The darkest chapter in the history of Cambodia draws to a close.
THE thousands of black and white photos of condemned prisoners displayed at the Tuol Sleng museum in Phnom Penh are a stark reminder of the 17,000 Cambodians who have died in this once notorious prison where only 12 made it out alive.
Chreng Yeng, 57, could identify one image immediately.
“I cried when I saw my brother’s photo. The Khmer Rouge had taken him. They pulled out all his nails and drowned him. I am relieved to find his photo here. But I am still so angry at the person who had killed him,” she said in her statement to the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam).
Chreng is among countless Cambodians who are seeking justice for the senseless deaths of their family members.
It has been 30 years since the fall of Democratic Kampuchea but Cambodians are still living with the ghosts of genocide.
From 1975 to 1979, nearly two million people had died under the Khmer Rouge regime when Pol Pot and his men ran the country. Starvation, torture and mass executions of young and old alike in villages and labour camps, wiped out a quarter of the country’s population under the regime’s effort to create a communist agrarian utopia.
Nearly every family lost loved ones or entire families were wiped out.
Years of research by DC-Cam have produced over 600,000 documents of accounts by survivors and perpetrators; 6,000 photographs; and 200 documentary films and audio recordings. Coupled with campaigns, these led to a tribunal in 2006 known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). It was the first war crimes and genocide tribunal held in Asia.
Yet, despite the deaths of nearly two million people, only one person had been convicted – Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Comrade Duch, Tuol Sleng’s former chief.
Many top ranking Khmer Rouge leaders who were frail old men in their 80s, had died before the trial, leaving only two defendants – Nuon Chea, known as Brother No.2, and Khieu Samphan, both of whom were members of Pol Pot’s inner circle. Brother No.1, Pol Pot himself, had died in 1998.
But for the man who led the way in documenting much of the brutality, justice is not in the indictment, it is in the process.
“The tribunal officially recognises a crime that was not even acknowledged years ago,” says DC-Cam director Youk Chhang (pic below), 52, who was in Kuala Lumpur recently to attend an AirAsia Foundation meeting. (Youk is a committee member of AirAsia Foundation, the philanthropic arm of AirAsia, which aspires to promote entrepreneurship, equal opportunities and innovation across Asean.)
“The tribunal contributes to the democratic process where Cambodians have ownership of their history.
“There have been too many expectations that the tribunal would heal a wound so deep and horrifying that it defies belief today that it really happened. Young Cambodians question if the killing fields had even taken place. It is healthy to come out and talk about a national issue, and it forces us to confront the past under a global eye.
“Genocide is part of my identity, and a part of my life. It is important for us to embrace our past and move on, instead of ignoring it. After all, the meaning of justice is defined in different ways.
“How do you even begin to bring justice to the people? One woman told me that she’d like to have the former Khmer Rouge leaders brought out and carved in pieces, or at least, to have a slice of their flesh cut out in public. ‘For the pain and suffering they had caused us, it is insulting to put them in a protected prison where they can enjoy daily meals and security,’ she said. The Khmer Rouge had cut their hearts, so she wanted to do the same to them.
“She was such a gentle, soft-spoken woman. How do I begin to explain the meaning of justice to her when nothing in the world could ever compensate her for what she had lost?”
Youk knows this too well, having been a survivor himself. He was only 13 when the Khmer Rouge came to power. He was forced into slave labour and savagely beaten when he was caught stealing rice for his siblings.
His sister was accused of stealing rice and to prove her guilt, the soldiers sliced her stomach open. It was empty. She died a slow, painful death. There was nothing Youk or anyone could do.
In 1987, Youk was resettled as a refugee in Texas, the United States. He went on to study political science at the University of Texas.
During his student days, Youk initiated campaigns to highlight what had happened in his homeland and bring the Khmer Rouge leaders to justice.
Those were the days long before the Internet made it possible for news to be flashed around the world as it unfolds. People did not believe that genocide had happened in Cambodia.
In 1991, Youk returned to Cambodia as an electoral officer for the United Nations-sponsored elections. Yale University later hired him as a field representative to document the Khmer Rouge’s mass killings. It was the first official step which led to the forming of the tribunal. In January 1995, Youk started the DC-Cam in Phnom Penh.
Road to justice
It was a long road to justice for the thousands of survivors, as little documentation was left when the Khmer Rouge was ousted. Government officials were unhelpful, as some had played a part in the horrifying abuse of human rights during the regime.
Whatever archived documents that were left, such as prison records, confessions or minutes of meetings, were damaged by the vagaries of time.
And then Youk found a faded booklet.
“It contained descriptions of the crimes committed against the people and was identified by 1.1 million thumbprints,” he recalls.
“Even back then in 1982, the people had demanded for justice. The petition was meant to be sent to the United Nations for a tribunal. But it never left the country for some reason. It was a truthful, sincere appeal for justice and a plea for Cambodia to reconcile with its past, no matter how painful.”
Youk, together with volunteers and staff workers, went about interviewing villagers in Cambodia’s various provinces to document eyewitness accounts.
He faced resistance from the very people he sought justice for. Many did not want to recall the painful past. Even his own mother refused to talk about her losses.
Former Khmer Rouge members threatened to kill Youk. A grenade was placed under his office, and it was through sheer providence that he escaped death.
“People kept questioning why I was digging up the past and whether I am really a Cambodian as I speak French and English, too. But I am Cambodian by blood. In the 1950s, Cambodia was a modern and progressive nation. My father was an architect. People like us were targeted by the Khmer Rouge. I have been very fortunate to survive and get an education.”
When Youk finally confronted his former village chief who had been responsible for the deaths of his family members in Battambang, northwest Cambodia, the frail, elderly man did not remember Youk at all.
“I never forgave the village chief and prison guard who had tortured me. They don’t remember me, but I remember them. But I no longer feel any anger or hatred towards them. I understand their situation; they had to be a perpetrator or they’d become a victim themselves. I understand now because of my research and education.
“Each of us find our own truths and based on that understanding, we move on. I have not forgiven the Khmer Rouge. To me, prosecution is forgiveness.
“The process of remembering the past provides us with the understanding to move on. Anger makes us strong, but it can also lead us to senseless violence.
“With the tribunal, I hope we can close this terrible chapter in our history and move into the future,” he says.
“Many will not be satisfied. But the judgment should be a loud message that genocide had happened in Cambodia. It left us so broken that it is impossible to repair the damage. It is still with us 30 years later.”
Youk has two grown children with his Asian-American wife; they have also adopted three Cambodian children.
With the tribunal coming to a close, the DC-Cam will serve as an educational centre for genocide, human rights and conflict studies. Its secured vault containing thousands of documentation will be shared through a dedicated museum which encourages free speech and discussions among the young generations of Cambodians.
Previously, the Pol Pot regime were mentioned in a few sentences in school textbooks or left out totally. The DC-Cam has helped produce an illustrated textbook for high schools and a quarterly magazine.
“Our past does not need to be like some shameful family secret. After the genocide, people became too passive, or aggressive. Change needs to come from Cambodians themselves. We cannot be a victim of the Khmer Rouge forever. Ignorance cannot be the legacy of the Khmer Rouge,” says Youk.