Documentation center of cambodia

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Magazine: Searching for the Truth, October 2009

“Turning a river of blood into a river of reconciliation”: Cambodia’s catastrophe

Dr. Annie Stopford

After 25 years people are still asking the same questions...we deserve justice as human beings.  Victims are just like a glass that has dropped on the floor and broken, and you try to glue it back together. That’s what we are, broken people living in a broken society”.  Youk Chhang, Director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia

In August this year I returned to Cambodia for a brief visit after a gap of 28 years. I had no particular plans when I set off, but felt a need to honour a promise I’d made to myself many years ago that one day I would return. It was intensely emotional to be back in Phnom Penh after so long, with an odd feeling of things being so different, and yet still the same. There is freedom of movement, the streets are alive and colourful, and the tense, paranoid atmosphere I experienced in 1980 is gone, but the distress is still palpable.  As Christina Carey from the University of Southern California writes; “Even though thirty years have gone by, the Khmer Rouge and the regimes following it have left Cambodia in a state of chronic pain.” (2009). As it happened, my visit coincided with the trial of Kaing Guek Eav (“Duch”), the former superintendent of S21 (Tuol Sleng) prison where over 15,000 men, women and children were tortured and executed during the four years of Khmer Rouge control. Any thoughts of heading off to Siem Riep to see Angkor Wat were soon abandoned, and I spent the first day of my week in Phnom Penh attending the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).

It took ten years of wrangling between the Cambodian government and the United Nations to set up this special international court for the specific purpose of prosecuting some senior members of the Khmer Rouge leadership, and the atmosphere surrounding the court is highly charged.  There have been accusations of corruption amongst Cambodian ECCC officials, disagreements between the national and international co-prosecutors about whether to prosecute additional Khmer Rouge leaders, and dire warnings from Prime Minister Hun Sen that any further prosecutions would run the risk of plunging Cambodia into civil war. There are many previous Khmer Rouge cadres holding powerful positions in the current Cambodian government, and the blurry line between perpetrator and victim (many Khmer Rouge cadres were children when they were recruited) is a major political and psychological challenge for Cambodia. The proceedings of the ECCC are carefully monitored by numerous interested parties, including national and international journalists, the Cambodian Documentation Centre (DC-Cam), and the Centre for International Human Rights at Northwestern University School of Law. 

The day I attended the tribunal there were a few other foreigners, and hundreds of rural Cambodians who had been bussed in by the government due to a concern that 75% of the Cambodian population are not aware of the ECCC. Attending the ECCC tribunal so early on in my visit was like diving straight into Cambodian and international politics, and added to the surreal feeling of past and present converging.  My first visit to Cambodia in 1980 was very soon after the Vietnamese invasion ended the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, and Cambodia was in the grip of catastrophic trauma. During the previous 4 years an estimated 21% of the population (close to 2 million people) died as a result of starvation, illness, overwork, torture and execution as “Angkar”, or the Organization,  set out to create their Marxist-Leninist- Maoist inspired utopian vision of the ideal agrarian based communist society. When I arrived in Cambodia I could speak only a few words of Khmer, and minimal French, and the Khmer people I met could speak almost no English, but through words, gestures and drawings the people I encountered on my journey from the border of Thailand to Sisophon, Battambang and Phnom Penh managed to convey some of the immeasurable suffering, terror, loss and trauma of the previous 4 years.

The extreme ideologically driven violence, paranoia and cruelty of the Khmer Rouge almost defy imagination. Under the Khmer Rouge cities were emptied, money, wages and private property were abolished, universities, schools, places of worship, cultural institutions, and government buildings destroyed, religious practices and education prohibited, families forcibly  separated, and “illegal” sexual activity punished with execution. Everyone lived in constant fear.  Children were turned into informers against their parents, uneducated teenagers sent to run hospitals, intellectuals, doctors, scientists and artists killed, and all material goods associated with the “bourgeois” west, such as televisions, books and cars, destroyed. In their attempts to turn Cambodia almost overnight into a “pure” communist society the Khmer Rouge leaders destroyed almost every dimension of Cambodian society.  The word used by the Khmer Rouge to describe the action that should be taken against perceived enemies of their revolution was “smashed”, and that is exactly what they did to the country.

 As John Le Carre writes in his introduction to a book written by the only westerner to survive imprisonment by the Khmer Rouge, a French man named Francois Bizot; “There is pain that is perceived, and there is pain that is endured, and they are two different worlds, inhabited by creatures of two different races...In the scale of human suffering I did not even qualify for a mention” (200, pg viii).  Precisely.  Nevertheless, to be in Cambodia in the immediate aftermath of one of the most extreme and brutal regimes in history was profoundly impactful, perhaps heightened by the fact that I was in quite challenging  conditions myself. Apart from occasional conversations about practical matters such as food, and insistent questioning by various authorities as to why I was in Cambodia, the only conversations and interactions I had for two months were about what happened under the Khmer Rouge, and I often found myself numb from the extreme horror.  The married couple caretakers of the Phnom Penh house where I lived, for example, had had 2 babies during the Khmer Rouge years, both of whose skulls were smashed by young Khmer Rouge cadres in order to ensure that their mother kept working in the rice fields.

