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Experts See Trauma Transferred to Youth

Kim Sru is a vendor at Olympic Market in Phnom Penh. In the 1970s, she was in a Khmer Rouge mobile youth unit in Battambang province. The 49-year-old vendor survived the regime because she never expressed her opinion, nor asked nor complained of orders or principles of any kind. She was afraid she would be killed if she did.

"Those who dared to complain or talk politics were killed by the Khmer Rouge," she said in a recent interview.

In Pol Pot's era, officially called Democratic Kampuchea, Cambodians were deprived of their rights to free expression or constructive criticism. If anyone spoke out or complained about anything a cadre did not like, he or she would be executed as an enemy of the Angkar, the Organization.

Experts say that even now, with the Angkar long gone, its effects linger on, in victims who suffered trauma, and in the next generation, who suffer as well.

Kim Sru's experience under the Khmer Rouge has had an effect on her two sons. She has banned them from talking politics or expressing their opinions on the rich and powerful, or any leaders of the country.

"I advise them not to talk about politics as so doing is dangerous," she said.

"If I just chat with friends [about politics], that's ok. But, if I speak out in public places, she does not allow me to do so," said Sok Sambo, one of her sons. "I think she does not let me talk about the leaders or the powerful maybe because of her fear left behind by the Khmer Rouge regime."

Dr. Mony Sothara, head of the psychiatric department of Phnom Penh's Preah Kossamak Hospital, said most survivors of the Khmer Rouge suffered years of trauma as they experienced torture and threats and witnessed violence and murder.

This trauma is being passed to their children, experts say.

"In my study, I found that parents who were traumatized by the Khmer Rouge regime tend to be too protective of their children," said Om Chariya, a psychology assistant at the Center for Social Development, who recently interviewed 200 high school students in Phnom Penh for her study on the transmission of trauma to the second generation.

"Being too protective causes their children to suffer from depression and anxiety," she said.

Psychiatrist Ke Chhum, of the Cambodia-Soviet Friendship Hospital, said for the past few years about half of his trauma patients have been young people. He said they may have mental problems because of their parents' trauma together with social problems facing youth today.

That has caused a shift in the types of patients he receives, from those 40 and up in the 1990s, to a younger generation now.

"About 40 percent of the population are young people between 15 and 20," said Dr. Chhim Sotheara, manager of the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization. "So just imagine in the next 20 years how they will lead their lives, when they become parents themselves, if now they are brought up by their traumatized parents."