LEGACY OF THE KHMER ROUGE YEARS

LEGACY OF THE KHMER ROUGE YEARS

Survivors, relatives of victims and former killers often live together in the same village or community. There often doesn’t be a stigma attached to being a former Khmer Rouge member. Michael Doyle, of Princeton University's International Peace Academy, told Newsweek, “Every single Cambodian family has uncles, aunts, fathers and mothers, children and nephews and nieces whose killed. But every Cambodian family also has the suspicion that someone in the family was implicated in the Khmer Rouge movement."

Some believe the Khmer Rouge era just need to be forgotten. Others believe it should be remembered so that something similar will not happen again. Many want to see a tribunal so that at least some justice can be done. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen told his people, “Dig a hole and bury the past” (later he said he supported a tribunal when it became clear that doing so would earn Cambodia millions of dollars in foreign aid).

Many people lost loved ones and were subjected to horrors. Many children were orphaned or separated from the families. Some children weren't even sure of their name after the Khmer Rouge years and chose new ones. There are no references to the Khmer Rouge in Cambodian textbooks. For some children they have become like the bogie man. Mothers often tell their children, "You behave as if you were born under the Khmer Rouge." After the Khmer Rouge years, people used to gather in villages and schoolrooms on the Day of Hate and give testimonies of the horrors they their experienced and weep. But most have kept silent and gotten on with their could.

Reuters reported in July 2010: Many former Khmer Rouge members are now part of Cambodia's civil service and occupy top positions in provincial and central government...Finance Minister Keat Chhon has admitted his involvement as an interpreter for late Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, while Foreign Minister Hor Namhong has been accused of having Khmer Rouge connections and heading a detention centre. He denies the claims. [Source: Reuters, July 27, 2010]

By some estimate that 30 percent of the population suffers from some degree of posttraumatic stress syndrome. Alex Hinton wrote in the Washington Post, Cambodia “has a minimal mental health infrastructure outside of the urban areas -- in part due to the loss of almost all of Cambodia's psychiatrists during the Khmer Rouge period. Recent research and my own conversations with people in the countryside suggest that many Cambodians continue to suffer from bodily ailments, flashbacks and nightmares. The international community must act immediately to avert a potential mental health crisis in Cambodia as the tribunal proceeds. [Source: Alex Hinton, Washington Post, August 4, 2006]

Charlie Campbell wrote in Time magazine, “Phnom Penh’s glorious Parisian-style boulevards were emptied as ruthless cadres — many mere babes handed AK47s and indoctrinated with nihilistic zeal — forced the entire population to toil in the fields, and ruthlessly culled anyone on the flimsiest pretense. Crying at a funeral, falling ill or wearing eyeglasses were deemed anti-revolutionary and met with torture and gruesome death. “For 20 years, I had nightmares every day, and every time I talked about what happened I would get stomach aches and all the symptoms of PTSD,” says Kilong Ung, who was 15 when the Khmer Rouge turned his life upside down and extinguished the lives of 50 of his relatives. [Source: Charlie Campbell, Time magazine, February 13, 2014]

Textbook About the Khmer Rouge

In June 2007, a new high school textbook about the Khmer Rouge era, the first written by a Cambodian, was published by the Documentation Center of Cambodia, an independent institute in Phnom Penh that specializes in Khmer Rouge history. In "A History of Democratic Kampuchea," author Khamboly Dy, which describes in 11 detailed chapters the rise, reign and fall of the Khmer Rouge.

Ker Munthit of Associated Press wrote: For Cambodian “school children, the Khmer Rouge remain off the curriculum, leaving students virtually clueless about how the now-defunct communist group became a killing machine in late 1970s. Now that knowledge gap may at least be partially filled through the newly released "A History of Democratic Kampuchea," a textbook about the Khmer Rouge's Khamboly Dy, a 26-year-old staffer at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said, "Nothing can compensate for the Cambodian people's sufferings during the Khmer Rouge” but learning about the regime's history "is the best compensation for them."[Source: Ker Munthit, Associated Press, June 18, 2007 ==]

“Still, the 100-page textbook isn't slated for general classroom use. Khamboly Dy said 3,000 copies in the Cambodian language will be given to libraries, students and teachers for free, and more will be printed once additional funds can be raised. David Chandler, an American scholar and author of several books on Cambodia, says a straightforward account is long overdue since the government "seems unwilling to produce such a text, or at least does not share a sense of urgency about exposing this period of he past." ==

“Most books about the Khmer Rouge era have to date been either written by foreigners or overseas Cambodians. Very few of these have been translated into the Cambodian language, and none are cheaply available. Khmer Rouge history was briefly featured in a high school social study textbook in 2002 before the entire book was yanked off the curriculum because it provoked political tension between Prime Minister Hun Sen and his former ally, Prince Norodom Ranariddh. ==

“The book had only highlighted the victory of Hun Sen's ruling party in the 1998 national election and failed to mention Ranariddh's defeat of Hun Sen in the 1993 polls. As a result of Ranariddh-Hun Sen rivalry, the entire modern history of Cambodia from the French colonial period to the present was expunged from schools, Khamboly Dy said. ==

“In the new book, Khamboly Dy said he had to carefully select words to explain certain past events, including the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge by Vietnamese troops.For Hun Sen's camp, the Vietnamese were not invaders, but to his opponents they always were. So Khamboly Dy wrote the Vietnamese "fought their way into Cambodia" alongside Cambodian resistance forces including Hun Sen. "This is the fact. Whether they invaded or liberated (Cambodia) is only political interpretation," he said. ==

