There are many ways to deal with a brutal past. Immediately after the end of reign of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Youk Chhang says, Cambodian survivors used music.
“Before the tribunal, before fleeing for the border, before forming a new government, Cambodians wrote a song,” Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said Tuesday.
That song was “Oh, Phnom Penh,” a haunting tribute to the city so many were forced to abandon when the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975.
“Singing that song was an act of emotional resistance,” Youk Chhang said. “It meant that ideology couldn’t kill Cambodian art.”
In Phnom Penh on Tuesday, a group of atrocity documentation experts from around the world gathered to exchange information about such efforts to reckon with the experience of hell on Earth.
Their discipline, known as “transitional justice,” is a growing field of study and practice in traumatized
Such justice can take many forms, including truth and reconciliation commissions, war crimes tribunals, reparations, monuments and exhumations of mass graves.
“To some people, asking questions is justice,” Youk Chhang said. “Some people call a memorial stupa justice. Some people call a textbook justice or a museum justice,” he said.
With so many options, nations in transition must make difficult decisions about which mechanisms they will use to confront their history. Cambodia has focused on two: the Khmer Rouge tribunal and the Documentation Center of Cambodia. On Tuesday, members of the international Documentation Affinity Group toured the headquarters of both to study Cambodia’s successes and failures in discovering that history.
Claudia Rivera, director of operations at the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, said Cambodia has made some wise priorities. “They’re not trying to have economic reparation, which is healthy to me,” she said. “In the end, money is nothing compared with what they lost.”
Sakhi Ghulam, lead researcher for the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, said that despite its years of frustrating delays, progress at the Khmer Rouge tribunal strikes him as fast.
“I think they have made more progress than Afghanistan in less time,” he said. “Of course, Afghanistan is still at war.”
Naing Htoo,of the EarthRights International Burma Project, seemed frustrated by the tribunal. “There are only a few people being prosecuted, they are old, and it’s been so long,” he said. “The tribunal is one step, but what’s been done for the victims?” “The ECCC has very tight security,” he added. “If I lived in Cambodia, I’d feel like I can’t go near there.”
Hadi Ogal, a human rights assistant for the UN, recommended grasroots projects. He described a political theater project called “Tears into Energy” that he helped tour around Afghanistan.
“If you have a conference or a meeting, few people will show up,” Ogal said. “But if you announce a theater show, you can’t believe how many will show up—thousands .”
Audience members lingered after the shows, he said, to tell their stories and cry together. “At the end, they said, it doesn’t matter if it hurt me less or more. It happened to all of us. Sometimes we consider these things tiny,” he added. “But tiny things can bring big changes.”
John Dempsey, who runs the US Institute for Peace office in Kabul, said that transitional justice is as much about the future as it is about the past. His team is using evidence of human rights violations to vet political candidates in Afghanistan.
“We’re looking at crimes that are ongoing, and preventing people who continue to commit atrocities from taking office,” he said.
“It’s unrealistic to put them on trial today, but you can at least keep them off the ballots.”
Youk Chhang said he’s also looking ahead. DC-Cam, he said, plans to expand its operations to become a genocide documentation center for the entire Asia region, complete with a research facility, a museum and a school. “What is left when the ECCC is over?” he asked. “Survivors’ children still need to be educated. We can teach future leaders.”