Under the ‘eyes of the pineapple’ and after

When the Vietnamese army entered Cambodia in January 1979, the soldiers found a devastated country and a shattered population. In 4 years, the Khmer Rouge had destroyed the entire social, cultural and religious fabric of the Cambodian society. Isolation, difficult reconstruction, poverty, refugee flight, ongoing struggle against Khmer Rouge guerrillas formed the background against which survivors tried to grapple with the tragedy of their bitter past.

Furthermore, victims soon found themselves forced to live side by side with perpetrators. The People’s Republic of Kampuchea, unwilling to recruit pre-revolutionary officials from the Lon Nol and Sihanouk regimes, appointed former Khmer Rouge in the provincial administration (Gottesman 2003, pp. 59–61). The early 1990s marked the beginning of a new era. The Vietnamese withdrew from Cambodia (1989), the Paris Peace Agreement was signed and followed by UNTAC-monitored elections. Relationships with the international community resumed, thereby opening the country to Westerners and Cambodian exiles who had longed for home.

This new context affected the politics of remembrance the authorities had developed so far (e.g. establishment of a National Day of Hatred turned into Remembrance Day after 1999, building of memorials, transformation of S-21/Tuol Sleng prison into museum for genocidal crimes). Exchanges with international partners brought new forms of memorialisation, more focused on individuals and healing. About 60% of the Khmer population was born after 1979. Many of the young generation do not believe the ‘stories’ of their parents—these are lies or at best exaggerations. Indeed the history of Democratic Kampuchea is not taught in schools. Only in the past couple of years has it entered schoolbooks and the curriculum of teachers at the instigation of the DC-Cam. Inter-generational communication clearly proves a matter of concern. Social aspects related to the access to information should not be overlooked either: the contrast between better informed cities and rural areas remains strong.

How does the Khmer Rouge Trial affect Cambodians in such context? On the one hand, it reactivates traumatic memories in the population. On the other hand, it passes unnoticed in some places and communities. It is why a weekly television programme, ‘Duch on Trial’, was broadcast during the prosecution of Duch, the former commander of S-21. For half an hour, the journalists Ung Chan Sophea and Neth Pheaktra summarised and analysed the testimonies that had been given in the court during the week, and explained the legal framework. ‘Whilst such emotionally charged moments provided the catharsis the tribunal wanted to stage, in a country where 90% of the population regularly views television—despite enormous poverty—the tube has proven the most efficient channel for engaging people in the war crimes court’ (Brady 2009). Besides communication, one of the key issues faced by the ECCC—a problem shared by other tribunals concerned with transitional justice—is the tension between social cohesion and reconciliation, and justice at the individual level. Cadres and soldiers in cooperatives, villages and districts played a significant role in mass killings in Democratic Kampuchea (Heder 2005, p. 408). Still, as noted earlier, many of them went back home. Should they now all be tried? Indictment is a Pandora box that few wish to open in Cambodia. Yet, what kind of justice is it that leaves so many perpetrators unpunished? The ECCC cannot fight on both fronts: individual and collective closure. Is there maybe another possibility to create frameworks (both outlet and containment) where witnessing might be expressed and bring some sense of relief, social or personal?