Genocide is not a game

The personal experience of a survivor of the Khmer Rouge


by Youk Chhang


Saravuth Vichiansarn, the Thai director of the horror flick La Tha Phi (Ghost Game), which opened last Thursday, apologised to Cambodians who charged that his film was disrespectful to victims of the genocide that took place in that country.


The movie used the not-so-fictional Security Office S-21 at Toul Sleng in Phnom Penh, a Khmer Rouge torture centre, as the backdrop for its storyline involving a group of 11 young candidates taking part in a reality television show: They are placed in a haunted Cambodian prison and battle angry ghosts to win prize money.


The movie-makers initially denied any connection to S-21, but eventually were confronted with documentation that they had travelled to Cambodia to research the genocide committed in the 1970s and had formally sought permission from Cambodian authorities to film on-site at S-21, where 16,000 people, including young children, were tortured and executed. Mounting pressure from all walks of life in Cambodia threatened to put to the test the recently restored Thai-Cambodian relations, which had been soured after the burning of the Thai embassy and looting of Thai-owned businesses in 2003.


But genocide is not a game, nor should it be a form of entertainment or an opportunity to make money. Mass killing is pain beyond pain. If anything, it should be documented and used only to remind us that we should not let it happen again.


Thirty-one years ago the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia. Under its rule between 1975 and 1979, a quarter of Cambodia's population was killed, constituting the largest death toll in terms of percentage of all genocides in modern history.


Will any of us ever make sense of what happened?


If you survive genocide, you are blessed in many ways. You can begin again. You can find a place to live, get a job, make friends, and start a family. Physical survival is the easy part. But you are unlucky in just as many ways because you are broken. Your heart aches from losing people that you loved. You are haunted by your memories of the Khmer Rouge brutality. You feel guilt at having survived when so many others died brutal, senseless deaths. And worst of all, you can lose hope.


I am a survivor of Cambodia's genocide.


Every survivor has a story to tell. Mine begins on April 17, 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took control of Phnom Penh. My family was evacuated to Battambang, where I was placed in a teenagers' mobile unit that dug canals. I was beaten and tortured. I also witnessed things that I would rather not remember. I watched as Khmer Rouge cadres killed a family during a public commune meeting in Battambang province. I saw hundreds of people die of starvation, including my own sister and her baby daughter.


Returning to Cambodia after 15 years in exile has helped me to make sense of what happened in my homeland nearly three decades ago, and this gave me the hope I needed to continue living.


People often ask me why I wanted to go back. After having fled the Khmer Rouge through the jungles to Thailand, living in refugee camps for several years, fortune had smiled on me. I was given a chance to live in the US. There, I earned a college degree and settled into a comfortable and productive life.


So why would I want to go back to one of the world's poorest countries? Why would I leave the safety of Texas for such an unstable and dangerous place? And why would I want live in Phnom Penh when most of my family had been killed or left the country?


My response: I returned home to find answers to the many questions that haunted me. I wanted to know why nearly two million of my countrymen had died at the hands of their own people. At that time and for many years to come, I, like other Cambodians, wondered if the leaders of the Khmer Rouge, who were responsible for so many deaths and for destroying the country, people like comrades Noun Chea, Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan and Ieng Thiritth, would ever be brought to justice. After all, they were living comfortable lives and the government had granted them immunity from prosecution as most of Cambodia's villagers were still coping with their own trauma, especially those who were still living in the same communities as the Khmer Rouge cadres who had put them through hell.


Will any of us ever make sense of what happened?


Finding the answers to these questions was perhaps the strongest reason for my decision to return to Cambodia. But I also had another purpose in coming back. To be honest, I was driven by anger and a desire to seek revenge on those who killed so many members of my family.


After having settled in Cambodia for some time, I visited the village chief who was responsible for the death of my sister. My sister's name was Tithsorye. "Tith" means Sunday. "Sorye" means Sunset.


The village chief didn't remember me. Of course not - I was only a young boy, aged 14 during the time of the regime. But I remembered him. Although he was older, I found that his life was much the same. He still lived in the same stilt house and tended two scrawny cows. He really wasn't any better off than he was before the revolution, which the Khmer Rouge had staged in order to "liberate" the peasants of Cambodia.


