Why Confront the Horrors of History?

Executive Director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, Youk Chhang stands for a portrait. (Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

[Editor’s note: Youk Chhang, 57, has been executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) since its inception in 1995. Last week, he received the 2018 Ramon Magsaysay Award, known as “Asia’s Nobel Prize,” for his “preserving the memory” of genocide and seeking “justice in his nation and the world.” DC-Cam, an independent NGO, documents Khmer Rouge-era atrocities, educates the Cambodian public, and supports the United Nations’ Khmer Rouge Tribunal.]

Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), received the 2018 Ramon Magsaysay Award, for his work in preserving the memory of the Khmer Rouge mass killings and lifelong mission to work on a process of restorative justice. (Courtesy photo of Documentation Center of Cambodia)

​We must confront the horrors of history if we are to ever move past it. Confronting the past can occur on a personal and a collective level. For societies, it can be as transformational as it is troubling. For individuals and particularly survivors, it can be as empowering as it is traumatic. I would not be the person I am today if I did not confront my history.

Confronting the mistakes from the past is about seeking justice. We need justice to define our present and the future.

My story

I was just barely a teenager during the Khmer Rouge’s communist regime in which almost 2 million Cambodian people were killed. When I was about 15 years old, I recall working in the fields under the supervision of the Khmer Rouge guards. My sister was pregnant, and the food that we received would scarcely keep a person alive, let alone my sister who was with child. Knowing my sister needed some sustenance, I picked some mushrooms in the rice field. Someone saw me pick these mushrooms and I was immediately arrested.

They brought me to the middle of the village and beat me mercilessly in front of nearly a hundred villagers including my mother. After I was beaten, they put me in a prison without trial. They questioned me over and over. Every night in the jail, I had to make a “confession” of some bad act, deficiency, or thought in my past and I would be required to ask for forgiveness. The “crimes” I confessed to the ranged from dreaming of cold Coca Cola to missing my high school teacher or friends. After my confession, I would be returned to my cell where I would lie shackled on an insect-infested floor. I told my captors every lie I could think of to stay alive. Eventually, when I ran out of lies to save my life, an older prisoner begged to the prison chief to release me. The prison chief agreed, but I later learned that the older prisoner was killed in exchange for my freedom. I lived and he died.

I do not remember his name. I regret that I forgot his name. It makes me wonder how much, in the wake of horror and tragedy; we could do better to focus on the names and stories of individual victims and heroes, rather than the overwhelming attention we confer on the perpetrators. I spent many years looking for his surviving relatives to pay them respect for what he did for me. I found no trace of him and it was during one of my searches that I found myself face-to-face with my past.

Confronting history means acknowledging the mistakes and trying to understand the past in its entirety. It means coming to grip with the horrors that human beings can inflict on each other, and reflecting on one’s identity—both individual and collective.

In 1998, I went back to the village, Trapaeng Veng, in Banteay MeanChey province where I was imprisoned, and I found the four guards to the prison where I was held. My staff looked upon them with sympathy. They were old, skinny men, who were weathered by poverty and few possessions. My staff felt sorry for them, but internally I was shaking with all kinds of emotion. I was face-to-face with the people who had beaten and tortured me so many years ago. In the instance I recognized them, I saw them as they existed over 20 years ago—brutal, arrogant, aggressive, and complete monsters. In describing the experience, it felt like a mountain had fallen upon me. While I was older and in a different position in life my confrontation with my torturers seemed so frightening and provoking. Normally my staff would conduct interviews while I observe. In this case, I had my two colleagues interview the guards while I listened intently.

FILE - Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) has spent more than 30 years collecting documents about the Khmer Rouge, and his mother, Keo Nan, met with the villagers from Trapeang Veng village in 2012.

I remember how upset I was when I listened to their stories. I was upset because they were so honest in describing what happened in the village. I knew every detail of what they were saying because I lived their story, except as a victim. I questioned my response to this whole situation. I had an immense upwelling of emotion. It was then that I realized I needed to face them myself. I asked my staff to stop the interview and turn off the recording. I asked them if they remembered me, and I asked them if they recall meeting me before? They said they did not. Then I told them I used to live here. They didn’t seem to believe I could have come from the area since I didn’t have their local accent. I asked them if they remember the public execution of a couple in front of the village pagoda, Preah Neth Preah. They said they remembered this. I asked them if they remember arresting a young boy for stealing mushrooms. They said they remembered this as well. In fact, they exclaimed, “This was us!” They recalled their excitement at that time, stating, “We were excited because we were hiding behind a bamboo bush and we knew he was coming and then when he picked the mushrooms, we blocked his exit and we had him.”

