Kambol (Phnom Penh, Cambodia). 25/08/2009: Sotheara Chhim, psychiatrist, during his testimony on a screen in the press room on Day 64 in Duch’s trial at the ECCC
© John Vink/ Magnum
© John Vink/ Magnum
By Stéphanie Gée
Sotheara Chhim, Cambodian psychiatrist and director of the Phnom Penh based organisation TPO (Transcultural Psychosocial Organization), was heard as an expert on Tuesday August 25th. A testimony that was necessary to assess the trauma of the victims of the Khmer Rouge in the Cambodian society and its impact, both individual and collective. Unfortunately, the interpretation struggled, as some of the doctor’s answers were cut and the technical vocabulary was confused. The expert explained how the Khmer Rouge Tribunal could represent a starting point for healing and reconciliation and believed this process must be completed by another – later – mechanism on reparation.
The Khmer Rouge’s work of destruction
Dr Sotheara Chhim started by painting a very dark picture of the social situation under the Khmer Rouge, marked by a climate of distrust and fear resulting from a people categorisation in particular, the destruction of Khmer culture and its religious foundations, the ban on the freedom to worship decided by the new rulers of the country, keen to erase the past. “Cambodians thus suffered a massive psychological impact. People used their beliefs as a basis to solve their problems and confer a meaning and logical explanation to what happened around them. But the destruction of these beliefs resulted in a psychological deficit. So, when they encountered a problem, people could no longer find any solution. The Khmer Rouge did not allow them to pay tribute as they were taught by tradition or to practice their religion. The Khmer Rouge also forced families to separate. Children were taken away from their parents. While at a young age, they need their parents’ love, they were deprived of it. In addition, people were tortured, deprived of food, and this also contributed to the trauma. […] [Children] were also forced to spy on their own parents and some of them even killed them. This experience left a more than bitter taste in the mouth of these children, because the Khmer Rouge destroyed the health of each of these beings by forcing them to work excessively and not giving them decent enough accommodation. Also, there was the state of constant fear in which people used to live, over a long period of time.”
Many people traumatised, few psychiatrists
The practitioner claimed 40% of Cambodians over 18 had suffered and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A recent study under the direction of U.S. scholar Jeffrey Sonis stated a PTSD prevalence of 11.2% in the whole Cambodian population. Dr Sotheara Chhim stressed it was an important proportion compared to the small number of psychiatrists in the Kingdom – they were 32 – while they were barely 10 in 1994, for a population of 14 million.
A trauma that is present or ready to reappear
He explained that the patients treated by his NGO, TPO, constantly relived past events. One would feel the tears coming when the rain started to fall, reminding him that under the Khmer Rouge, they were exposed to the weather all the time. Another would have the same nightmare over and over again, in which he was chased by Pol Pot’s men trying to kill him. “Some victims who experienced these events suffer from depression and struggle to hang on to life. They lose the sense of effort needed to be parents for their children. […] Due to these traumatic events, many people have sunk into alcohol. Some have developed hypertension problems or chronic illnesses.”
The lack of psychological and psychiatric services in the country after the Khmer Rouge period only amplified the victims’ trauma, the doctor acknowledged. So did the concern, for many, to provide for their families’ immediate needs, in a logic of survival. “This does not mean that people are not traumatised, but that they did not have the opportunity to be treated. And one day, this trauma will reappear or has reappeared. […] However, following the creation of this tribunal, people may remember the past and put aside their daily survival and now focus on their mental problems because this trauma has reappeared. The tribunal can help them face their trauma and focus on its treatment.”
A whole society marked by the Khmer Rouge tragedy
Dr Sotheara Chhim argued the impact of this tragedy was inevitably felt in the generations who did not experience the Khmer Rouge regime directly, even though no relevant study has been carried out. He gave as an example the impact that a survivor racked by alcoholism may have on his or her entire family. He reminded that countries that went through important conflicts often faced rising violence, domestic in particular, and Cambodia was no exception.
By dismantling the family unit, the Khmer Rouge threw children into an “identity crisis.” “They no longer knew if they were the children of their parents or the Angkar,” which also indoctrinated them so they would execute any order, including the most barbaric ones. “Now, they are the parents and they reproduce what they experienced younger with their own children,” the psychiatrist insisted.
Truth and justice, a source of healing
In response to judge Lavergne who interrogated him on the impact of a trial like Duch’s on victims with psychological disorders, Dr Sotheara Chhim replied it may help them to overcome their trauma to see justice be given and it may allow them to get the answers to their questions through the trial proceedings. But he warned: if the judicial process may allow them to heal their wounds, it was still a long road to overcoming their trauma, as many survivors continued to function as if nothing had happened.
