Youk Chhang issued a challenge to Cambodian journalists Monday: Step forward to chronicle the country’s tormented past, instead of waiting for foreign writers to do it.
“We want Cambodian journalists to write the Khmer Rouge history better than the foreigners,” he told the Club of Cambodian Journalists at a roundtable discussion at the Hotel Le Royal.
The director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia told 50 journalists and journalism students that the center’s goal is to determine what really happened during the Khmer Rouge years, and to make accurate findings available to all.
That means sifting through all the available evidence, from eyewitness accounts to Khmer Rouge documents, photographs, and even films. In some cases, he said, there is enough evidence to determine the truth.
He said that after interviewing witnesses and examining photographs of the scene, the center’s staff is convinced that the accounts of Pol Pot’s death are essentially accurate.
“Pol Pot is truly dead,” he said. “Some say he was poisoned, and we don’t know if that is true.” He said any lingering questions could be answered in the future because fragments of Pol Pot’s cremated bones can be analyzed when money becomes available.
But he said far more doubt surrounds the reported death of Son Sen, Democratic Kampuchea’s minister of national defense, who was in charge of internal and overseas security.
Son Sen and his family were supposedly slaughtered in 1997 on the orders of Pol Pot as the Khmer Rouge regime fell into self-destructive factional fighting.
“But we aren’t sure Son Sen died with his family,” Youk Chhang said. “A Thai journalist took a photo, but [Sun Sen] looked younger than he should have. He signed many, many documents during the Khmer Rouge regime. He knew everything,” and thus had a strong motive to fake his death and disappear.
No trace of Son Sen’s body has been found. “We have no scientific evidence to prove that he is dead,” Youk Chhang said.
Youk Chhang told the journalists that since the center began work in 1995, its staff has collected more than 600,000 documents as well as photographs, films, interviews and confessions from Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos.
The staff continues to interview survivors and perpetrators in all regions of Cambodia, piecing together the mosaic of what happened under Democratic Kampuchea between 1975-1979.
The center has located 19,440 mass graves in 120 districts that probably held two million people, he said. That doesn’t include figures from Preah Vihear province where the center has much work left to do, or those who died of disease or starvation in the villages.
One questioner noted that surviving Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan say far fewer people died during their tenure.
“You might want to ask Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan how they arrived at their figures, and what was the evidence,” Youk Chhang said. Lower numbers “don’t sound right to me.”
Many records are exhaustive; local leaders filed reports every day to their supervisors, who passed them on up the line. “So all activities in local communities, the top leadership knew,” Youk Chhang said. “All that information went to Son Sen. So they are responsible.”
He said the center has documented 167 prisons operated by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. “Tuol Sleng was just the biggest one,” he said.
Although much public interest centers on the killing fields, Youk Chhang said the center actually examines the impact of the Khmer Rouge in a much wider sense, including the regime’s effect on education, health care, agriculture and Khmer culture.
Careful review of the evidence also disproves some popular rumors, for instance, that Khieu Samphan somehow managed to amass a personal fortune of $400 million. There’s no evidence to support that, Youk Chhang said.
Poring over the records gives him a better understanding of what happened in Democratic Kampuchea, he said. He believes most killings were due to fear, not any innate cruelty in the Khmer people.
“The Khmer Rouge wanted to establish a pure society,” he said. “They were trying to erase or eliminate the previous society,” which they thought was hopelessly corrupt. When people failed to reach the impossible standards set by the Khmer Rouge, they were not perceived as fallible people, but as enemies.
“So when a person had a headache, the Khmer Rouge answer was to cut his head off,” Youk Chhang said.
He believes only a systematic collection and review of the evidence will enable the Cambodian people to look past the trauma and distortion of those cruel years and see the truth.
“I hope in 15 years we will understand what happened,” he said.