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A First Step in the Healing Process

Victims of Comrade Duch and Tuol Sleng.

**A word on the subject matter: The themes of genocide and crimes against humanity are not simple or easily discussed topics. I will try to approach them with aplomb but if it does not come out that way, know that I am aware of the complexity of the themes and tragedies and am only trying to disseminate the information to facilitate understanding for all. Thank you.

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, or Cambodia Tribunal, handed down its first verdict in relation to atrocities committed in the Democratic Kampuchea; the regime implemented by the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979. Comrade Duch, otherwise known by his birth-name Kaing Guek Eav, was found guilty and sentenced to 35 years in prison for his time spent as the commandant of the Khmer Rouge prison S-21 (Tuol Sleng) where upwards of 17,000 men, women and children were tortured and murdered. It is a first step toward justice for the survivors of the genocide and a first step in the healing process of a society that is a long way from coming to terms with the horrors it experienced at the hands of its own citizens.

Very few societies on this earth have experienced genocide, overcome it and come to terms with it. In fact, you can probably only name one: Germany. Through a mixture of reconciliation (West and East German partition undoubtedly helped in that it allowed two separate societies to develop – not positively for the East – and gain a whole host of other issues that superseded the past.), rule of law (the Nuremberg Trials) and restriction, Germany has been able to, healthily, move on from the horrors of World War II and the Third Reich. On another hand you have Rwanda; a country working towards societal health but still in that process rather than at the end. Peaceful since its genocide in 1994, Rwanda has used a different tact in moving on. President Paul Kagame has established an essentially authoritarian state (depending on who you ask, actually) where ethnic tensions are buried rather than dealt with; there is evidence that this is not working 16 years on and that ethnic animosities continue to fester dangerously close to the surface.. These two cases lead us to Cambodia and its own, unique handling of a similar atrocity.

Last year, the New York Times published a story shedding light on the growing generational understanding and remembrance gap, concerning the Khmer Rouge and its reign of terror, in Cambodian society. As new children are born in Cambodia, parents speak less, teachers teach less and children inquire less about the horrors that seem like only distant memories to them. Why is this? Why is a society, still closely linked to its past, collectively forgetting – or rather, trying to – such a monstrous tragedy?

Victims of the Killing Fields. Photo by Stevemuhkween, Sept. 2007, WikimediaCommons

There are a myriad of points and theories to discuss here, but I will touch on three in particular. First, as simple as it seems, it is in human nature to forgive and forget rather than confront. It it not our natural predilection to have difficult conversations on subjects of death, sadness and betrayal with friend, family and neighbor; it is infinitely easier to bury those issues in the depths of our collective conscious. This is true when we have a tiff with our significant other so you can imagine how it is an easier way forward for a society struggling with reconciliation of past crimes.

Second, there has been – to the credit of the Cambodian government – an attempt at concerted reconciliation; memorialization, truth commissions, prosecution, etc. There are two truths hidden in this attempt, however. A government led reconciliation, without a base in the grassroots level, will continually come up short in its attempts to bring about change. No matter how tactful a government is, popular society deems when it will get on with life and deal with issues. If government and its populous are not on the same page, true reconciliation well be near impossible. Reconciliation also, inevitably, reintroduces some of the crimes’ perpetrators back into the affected society. This can have the effect of alienation – a sense of injustice – and can also led to the negation/hinderance of the reconciliation process. (Re: Rwanda & Iraq.) This has happened in Cambodia. Remember, yesterday’s verdict if the first for the Extraordinary Chambers that was established in 2006; 27 years after Pol Pot’s fall.

Third, as they say, time heals all wounds. A quarter century, while a quarter of most human’s lives, is a pittance in the grand scheme of coming to terms with events that destroyed a society. Cambodia may simply not be ready to confront its demons.

So with the conviction and sentencing (too light?) of the evil Comrade Duch, Cambodia takes a giant step forward toward justice and eradicating the lingering banality within its society. It is the first of many that it will have to be take. I hope that the journey continues and we can point to Cambodia as a case-study in how to overcome massive societal upheaval. Time will tell.

  1. July 27, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    Kudos to the blogger for taking a shot at – as disclaimed – what has become one of the more sensitive issues in international politics. The euphoria of Cambodian Court’s verdict on Comrade Duch (of which the blogger seems to have been a victim of unfortunately) to me is and should be symbolic at best really. This euphoria could potentially be a double-edged sword because it fails to put into perspective the geopolitical realities – both internal and external – of the then Democratic Kampuchea and the modern day Cambodia.

    Reconciliation is an uneasy prospect in the aftermath of any genocide for the sheer magnitude of the toll it takes on the social psyche for generations. And I don’t think a systematic prosecution (Let’s face it, more than half of Cambodians were once Khmer Rouge sympathizers and probably a good portion of them were involved in genocide) would do any good to the tricky social fabric that Cambodian society has hung on to – successfully I must say – since the genocide. Again, I offer no sympathy to the perpetrators of an ugly genocide as such but I will be very careful about the seemingly celebratory ruling which could send waves of uneasiness to a large segment of Cambodian pupulation. Justice is not black and white afterall. And I am also not sure if it was not more of an external pressure (like the UN) than the actual willingness of the Cambodian government and its people.

    I also disagree with the blogger on the exemplification of Germany and Rwanda as the opposite cases of post-genocidal recovery. I think that is very unfair to the tremendous progress Rwanda has made in both negating the immediate possibilities of ethnic aftershocks and more importantly establishing the country as some sort of economic and political model in Africa. Honestly I would be more worried about the rise of neo-Nazis in Eastern Germany than the possibility of Tutsi-Hutu clash in Rwanda.

    Further reading –

    Again though, great job with the post. I like me some controversies…

  2. July 27, 2010 at 8:48 pm

    First off, let me say, thank you for the comment. This is EXACTLY the kind of discussion we’re hoping to foster here at the Fodder. That being said, I want to make three points to the contentions you raised to my post.

    1) Your points on the conviction of Comrade Duch and widespread prosecution are well taken; I applaud them. I even mostly agree. So let me clarify my views as not to get lost in the “euphoria” of the Extraordinary Chambers’ verdict. Realistically, as you mentioned, there can never be, nor should there be, a comprehensive prosecution of former Khmer Rouge sympathizers and low-level members. As in most all-enveloping conflicts, society in whole trends toward the ruling regime; whether because of fear, true conviction or something else. So in relation to the lowest rungs of the the Khmer Rouge and their sympathizers, prosecution would not be well founded for a plethora of reasons. I would argue, however, prosecution of the elite – or leaders – should be pursued without abandon. The fact that it is 27 years removed and with seemingly petty sentences makes the court seem symbolic. That may be true but it is a symbolism that is necessary in holding something or someone accountable for crimes past.

    2) I disagree with your assessment of post genocide Rwanda and President Kagame. Yes, President Kagame deserves a round of applause for keeping Rwanda mostly violence free since 1994. But at what cost? Have we even seen the worst of that metaphorical price-tag yet? Elections due in August will undoubtedly lead to another stolen election for President Kagame. Mr. Kagame has been in power since 1994, pushing ethnic divides below the surface, inevitably not letting them vacate the society they ravaged. Where does repression get a society with such underlying divisions? I can’t answer that question.

    Anyway, here is some reading on the topic:


    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/3182933.stm (A 2003 article, but still relevant.)


    3) Finally, I have to also disagree with this statement: “Honestly I would be more worried about the rise of neo-Nazis in Eastern Germany than the possibility of Tutsi-Hutu clash in Rwanda.” Yes, there has been a growth in the neo-Nazi/far-right movements in Germany; I won’t dispute that fact. Unfortunately, however, this is not a trend that is unique to Germany, you can see it across Europe in the past five years. In 2009 elections, far-right political groups gained 29% of the vote in Austrian polls. Last month, Geert Wilders (of Muslim-bashing fame) came in second in the Netherlands’ European Parliament elections. My point is this: far-left and far-right politics are often born out of mitigating circumstances such as economic conditions, fear-mongering and national identity. So just because the Nazi Party is part of German history does make far-right politics a uniquely German problem.

    Those are my thoughts. Thank you again for the comment and I hope you have more contentions down the road!

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