Government & Politics

Youk Chhang: Picking up the Pieces in Cambodia

The head of Documentation Center of Cambodia says his group is still working for justice and closure after the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime.

April 22, 2010

| by Maria Shao

More than 30 years after the darkest chapter in its history, Cambodia remains a damaged and fragile society, a leading Cambodian genocide expert told an audience at Stanford GSB.

Cambodia is still suffering from the legacy of the Khmer Rouge, the brutal, ultra-communist regime that ruled the Southeast Asian country from 1975 to 1979. Cambodia is like shattered glass, said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam). “It’s a fragile, broken society as a nation. People are divided,” he said in an April 22 talk. “You drop a glass on the floor. It’s broken.”

DC-Cam, a Phnom Penh non-profit group founded in 1995, gathers and researches information and materials related to the Khmer Rouge regime. DC-Cam’s twin missions are preserving Cambodia’s historical memory and helping to bring justice for victims of Khmer Rouge atrocities. The group has collected more than one million documents, interviewed thousands of former Khmer Rouge cadres and identified or mapped 20,000 mass graves and nearly 200 prisons. Its documentation has served as evidence in the United Nations-backed genocide tribunals being held in Cambodia to try former regime leaders. It has the world’s largest repository of Khmer Rouge-related materials, much of it available online for free.

At Stanford, Chhang also had a positive message about Cambodia’s progress toward renewal and reconciliation. Cambodian schools are beginning to teach the full history of the Khmer Rouge period, a step toward confronting the past and moving on. The genocide tribunals are underway, potentially bringing justice and closure. And DC-Cam’s mission of educating the world about the Cambodian genocide could help prevent such atrocities in the future.

“The job of the whole nation is to pick up all the little pieces to put back together,” said Chhang. Cambodians, can “be proud of the genocide that we have lived through.” “I’m proud to tell you that I have survived genocide and can tell you the story. I am no longer a victim,” declared Chhang, who was named one of the world’s 100 “heroes and pioneers” by Time magazine in 2007.

The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, ruled Cambodia from April 1975 to January 1979, aiming to build an agrarian utopia based on Maoist ideals. About two million Cambodians lost their lives under the Khmer Rouge to execution, starvation, disease, or overwork. Thousands of Cambodians were forced to labor in the countryside. Political enemies were slaughtered, giving rise to the term “killing fields”, portrayed in a 1984 movie of the same name.

Chhang was 14 when the Khmer Rouge came to power, forcing him and other teenagers into hard labor in the countryside. Chhang’s brother-in-law died after a public beating to punish him for stealing leftover cucumbers to feed his pregnant wife, Chhang’s sister. The sister was accused of eating the stolen food and perished after her stomach was cut open.

The genocide has left Cambodians deeply divided. Chhang said his niece, who lost her mother in the butchering, is now in her late 30’s and living in Maryland. She refuses to return to her homeland and disagrees with Chhang’s work in support of the genocide tribunal. Chhang’s mother, who lost her own parents, siblings and some of her children, has forgiven the Khmer Rouge perpetrators and is indifferent toward the tribunals. “In the same family, my niece, mother, and I are divided about how justice should be done,” said Chhang. “I support the tribunal. I want justice. I would not reach for forgiveness without prosecution.”

The Cambodian genocide tribunal, established in early 2006 with support from the UN, so far has tried one defendant, the former chief of a notorious torture prison. Four other top Khmer Rouge officials are being held for a second trial. Donor countries have provided more than $100 million to support the proceedings, according to the Associated Press. Although some have criticized the tribunal as too little, too late, Chhang sees it as necessary step in Cambodia’s healing process. “The tribunal is about the future, basically.”

He also believes that teaching history to a new generation of Cambodians will promote reconciliation. To that end, DC-Cam has published the first Cambodian textbook on Khmer Rouge history, a topic long ignored in the nation’s classrooms. Fourteen years after the idea for the textbook emerged, the history book is finally being used in Cambodian high schools this year.

Chhang’s talk was sponsored by at the business school’s Public Management Program; the Stanford Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law in the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies; and MBA student participants in a recent service learning trip to Cambodia and Thailand. In addition to speaking to GSB students, Chhang was scheduled to speak with Hoover Institution officials about digitizing and archiving DC-CAM’s materials.

DC-Cam was founded as an office of the Yale University Cambodian Genocide Program. It became an independent institute in 1997. It employs about 50 people and has funding from the U.S. and Swedish governments.

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