Hang Srim could never imagine forgiving the Khmer Rouge for killing 25 members of her family and turning her grandchildren into orphans.
The 58-year-old farmer from Prey Veng province says she cannot forgive and wants to see the perpetrators punished. “They should be punished…. I will suffer from this until I die.”
Anxious to see the Khmer Rouge tribunal become more than “just talking,” Hang Srim added: “I don’t know why the Angkar [as the Khmer Rouge government called itself] acted the way they did and what forced them to do it.”
Though a quarter of a century has passed since Pol Pot was ousted by Vietnamese forces in 1979, countless victims of the regime still harbor yearnings for revenge against the Khmer Rouge.
But that’s not the full story, according to a recent study conducted by a US researcher and the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization in Phnom Penh.
Victims of the regime who are educated and financially better off generally tend to harbor less feelings of revenge against the Khmer Rouge, focusing instead on forgiveness and reconciliation; in contrast, the poorer and less educated survivors often still want to get even with their former persecutors, the researchers found.
And in terms of support for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia set up to try former Khmer Rouge leaders next year, the people who still want vengeance are more willing to back the tribunal than those leaning toward reconciliation.
Peter Field, a psychology professor at the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology in California, recently presented the team’s findings at TPO’s headquarters, accompanied by Sotheara Chhim, the study’s co-investigator and managing director of TPO.
The team interviewed 130 victims of the regime from Phnom Penh and five provinces, gauging whether victims’ psychological health and attitude toward the upcoming tribunal relate to their feelings of forgiveness toward the Khmer Rouge.
Over 40 percent of those interviewed were diagnosed as having Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a rate comparable to that found in a 2004 and 2005 study conducted by TPO and the Documentation Center of Cambodia.
The team found that those who still harbor feelings of anger and revenge toward their perpetrators experienced more severe psychological disturbances, including more pronounced symptoms of PTSD.
“Such feelings [of revenge] can function to uphold values central to one’s identity and serve as an allegiance to those who died or suffered, including one’s own suffering,” Field said in his presentation.
In contrast, those victims who had a more forgiving attitude toward the Khmer Rouge were psychologically better adjusted, with lower rates of PTSD, depression and other disorders.
According to the research, they tended to have a better understanding of the circumstances surrounding the Khmer Rouge atrocities, and to take into account the broader historical and social factors behind the perpetrators’ behavior.
They also acknowledge that former Khmer Rouge might even feel guilty and were more willing to engage with them.
For Field, “forgiveness” is not quite the right word. “It’s not necessarily condoning or excusing them, but having less desire for revenge…. The survivor is granting it—it’s not anything the perpetrator can demand,” he said.
The victims’ attitudes toward the Khmer Rouge tended to depend on their social status, with those economically more at ease being more forgiving and the poorer people angrier and more likely to want revenge.
The study revealed that the angrier, more vengeful victims also tended to be less educated and less likely to accept that the social and political context may have contributed to the Khmer Rouge’s actions, and instead maintaining that they had acted out of “evil” character.
These victims were also more likely to believe that the tribunal would provide relief—both in terms of emotional healing and in bringing to justice those responsible. They were also more interested in attending and willing to testify than those with a more forgiving attitude.
“The desire for revenge is a measure of distress,” Field said. “Those who are more resolved with these issues are going to be less convinced that the tribunal is going to be helpful.”
That anger and revenge may fuel public participation in the tribunal does fly in the face of an understanding in some quarters that the ECCC is necessary for national reconciliation.
Field, however, noted that those victims “might be motivated to gain closure, not necessarily take vengeance.”
Justice and the search for forgiveness do not have to be mutually exclusive, said Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia.
“The tribunal is a call for fairness—the call for final judgment will have forgiveness in it,” he said. “It will have a right for the defendants to speak, to defend themselves, and to be re-integrated into society.”
Theary Seng, executive director of the Center for Social Development, said she was skeptical about the study’s methodology and findings.
“Every Cambodian across the board has wanted the tribunal,” she maintained.
“I have a hard time believing there is a distinction [between different groups],” she added.
“I still desire justice and… I don’t think my anger is any more pronounced.”
In the months and years to come, Field and TPO plan to examine the psychological impact of the ECCC on Khmer Rouge victims, to look into the potential for re-traumatization and disillusionment as a result of the tribunal, and the degree of relief and closure attained.
(Additional reporting by Kim Chan)