PHNOM PENH —
The Anlong Veng Peace Center was launched in early May, in a joint initiative between the Sleuk Rith Institute and the Ministry of Tourism that it is hoped will foster peace building and reconciliation in the district that was the last Khmer Rouge stronghold.
Located on the Thai-Cambodian border, Anlong Veng was one of the main redoubts of the Khmer Rouge after their regime was toppled in January 1979.
Vietnamese forces, with the help of the United Front for National Salvation of Cambodia—a group of Cambodian defectors—had occupied most of country. But with the protection of thick forests and the Dangrek mountain range, the Khmer Rouge were able to regroup and stage a guerrilla war for almost two decades.
That came to end in 1998, when the remnants of the Khmer Rouge agreed to be integrated into the Cambodia state. The mass defection was the result of political concessions and compromise by the government, as well as the desire for national reconciliation among the district’s population of cadres and their families, said Dr. Ly Sok-Kheng, the inaugural director of the Anglong Veng Peace Center, who appeared on the Hello VOA program on May 18.
Dr. Ly Sok-Kheang, (left) Director of the Anlong Veng Peace Center in VOA studio in Phnom Penh when he joined as a guest in special Hello VOA and Dy Khamboly (right) the moderator. (Lim Sothy/VOA Khmer)
In exchange for defecting, the leaders and cadres were given citizenship status. That entailed the right to hold administrative and military positions in the region—which many were given, as well as the rights to the land they had been occupying.
However, Dr. Ly Sok-Kheng noted, peace does not simply mean the absence of war, and many of the wounds of the conflict remain unhealed in Anlong Veng, worsened by discrimination, polarization and misunderstanding.
To address this, the new center is launching peace-building and reconciliation projects, he said, including the preservation and development of historical sites like Pol Pot’s grave for visitors. The Khmer Rouge’s top leader died abruptly in Anlong Veng in 1998, shortly before the mass defection.
Incense stick holders stand at the cremation site of late Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot in Anlong Veng, a former Khmer Rouge stronghold, about 305 kilometers (190 miles) north of Phnom Penh, Friday, April 11, 2008. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)
The center would also organize “peace tours,” on which young people can speak with former cadres to bridge the gap between their often widely differing interpretations of history, he said.
“Dialogues will bring about common understanding and forgiveness between individuals, the community and the country as a whole,” he said.
The center is also mandated by the Cambodian government to do research and documentation for a better understanding of the area. It is publishing the book “A History of the Anlong Veng Community: The Final Stronghold of the Khmer Rouge Movement,” which will be used as training material for tour guides picked from among the local community.
Residents have been receptive to the idea of the Anlong Veng Peace Center, he said, explaining that they expect it to bring more visitors to the district and boost local businesses.
Formal integration ceremony in Anlong Veng in February 1999 (Source: Photo by Khun Ly/ Documentation Center of Cambodia Archive)
“The local residents are the main sources for attracting visitors,” said Dr. Ly Sok-Kheng. “They can participate in discussion and historical sharing with visitors. This sharing allows visitors to learn not only the history but also the beliefs and ways of thinking of the former cadres.”
The center’s director said these activities will in turn bring Anlong Veng's residents closer to the larger Cambodian community, which is the key for ensuring peace and prosperity in the country. Visitors from fellow Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states—Burma, for instance—that face the risk of conflict would also be serviced by the center, he added.