“The government has endorsed the book only as core reference material for writing future history textbooks, but not for use in general education, said Sorn Samnang, president of the government-run Royal Academy, who sat on a committee which scrutinized Khamboly Dy's book. Although it contained useful information, he said the book could affect the many still living people involved with the Khmer Rouge mentioned in the work. He did not elaborate. Such an attitude only "suggests that any excuse, however shameless, will be seized upon if it helps the Cambodian authorities avoid raking over the past," said Philip Short, who wrote "Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare," a political biography of the late Khmer Rouge leader. He said the book is an accurate and objective account of a very complex period, and therefore "deserves to be not merely an approved textbook for Cambodian schools, but a compulsory text, which all Cambodian schoolchildren should be required to study." ==

Knowledge About Khmer Rouge

“Chey Vann Virak, an 11th grade student in Phnom Penh, said his history teacher would randomly mention "a little bit" about the killings under the Khmer Rouge. At home, the 17-year-old said his parents occasionally recalled for him and his three siblings the sufferings they went through and say, "All of you are just lucky to have been born and grown up in this era." That is all he knows about the Khmer Rouge. [Source: Ker Munthit, Associated Press, June 18, 2007]

Erika Kinetz wrote in the Washington Post: “In a country where half the students who enter grammar school never finish, Cheak Socheata, 18, is among the most privileged of her generation: She made it to college. But even Cheak, a first-year medical student at Phnom Penh's University of Health Sciences, has learned next to nothing in school about the Khmer Rouge, who in a little less than four years in power executed, tortured and starved to death an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians, about a quarter of the population. "I just heard from my parents that there was mass killing," Cheak said. "It's hard to believe." Her high school history teacher told her the basics -- the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 -- and advised her to read about the rest on her own, she recalled. [Source: Erika Kinetz, Washington Post, May 8, 2007 /\]

“Young Cambodians haven't been formally taught much about the Khmer Rouge in school since propaganda texts of the 1980s, when Cambodia was ruled by the communist government that the Vietnamese installed. Those books depicted the Khmer Rouge with such graphic ferocity that some children grew up thinking they were actual monsters. These books were taken out of use in 1991, when U.N.-brokered peace talks ended more than a decade of civil war and led to elections. In 2002, a 12th-grade history textbook touching on the Pol Pot years was introduced but quickly recalled after controversy arose over the book's omission of the 1993 electoral victory of the royalist FUNCINPEC party. A new version of the text has yet to appear. Ministry of Education officials say they plan to publish a new book in 2009; they blame the delay on lack of funds. /\

“In the meantime, Cambodia's youth are "a lost generation," said Chea Vannath, former president of the Center for Social Development, a local rights group. In the absence of a shared national story about the Khmer Rouge, a thousand conversations, fractured by politics, rumor, myth and the varieties of human experience are being passed down to a sometimes skeptical younger generation. "When a kid doesn't eat all the rice on the plate, his mother tells him, 'If you were in the Pol Pot regime, you would die because you don't have enough food,' " said Nou Va, 27, a program officer at the Khmer Institute for Democracy, a nonprofit group that recently produced a documentary film about the generation gap. "The kid says, 'Oh, she's just saying that to blame us. I don't believe it.' " /\

Clash Over History of the Khmer Rouge

Erika Kinetz wrote in the Washington Post: “Nearly three decades after the Khmer Rouge were overthrown, a battle over history is underway in Cambodia. On one side are forces eager to reckon with the past, both in school and at a special court set up to try the surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Many teachers, students and activist groups say more should be taught about the Khmer Rouge years, which is virtually absent from school curriculums now. Blunting these demands is a government whose top leaders were once associated with the now-defunct communist movement and who seem loath to cede control over such a politically sensitive chapter of Cambodian history. "Suppose that ever since 1945, Germany had been ruled by former Nazis," said Philip Short, author of "Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare," "Would the history of the Nazi regime be taught honestly in Germany today? This is now Cambodia's problem."[Source: Erika Kinetz, Washington Post, May 8, 2007 /\]

“The book about the Khmer Rouge era— "A History of Democratic Kampuchea”—fueled the controversy. “A Cambodian government review panel deemed the book unsuitable for use in the regular curriculum. Instead, the panel said the book could be used as supplementary reference material and as a basis for the Ministry of Education to write its own textbook. "It's a start. The door is open," said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center, which has been pushing to get a textbook into classrooms since 1999. /\

“The sidelining of the textbook reflects the failure of the country's current leaders to move beyond their Khmer Rouge past, he said. Prime Minister Hun Sen, National Assembly President Heng Samrin and Senate President Chea Sim were all middle-ranking Khmer Rouge officials, Short said. The three men left Cambodia for Vietnam in the late 1970s and returned with Vietnamese army forces that overthrew Pol Pot in 1979. Today, their political legitimacy rests in part on their credentials as men who helped free Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge tyranny. /\

“Khamboly said that picking his way through politically charged points was the most difficult aspect of writing the book, which was printed with $10,000 from the Soros Foundation's Open Society Institute and the National Endowment for Democracy. By citing sources, focusing on survivor stories and seeking neutral language, Khamboly said, he hoped to avoid political tussles. It wasn't enough. The committee that reviewed the text criticized it for giving too much attention to the years after 1979, when Cambodian factions fought a long civil war, and for tracing the roots of the Khmer Rouge back to the struggle against French colonization and to Ho Chi Minh's Indochinese Communist Party. /\

“Committee members also said naming individuals associated with the Khmer Rouge government was "unnecessary" and a threat to their safety. History "should be kept for at least 60 years before starting to discuss it," said committee member Sorn Samnang, president of the Royal Academy of Cambodia, a graduate school, according to the minutes of a Dec. 14 meeting of the review panel. /\