I learned in the most immediate and visceral way about the need we humans have to tell our stories, to be heard and recognized, and to have what Martin Buber describes as the “I – Thou” encounter. I have no doubt that this experience was formative in my eventually becoming a psychotherapist. I tried desperately not to dissociate, but of course I did, culminating in nearly fainting when I was taken to see Tuol Sleng (camp S 21) a few days before leaving Cambodia.   Blood stains were still visible on the floor, and the torture instruments displayed, along with thousands of skulls, and “confessions” and photos of the distressingly blank faces of the victims, including 2 young men from Australia and New Zealand who had been “captured” while sailing their yacht off the Cambodian coast. 

When I Ieft Cambodia in late January 1981 I wanted to try to stay connected to the country, perhaps through becoming involved in some way with Cambodian refugees in Australia, but instead I became a drug and alcohol counsellor in a women’s refuge in King’s Cross.  For many years I gave little conscious thought to what had happened in Cambodia. I was in survival mode myself to some degree, and the dissociation from the unbearable horror of genocide that had begun while I was in Cambodia continued when I returned to Australia.  I wanted to believe that the Khmer Rouge’s defeat by the Vietnamese marked a clear cut end to the extreme suffering of the Cambodian people, and the end of the Khmer Rouge, so it came as quite a shock when I read “The Lost Executioner” by Nic Dunlop (2005) after my recent trip and discovered that in fact the Khmer Rouge (backed by the U.S., Thailand and China) remained a considerable threat to Cambodia’s peace and security until the early 1990’s.

As psychotherapists we are interested in the unconscious and dissociative processes that shape lives, and in hindsight it’s easy to see the connection between what I had experienced in Cambodia, and the fact that so soon after my return to Australia I found myself working with drug and alcohol dependent sex workers with their own histories of trauma.  I did not have the maturity or psychological capacity to continue what John Pilger describes as the “journey into the dark, suffering heart of Cambodia” (2005), so I unconsciously found a way to work with suffering that was more “bearable”.  On this last visit I made a conscious decision to try to stay as open and receptive as I could to the past and present pain of Cambodia, so in the days after I attended the ECCC, and upon return to Australia, I immersed myself in reports about the trial proceedings, and in literature about the Khmer Rouge, including many accounts by survivors. I have the same response every time I read about the Khmer Rouge as I had when I visited Tuol Sleng in 1980; nausea, dizziness, and a sense of overwhelming horror that leaves me feeling hollow, despairing and drained for days. Many people who research and write about the Holocaust describe similar responses.

Besides attending the ECCC, I also visited several organizations in Phnom Penh that are actively involved in documentation, healing, reconciliation and rescue work. The first on my list was the Cambodian Documentation Centre (DC-Cam), whose motto is “turning a river of blood into a river of reconciliation”. This centre was founded after the US Congress passed the Cambodian Genocide Justice Act in April 1994 and established the Office of Cambodian Genocide Investigations. The Office announced grants to Yale University in 1995 and 1997, enabling Yale’s Cambodian Genocide Program to conduct research on the Khmer Rouge regime, and in 1995 the CGP founded DC-Cam as a field office in Phnom Penh, under the leadership of Youk Chhang, a survivor of Cambodia’s “killing fields”.  In 1997 DC-Cam became fully independent, with a wide variety of donors.  The centre concentrates on two major objectives, the first being to record and preserve the history of the Khmer Rouge regime for future generations (memory), and the second to compile and organize information that can serve as potential evidence in any legal proceedings against the Khmer Rouge (justice).

The DC-Cam website includes the following poignant and powerful statement about the destruction and healing of Cambodia:

DC-Cam's quest for memory and justice has more to do with the future than with the past. It is about the struggle for truth in the face of an overwhelming power that virtually destroyed our society, a power that continues in more subtle ways to threaten our aspirations for a peaceful future. The violence of that power shattered Cambodian society and scattered the Cambodian people across the planet in a terrible diaspora. But no matter how far or near to the homeland, and whether they are survivors or the new generation born after the overthrow of Pol Pot, all Cambodians still suffer from a profound sense of dislocation. This dislocation is rooted in a loss deeper than material deprivation or personal bereavement. It is a loss that can never be recovered, and thus full healing of the wounds of genocide will require that something new be built to take the place of that which has been lost. By reconstructing a historical narrative of what happened to Cambodia, and by striving for justice where that is an appropriate remedy, we aim to lay a foundation upon which all Cambodians can find firm footing in moving toward a better future. Reconciliation in Cambodia will happen one heart at a time.”

When I met with Youk Chhang he said that he feels that unlocking and expressing emotion is the most important task for Cambodia, through theatre, art, Buddhist ceremonies, and education.  When at least 40% of the Cambodian population suffers from the legacy of the thirty years of war and the Khmer Rouge genocide, individual therapy is obviously not the answer for the vast majority, and there are numerous individuals, organizations and agencies (including many Australians) involved in trying to find ways to improve the material, emotional and spiritual dimensions of Cambodians’ lives that do not necessarily involve one to one therapeutic work with the very small number of Cambodian psychologists and psychiatrists. 

