New research seeks to understand why Cambodians joined the Khmer Rouge and how people today perceive their roles in the brutal regime.
The result of that research project, “Entering the Tigerzone,” written by Timothy Williams and photographed by Daniel Welschenbach, was recently on display at the Meta House in Phnom Penh.
Williams told VOA Khmer he sought to understand “mass violence and why people within this movement used violence.”
In order to do that, he had to seek out former members of the regime. “There were different strategies I had,” he said. “One of the ways that I found people was through my translator, who was an historian who had worked on the Khmer Rouge. Another way, I found people to speak with through other researchers and through NGOs who had heard of someone who was former Khmer Rouge and someone who had worked on other related projects. It was quite difficult. It was like piecing together a big puzzle, pulling together many contacts, as many as possible.”
When he did find former regime members, he said, he was surprised to learn that many were relatively open to talking to him. “Basically when I approached the people, I told them that we would be talking about their experiences during the period of the Khmer Rouge, during the civil war, and the regime itself, and I told them that I knew that they had been the members of the Khmer Rouge. I didn’t label them as perpetrators or criminals, but I told them that I just wanted to hear their story and their perspective.”
The conclusion he came to in his research was that there were in fact many different motivations for people who took part in the mass violence of the Khmer Rouge. “They are all human motivations,” he said. “It’s about emotion, it’s about friendship groups. It’s about status. It’s about rationality.”
Understanding the motivations and the social dynamics in mass violence movements or genocide plays a role in society and the world as a whole, he said. “I think the impacts of the research I have done, and the very different motivations that I have shown, can help explain to people that actually people participate in violence much more easily, and much more ordinary people participate. So looking from now forwards, in other situations where violence may occur in the future, I think people can be more sensitive to this issue, and realize that very normal people and very normal processes lead to people participating in violence, and people should be more aware of how easy it is.”