I told them I was that boy.

I remember as clearly as today the long silence that fell over the room. In such a situation, you wish a heavy monsoon rain could wash away everything so that the sun can shine again.

There really are no words that can describe the overwhelming emotions one feels when confronting his or her torturers, and there really is no greater collective task to securing a country’s future than confronting its past.

​It can be an emotional and difficult struggle to revisit the past, but the experience can empower individuals and societies alike. Confronting one’s past does not have to be a physical journey to places of historic significance, nor does it have to be a face-to-face encounter. Confronting history means acknowledging the mistakes and trying to understand the past in its entirety. It means coming to grip with the horrors that human beings can inflict on each other, and reflecting on one’s identity—both individual and collective. Confronting the horrors of history has to be a personal journey as much as a collective endeavor because everyone will have different understandings and circumstances that inform their identity.

Without question, confronting the past can be a traumatic experience. Yet, it can also be empowering. A victim will often remain a victim to the internal ‘perpetrator’ who dehumanized him or her until she has confronted him internally. Likewise, a post-conflict society will always be ‘post-conflict’ until it has collectively endeavored to confront and overcome its past.

We must confront the horrors of history. It is only in facing our demons, both personal and collective, that we can ever hope to vanquish them forever.

Facing my torturers gave me strength to move on, and I think my story could be a difficult lesson for other survivors including the young people today. I also believe that the successes and failures in Cambodia can be a lesson for other countries like the Philippines. In the Philippines — the country I love from the bottom of my heart, do we have a place that mentions the horrors of Philippines’ past? Is there a place that raises the individual or collective consciousness on the lessons of history?

There are not enough places in the world that challenge people to learn from the mistakes of the past. Past mistakes—both foreign and native—are not commonly discussed by many young Filipino historians. Our history should not be a secret amongst ourselves.

It took decades for Cambodia to confront, in a serious manner, the horrors of the Khmer Rouge in her history textbooks, let alone her schools, and the country still struggles today. There are portions of Cambodia’s history that continues to remain a mystery to many Cambodians even today, and this constitutes a problem that should not be underestimated or ignored.

FILE - Director of Documentation Center of Cambodia, Youk Chhang selects photos among about a thousand of newly-discovered photo collection of detainees at the former Khmer Rouge main prison S-21, in his office in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, Aug. 20, 2012. Photos of near 60 victims detained in the infamous S-21 prison in Khmer Rouge era were unveiled on Monday by Chhang.

Confronting history is the precipitant for moving forward because one cannot even contemplate notions of justice—from retribution to forgiveness—if there is not even a common endeavor to know what happened and why. And even when justice is at least symbolically achieved, as is often the case in criminal prosecutions of perpetrators, our struggle in facing the past should not end.

While there are admittedly many significant flaws in the system, Cambodia has benefited immensely from the United Nations-Cambodia hybrid tribunal known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) or the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. The Khmer Rouge Tribunal has established a legal record on the events, circumstances, and policies on the Khmer Rouge regime. It has provided a symbolic conclusion to Cambodia’s struggle with this history, and through its work it has had an impact on the country’s development as a post-conflict country. Still, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal is limited and in many ways it has fallen short of expectations.

Yet, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal’s core mission of justice in a broad sense does not end when it closes its doors. The goals of fact-finding and preservation of history that underlie all notions of justice are not restricted to courts. These goals can occur through research and documentation of history, the re-telling of stories, and ultimately the memorialization of these efforts through public education, public memorials, and public awareness. Courts are not the sole arbiters of history, nor are they the exclusive domain of determining what happened and why. Indeed, a survivor’s story is no less important in a high school textbook than a courtroom transcript, and societies should not consider criminal prosecutions as the zenith of post-conflict justice. Justice is a multi-dimensional endeavor that must occur throughout society and in every individual. Ultimately justice, in whatever form, must begin with confronting the past.

We must confront the horrors of history. It is only in facing our demons, both personal and collective, that we can ever hope to vanquish them forever.

By confronting my history, I am no longer a victim of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide.

I am Youk Chhang.