Education can help heal national trauma, halt atrocities: Cambodian genocide survivor

Inday Espina-Varona

Posted at Aug 31 2018 09:59 AM

He has lived the American dream and returned home a hero. But parts of Youk Chhang’s life are beyond healing even three decades after escaping the hellholes of Cambodia. 

Youk, head of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-CAM), has been conferred the Ramon Magsaysay award for his “monumental task of documenting and memorializing genocide to serve the aims of judicial redress, national reconciliation and collective healing.”

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Genocide is a big word and sometimes used carelessly amid national, ideological and ethnic conflicts. Not in the case of Cambodia. 

In the four years of the Khmer Rouge’s rampage across the country, 2.2 million died — a quarter of its population during the late 70s. More than half died under torture or were executed; the rest from starvation amid war or forced conscription in communal farms.

Youk suffered with the rest of his compatriots. He was only 14 years old when the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh. The family evacuated – a euphemism for forced relocation -- to his mother’s province. There, he was tortured for picking weeds to save a starving sister. His mother, helpless, could only beg. Another hungry sister paid for unauthorized collection of rice by having her stomach slashed open.

Youk lost four siblings and around 60 relatives before his mother forced him to flee.

He and his mother reunited. But, he says, there is a distance, discomfort and pain and a child's inner rage, that cannot be spanned. The adult's achievements are all for his 92-year old mother, who now enjoys material comforts.

"But we don’t talk with each other. We live in the same house, nothing to talk about. It’s broken. It’s beyond repair," Youk said, halting every few words, groping to express the cost of war on mother and son.

"As a child, you have high expectations of your parents. As a young child, you want so much to be with your mother. But at that time, there was only war, genocide, invasion" -- and helplessness, and flight and separation.

It is not a matter of forgiveness. His lifetime goal "is to be the best son she could have."

But there is also this: "Sometimes reconciliation is very complex. Love is also very complex. To love you have to be together. "

That shattering defines the man and underpins all his efforts for Cambodia. Youk knows he is not unique.


After a brief stay in the Philippines as a refugee, he migrated to the United States where his competitive drive – “because I always wanted attention from my mother, who focused on my sisters” – swiftly brought him up in the world.

Youk was spotted by Yale University and later the US State Department, which allowed him a ticket back home.

He has spent the last 23 years in research and field work, interviewing more than 10,000 people, mapping more than 20,000 mass graves. 

His team organized physical and digital archives of 600,000 pages of documents, 6,000 photographs and 200 documentary films on life under the brutal Khmer Rouge. Their work played a crucial role in the trial of Khmer Rouge leaders under a hybrid court of Cambodian and international prosecutors set up in 1997.

“As a society, the best practice is to confront the mistakes of the past, to understand the mistakes of the past. Otherwise, the society cannot leave the transition,” Youk told ABS-CBN News. “Forgetting the crime, forgetting the horror is a crime itself."

But legal justice is a slow process. It took 10 years from establishment of the court to the first trial of Khmer Rouge leaders. 

Of ten indictments for crimes against humanity, three led to guilty verdicts and life sentences for the most notorious of Khmer Rouge leaders. Three others have been abandoned due to the deaths and illness of the accused. 


Justice is important but the nation can not rely on it alone, Youk said. Remembrance is equally crucial. But beyond paper, beyond memorials and museums, Cambodians need to talk about their past. 

Even more vital, he added, is education for the youth.

“Children of victims or perpetrators” comprise around 40 percent of Cambodia’s population, Youk noted. 

“Cambodia is very complex. It’s Cambodians killing Cambodians, not the Chinese killing Cambodians or the Vietnamese killing the Chinese.”

Many of the killers were children.

Photographs of the Khmer Rouge entering Phnom Penh show columns of very young children. The village chief in Battambang village where the family evacuated was a 12-year-old girl.

They were not born monsters, said Youk. Most were victims before they became brutes.

In the autobiographical “First They Killed My Father", author Loung Ung shows how survival hinges on following orders “without hesitation” even if it meant having to kill your parents and siblings.

Youk recognizes these. Having spent thousands of hours interviewing people on all sides of the terror, he acknowledges the monstrous forces that forced individuals to become as beasts.

It could happen to anyone. And it could happen again if mistakes are not learned.

The trauma of the Khmer Rouge years forced many Cambodians, bereft of access to personal recovery mechanisms, into silence. Few of their offspring have knowledge of the horrors they had faced.

Not anymore. Youk’s organization created the textbook now being used in compulsory history lessons from grades seven to twelve.

Children learn facts “that no one can deny or object”. At the same time, “debate” or dialogues with survivors and among the current generation could provide answers to the crucial questions, why and how.

“We learn how people killed each other, how people lied to each other, why people lied,” he said. It’s a difficult lesson because “these happened to be your neighbors, your teachers, your friends, your cousin.”

It’s not a question of waiting for youth to show interest. To teach, to remember, to never forget and to be armed with ways of preventing the repeat of genocide is the main thrust.

“You don’t want these kids to be obsessed about what we went through, but yet they have to understand the history of their parents,” he said. “In classroom they have to read, they have to read the history books; they have to take the exams. Otherwise, they will fail high school.”

The impact of six years of formal classroom experience provides a foundation for the next generation of Cambodian leaders.

The dark cloud over Cambodia has not completely disappeared. Seventy-five percent of the population have never received access to the lessons, which started in 2009. Knowledge, thus, has not gone beyond personal tragedy.

 “There is a risk that (past mistakes) can be repeated,” said Youk.

He is careful to talk in the future tense. But Cambodia, which has reverted to its traditional constitutional monarchy, remains a de facto dictatorship. Prime Minister Hun Sen, the world’s longest serving premier, was once a Khmer Rouge commander.

 “We all have to move on. No one should want to locate a spot to live in the past,” said Youk. “But at the same time, it’s with us. It’s present. It’s not ancient history. It’s human rights violations. It’s killings. It’s torture. And that’s the present time.”