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Experts Say Healing Must Come From In and Outside the Tribunal

There are many ways that people can heal from the Khmer Rouge. The UN-backed tribunal is only one of them. And though some have voiced disappointment with a relatively short sentence for Khmer Rouge prison chief Duch, experts say it's a start.

“To continue our lives as victims is like allowing Duch to control our lives,” Chhang Youk, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which researched Khmer Rouge atrocities, said in a recent phone interview. “We are now doctors, workers, farmers, medical practitioners, and teachers so we have to move on with our lives. This is a way to add punishment on Duch. Teaching our children [about Khmer Rouge regime] is also another way. To continue acknowledging or thinking that we are victims is like to continue living in the Khmer Rouge time.”

Reconciliation is one of the main mandates of the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal. But with the verdict of Duch passed and the court now looking at its second case, some victims have not been satisfied.

However, Chhang Youk said, no amount of punishment will repair the lives lost under Duch. But the perpetrator was brought to justice.

“Nineteen years is not a whole lot [in terms of the] number of years,” said Nou Leakhena, executive director of Applied Social Research Institute of Cambodia, which works with Khmer Rouge victims in the US. “But at the same time, a verdict was reached, and that sets the precedent that perpetrators or potential perpetrators will be punished for crimes that they commit against innocent civilians and the destruction of a society.”

Nou Leakhena, whose institute has helped Cambodians in the US file complaints with the UN-backed tribunal in Cambodia, said the process has been legally complicated and the court has not done a good job improving the participation of victims.

“So my recommendation is, to the survivors, do not reach a decision until you fully understand the context by which the verdict was reached and at the same time what they do to ensure that this type of surprise verdict does not happen for Case 002,” said Nou Leakhena, who attended the Duch verdict. “I think too often survivors tend to react emotionally without looking at the situation more rationally. And by combining both rationality with emotion, I think it would be a lot healthier, not only for them but also to help encourage the court to do its job and to hold them accountable, to find justice not only for the Cambodian survivors but for Cambodian society at large."

After 77 days of testimony, which included appearances of surviving prisoners of Tuol Sleng and researchers, Duch was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity for overseeing the execution of more than 12,000 prisoners.

The verdict has brought mixed reactions.

“I think that this is acceptable,” Vann Nath, who survived the prison, told VOA Khmer this week. “There's nothing more we can demand than that. I am so happy. He is now 68 or 69 and for 19 more years we don't know if he can stand it. I am now feeling much relieved."

Ronnie Yimsut, an author and activist in the US, has both joyful and unhappy feelings, but suggested that people should find ways to move forward.

“I think that all Cambodian people, including myself, have to accept the result of the court,” he told VOA Khmer on Monday. “What Cambodians should do is keep monitoring Case 002, which focuses more on senior Khmer Rouge leaders. Duch was just a junior follower, and I hope Duch would testify against them.”

Another Tuol Sleng survivor, Chum Mey, reacted with tears and disagreement when he first heard the July 26 verdict, but by this week, he said he now feels “some relief.”

“After considering it all over, I feel some relief, because we have a court with international participation,” he said. “This makes me more relieved. I am not just heated like before. It is a relief also because we have set up a law in Cambodia, unlike the three years and eight month lawless regime” of the Khmer Rouge.

Tribunal officials hope the verdict will provide this kind of relief to Cambodians who suffered under the regime. They have now published the verdict in its entirety and begun to distribute it to educational and other institutions for the public.

“This verdict has a big part in helping to heal their mental wounds,” tribunal spokesman Reach Sambath said, “which the court has done for the Cambodian people as well as those who love justice across the world.”