“There is a long-standing political debate in Cambodia over whether Vietnam liberated or invaded the country when it ousted the Khmer Rouge. Khamboly's book uses neither term, saying only that Vietnamese forces "fought their way into Cambodia." "We use facts," Khamboly said. "Whether they invaded or liberated the country is an interpretation." But in Cambodia, as in other post-conflict states, there are few facts that belong to everybody. In a Sept. 19 letter to Hun Sen, the premier, his education adviser, Sean Borat, generally praised the book but took issue with Khamboly's failure to characterize the Vietnamese action as a liberation. He also objected to the book's characterization of Cambodians who returned with the Vietnamese in 1979 as "Khmer Rouge defectors." That phrase, Sean Borat wrote, must be deleted because "the Cambodian People's Party did not originate from Khmer Rouge soldiers but from a massive movement that emerged to oppose the brutal regime led by Pol Pot." The offending phrase was removed from the final version of the book. /\

"Were Hun Sen and his colleagues to permit an honest appraisal of the past, it would be the best proof that they have finally broken with that past and moved out from under the shadow of their Khmer Rouge origins," Short said. "Unfortunately, all the signs continue to point in the opposite direction."

Former Khmer Rouge Stronghold Struggles with History

Reporting from Pailin, a former stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, Brendan Brady wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Twelfth-grade teacher Sam Borath recently asked her students in Svay, a town in northwestern Cambodia, to write down the names of five leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Simply identifying top figures, however, can be an awkward exercise. Many communities would rather not stir up memories of the war-torn past, particularly in this region. Svay is part of a thin belt along the northwestern border that remained under the control of ultra-communist Khmer Rouge leaders and their militias for two decades after 1979, when the regime was ousted from power in Phnom Penh. Many residents still defend the regime's legacy, contending that it had rural interests at heart. But a new national curriculum requires schools to tackle the controversial topic as a way to confront and reconcile the past. "Some did it," Sam Borath said of the writing exercise. "But some just wrote down one name. Others didn't even hand it in because their parents told them not to." [Source: Brendan Brady, Los Angeles Times, December 10, 2010 ><]

“Students in Svay were introduced to the new lessons in November. "A lot of the students are curious to know what happened," Sam Borath said. "But many parents are former Khmer Rouge, so they discourage their kids from learning about it. They think we are teaching their children to be angry at them." ><

“After the Khmer Rouge was ousted in 1979, Pailin became the base of its insurgency before morphing in the late 1990s into an autonomous zone for former regime leaders who agreed to leave the movement. A decade later, the province has been reincorporated into the country. Convincing former Khmer Rouge cadres that they'll benefit under a society that prosecutes the regime's top officials remains a hard sell here. Mey Meakk, a deputy governor in Pailin province and former secretary to top Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, contended that his old boss deserves all the blame and everyone else should be left alone. ><

“Back in the classroom, Pailin's high school teachers were trying to raise awareness one lesson at a time. Most of them grew up elsewhere and don't share local sentiments. "We talk about the torture, how people were evicted from the cities, the endless hard labor," said Long Vannak, a 12th-grade history teacher who had moved here. "Many of the students are interested in this history." Sat Sorya, 20, one of Long Vannak's students, struggled to make sense of the many disturbing snippets she'd heard over the years from relatives, classmates and the media. "I want to know why they killed so many of their own people," she said. "I want to know why they left their own country in such terrible condition." ><

Sentiments of Khmer Rouge Survivors

Ronnie Yimsut of the Documentation Center of Cambodia wrote: “This much I know: Pol Pot and the other dead Khmer Rouge are now suffering severely in burning hell for every single Khmer life they had destroyed during their regin of terror. They will be there for millions of lifetimes yet to come, one lifetime for every life they took.I felt avenged knowing this simple fact. Other Khmer Rouge, such as Ieng Sary, Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Ta Mok, Duch, Ke Pauk, and a few hundreds other Khmer Rouge leaders and commanders, can still redeem themselves before they cross over from this world to the next. They can still beg for mercy and forgiveness from their victims, while they are still alive in this world. They must do it now. Once they have crossed over to the other world (as Pol Pot, Son Sen, and Yun Yat did), it will be very difficult, if not impossible, for them to redeem themselves. Now is the time for the aging Khmer Rouge to make the wrong that they did into right. Come out with the truth and beg the Khmer people for forgiveness now so that these Khmer Rouge don’t have to burn in hell as long as Pol Pot, Son Sen, Yun Yat, and a few others. All of them are now suffering in burning hell for their past evil deeds. They all have to pay sooner or later. [Source: Ronnie Yimsut, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org/Survivors/43 =]

“Personally, I am not even sure how these surviving Khmer Rouge, whose hands are still stained with innocent people’s blood, can live with themselves after knowing full well that what they did was pure evil, very wrong, and inhumane. This bunch of cowards shouldn’t be allowed to hide behind the “national reconciliation” any longer. They must come out with the truth now before it is too late for them. Pol Pot found out about this the hard way and his victims cannot release him from the millions of lifetimes in burning hell. Only the surviving Khmer Rouge can save their own souls, if not their lives in this world. Come out with the truth and beg for forgiveness from the Khmer people now! The Khmer people cannot forgive them until they admit that what they did to their own kind was very wrong. =

In May 2006 an Anger Day ceremony was held at the Choesung Ek killing fields in which students from a fine arts school performed mock executions. At the same place, to mark the 30th anniversary of the Khmer Rouge coming to power 30 saffron-robed monks—one representing each year since the takeover by Pol Pot’s regime—accepted offerings of lowers, fruit and rice from 200 opposition supporters. In January Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and other political leaders release doves at the People’s Part headquarters in Phnom Penh the ousting of the Khmer Rouge regime.

