Skip to main content

An ongoing struggle for justice after Khmer Rouge

By Youk Chhang, Special to CNN
August 7, 2014 -- Updated 0306 GMT (1106 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Youk Chhang was 15 when he survived imprisonment by Khmer Rouge
  • An older prisoner stepped forward to save him who was later killed for his kind act
  • Verdict in Cambodia over two senior Khmer Rouge leaders doesn't bring back dead
  • But verdict is enormous achievement in Cambodia

Editor's note: Youk Chhang is the executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia and founder of Sleuth Rith Institute, which is based in Phnom Penh. He is a survivor of the Killing Fields. He was appointed by the Yale University's Cambodian Genocide Program to conduct research, training and documentation related to the Khmer Rouge regime. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia (CNN) -- During the Khmer Rouge regime, I was put in prison at the age of 15 for picking mushrooms in the rice fields to feed my pregnant sister. Under the Khmer Rouge, everything belonged to the Revolution — and picking up anything from the ground without their permission was a crime.

For several hours in front of about one hundred villagers, the Khmer Rouge publicly tortured me. I did not cry, because I was told not to. Then, they put me in prison. Months later, after running out of lies to tell the prison chief while begging for my life, one of the older prisoners stepped forward and pleaded to the prison chief on my behalf.

Surprisingly, the prison chief agreed and I was released. I came to learn much later, however, that in exchange for me, they killed him.

Youk Chang, survivor of the Khmer Rouge killing fields, has authored several articles on justice and reconciliation in Cambodia.
Youk Chang, survivor of the Khmer Rouge killing fields, has authored several articles on justice and reconciliation in Cambodia.

My experience is a mere footnote to the millions of other Cambodians who suffered and died at the hands of this regime, but it is illustrative of the ongoing struggle to find justice and closure.

35 years on, top Khmer Rouge leaders face justice in Cambodia

Trial 'will not bring back the dead'

When the verdict is announced in the first trial of the Khmer Rouge tribunal's second case, there will be no winners and no cause for celebration. While the occasion marks an enormous achievement in Cambodia and the international community's long struggle to assert the primacy of human rights, peace, and the rule of law, it is a victory that can only be marked with somber contemplation.

We have come a long way in forging an international system to meet the challenge of responding to and punishing mass atrocities, but judgments do not bring back the dead or restore trust.

No action can assuage the anguish, sadness, and regret that haunts the survivors to this day.

Cambodian and international journalists watch a live video feed showing the verdicts in the trial of former Khmer Rouge leader "Brother Number Two," Nuon Chea, and former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan, August 7, 2014. Cambodian and international journalists watch a live video feed showing the verdicts in the trial of former Khmer Rouge leader "Brother Number Two," Nuon Chea, and former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan, August 7, 2014.
Cambodia's bloody past
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
>
>>
Cambodia\'s bloody past Cambodia's bloody past
Cambodia remembers genocide
From child soldier to child savior
A look at Cambodia's 'killing fields'

Over 35 years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, we still see the effects from this period in almost every facet of Cambodian society. From physical scars and disabilities, to trauma and psychosocial conditions, the horrors of this period continue to manifest themselves in survivors, families, communities and institutions.

Suffering under the Khmer Rouge

Many estimates found that more than a million people died under the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979 from execution, disease, starvation and overwork.

See places where Cambodia's shocking past is on show

Like many families, my mother, my deaf sister, Keo Kolthida Ekkasakh, and I, all suffered under the Khmer Rouge. And my mother lost all three of her brothers, one sister, one daughter and many grandchildren under the regime. Nearly 60 of our family members are still missing today.

Society is still divided, and the memories of this period— even memories of kindness — carry a heavy burden.

I will never forget the kind act of the man in prison.

I do not even know the name of the man who saved my life. I have been searching for his family members for years, in the hope that I can pay my respect for the courage and kindness he showed me.

'Too little, too late'

Achieving true justice in these circumstances is an impossible feat for mankind, and an altogether late endeavor at best.

Time and again, the international community has watched mass atrocities, genocide, and other heinous crimes proceed unchecked.

INTERACTIVE: Five faces of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge

While our efforts in applying due process in the punishment of genocide and mass atrocities deserve recognition and respect, we should not overlook the paramount need for preventing such crimes before they occur.

 Keo Nan, Chhang\'s 86-year-old mother, lost nearly 60 members of her family during the Khmer Rouge regime.
Keo Nan, Chhang's 86-year-old mother, lost nearly 60 members of her family during the Khmer Rouge regime.

Prevention must be the watchword in defining our struggle, and our struggle against evil must begin with courage. We must have the courage to call out inhumanity when it occurs and take steps that prevent such crimes, rather than responding to their aftermath.

We must seize the opportunity to stand up for what is right, no matter the circumstance, because we know that saving millions of lives today speaks far greater for our civilization than issuing verdicts tomorrow.

This verdict regarding the two senior Khmer Rouge leaders matters a great deal to me, as should it for all Cambodians, because it gives some closure -- but closure is too little, too late for many.

If only the international community would exercise the courage and resolve as the man in prison did for me, the world would need fewer verdicts.

In 2013: Infamous leader during Cambodia genocide dies

Part of complete coverage on
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT