can make out something that resembles the true voices of the people.
“The voices of the people are there even though the petitions were collected by the government,” he said.
It is these small sounds that he hopes to cultivate. “The voice of the victims has been manipulated and politicized for 30 years. The voice of the victims has never been free,” he said.
DC-Cam casts the project as a way to restart an aborted process of truth and reconciliation, and for Terith Chy this project is about history as much as justice.
“The stories they tell the court will help make a complete historical record,” he said, adding that he’s worked hard to manage victim expectations.
Even if the court doesn’t act on your complaint, he tells victims, “Your story will not be forgotten.”
Nuon Dork, 61, a villager from Kompong Thom’s Baray district, who lost five members of his family to the Khmer Rouge, said he filed a complaint back in the 1980s, to little effect.
Today, he says he’d like to file another complaint with the ECCC, as long as someone helps him figure out how to do it.
“I want the history to be written about the brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime so the younger generation can understand it,” he said.
“Young people do not believe what I told them. They asked me why I did not revolt. I told them I was too hungry.”