To mark the 30th anniversary of the ousting of the Khmer Rouge, Reuters reported: Up to 80,000 people packed into the capital's Olympic stadium for a rally organized by the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), descendant of the puppet government installed by Hanoi after its troops ousted Beijing-backed Pol Pot on January 7, 1979. "We have always remembered those who sacrificed their lives to save us from genocide," aging CPP President and former guerrilla Chea Sim told the cheering crowd. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen told the crowd: "Whoever is against the day of victory is either Pol Pot or an animal." Communist Vietnam also marked the anniversary, with official papers running a series of articles portraying the invasion as a mercy mission and the 10-year occupation as necessary to prevent a resurgence of the Khmer Rouge. "Wherever our army went, it was welcomed by cheering and helpful Cambodian people," the Tin Tuc daily said.[Source: Ek Madra, Reuters, January 2009]

Exhumation of the Mass Graves Behind Tuol Sleng

Pongrasy Pheng of the Documentation Center of Cambodia wrote: “Mr. Chey Sopheara, aged 51, is currently Director of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Sopheara said that the mass grave uncovered very recently in the front yard of the resident, a stone throw from behind the Museum fence of the Museum, is in fact related to what had happened at the Museum after the liberation. Sopheara was one of the guides at Tuol Sleng between 1979-80, when the State (the People’s Revolutionary of Kampuchea) established a people’s court to try the Khmer Rouge regime, in which many delegates from the socialist nations. During that period of the 1979’s Khmer Rouge trial, his team was told to exhume the above grave to show the delegations that the Khmer Rouge killed actually people everywhere in the compound of S-21 Office during their rule between 1975-79. [Source: Pongrasy Pheng, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org +]

“Sopheara knew there were graves behind Tuol Sleng because he had been told by a soldier not long after the liberation day. However, he forgot the name of the soldier. “In 1979-80, wherever his team dug the earth, we saw human bones”, he recalled. His team chose to dig the grave, which was now in the front yard of Mr. Ay Siphal, who is a shoe maker. At that time, there was no peoples’ residence behind the Museum like now. There was actually debris of a ruined house next to the grave and there were many banana trees behind the infamous S-21. The grave was located at a cluster of the banana trees. When his team dug it, he saw strings, bones, and skulls…. The Ministry of Health and the competent authorities came and joined Sopheara’ s team in the exhumation process. The exhumation was stopped after a while due to the very bad smell from the bodies in the grave. He said that the bones were boiled in a big pot and hairs remained to be seen on some of the skulls. Some of the skulls after being boiled and cleaned were put together to shape like a map and some were kept there for an exhibition. He said his team kept suspecting that the big skulls and long sight bones were the remains of some foreigners. +

“Sopheara said he himself was told to bring some of the bones from Svay Rieng province and some from Tuol Kok gravesite (Radio Station situated north of the city). He estimated at 10 bodies in that grave. After that, his team took a large piece of glass to cover the grave and a fence was made around the grave for other foreign delegates or journalists to come and see. His team believed that the glass could also protect the remains from being eaten by animals and from being covered up with earth. +

“In 1993, the political trend changed, the grave was covered up with earth (over the glass) and the fence was destroyed. Just recently, as Ay Siphal was preparing to build an extension to his house, he dug up the grave and intended to take the bones to a pagoda. Sopheara asserted that some of the houses built behind Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum must have been standing on the graves. House owners knew about this but they kept building and living there. The glass that we saw broken into pieces now was the old glass his team put to cover the bones in the late 1979, it was not the frame of the grave. +

“Sopheara referred to the recent finding of the grave behind Tuol Sleng as being merely an old story. “Mr. Ay Siphal actually knew of the grave beneath where he lives and he did not do anything to the bones until he was prepared to build an extension to his house. He had to first dig the grave and took the bones to the pagoda for a religious ceremony according to the Khmer tradition. So, do not be so surprised.”, said Chey Sopheara, “It is an old story.” +

Uncovering the Tuol Sleng Confession of a Relative

Sokha Irene wrote: “During my second year at Phnom Penh University, I worked as a volunteer at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, later becoming a part-time staff member there. Through this work, I learned a great deal about the truth of this terrible period. Once I asked a researcher who was making a catalogue of confession documents whether I might find any clue about my missing uncle through the documents. I partly regretted having asked, because if the documents revealed that he had been killed by the regime, what would the news do to my aunt? While she herself knows that it is unlikely that her husband survived the regime, I can see that every time she is told that her husband might still be alive, there are two things fighting against each other in her mind. One is the extremely small chance that those Khmer Rouge monsters left her beloved husband alive. The other is the love for her husband that still has a place in her heart, and gives her hope that he is still alive. It is not easy to understand how Cambodian widows like my aunt must feel. Not only her husband’s life, but their entire world together was taken away. The year 1979 was a starting point of a new life, but unlike the new-born baby starting life surrounded by a loving and caring family, every Cambodian was born a second time into sorrow, with the loss of beloved people that left a big hole in their hearts. Many women came back as widows, left alone to bear the responsibilities of bringing up children. [Source: Sokha Irene, d.dccam.org ~]

“I found the document written by him, my aunt’s husband. It is an 89-page confession that was written between December 13, 1978 and December 20, 1978. On the front page of the document there is a message addressed to the so-called “Angkar”, probably written by the Khmer Rouge cadre who was in charge of verifying the confession. At the end of the message there appears the signature of “Von”, who was an interrogator at Toul Sleng prison. According to the documents at DC-CAM, this person was responsible for interrogating the prisoners of Pourk Ti 3 of Krom Kdao (“Team 3” of “Hot Group”). ~