I visited him several times and to my surprise, found that he was actually not a bad man; he was simply a man who had done bad things because the revolution had promised him a better life and society. But the revolution failed him. I realised that even the perpetrators of genocide were also its victims. This has helped me begin to make some sense of what happened.


You have to understand the Cambodian way of life to understand why people acted as they did during the Khmer Rouge regime, officially known as Democratic Kampuchea. Generally, Cambodians don't do things for personal reasons _ this is viewed as arrogant. They act for their nation, for their religion and for their King. The result is that individuals don't understand their own value, their own worth in life or even the effects their actions have on others or themselves. They tend to think that if the government beats them, it is acceptable; it is for the sake of the nation. So I came to understand that taking revenge on an individual is not the answer; it would not bring back what I or anyone else had lost.


My work showed me a second way to make sense of Cambodia's genocide and has given me a reason to find hope again _ not for myself, but for my country and for humanity. Later, I came to see the need to stand on my own two feet and confront the past as an obligation of all survivors of genocide.


In 1995, after working for two years on Cambodia's first democratic elections supervised by the United Nations and as a civic educator for an international organisation, I was asked to join Yale University's Cambodian Genocide Programme, which later established the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam). The centre is an independent, non-government organisation with two main objectives. The first is to record and preserve the history of the Khmer Rouge regime for future generations. The second is to compile and organise information that can serve as potential evidence in a legal accounting of the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. These objectives represent our promotion of memory and justice, both of which are critical foundations for the rule of law and genuine national reconciliation in Cambodia.


Taking down the testimonies of those who survived the regime is one of the most important aspects of my work. It serves three important purposes: It promotes understanding and healing for the individual; it preserves our history; and it contributes to justice for the Cambodian people. The individual memory can be tricky and even personal stories change over time. I don't remember everything that happened to me 31 years ago. Some things are in shadow. And for many of us, there are things that took place during the Khmer Rouge regime that we don't want to remember. Thus, while memory can be useful, it can be harmful as well. But when people can reconstruct memories so they become clearer, more than shadow, they can put them in context and begin to understand things.


I believe that helping people remember more clearly shows them the path toward closure of their sorrow and trauma, and toward realising that they are not alone, as their experiences were shared by many others. And most important, they can perhaps begin to understand that what happened to them during the regime is something that defines them as individuals.


I've interviewed many perpetrators and victims of indescribable crimes in the past and have concluded that no one can fully understand how it felt to live under the Khmer Rouge. Because genocide cannot be described in words, most of the victims are very frustrated when they try to explain it. Some scholars see survivors' testimonies as exaggerations _ when they testify about how people were torn to pieces, how children were burned or killed by bayonets, how this or that was done to thousands of people, millions of people. I think that sometimes these stories almost take on the quality of myth, which is not constructive and can cause others to doubt the survivors.


If I only have fragments of memory, I can't convey my experiences to my children and others, and if I don't pass them on, how will they ever know what happened?


I'm often struck by how little we have learned from the experiences of others. For example, most Cambodians know little or nothing about the Holocaust and many children in Cambodia today don't believe that genocide occurred in their country.


Thus, it is necessary to preserve the stories of survivors for future generations. Simply knowing that one's country was not the only one to have committed atrocities can sometimes be comforting in an ironic way. In this way, research lets us share our experiences and begin to piece together the truth about why genocide occurred and to learn from it so it doesn't happen again. Whether justice is achieved is difficult to predict. Twenty-eight years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the United Nations and the Cambodian government are scheduled to begin trials of the regime's senior leaders sometime in 2007. Many of them are now in their seventies and eighties and in frail health. But even the act of holding the trials will help Cambodians put what happened into perspective and let the world know of their suffering. Perhaps even more important, if the trials are fair and transparent, people may begin to have some faith in their justice system and hope for tomorrow.


All of us who lived through genocide know that nothing can compensate for what has happened, that genocide devastates a country in many, many ways. The road to healing has been a long one for Cambodia. After 25 years it is still one of the world's poorest countries, and many of the indicators of its people's well-being are sliding backwards. We need to make sense of our history before we can heal and move on, and documenting and understanding our shared experiences are small steps in that direction.


Youk Chhang is the director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia. For more information, visit www.dccam.org/.


This article originally appeared in the Bangkok Post