Skip to main content

An ongoing struggle for justice after Khmer Rouge

By Youk Chhang, Special to CNN
updated 11:06 PM EDT, Wed August 6, 2014
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
updated 12:24 PM EDT, Sat September 20, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT