Learning to Forget in Cambodia

February 17, 2014 Topic: AutocracyHistorySociety Region: Cambodia

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.="#v=onepage&q=“the%20time%20has%20come%20to%20dig%20a%20hole%20and%20bury%20the%20past.”%20hun%20sen&f=false">

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.

One of the results of the unwillingness to publicly (and privately) accept the horrors of the Khmer Rouge is the exceptionally high rate of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) cases in the country. One psychiatrist estimates that 47 percent of the Cambodian population is suffering from PTSD, with around 50 percent of children born to Khmer Rouge survivors suffering from secondary PTSD. According to the journalist Joel Brinkley’s account, even Khieu Kanharith, the government information minister, is suffering from PTSD-induced recurring nightmares of finding his family on the ground on their knees when he returned home for execution in the 1970s. One of the automatic coping mechanisms of people affected by PTSD is the avoidance of people, places, and situations that trigger memories of the traumatic event, yet merely relying on this one coping strategy will guarantee violent throwbacks and continued suffering if otherwise left untreated.

Cambodia has experienced high economic growth rates in the last decade fuelled by the garment industry, which employs around 500,000 (mostly female) workers and accounts for some US$5 billion in exports each year, which constitutes around 70 percent of all exports. The current protests by the garment industry workers that have pressured the government also have seen its fair share of Khmer Rouge analogies. As Sun Thun, a protester and teacher from Kampong Thom province, put it, "During the Pol Pot regime, the government was very cruel and killed people. It is the same today." Due to the inadequate public debate on the subject, Pol Pot still seems to surreptitiously insert himself into the political discourse; this has belittled the magnitude of the slaughter in the 1970s.

In one way, all of this is understandable; there is some truth to Hun Sen’s statement that it is necessary to bury the past in order to move on—at least for a while. Under Hun Sen, despite being a despicable ruthless power-obsessed quasi-autocrat, the country has lived in relative peace and seen unprecedented economic development for the last decade—something quite revolutionary given Cambodia’s recent history. Perhaps then it is necessary to temporally practice “strategic forgetfulness” rather than quixotically embark on a crusade to do justice, even if the heavens fall.

Something like strategic forgetfulness—a temporary forced amnesia until memories of the past are not as fresh and vivid—can of course never be official government policy; however, even in Europe, countries such as Austria and Germany after the Second World War subconsciously (often with both tacit and open government support) practiced strategic forgetfulness. In both countries, there was a silent and a tacit consensus not to talk openly about what had happened between 1933 and 1945, a consensus that was often amplified by PTSD. As a result, many lower-ranking mass murderers, war criminals, and architects of the Holocaust were never brought to justice, and former Nazis occupied high positions in both the private and public sectors for decades.

Inadvertently, this code of silence also inhibited the expansion of a more open democratic discourse in both countries well into the later decades of the twentieth century by generating an atmosphere where certain debates could just not be held and people in power not challenged. As a consequence, it took the wider public in both countries decades to grasp the magnitude of what happened during the Nazi dictatorship. As was the case in Europe in the twentieth century, in Cambodia today, time is justice’s biggest opponent.

Austria and Germany were of course democracies during this period in a way that Cambodia has never been. Cambodia’s autocratic structure—formed in spite of its ostensibly democratic institutions—only strengthens the code of silence, and vice versa. It is a small step from personally refusing to talk about one subject (one’s own history during the Khmer Rouge period) to accepting external censorship from powers above (the Cambodian government’s suppression of opposition activities). Self-censorship and censorship require the same mindset.

As the saying goes, “you can throw nature out the window with a pitchfork, and yet she will always return through the backdoor.” By subconsciously suppressing discussions on the genocide in Cambodia, the nation guarantees that the effects will linger, poisoning politics for years to come. The more the public and the government refuse to deal with this period, the more forcefully it will return through the backdoor.

Franz-Stefan Gady is a senior fellow at the EastWest Institute, where he was a program associate and founding member of the Worldwide Cybersecurity Initiative. Follow him on Twitter (@HoansSolo).

Image: Wikicommons.