“The confession reminded me of the Toul Sleng brochure that shows how the prisoners were tortured until they said what Angkar wanted to hear. This memory shook my heart, to think of how the confession I was holding came to exist. It took me a long time to finish reading the confession. It was written by the uncle that I never met an in-law that the family is so proud to have as a part of us. I always wanted to meet him, but I never thought that I would. Finally, I met his “confession”, talking indirectly and unknowingly. The terrifying picture that I saw in the brochure kept coming into my mind as I was reading the confession. I then thought of the feelings of my aunt. The picture would be clearer and more horrible in her memory because she suffered under that regime herself. Her young and innocent daughter was also killed by the Khmer Rouge regime, simply because the child wore glasses and was therefore accused of being intellectual. It is a very painful memory that my aunt has had to bear ever since. ~

Nightmares About Pol Pot

Khmer Rouge years are still so politically sensitive that it’s barely discussed in Cambodian schools. Even so “Almost every place in Cambodia has a ghost story attached to it,” a Cambodiam woman told the New York Times. said. “I think it’s because we practice Theravada Buddhism: our gods are able to cross between the borders of the world. And we believe that our ancestors are always with us. When so many people died in our country in the ’70s, we ended up with a lot of haunted, unresolved lives. It’s not fear, it’s respect.” [Source: Henry Alford, New York Times, March 15, 2009]

Ronnie Yimsut of the Documentation Center of Cambodia wrote: The terrifying nightmare came once again in my deep sleep during the night of April 17, 2000. I clearly saw Pol Pot and a few others, clad in their infamous black pajama uniform, walked toward me. Pol Pot has an American made Colt-45 in his right hand. He was the leader of the pack. He was waving, showing his gun around, but somehow he did not make an attempt to fire a shot as I expected. I instinctively ducked behind a tree for cover, hoping to avoid being seen. Unfortunately, my eyes and his met and locked in. I was absolutely terrified. Pol Pot came closer and closer, showing his agressiveness and anger. He continued to wave his Colt-45, but for some reason he did not fire. [Source: Ronnie Yimsut, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org/Survivors/43 =]

“Come on, get it over with!” Pol Pot clearly yelled to me, while he lowered his weapon. “What do you want from me?”I wasn’t sure what to do and hesitated for a moment. “Go ahead, finish me off. Get your revenge. Kill me!” He leaned his head forward toward me. I grabbed Pol Pot’s head and did my best to choke his neck with my right arm with all my strength. I was ready to kill Pol Pot who appeared very much alive, if not well. I could hear the man was choking and dying, but the smile on his face was wicked. So evil was the smile for a dying man that I was wondering why Pol Pot was so eager for me to kill him. The more I choked and tried to kill Pol Pot the more he smiled at me with a sense of satisfaction. He was mocking me. It was like he was saying “Oh yeah, that is good. Do it! Do it! Do it now!” =

“I ended up releasing Pol Pot from my death grip. I do not want to be a killer of this old man-even if he was Pol Pot, the murderer of my family members and millions others. I do not want to be like Pol Pot, a cold-blooded murderer. Killing another human being was not in my nature. I am not a killer like Pol Pot was, no matter how much I hate and fear the evil Khmer Rouge leader. “Please, you have to kill me! You have to do it. You must kill me so that I may be released, “Pol Pot was pleading with me now. I suddenly realized clearly what Pol Pot was really after. He wanted me, one of his victims, to kill him so that he may be released from burning hell. Pol Pot has to allow the more than 3 millions of his victims to take revenge on himself so that he can escape burning hell where he is currently residing. =

“No! I do not want to go to hell with you by killing you. I refuse to take revenge on you,” I told Pol Pot bluntly. “Please, you have to do it. You can help save me from more suffering. Please help me, I beg of you! Just kill me! Pol Pot was so pathetic as he handed me his Colt-45 pistol.

I just ignored the old man’s sorrowful plea for mercy and turned my face away from the sorrowful old man. When I looked back at Pol Pot’s agonizing scream, his pistol was melting in his hand. His image faded away, but his agony continued. I was no longer fearful of the Khmer Rouge leader who was no more than a paper tiger at that moment. I felt a sense of relief knowing the fact that Pol Pot, my boogieman and my nightmare, was still burning in hell where he belongs for the next three million lifetimes or more. =

“I woke up from the realistic dream shaking and sweating profusely. My back was flat against the wall. I was still scared. It was so very real. I can still remember every detail as though the nightmare was actually happening in real life. It was 2 AM in the morning and sleep would not return to me until the following night. Prozac Helps Survivors Get Over Their Khmer Rouge Nightmares

Seth Mydans of the New York Times wrote: “Mao Irang is an evangelist for the new magic in Cambodia, a treatment that can cure everything from headaches to blackouts to nightmares to bursts of violence. "I ask my friends, 'What is your problem?' " she said. " 'Does your food get stuck in your throat? Do you have pain here, and here, and here? Do you have problems with your sleep?' I say, 'O.K., try this doctor.' " Her doctor is Ka Sunbunaut, one of only 26 psychiatrists in this nation of 12 million traumatized people, the survivors and the children of survivors of one of the past century's most horrifying episodes of mass killing. [Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, February 16, 2006]

After therapy with him, said Ms. Mao Irang, 35, a social worker tormented by her memories, "I felt like I was another person; I was not a prisoner anymore." She was liberated through a combination of talk therapy and psychiatric drugs — treatments that are largely alien to Cambodians, who often turn to faith healers and herbalists. But the word is spreading now among a relatively small circle of educated people: your ailments have a cause, and there are treatments that can help you.

"Until today, most people don't realize they have psychological problems," Dr. Ka Sunbunaut said in an interview. "They don't understand about trauma. Mostly, they believe it is all related to karma."Now, though, people here are increasingly turning to drugs like Prozac and Valium, which are expensive but available without a prescription. Dr. Ka Sunbunaut said most of the medicines he prescribed were generic drugs manufactured in Asia.

"He gave me holy medicine," said Preap Phal Theary, 52, a wholesale rice dealer and former French teacher. "It is a holy medicine. It has changed my life. I've become a normal person instead of a sick person." She said that before being treated, she had blackouts and intestinal problems. She had convulsions, and passed out whenever she went to the bathroom, she said. "For 15 years I tried all kinds of medication, modern and ancient, with herbs and Chinese cures and spiritual cures and monks' blessings and praying at my home altar," she said. "For 15 years I had two jobs. One was to feed my children and the other was to be ready to fall into a coma at any moment, so I always needed an escort."

"I believe everybody has suffered," a Cambodia psychologist said. "Everybody has inside some memory, some past trauma. But their abilities to cope are different." Cambodia has no in-patient clinics for mental patients, the doctor said, and only 40 psychiatric nurses (and another 40 in training). He is only now organizing a committee for mental health, with its own budget, in the Ministry of Health.

No reliable data exist on the traumatic effects of the past, partly because people are not generally aware of the lasting impact of their experiences, said Dr. Sotheara Chhim. "People think their past problems have been buried and don't realize that the present is connected to the past," he said. A study of Cambodian refugees in the United States, published in August 2005 in The Journal of the American Medical Association, found that 62 percent had suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder in the previous year, compared with a rate of 3.6 percent in the general United States population. It found that 51 percent had suffered from major depression, compared with 9.5 percent of the general population.

According to the study, 99 percent of the survivors of the Khmer Rouge years reported almost starving to death, 96 percent said they had been forced into slave labor, 90 percent said that a family member or friend had been killed and 54 percent said they had been tortured. Even if they learn to cope, their memories remain to torment them, the doctors said.

Ms. Preap Phal Theary, the rice seller, closed her eyes for a moment. "I see a man running, and I see a man shooting," she said. "I hear gunfire. You don't just have a picture of people running in a field, you have sound, too. I can hear the people saying, 'Oh, they killed him.' It is like a snapshot in my mind." Until she was treated, she said, loud noises, gunshots and the sight of people arguing caused her to pass out.

For Ms. Mao Irang, who was orphaned in the Khmer Rouge years, the most vivid memory almost seems to have been a nightmare. "When I heard my parents were killed I fainted," she said. "I did not wake up for a week. In the hospital they thought I was dead. They put me in a pile of bodies. "When I woke up I thought, 'What is that smell?' And I crawl, crawl, crawl to the door. And then I realize I am in the dead people's room." She was 7 or 8 years old at the time. She pressed the palms of her hands against her eyes. "Today, I feel much better," she said.

Living with a Pile of Skulls and Ignorance About the Khmer Rouge

Reporting from Phum Thlok, about 80 miles southeast of Phnom Penh. Seth Mydans wrote in the New York Times, “The police officers next door bring them sweets and fruit and soft drinks, but still, the skulls crammed inside a little shrine on this dusty rural road refuse to leave them in peace."They tease us," said Pen Mon, 42, the chief of police at this outpost in the rice fields, "They startle us in our sleep so they can see us jump." At other times, he said, "They call out: 'Bring us water. It's so hot and crowded in here.' And then next morning we bring them water." [Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, March 20, 2005++ ]

“One police officer, Sok Saroeun, 41, said his sleep had been disturbed three times by the ghost of a female victim who approached his hammock, took off her clothes and forced him to have sex. It is not easy living side by side with piles of the skulls of the victims of the killing fields. But that, in effect, is what Cambodians do today, 26 years after the murderous Khmer Rouge were driven from power. ++

“Tens of thousands of skulls remain buried in pits or piled in temples, in shrines or in the open. The people responsible for their deaths have still not been brought to court to face charges. Most of them live freely in Cambodia, surrounded like everyone else by their own killing fields. The Documentation Center of Cambodia, a private organization that is compiling information on the Khmer Rouge years, has identified 19,421 mass graves around Cambodia. Its definition includes any pit containing 4 or more bodies. Some have as many as 1,000. ++

“But there is no way to know how many skulls are scattered around the country without exhuming them all, said the center's director, Youk Chhang. Even then it would be impossible to know how many others had been trampled or broken or had disintegrated in areas where the soil is acidic. At a killing field near Tonle Bati Lake, 25 miles south of Phnom Penh, villagers said many of the skulls that had been stacked in a ruined schoolhouse had been eaten by cows. "They have a kind of smell that the pregnant cows like very much," said Chhaom Than, 67, a farmer, after the remaining skulls were placed in a shrine three years ago. "After many years outside they became soft and easy to eat. If we hadn't put them in a shrine maybe the cows would have eaten all of them." ++

“Not long ago, former King Norodom Sihanouk suggested that the time had come to cremate the skulls and bones and to let their wandering souls find rest. Prime Minister Hun Sen rejected the idea, and Cambodia remains a country filled with death's heads. In 2003, the government and the United Nations agreed on a framework for an international tribunal to be held in Cambodia. If a trial does one day begin, the skulls will take on a new identity as forensic evidence. Teams of specialists from abroad have already recorded, in a representative sample, the "chopping/hacking wounds," the "blunt impact traumas," the "deeply incised wounds," the "radiating skull fractures" and the "keyhole effect" left by certain bullet wounds. ++

“The skulls will remain as tangible proof of the mass killings. But often, it seems, this proof is not enough in a nation that has failed to confront its past."Now a lot of people don't believe it anymore," said one of the police officers here, Mao Sakorn, 35. "They say, 'How could people have killed so many people?' They come and ask me all morning. I answer but they don't believe me, even though the evidence is right there." As he spoke, a rash of goose bumps spread up his forearms. "It always happens," he said. "I think maybe when I talk about the dead their spirits come to me."

“Even the people who live near the killing field at Tonle Bati seemed uncertain about just what happened during the Khmer Rouge years. As the farmers talked about the past, a group of children stood nearby, playing a game in which they slapped their chins and made popping sounds with their jaws. One of them was Sok Ky, 15, who goes to school in the mornings and herds cows in the afternoons. "I don't know anything," he said when asked about the killing fields. "They don't tell us anything in school." Asked if he knew that many people had been killed by the Khmer Rouge, he said, "No." Asked if he knew how the people here in his village had died, he said, "No." Asked whether he knew that these skulls came from the time of Pol Pot, he said, "I don't pay attention when people talk about the Pol Pot time." Asked if he knew who Pol Pot was, he answered, "No."

Khmer Rouge Veterans to Confront the Past

Reporting from Anlong Veng, the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, Dustin Roasa wrote in the Washington Post, “In a dimly lighted concrete classroom with smudged and peeling walls, the principal of Anlong Veng High School recalled the man who had built it, the late Khmer Rouge leader Ta Mok. "Everyone here loves Ta Mok. He was a good leader, and he cared about his people," said Sreng Kor Ma, 42. Known as "the Butcher" for his brutality during Khmer Rouge rule, the commander remains popular in this remote former Khmer Rouge stronghold in northwestern Cambodia, where he built hospitals, bridges and other infrastructure and where thousands of the organization's former soldiers still live. [Source: Dustin Roasa, Washington Post, December 1, 2010,#]

“But in 2010, 12 years after the Khmer Rouge surrendered to the government, long-held loyalties are finally being challenged in Anlong Veng. In April, a local truth and reconciliation forum allowed victims to publicly confront people who had participated in the regime. In June, the government distributed a high school textbook here that for the first time teaches the history of the Khmer Rouge to the children of its former soldiers. And in July, a joint U.N. and Cambodian tribunal handed down its first conviction of a former Khmer Rouge member. #

“With each of those developments, anxiety has grown among Anlong Veng's Khmer Rouge veterans, complicating efforts at reconciliation and their attempts to reintegrate into Cambodian society. "There is resentment and fear among the former Khmer Rouge, but they are powerless to do anything," said Chhang Youk, head of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, an independent organization that researches the regime. "For them, life under the Khmer Rouge was glorious, but the regime has become symbolic of evil. It is creating divisions within families." #

“As in much of Cambodia, Anlong Veng's young people know few details about the Khmer Rouge, despite the town's connection to the regime. Touch Valeak, 19, a student at Anlong Veng High School, said the new textbook was helping students understand an important part of their history. But his parents reacted with skepticism when he took the book home to study. "My family rejects many parts of the textbook and the tribunal," he said. "They are suspicious because they are not sure how many people the court will prosecute." #

“Such resistance has made the reconciliation process complex and difficult, Sok Leang said. But the public forums, the textbook and the tribunal are beginning to have an impact, he said. Still, the Khmer Rouge retains a powerful allure here. Up in the Dangrek Mountains, a path overgrown with weeds and strewn with discarded plastic bags leads to a rectangle of black soot covered by a rusted tin roof. Pol Pot's body was burned here on a pile of tires after his death in 1998. Nuom Sothea, 31, a roadside cellphone vendor, said she didn't know much about the man who was cremated there. "But he has a strong spirit, and many local people go there to pray to him," she said. It was Nuom Sothea's birthday, and later that day she planned to walk to Pol Pot's final resting place, where she would leave a bunch of ripe bananas in hopes of bringing good luck. #

Khmer Rouge Survivor Finds His family and Becomes U.S. Citizen

Survivor Ranachith Yimsut reported: “My life began to turn around when a CBS News producer named Brian Ellis showed up at the camp one day. I was interviewed for a documentary called "What Happened to Cambodia?" which was later broadcast in the United States. Mr. Ellis took me outside of the camp for the very first time in months. I tasted freedom and I liked it a lot. That day with Mr. Ellis was special and I have never forgotten it. My life began to change for the better after Mr. Ellis left. That one encounter with Mr. Ellis change my perspective about life - I got a reason to go on living. It was also a chance for a new life and an education. After the broadcast I was contacted by a cousin named Khen Chen who worked for Voice of America in Washington DC. I was eventually sponsored by Khen and her husband Chun to come to America. I arrived in Washington DC in late October, 1978 after a long, miserable eight months in Thailand. The other three men who escaped with me would eventually settl in a third country as well. Two of them are now residing in the United States and another is currently in France. They all remarried and are doing well. [Source: Ranachith Yimsut, Holocaust Memorial Day and edwebproject.org ^]

“I went on and made a new life for myself. I graduated from high school and eventually got a degree from the University of Oregon in 1988. I am now married to Thavy, a Cambodian women, and have a young daughter. I am currently working for the U.S. Forest Service in Bend, Oregon as a District Landscape Architect, which I have done since my graduation. Life could not be better for me now. I still have nightmares about the massacre on that dark December night. It has never completely gone away from my mind and I am still horrified just thinking about it. Time does not heal such an emotional trauma - at least not for me. However, I have long since learned to live with it. Although it hasn't gone away from my mind, my life must and will go on. ^

“Brian Ellis (the CBS News producer), whom I had not heard from for 10 years, decided to show up at my graduation with his crew for a follow-up story. It was great to see the man, and he continues to influence my life. We are now good friends and keep in touch with each other, though he is no longer with CBS News. ^

