Cambodia builds a better future by piecing together its bloody past

Dozens of Cambodian researchers tap away at keyboards in a nondescript house-turned-office in downtown Phnom Penh, their humming efficiency giving no hint of the grim task at hand.

While the rocky road to establishing a UN-backed trial of surviving leaders from the genocidal Khmer Rouge has grabbed the headlines, the Documentation Centre of Cambodia has been quietly working towards justice for victims.

Since 1997, the institute’s researchers have been painstakingly compiling a history of one of the 20th century’s darkest chapters, the 1975-79 regime of Pol Pot which is held responsible for up to two million deaths.

They provide answers to surviving Cambodians concerning the deaths of loved ones, and give the victims a voice by listening to their stories and recording their histories.

"Usually they’re looking for their husband, their father, their mother," says centre director Youk Chhang. "They find photographs, pieces of paper, the date of executions, sometimes a confession — and sometimes we don’t find anything."

As they pursued their objective of creating an agrarian utopia, the Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records — "to prove that the enemy had been eliminated" — but much outside Phnom Penh was inadvertently destroyed when Vietnamese forces chased them from power.

"What was left behind was used to smoke tobacco or wrap fried bananas. People didn’t realise the significance of the information or documents so it became almost too late to capture those things," Youk Chhang says.

As a result, researchers have fanned out across the kingdom to record oral histories in a project expected to last well after the much-delayed tribunal, which is now not expected to begin until 2005.

"Ninety-five percent of people want to say something because they’ve been holding this in their hearts for so many years," says Youk Chhang.

The centre, funded by Britain, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States along with various universities and non-government organisations, collects histories relating to both victims and perpetrators and opens its doors to all.

"We don’t check who’s coming in, what their background is. Even in our database, it’s purely raw data, we don’t say who’s the victim, who’s the perpetrator," says the director, whose sister was killed by the regime.

"This is for humanity. Even Khieu Samphan asked for photographs for his book. I gave him 10, he used two," he says, referring to the recently published memoirs of the Khmer Rouge’s former head of state, one of those cited for trial.

The home of Ieng Sary, another ex-leader, is just a few blocks away from the centre, and given the number of former Khmer Rouge soldiers and defectors now involved in government — including Prime Minister Hun Sen — security is an issue. All documents are microfilmed and backups stored abroad.

The centre’s resources, built up in conjunction with work carried out by the Cambodian Genocide Project at Yale University, will be available to all during the trial and are viewed as being crucial to the process.

"The assiduous work that has been done over almost 10 years certainly is an essential underpinning for any trial," says Helen Jarvis, an advisor to the Cambodian government task force coordinating the tribunal.

"Some of the documentation was known about, but new depth has been revealed along with new caches of information and more extensive documentation than was previously understood to have survived."

The proposed trial is essential to allow Cambodians to move on, Youk Chhang says, as well as for Cambodia to develop a just society.

"If you don’t have legal prosecution against those who committed crimes against two million, why should we have it now for those who steal a motorbike or are corrupt?" he asks.

For Meng Try Ea, a 30-year-old researcher who has authored a book on the children of Khmer Rouge cadres, the prospect of helping create a better future for his country spurs him on.

"I work for my mother, for my country, especially the younger generation. To me education is the most important thing," he says.

Some 80 percent of the researchers were children during the regime or born after it, making them more objective than direct victims, says 42-year-old Youk Chhang.

"Their interest is not revenge, but why did this happen, what was true? For them it’s part of learning, moving forward. They’re helping to shape their vision, their future, their dream."

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