Reconciliation in Cambodia – a low priority for government and donors

Almost 40 years after the deaths of nearly one in four people during Pol Pot’s rule of Cambodia in the 1970’s, the Southeast Asian country’s long road to reconciliation remains seriously underfunded.

Date 02.10.2014
Author Robert Carmichael

Almost 40 years after the deaths of nearly one in four people during Pol Pot’s rule of Cambodia in the 1970’s, the Southeast Asian country’s long road to reconciliation remains seriously underfunded.

In 2011, two Cambodian organizations set out to reconcile residents of adjacent villages in the southern province of Kampot. Their dispute was no small matter: two women in the first village believed that a Khmer Rouge cadre living in the other village had executed the husband of one of the women and the father of the other after arresting them. The events took place during Pol Pot’s murderous 1970s rule.

For 30 years the two women had not spoken to him. And it wasn’t only these three people whose relations were paralyzed – during the Khmer Rouge’s rule the residents of the second village had been given dominion over their relatively wealthier neighbors in the first. Those living in the first village were seen as class enemies, and by 1979 many had been executed.

The reconciliation attempt started by the two organizations also aimed at studying the dynamics around victims reconciling with perpetrators, says Tim Minea, the executive director of Kdei Karuna, one of the organizations involved. Decades of antipathy meant this process was fraught from the start. “At the beginning of the project I asked one of the victims: ‘Do you want to meet him?’ And she said: ‘I don’t want to see him, not even his footprints’,” Minea, a Cambodian sociologist and anthropologist, tells DW.

Kdei Karuna made a film of the six-month-long process, keeping the three people involved anonymous: the women are known simply as Grandma and Aunt, and the man as Grandpa. Initially both Grandma and Aunt insisted that Grandpa apologize for arresting their loved ones and taking them to their deaths. For reasons of face, however, apologizing is extraordinarily difficult so staff from Kdei Karuna and from TPO, the country’s leading mental health organization, decided to record the women talking on video.

They showed that footage to Grandpa, then filmed his responses and took those back to the women. And so it went on in short bursts for months.

Over time this video diary helped each side learn more about the other. In the end, Grandpa acknowledged that what he’d done as a young Khmer Rouge cadre had caused the women suffering yet insisted, not unreasonably, that the brutality of the movement had left him no choice but to obey or die. He also denied killing the men.

“Please don’t be angry at me,” he told them. “They ordered me to do these things. I’m not a smart person and I didn’t know what to do.”


When it comes to Cambodia’s post-conflict reckoning, these two villages are far from unusual. During Pol Pot’s paranoid, violent rule the toll was extraordinary: between 1.7 and 2.2 million people were killed or died from starvation, illness and disease; in total one in four of the country’s population.

In today’s Cambodia, numerous villagers live cheek by jowl with the killers of their loved ones and, despite Buddhist proscriptions, many find it hard to accept that the guilty walk free among them, some holding political office. A study by the University of California Berkeley’s Human Rights Center in 2011 found that two-thirds of Cambodians would like to see perpetrators “hurt or miserable,” and that one-third would seek revenge if they could.

What to do? With all the will in the world, Cambodia could not prosecute everyone – and for murkier political reasons would not want to. A handful of the surviving senior leaders and those considered most responsible do fall within the remit of the UN-backed tribunal in Phnom Penh, which opened its doors in 2006. But most perpetrators have got away with murder.

Ly Sok Kheang of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), the country’s leading research centre into the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, says when it comes to reconciliation, “we have a long way to go.” Yet he also believes most people now understand that Cambodia “cannot put all perpetrators on trial, [they] cannot be brought to justice”, and that many drew solace from the recent life sentences handed down by the tribunal to two surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge.

“That was very important for them – they wanted those ex-leaders tried and sentenced,” he told DW. “And that’s important for coping.” The topic of reconciliation has taken up a lot of Sok Kheang’s time: his recent PhD dissertation assessed the range of reconciliation activities undertaken by the Cambodian government and non-governmental organizations between 1979 and 2007.

Events such as January 7 – Victory Over Genocide Day – and May 20 – Remembrance Day, formerly the Day of Rage – have strong political overtones. The latter, for example, takes place at an infamous killing field outside Phnom Penh where actors dressed in Khmer Rouge black mock-butcher men, women and children – hardly the stuff of reconciliation.But it fits the political requirements of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, which helped drive out the Khmer Rouge in 1979; the CPP has long used those days to cement its legacy and remind people to keep voting for it.

