When I first went to Cambodia I had no idea what to expect. What I knew about Cambodian history was relatively grim and as a first semester conflict resolution graduate student, I knew I was about to embark on a lesson that could never be found in a textbook. Our goal in going to Cambodia was to learn about the challenges to peacebuilding in a post-genocide society – to examine as much information as we could through interviews, observations, meeting with NGOs and government organizations and, perhaps most importantly, through connections with the locals.
It did not take long before we were able to call our Khmer colleagues “friends” and even less time for us to ask them about their views regarding the peacebuilding process in Cambodia as well as their definition of peace. As we continued on our journey of meetings, we concluded that it was a very real possibility that, by the end of the trip, we might not be able to actually define peace in one complete, comfortable sentence. What we were able to conclude, however, was that certain elements were mentioned enough that we could confidently attribute aspects such justice, reconciliation and truth as a few of the many pieces that made up the collage known as peace.
These three elements: truth, justice and reconciliation were brought up numerous times (most likely as often by us as those we were asking). We were often told that the reconciliation process could not take place until justice was served and justice could not be served until the truth was told. So where does one begin? The majority of my colleagues and I became quite curious about what initiatives were set in place to work toward this concept of justice. One quick and often default answer that we received was the tribunals.
We were fortunate enough to visit the tribunals during our stay in Cambodia and while I was able to gain a better understanding of the mechanics of the actual tribunal process, I still walked away wondering if this would in any way be sufficient “justice” for the Khmer people. Later that evening, our group sat down to reflect on the day’s events and the issue of justice and the tribunals quickly arose. Opinions began to soar about whether prosecuting 5 Khmer Rouge commanders and, inherently, allowing the rest of the soldiers to go free would serve justice for the estimated 1.7 million people that were killed during the genocide. It was a hard question that demanded thought.
The discussion began to get heated when all of a sudden a voice silenced the room by bringing to light a point that I personally had failed to seriously consider, which was that the majority of the soldiers were, in all actuality, thirteen and fourteen year old kids. From that moment onward, my curiosity was peaked as to how to understand this unique element – this crucial piece of the puzzle that took young, innocent children and systematically made them into killing machines? Where in the world was the justice in that? Much of the mystery was uncovered when we visited the Teoul Sleng Genocide Museum.
Upon walking into the Teoul Sleng Genocide Museum the first images you see are pictures of young children dressed in all black – hundreds and hundreds of children. My first thought was an immediate sense of sadness because I, like many, assumed that these were the faces of the innocent victims that were tortured at the prison. You can imagine my shock when Emma, a colleague from the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, quickly identified them as the actual soldiers, or in other words, as the perpetrators of the tortures that took place at the prison.
Through the rest of the tour I struggled to understand how the Khmer Rouge not only recruited these children, but were able to convince them to take part in some of the most horrendous acts against their own people. However, as Emma continued to describe to us how the young soldiers, some even as young as five or six years old, were indoctrinated, manipulated and more often than not forced to obey the great Angkar, I began getting a small glimpse into a very different aspect of this already complex conflict.
We studied quite a bit about the importance of identity during the first semester of conflict resolution and it was easy to see where the role of identity played out within the Khmer Rouge. Many of the soldiers that the Khmer Rouge recruited were poor farmers often times with little to no prospects of a better, less poverty-stricken life. I tried to place myself in their shoes, if even for a second, to see if I could easily turn away offers of power, three meals a day (when I am already starving) and, most importantly, a one-way ticket out of the bottom. Basic needs theory tells us that one of the basic human needs is having a sense of identity. But what happens when this identity is not the identity you want or chose?
Not all of the soldiers necessarily chose to join the Khmer Rouge. Countless soldier testimonials claim that when given the choice between killing and being killed, the answer was simple: survive at all cost. It seems almost a sick and morbid way of understanding a psychology, a mind set, which functioned from the very basic level of survival but it’s from this very place that the face that was once a perpetrator begins to slowly blend with the face of a victim.
We researched enough to know that the psychological traumas the Cambodians endured were not simply reserved for the victims under the Khmer Rouge – many of the victims, in fact, were those whom actually perpetuated the crimes. I cannot help but think back to one of the documentaries we watched prior to our departure in which a group of former Khmer Rouge commanders stationed at S-21 torture center were interviewed by a former prisoner. The prisoner asked one of the commanders if he considered himself to be a victim and the commander responded by saying “yes, we are the primary victims and you are the secondary victims.” It was a simple, yet powerful, statement that clearly illustrated the degree to which these former commanders considered themselves to be victims.
This article is not in any way intended to justify the horrific crimes that were committed by the Khmer Rouge soldiers. What this article is intended to do, however, is provide an alternative look at a seemingly straightforward assumption about a group of young children that were forced, at thirteen and fourteen years old, to make a decision that would subsequently affect the rest of their lives and, consequently, end a million others’.