Cambodia’s Silent War
During the years of 1975-1979, Cambodia suffered one of the most brutal and effective genocidal terrors in the history of mankind. Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge army killed up to 2 million people through execution, torture, forced labor and starvation. Pot separated families, removed all intellectuals (even those who wore glasses were threatened), documented meticulously the torture of thousands of individuals, and sent hundreds of thousands into work camps in the countryside. The physical onslaught stopped when Vietnam invaded in 1979; but the psychological scars have yet––more than 30 years later––to be reckoned with.
The Cambodian government calls it a kind of reconciliation that its citizens, majority Buddhist, prefer silence to evoking any “spirit of revenge.” Today, former Khmer leaders have found their way back into positions of power without much outcry, and many textbooks devote no more than 10 lines of description to the years of the regime.
Some who have pushed for public displays of remembrance have been accused of trying to provoke violence. Rather than partake in any meaningful process to reconcile the past, the prime minister (himself former Khmer Rouge) once famously stated that victims of the regime should “dig a hole and bury the past.”
While survivors may have found a coping mechanism in keeping stories of their experience to themselves (particularly while those who committed atrocities have yet to be prosecuted), succeeding generations are demanding more accountability. Many feel that accurate documentation is one important way to make sure history is known, and to ensure that something like Pol Pot’s regime is never repeated.
It was into this setting of silence and repression, beginning to lift under court testimony, that Alan and I walked. Our entrée into Cambodian society was through TPO’s director, Dr. Sotheara Chhim. I had first written to Dr. Chhim after reading his expert testimony on trauma for the ECCC during the trial of Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Comrade Duch.
A survivor of the Khmer Rouge and one of the country’s first psychiatrists, Dr Chhim was formally trained as a medical doctor, but came upon so many cases of post-Khmer Rouge psychological disturbances that he turned to psychiatry.
“After the regime ended in 1979, Cambodians had lost the structures that would have allowed them to heal from trauma. There was no family, no teachers, no doctors, no monks, no honoring of the dead, no comfort, no closure and no justice. The very institutions that would help Cambodia recover from the immense trauma no longer existed,” Chhim told the court.
One of Chhim’s methods of treatment included testimony therapy.
Testimony therapy was first developed by Chilean psychologists Elizabeth Lira and Eugenia Weinstein following the Augusto Pinochet regime. Using the pseudonyms Cienfuegos and Monelli, the two initially set out to interview former political prisoners in order to document the oppression. They realized the process of giving testimony seemed to help the survivors of the regime: It restructured an idea of self and provided new perspectives about the past in a person’s own voice, replacing the voice of the perpetrator.
In Cambodia, testimony therapy is combined with a public reading and sometimes a purification ritual. TPO’s participants were taken to the notorious killing fields, where thousands of people were murdered during the regime. There, a Buddhist monk blessed the testimonies and the survivors. During one session, a man wailed for two hours without pause. He phoned TPO the next day to offer thanks. After 30 years, he said, a painful thorn had been removed from his heart.
For me, working in Cambodia was a chance to see first-hand how testimony therapy worked in postconflict societies, and if such a process could be administered by nontherapeutically trained professionals. Cambodia was a window into how one could face and overcome trauma through testimony, even decades later.