Reconciliation remains elusive as Cambodia marks 40 years since fall of the Khmer Rouge
An estimated 2 million Cambodians died during the Khmer Rouge era. (ABC News: Claire Slatterly)
When you discuss the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, you will often hear people recite a very specific period of time: three years, eight months and 20 days.
- Cambodia has been through massive economic and social change since the fall of the Khmer Rouge
- The vast majority of Cambodians alive today did not live through the horrors of the era
- Society is still dealing with “painful legacies”, while politics remains “polarised”
Even 40 years after Pol Pot and his cadres were brought down, the length of their reign is seared into people’s minds for the terror and brutality it evokes.
An estimated 2 million people died from overwork, starvation and mass killings during the Khmer Rouge era.
It’s difficult to overstate the impact the regime has had on the approximately 6 million Cambodians who survived — and still has on their country today.
Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, stood empty for nearly four years before its residents could return. (Supplied: DC-Cam)
The Khmer Rouge seized power in April 1975 under the leadership of “Brother Number One” Pol Pot, with the ultra-Maoist regime emptying towns and cities of their inhabitants, purging government workers and sending those who remained to harsh rural labour camps.
Artists and intellectuals were executed at the notorious “killing fields”, music and books were banned (with the exception of party propaganda), and the education system was dismantled.
Grappling with ‘painful legacies’
Though most Cambodians did not live through the horrors — 70 per cent of the population is now aged under 30 — and the country has been through massive economic and social change, the society remains deeply scarred today.
In neighbourhoods and villages across the country today, perpetrators can still be found living next door to their victims.
Some 8,000 skulls of the Khmer Rouge’s victims are displayed at the Cheoung Ek ‘Killing Fields’ memorial outside Phnom Penh. (Reuters)
And researchers have documented long-lasting mental health effects on survivors, as well as their children, who exhibit signs of intergenerational Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Youk Chhang, a Khmer Rouge survivor and the director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, which collates primary sources relating to the period, said reconciliation remained “elusive”.
“Cambodia still grapples with painful legacies of genocide and mass atrocity,” he said.
“Many of the wounds inflicted during the Pol Pot era have yet to heal.”
This legacy plays out repeatedly in the political sphere, where authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen — a former Khmer Rouge commander who defected to Vietnam in 1977 — has long claimed the mantle of liberator for himself.
Pol Pot, pictured in 1979 after fleeing to the Thai-Cambodia border, where he remained until his death in 1998. (AP)
Vietnamese forces toppled the regime when they invaded Cambodia on January 7, 1979, with a small contingent of Cambodians including Hun Sen.
But Vietnam did not withdraw its troops until 10 years later, and the Khmer Rouge continued to wage war from its base near the Thai-Cambodia border until 1998.
On the other side, opposition politicians now draw on Cambodians’ lingering mistrust of Vietnam, including through racially tinged messaging, to damage Hun Sen through his association with the Vietnamese.
“Both narratives continue to polarise Cambodia 40 years after the actual events,” said political analyst Ou Virak.
“And it seems to me that they will continue to dominate politics for at least the next 10 years.”
Finding justice and moving forward
The Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal was established in the hopes that bringing the responsible leaders to justice would help bring about healing.
And though the court made history by ruling that the Khmer Rouge committed genocide, the heavily politicised institution has also been widely criticised for securing just three convictions over the course of more than 12 years.
Youk Chhang, pictured in white on a field mission in 1999, has devoted his life to documenting the genocidal Khmer Rouge era. (Supplied: DC-Cam)
Mr Virak, who founded Cambodia’s Future Forum think tank, said many Cambodians did not pay attention to the tribunal as “the Cambodian interpretation of justice is very different to the West”.
“The Cambodian belief is that these things are karma, or things you’ve done in the past life, so [there is] no need for justice and you can just focus on doing good and … getting a better next life,” he said.
Mr Virak said it was in some ways “a sad state of thinking” but one that gave many people the means to cope.
Mr Chhang, on the other hand, is firm in his belief that the Khmer Rouge era not only shapes Cambodia’s present but that it should continue to do so, in order to prevent such atrocities from repeating.
“There is no past if you refer to the Khmer Rouge history,” he said.
“It is present and will always be present for us to address in all circumstances for the next many decades.”