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Genocide, Memory and Trauma in Asia: On the Paucity of Research and the Road Ahead

Updated On: Feb 06, 2009

As an ASIA Fellow with the Asian Scholarship Foundation, I went to Cambodia for 6 months last year to investigate, at least initially, the memories and narratives circulating among the survivors of the Khmer Rouge period, which led to the deaths of 1.7 million people from 1975-1979. A great deal of literature already exists on the Khmer Rouge period – it’s recognized as one of those infamous moments in history when idealism and the intention to create a kind of socialist utopia went profoundly awry. But much of the writing has emerged in two disciplinary fields: political science and history. There was and still is a paucity of scholarship on post-conflict, postcolonial countries in Southeast Asia focusing on “muddier” areas like memory/forgetting, identity and informal rule-following, culture, genocide and reconstruction.

There isn’t a singular explanation for this. Traditionally, memory and trauma studies are considered synonymous with academic work focusing on the Holocaust and Nazi Germany. Unfortunately trauma has far greater scope. While scholars have explored trauma in the context of authoritarian regimes and political turmoil in Southeast Asia, much more needs to be done to further Asian Studies in this regard, and this became quickly apparent when I was out in the field, conducting interviews. [1]

Cambodia is an unfortunate exception to the rule in that gathering of nations with unfortunate histories of genocides in their recent pasts. Unlike the relatively more urgent responses of the international community to atrocities in former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, East Timor, Sudan and perhaps Burma in the future, Cambodia’s atrocities occurred nearly three decades ago and have gone largely unaddressed until now.

Cambodians had no immediate international intervention by way of foreign troops dismantling autocratic regimes; no truth and reconciliation commissions; no multi-billion dollar international tribunals to try former dictators. [2] In Cambodia, the events occurred while the international community quietly mumbled words like “diplomacy” and “the Cold War”. Several international actors consciously embraced the Khmer Rouge as the rightful leaders of the country and now, when its aged leaders are too old to withstand the stresses of a criminal trial, the aged survivors of that genocide are about to witness a process ostensibly 
convened to redress the wrongs committed and address the traumatic events that occurred nearly thirty years ago.

If they are posed stock questions about the “value” of this process and the “need for a fair trial” – a tone often unconsciously taken by NGOs conducting legal outreach in Cambodia – they respond with stock answers about the “importance of justice” and how “vengeance is not the answer.” However, a little more coaxing reveals the still-raw memories of the deaths of family members and of starvation and hard labour. Almost unanimously, survivors passionately and angrily ask why it is that no one responded when such horrendous crimes were occurring in the country. Memory and accountability, inextricably tied together in this case, remain under-researched in Cambodia.

Yet another factor stood out during interviews with survivors and the children of survivors (whom I subsequently tagged as the “post-conflict generation”): their stoicism was merely a thin layer over the memories of violence and the still vivid sense of personal suffering. Most survivors I talked to would state facts of suffering as facts, and feelings emerged only as they began trawling through the details of what happened, where it happened, who disappeared one night only to never return, how hunger slowly killed a family member. Much of what exists by way of the scholarship and methodology on looking at trauma tends to also presume to know what constitutes that trauma, what constitutes post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and how such memories and trauma must be worked through. However, I would hazard a guess and suggest that existing tools are insufficiently shaped to understand the particular context of suffering in Cambodia and that even words like “memory”, “trauma” and “reconciliation” become embedded with multiple meanings when they are translated into Khmer (if they can be translated at all).

On the other hand, civil society organizations, in the constant competition to get foreign funding and attract big donors, are in the process of engaging the discourse of “rule of law”, “justice and reconciliation” and “truth-telling”, and often do not have the means (nor the time) to address the complexities of these terms, and their impact on villagers across the nation.  As organizations undertake to impart lessons through these mass “tutorial sessions” if you will, they are propagating the notion that there is only one kind of legal process (namely, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal) to answer to their brutal pasts; that there are all kinds of notions of justice, but we must apply one kind (a hybrid tribunal that brings together Cambodian and international laws with its attendant set of rules). That truth-telling and vocalizing one’s emotions is part of the healing process, though not all survivors would concur as healing is after all, deeply personal and subjective.

Other NGOs make it clear that healing is only possible with knowledge of the truth and that truth itself must be validated with tangible evidence (in the court of law). Such organizations are also shaping how Cambodians receive memory, what they should regard to be “true”, as opposed to distorted narratives, biased recollection and half-forgotten details of critical events. Once again, there is insufficient research being done on the role of civil society in the country. Traditionally, the focus has always fallen on countries like Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, which are seen as bastions of diverse civil society activism in the Southeast Asian region. But there is plenty going on in Cambodia that merits our attention.

At any rate, countries like Cambodia and East Timor are now becoming test cases where we are witnessing the impact (or the lack thereof) of post-conflict tribunals or truth and reconciliation commissions. While it’s vital to pay attention to the legal and political implications, scholars would do well to more keenly focus their attention on social memory and the role of civil society organizations in these countries. It’s certainly evident that they are making waves in Cambodia, which has social and cultural consequences for the future.




[1] See the following for just a small sample of scholarship on Southeast Asia in the context of social memory and/or trauma: Mary S. Zurbuchen. “The Legacy of Violence in Indonesia.” Asian Survey, Vol. 42, No. 4. July - August 2002, pp.564-581. Stoler, Ann Laura. “On the Uses and Abuses of the past in Indonesia: Beyond the Mass Killings of 1965.” Asian Survey, Vol. 42, No. 4, July – August 2002, pp. 642-650. Coronel, Sheila s. “Dateline Philippines: The Lost Revolution.” Foreign Policy, No. 84 (Autumn 1991), pp. 166-185. Van Erven, Eugene. “Philippine Political Theatre and the Fall of Ferdinand Marcos.” The Drama Review TDR, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Summer 1987), pp. 57-78. Also, for an interesting example in the film medium, see any one of the narrative epics of Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz. His films largely focus on the Marcos era and national healing. This is a just an initial sample of some of the approaches taken to memory studies in Southeast Asia. Suffice it to say, this author has seen a dearth of such literature on Singapore.



[2] A trial was held in 1979 to try both Pol Pot and Ieng Sary – seen as
some of the key architects of the regime’s policies. However, it was
subsequently dismissed as a show trial. For details on that event, see:
De Nike, Howard J., John Quigley, Kenneth J. Robinson, eds. Genocide in
Cambodia – Documents from the Trial of Pol Pot and Ieng Sary.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.


Vinita Ramani Mohan
About the author: 

Vinita Ramani Mohan is currently the case manager of the Access to Justice Asia Legal Team (AJA – Legal Team), a group of lawyers from Singapore and Australia who are going to represent victims before the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. She is based at Stanford University, where she is auditing courses focusing in state-building and the rule of law, justice and creative non-fiction writing. She will return to Cambodia next summer to continue working with AJA. She is also cataloguing her thoughts on memory and trauma, among other things, at http://www.justiceasia.blogspot.com


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