Learning to Forget in Cambodia

A land where nearly half the population suffers from PTSD.

“Every time my wife hears the name Khmer Rouge, she starts sobbing uncontrollably” Neng Bunrong, a thirty-five-year-old tour guide from Kampung Chan in Eastern Cambodia mechanically states, interrupting a short summary of Cambodian history in front of the main entrance to the temple complex of Angkor Wat on a humid January afternoon. His wife, forty and mother of four children, witnessed the killing of twenty-four members of her family in the 1970s when Pol Pot’s young henchman came to her village. According to Bunrong, she only survived because after shooting her family, the perpetrators ran out of bullets when they came to her and instead smashed the young girl’s head and left her for dead in a shallow ditch until villagers rescued her a few hours later.

He stands next to two stone columns flanking the entrance to the Ankor Wat temple complex. They are littered with bullet holes—a silent testimony to Cambodia’s violent past and tacitly amplifying Bunrong’s horrid story.

It is cliché for a westerner to begin an article on present day Cambodia with a reference to the Khmer Rouge (or with Angkor Wat for that matter) similar to any overhasty reference to the Third Reich when discussing aspects of present day German culture. Yet as George Orwell argued in an essay in the 1940s, “What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.” Thus, to leave out the Khmer Rouge in discussing present day Cambodia appears to be similar to disowning a disreputable family member; by the act of physical exclusion, they manage to permeate every family gathering more powerfully than they ever could in person.

A similar process appears to be still in the works in Cambodia where the country still has a long way to go to confront its murderous past. For example, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), having spent more than US$200 million since their establishment in 1997, has managed only to indict five people for genocide, crimes against humanity, and/or war crimes. Only Kaing Guek Eav (Comrade Duch), the warden of the infamous S-21 prison camp where thousands of Cambodians were tortured and executed, got life imprisonment. One accused died during the trial, while the proceedings were suspended for a second culprit.

Brad Adams, the director of Human Rights Watch in Asia is quoted as saying that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has spent years obstructing the proceedings of the court, a statement supported amply by many experts. One of the reasons is that the incumbent government and Hun Sen’s party, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), is still permeated with former Khmer Rouge members. Sen himself was a Khmer Rouge battalion commander before he defected to Vietnam in the 1970s. He surreptitiously took an interest in the proceedings and tried to exercise control by handpicking Cambodian judges and legal staff.

Many circles of society feel that the government should simply “let sleeping dogs lie.” When Nuon Chea, second in Pol Pot’s regime, which killed about 1.7 million Cambodians, surrendered to Hun Sen along with the remnants of the Khmer Rouge who had been hiding in the jungles of Thailand and Western Cambodia for decades, Sen stated, “The time has come to dig a hole and bury the past.” It took more than nine years to have Chea arrested and put on trial. A verdict is expected in early 2014.

This attitude is also supported by the Buddhist notion of individual helplessness (95 percent of Cambodians are Theravada Buddhists) and a belief in the supernatural where it is thought not unwise to literally disturb the sleep of the ghosts of the past. Traveling in Cambodia, one encounters many little temple shrines in villages and towns filled with offerings for the spirits haunting the innumerable “Killing Fields”. In Tuol Sleng prison (S-21), where at least 15000 inmates were murdered, every lunchtime staff member of the prison-turned-genocide-museum leaves food out for the ghosts.