Project Expands Mental Health Treatment for Khmer Rouge Victims

A mental health initiative that aims to treat Cambodians traumatized by the Khmer Rouge has received $900,000 in funding from the U.S. government and will seek to expand its work to 15 provinces.

The program, headed by Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO) Cambodia, a leading mental health NGO, will treat survivors of Pol Pot’s brutal regime over the course of three years, embassy officials and project coordinators said last week.

“Victims of torture have multiple needs—truth, justice, dialogues and trauma treatment/therapy will contribute to healing and reconciliation,” Chhim Sotheara, a psychiatrist who serves as executive director of TPO, said in an email.

“This project will provide therapy from a multi-discipline approach which enables survivors to tell their story, share their story with others, as well as listen to the stories from ex-KR members.”

Historians estimate that at least 1.7 million people—more than 20 percent of the population—died during the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s from hunger, disease, forced labor, torture or murder.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) provided $894,057 for the project, “Healing and Reconciliation for Victims of Torture of the Khmer Rouge Trauma.”

TPO Cambodia has spent several years developing methods for treating Khmer Rouge survivors, and the new project “builds off many of the same activities” the group utilized in its previous work, David Josar, a spokesman at the U.S. Embassy, said in an email last week.

The therapy involves group “truth-telling” sessions in which victims are encouraged “to come forward to share their stories as a means of giving voice to the full scope and breadth of the Khmer Rouge atrocity,” Mr. Josar said.

“The project will conduct psychoeducation activities for approximately 1,500 community members in order to increase their understanding and awareness of trauma and mental health,” he said.

TPO plans to conduct 35 “testimonial therapy” sessions with about 180 Khmer Rouge victims that will encourage survivors to discuss their painful memories with a counselor. Their accounts will then be written down and later read aloud by monks at a Buddhist ceremony.

The therapy, which has been adapted to Cambodian cultural and religious practices, is meant to reduce the stigma survivors face, restore their dignity and give them a chance to pay respects to deceased relatives, according to TPO.

The therapy will be used in conjunction with in-person and telephone counseling, self-help groups and community psychological education. Psychological support will also be offered to those who testify at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, where Khmer Rouge leaders are being tried for crimes including genocide, Dr. Sotheara said.

“We have developed some tools that have been successfully used in the past,” he said.

TPO staff will visit the provinces of Kratie, Svay Rieng, Tbong Khmum, Kompong Chhnang and Siem Reap during the first year, he said, while Kdei Karuna, another local mental health NGO, will partner with TPO to identify communities in need of support in Pursat, Kandal, Kompong Thom, Kompong Cham, Battambang, Kampot, Takeo, Prey Veng, Mondolkiri and Kep provinces.

Nov Koeun, a 66-year-old Khmer Rouge survivor from Kompong Chhnang province’s Samakki Meanchey district, said he had experienced some relief after receiving treatment from TPO in the past.

“I always got nightmares and couldn’t sleep well since my heart was completely broken as I saw the relative of a former Khmer Rouge cadre living in the same village as me,” said Mr. Koeun, whose wife, mother, three brothers and nephew were among those who died during the regime’s rule.

The treatment from TPO helped to heal his pain and allowed him to reconcile with the former soldier in his village, who told him he had not killed anyone and that his own father was also a victim of the Khmer Rouge.

“TPO also helped me to get counseling, meet other victims and visit the genocide museum,” Mr. Koeun said, adding that he realized he was “not the only one who has lost close and beloved relatives under that regime.”

“Now I feel better,” he said. “But not completely 100 percent healed.”

(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)

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