“During the winter of 1984, I received a shocking letter from a refugee camp in Thailand via my cousin Khen in Washington, DC. The letter was from my oldest brother Larony, who was supposedly dead since the fall of Cambodia in April 1975. My family received news that he was killed by the Khmer Rouge while he was in a hospital, where he was recovering from wounds he sustained from a landmine. That was the last time anyone heard from him until his letter arrived in 1984. At the same time, I also learned that my only sister, Malennie, was also alive and well. On top of that, they were both married and had three children each. Both Larony and Malennie were not with the family so they were able to survive the Khmer Rouge madness. They and their families, ten people all together, worked their way to Thailand following the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia in January 1979. In January 1989, after five years of struggle, they were finally granted permission to enter the United States from the refugee camp in Thailand. This was after a long battle with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. By the time they arrived in Oregon, the family had grown from ten people to twelve people. Each family had a new baby who was born in the camp just weeks before their resettlement to the United States. They are now doing well, residing in Oregon. It was a heartwarming and emotional reunion after so many years of loneliness and separation. The last time I saw my brother Larony was in 1973. For my sister Malennie it was April 1975, following the Khmer Rouge takeover of the country. I had not seen their families until they all arrived at Portland International Airport in 1989. I am fortunate that I did not lose my life nor the rest of my family. ^

U.S. Citizen-Khmer Rouge Survivor Returns to Cambodia

Survivor Ranachith Yimsut reported: “On February of 1992, I returned to Cambodia for the very first time for four weeks. I arrived in Phnom Penh and then went on to Siem Reap, my home city. It was more than just another trip. It had been more than 17 years since I last stepped on the ground of my home city. It was also more than 14 years since I had last seen, heared, smelled, and tasted my Cambodia. It was highly emotional, to a point that it almost unbearable. The pain and the anger returned to my once traumatized memory. However, I felt that the Cambodia I now saw was more traumatized than I was. Peoples' lives are much better now than during the Khmer Rouge years, as I can still vividly remember, but their lives are still on hold and waiting. We all agreed that a healing process is a must in order for all parties concerned to have a lasting peace. I learned a long time ago that one may forgive, but one must never forget the past. We must go on. Life goes on and forgiveness is the key to it all. I have also realized that revenge is not the answer to my pain and anger. Instead the answer was forgiveness of the people who had hurt me, both physically and emotionally. I never achieved inner peace until after I had forgiven the murderous Khmer Rouge. In a strange way I have to thank them, for they made me who I am today: a stronger person. [Source: Ranachith Yimsut, Holocaust Memorial Day and edwebproject.org ^]

“I waited a long time for a chance to return to my native land. What I saw there was a country in a very sad situation. Cambodia is still devastated from the many years of war and foreign intervention. From the economic embargo by the United States to the destructive military machines of China, the former Soviet Union and Vietnam. People are still "camping out" rather living their lives the way it should be, settled permanently. It was a sad sight to see. Nonetheless, the people are doing what they can in trying to put their lives back together. It is an uphill battle for a people who are at least 20 years behind the rest of the world. ^

“My return trip to Cambodia gave me a new insight and a new goal in life for me to reach for: to help rebuild my homeland. I feel just like the salmon, whose urge to regenerate is very strong despite the hardship and the danger, it becomes their primary goal in life. I am alive today for such a purpose - to help regenerate and rebuild Cambodia to her best potential. The door is opening little by little now, yet the waiting game continues. I feel that the longer I wait the more uneasy I become. I feel that I am a person caught between two cultures: I am not quite Cambodian and not quite American. Sure, I am fairly successful here in the United States and I have adapted to American life and culture well. But the longing to return home has always been utmost in my mind. I have seen Cambodia and I am not even sure if I could make it with that culture or lifestyle. Nonetheless, I am willing to try because Cambodia will always be home to me despite the fact that I have nothing left there anymore. ^

“This is how I feel about Cambodia and why it is so important to me to help with the healing process. It is not just for Cambodia, but for me as well. After all, I am still one of the walking emotionally wounded that need to be healed. A poem of mine: Life is living. / Suffering was faith. / Struggling because there's/ hope./ Life is everything all / together.

Cambodia Outlaws Denial of Khmer Rouge Atrocities

In June 2013, Cambodia banned the denial of atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime with a new law, a move the opposition claims is a political attack weeks ahead of national polls. AFP reported: “The law bans statements denying crimes by the communist regime that killed an estimated two million people during its rule from 1975-1979, and carries a sentence of up to two years in jail. The law, similar to legislation covering Holocaust denial in Germany and France, was proposed by strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen after a recording emerged of an opposition leader apparently excusing the Khmer Rouge from responsibility for running a notorious torture prison during their rule. [Source: Agence France-Presse, June 7, 2013]

The recording, posted on a government website is of Kem Sokha, deputy head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), saying the notorious Tuol Sleng prison was run by Vietnamese soldiers who ousted the Khmer Rouge rather than the regime. Around 15,000 men, women and children were tortured and executed at the prison, also known as S-21, in central Phnom Penh. Kem Sokha has admitted it is his voice on the recording but alleges it was edited to say the contentious comments, a claim backed by the CNRP which alleges the tape was aired "to cause political trouble" ahead of a general election in July.

Lawmakers, mostly from the ruling party, unanimously approved the law after around an hour of debate. The law will prosecute anyone who "does not acknowledge, denies or diminishes... crimes committed under the Democratic Kampuchea", the draft said, referring to the brutal regime's official name. Lawmaker Cheam Yeap told parliament that denial of the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge was "a serious insult to the souls" of those who died under its rule.

But critics say the law may jeopardise painstaking efforts to heal the country. "You don't need the law to protect the truth of what happened during the Khmer Rouge," Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia which researches Khmer Rouge atrocities, told AFP.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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