Khmer Rouge and learning lessons for better future of Cambodia

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Photo: ECCC

Chin Panhavion, The Jakarta Post , Jakarta

Khmer Rouge regime collapsed more than 30 yeas ago, however its bitter legacy remains deep in the heart of the Cambodian people. During its short reign from 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge ruled with a brutality that claimed the lives of more than 2 million people.

Ever since that terrible time, Cambodia has struggled to raise awareness among its people and make sure those dark days would never return again. The effort is especially significant for young people.

Toch Sereyrath, an upper-secondary-school student in Phnom Penh, said the atrocities carried out by the Khmer Rouge were beyond her imagination, but she believed the things she heard about what happened to the Cambodian people during the Khmer Rouge period. “I have seen documentary films and heard old people in the family and neighbors talking about it.”

She visited two of the killing fields sites: Toul Sleng, a notorious prison popularly called S-21, and Cherng Ek, a site where the Khmer Rouge regime executed about 17,000 people.

Sereyrath wanted to know more about Khmer Rouge and the reasons behind the atrocities. To this end, the student joined an outreach program conducted by Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia (ECCC), commonly known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal and the Cambodian Genocide Tribunal. The ECCC was established jointly by the government of Cambodia and the United Nations (UN), to try the most senior members of the Khmer Rouge.

“I learned that the ECCC trial is part of a justice process that can help heal survivors’ emotional wounds. But the most important things is that we [the youth] learn about the past in order to make a better future,” Sereyrath said.

The UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal is in the process of prosecuting the Khmer Rouge hierarchy. The ECCC has now completely finished case 001 that sentenced Kaing Guek Eav (alias Duch) the former chairman of the Khmer Rouge S-21 Security Center in Phnom Penh to life imprisonment. Now the ECCC is pursuing case 002 which is more complicated. Case 002 concerns four top leaders of Khmer Rouge: Noun Chean, Ieng Sary, Ieng Thearith and Khieu Samphan.

Chea Sakal, junior student at Royal University of Law and Economics, urged young people not to forget the past. “Besides the loss of human life, the notorious regime has left behind orphans, broken families, trauma, and the destruction of infrastructure.”

Long Khet, executive director of Youth for Peace (YFP) said research has found that the younger generation, who had no direct experience of the regime, found it difficult to believe what happened during Khmer Rouge period, but their general feelings are of victimization and shame.

YFP has developed activities to educate young people and engage them in social reconciliation. During the program, participants were asked to conduct interviews with their family and other survivors and write stories on the Khmer Rouge. “They gain knowledge and experience through inter-generational dialogue.”

After joining the program, Long Khet said, the participants get a deeper understanding of the past and become committed to study and work harder in order to prevent atrocities in the future.

Neth Pheaktra, spokesperson for the ECCC told The Jakarta Post via email that the ECCC has a variety of activities for young people aimed at finding truth and justice. More than 60,000 students from over 38 schools and universities across Cambodia joined the program from October 2009 to
June 2012.

“It is crucial that the young Cambodian generation know their past. The issue of justice cannot stop at the level of the ECCC, but youth must be empowered and involved with the processes of reconciliation,” he added.

Young people participate in helping survivors understand the proceedings and then distributing information about the court to villagers. “It is very important that the process of finding justice and the learning of history are going together to fill up the blank pages of Cambodian history.”

The writer is an intern at The Jakarta Post

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