The head of Cambodia’s most prominent Khmer Rouge documentation group has said he has “made so many mistakes” in his efforts to record the suffering of the Cambodian people under the totalitarian regime that seized power in the 1970s.
Youk Chhang, speaking at the University of Maryland on May 9, said political decisions about which countries to seek assistance from, coupled with a lack of networking and the decision not to include Khmer Rouge victims in DC-Cam’s working team had slowed progress at the organization.
“I made so many mistakes... Had I not made those decisions, perhaps the process would have been much faster; I have been very careful in terms of which countries I want to work with,” he said.
“I failed to educate people to understand [my goals] rather than going it alone from the beginning,” he added.
His speech at the university came days after he was awarded the Judith Lee Stronach Award from the Center for Justice and Accountability in San Francisco, California.
Kate Seaman, assistant director of the Bahá'í Chair for World Peace, said there were many lessons to be learned from Chhang’s experience.
“There is a lot to learn about conflict environment, post-conflict environment, how you transition from conflict to more peaceful, stable society, and the role that justice plays in that as well,” she said.
Allison Patch, who teaches in Maryland University’s international studies department, said it was important for students to be exposed to thinking about how societies deal with the aftermath of atrocities.
Corinne Paul, a student reading international development policy at the university, said she had gained a deeper understanding of the mass upheaval in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.
“Definitely, one of the things that was really highlighted is how important documentation is. So many things happened, but if we were not able to talk about them, or to systematically say that they happened, it’s hard to make a change,” she said.
Chhang encouraged attendees to use DC-Cam’s publicly available materials to advance their studies. Responding to a question from the audience, Chhang said he did not want to see the younger generations becoming “obsessed” with the country’s dark past, but rather they should know enough to appreciate what their parents and grandparents had lived through.
“When I meet young people who say ‘I don’t want to know [about the Khmer Rouge atrocities]’, I am happy because they are young. I want young people to go to the mall, have a girlfriend or boyfriend, buy CDs, see movies. They have to grow normally. I don’t want them to grow obsessively about the Khmer Rouge or being obsessed about the past.”
“Some reconciliation is just like broken glasses, meaning it is impossible to achieve. For example, if a woman lost her husband and children, we have no magic powers to tell her to reconcile with the perpetrator.”
“Education can be a form of healing. It can be complementary justice to the process of the [Khmer Rouge] Tribunal.”