In fact, according to the executive director of the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO), Dr Chhim Sotheara, (who also uses the word “broken” to describe Cambodia), many Cambodians’ symptoms do not fit the western medical model of PTSD. Thus, although he is a psychiatrist working with enormous numbers of people suffering from what most western psychotherapists would describe as trauma, he prefers the term “psychosocial distress” as a signifier for  a combination of conditions including poverty, alcoholism, domestic and sexual violence, psychosis, paranoia, anxiety, depression and fear.  The day before I met with Chhim Sotheara at the TPO he had appeared as an expert witness for the ECCC, and his testimony about the massive mental health problems associated with the Khmer Rouge genocide, and the importance of the ECCC prosecutions as “symbolic justice”, was widely quoted in the national and international press.

In our meeting Sotheara described how during his testimony at the ECCC, the defendant Duch (who has basically admitted his guilt) tried to make eye contact with him many times, and actually bowed to him at one point. When I asked him how he felt about this, Sotheara said that he wanted to avoid eye contact because he felt afraid of Duch, knowing that if he had met him in 1975 Duch would have had him killed as a member of the educated classes. However, in the interests of reconciliation, he did eventually nod and bow to Duch.  As in South Africa after the end of apartheid, both perpetrators and victims live cheek by jowl in Cambodia, with the added issue that many perpetrators were also victims themselves, or would have been, if they had not followed orders.  Cambodia is still politically volatile, with endemic corruption, and while many Cambodians want to see justice done, they are realistic about the constraints of the current climate.

Attending the ECCC and talking with both Cambodian and non Cambodians about the widespread psychosocial distress raised many important questions about differences and similarities between individual and collective trauma, and about the kinds of healing work required in situations of mass distress,  As a psychotherapist working in private practice I love the special space and relationship that is created in one to one long term therapy, but at the same time I often struggle with the reality that many people who need psychological support, education and healing will probably never have access to such a resource.  This feeling was of course greatly amplified in Cambodia, and my brief trip exposed me for the first time to some of the debate going on in several overlapping communities (in academic, medical, mental health and NG0 circles, e.g.) about what one Australian academic I met in Phnom Penh rather derisively calls “the trauma industry”, i.e. Western agencies and organizations offering trauma treatments in non Western contexts.   Increasingly there is awareness that “trauma is a category largely codified by Western medical and psychological institutions, that “trauma studies” as a field has been grounded in events and processes of Western modernity...and that there has been insufficient exploration not only of how Western theoretical and diagnostic models translate into a “non-Western” context but of how sites of traumatic memory in South East Asia, Africa, and the Middle East (dis)confirm, challenge, or revise dominant Western conceptions of trauma and memory” (Saunders and Aghaie, 2005, p. 16).

I am not familiar enough with the literature about this debate or with the realities of working in the mental health field in Indo China to form a strong opinion on the applicability of Western derived knowledge and methods in Cambodia. However, time spent at ECCC, DC-Cam and TPO, and later on at a French NGO in Phnom Penh for abused, neglected, trafficked and abandoned children (whose Cambodian and Western carers are also traumatized), left me feeling that probably many kinds of psychological support and knowledge are needed in Cambodia. While non Cambodians such as the French director of the aforementioned NGO (who told me she is desperate for her own supportive therapy) might benefit from the kind of one to one therapy we offer in the ANZAP community, if only it were available, what most Cambodian mental health workers want is for their indigenous traditions, practices and resources to be respected and recognised.  While they appreciate the support and resources offered by the West, they do not want the all too frequent scenario of Western practitioners assuming that their knowledge and methods are inherently superior. In an interview with Helen Basili after a visit to a mental health clinic in Cambodia, Meng Eang Thai, a Cambodian counsellor at the NSW Service for the treatment and rehabilitation of torture and trauma survivors (STARTTS) says, “I have been arguing with people to acknowledge that Cambodians have had the concept of counselling for a long, long time but most of the Western practitioners have disagreed. ..We have to acknowledge that although the Cambodian idea of counselling is different from the Western tradition, it still exists. It’s a matter of integrating the two into one form”.  


Basili, H. (2007). Mental health services in Cambodia; Interview with Meng Eang Thai, STARTTS newsletter

Carey, C. (2009). Addressing the wounds: The process of reconciliation and seeking justice in post-genocide Cambodia.  DC-Cam document.

Dunlop, N. (2005). The lost executioner: A story of the Khmer Rouge. Bloomsbury: London

Le Carre, J. (2000). Foreword, “The Gate”, by Francois Bizot, Harvill Press: London

Pilger, J. (2005).  Front cover comment on “The lost executioner” by Nic Dunlop, Bloomsbury: London

Saunders, R., & Aghaie, K. (2005). Introduction: Mourning and memory. Comparative Studies of South East Asia, Africa and the Middle East. 25.1 p. 16

For daily report on the ECCC, visit

Copyright 2009 DC-CAM

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