Despite such overt politicization, these days still hold reconciliation value, Sok Kheang says – mainly because their commemoration means people feel able to speak about their suffering. But much more needs to be done at all levels including people recognizing “a common view of victimhood” with former perpetrators. A simplistic “good/bad” narrative isn’t helpful.

“All former Khmer Rouge members consider themselves victims too, because they all lost family members – as did the other victims,” he says of the need to bring ex-cadres back into the fold. “This sense of shared victimhood is helpful [for reconciliation].”

More research into reconciliation is needed, as is more education on the subject for the young, and not only through the comprehensive, well-regarded schoolbook on the Khmer Rouge era devised by DC-Cam and funded by donors. It is also vital to use informal education and get young people to talk to their elders about what happened. “The younger generation are sometimes sceptical about that narrative [of suffering from older people],” says Sok Kheang. “Education can help improve their understanding.”

‘Not a priority’

Sonja Meyer, an anthropologist with Germany’s development agency GIZ and a technical advisor at Kdei Karuna, says that although the judicial process – weighing criminal acts and handing down judgments – by its very nature has little to do with reconciliation, the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s existence has helped.

“The credit you can give to this tribunal [in terms of reconciliation] is that probably all the reconciliation issues and the donor interest would not have come without it,” she told DW. “And the knowledge of that time would probably have died with the victims, so as a catalyst it has its value.”

Despite the brief fillip it has given to funding for reconciliation efforts, the fact remains that little money is available. There are few hard figures but, outside of funding for the tribunal, it seems likely that donors give under two million USD a year, with Germany and the US providing the bulk. The Cambodian government’s financial support for reconciliation efforts has to date been minimal.

And yet the work goes on. Away from Kdei Karuna, a handful of other NGOs working on reconciliation have projects on education, mental health, public forums for victims of gender-based violence, and advocacy for reparations, some of it funded by GIZ.

Yet there is scope for much more. The project in Kampot province was a costly one-off that brought just three people together. Knowing there might not be the funds to replicate it, Kdei Karuna filmed the process. It now uses that video as a tool to get people in other villages to see what is possible.

The results were broadly positive, Tim Minea says, though he freely admits some villagers weren’t convinced of Grandpa’s sincerity. But given what happened, that is hardly a surprise. Grandma and Aunt, he says, eventually found Grandpa’s expressions of regret sufficiently convincing, and were particularly heartened by his promise to pray for the souls of the murdered men – a powerful pledge in a country where people venerate their ancestors.

For their part, the women were able to see that the young cadre had found himself in a system as brutal as it was unyielding, and that he had spent the intervening decades fearing retribution from the residents of their village.

Minea says the outcome fits the Cambodian context of reconciliation: “People mostly focus on how they can live together and talk together, and especially to find a way that the perpetrators can acknowledge what the victims suffered.” It is a first step, and a critical one.

The case also shows how in Cambodia, as in other countries, actions speak louder than words. DC-Cam’s Sok Kheang says actions promoting reconciliation take place across the country even where organizations aren’t there to propel them.

“A former perpetrator has to do some social or religious activity to express their remorse or repentance to the victim,” he says. “The victims can then see this, and it is very constructive and useful in the Cambodian context.”

Grandpa, who is extremely poor, bought electric lights to drape around the memorial that residents of both villages built to remember those who had been murdered, and where both communities now conduct religious services. Not only does he continue to pray for those who died, he is now more active in community life.

In a fortnight, the film of that process will form part of a traveling exhibition that Kdei Karuna will take to the provinces. The exhibition, which includes activities such as interactive theatre, was one of 11 reparations projects endorsed by the tribunal in August.

Meyer says the exhibition provides an opportunity to tell people in this mostly rural country about the tribunal’s work and “creates a platform for people to discuss other things – an opportunity for other groups and perpetrators to get involved as well”.

Minea hopes it will help advance local efforts at reconciliation, including having survivors record or write down their memories, and encouraging the young to talk to the old. Reconciliation starts with knowing the truth, he says, and that includes what happened locally – in the villages and towns where people live.

“So we would like to see more works that come from the communities – to have their stories,” he says. “Because if it is only a state narrative, and if people cannot access information properly, then I feel it will be hard to move this country forward.”