In Democratic Kampuchea, the supreme Angkar, the abstract ruling body which concealed the Communist Party of Kampuchea, was constantly invoked in all the decisions implemented. Yet, the expert noted, “during the trial, we heard former Khmer Rouge shift the blame on the Angkar themselves. Some used the Angkar as a shelter to deny their responsibilities under the Khmer Rouge. This can create even more suffering for the victims, as they come up against this denial of responsibility. Consequently, the healing process depends on the good will of the accused in particular, in terms of telling the truth, showing who was behind the crimes perpetrated by this regime. If that does not happen, the psychological wounds inflicted upon the population will not heal. We have seen it. Some civil parties do not accept the apologies made to them because they deem them inappropriate and insincere. There can be no complete process there. That being said, they may find some kind of relief in expressing what they have to say.”
The importance of victims’ participation to the trial
International co-Prosecutor Vincent de Wilde then listed a series of sagacious questions. “For the victims who joined as civil parties and for Cambodian society at large, what is the importance of their active participation to the trial, in public, before the nation? Can the other victims identify with these civil parties’ action and can that play a cathartic role for Cambodian society, without being a miracle solution?” Dr Sotheara Chhim concurred. “By coming to testify, these victims somehow made this trial their forum, where they can express publicly emotions buried for all these years and show that what happened under the Khmer Rouge did really happen.” He added that to this day, this chapter of Cambodian history had not featured in school curriculum and was not talked about either. “There was like a silence conspiracy. People avoided talking about it.” The psychiatrist hoped the testimonies made before this Chamber would contribute to breaking that silence.
A healing difficult to accomplish outside the country
The sadness felt by survivors over the loss of relatives under the Khmer Rouge as well as their anger seemed to increase with time. “We have observed that it was the case in particular of people who were outside the country during the time of Democratic Kampuchea and lost relatives here, although they had access to psychological care,” the co-Prosecutor pursued. “Do you think there was a transfer onto the civil party of the fear and suffering the civil party imagines their deceased to have experienced?” For victims living abroad, the expert specified, it was no less difficult for them to overcome their trauma, as they were far from their homes, in countries that did not share the same traditions or beliefs, not to mention the same language or past. So, although they experienced better living conditions there, “they still lost something.” To illustrate his words, he evoked a Cambodian patient based in Australia, for whom the treatment he received did nothing to alleviate his suffering. “In fact, it was difficult for him to practice his religion. He came back to Cambodia and was thus able to pray for the soul of his parents. It provided him a lot of psychological relief. When he returned to Australia, he was feeling much better.”
Why the lack of forgiveness to the accused?
Vincent de Wilde continued. “How can you explain the lack of pity […] of the civil parties – apart from one exception – towards the accused as well as the total lack of forgiveness towards an accused who has cooperated and expressed regret, at least to some extent? Must justice be done first to break the lock of impunity, before other steps may be envisaged towards the acceptance of apologies or, at an even later stage, forgiveness and reconciliation? In other words, are we only at the start of a very long process towards reconciliation?” In Dr Sotheara Chhim’s view, it was important to first understand the needs of the victims, the causes of their post-traumatic stress and their wishes. Then, “if justice is given, the civil parties will be able to draw the consequences and they may forgive. This forgiveness is a fundamental key to open the door to psychological healing. In the absence of forgiveness, it is very difficult for this psychological healing to take place, which impacts on national reconciliation. So, here, there is a willingness both from the accused and the victims to try and work together for the truth to emerge, a truth that can be accepted by the victims.”
Both torturer and victim?
The Belgian co-Prosecutor then interrogated him on the meeting between civil parties and the accused that took place in a trial. “If an accused, any accused, tries, through his repeated words, to also place himself on the side of the victims and thus share their suffering, in what psychological state may the victims or civil parties end up, faced with this confusion of roles that may lead them to believe that the torturer is also a victim or that victims may have also been torturers? What is the impact of that kind of speech on civil parties?” The expert recognised the crucial importance of such a question. He did not want to venture on the case of former Khmer Rouge leaders and even less so those indicted by the tribunal. So, he discussed the situation of children who were taken away from their parents by the Angkar, forcibly recruited and sent to the frontline or ended up posted at S-21. “At first glance, they are both victims and authors of crimes. […] It is a complex circle.”
The balance between the justice of men and that of Buddha
“One civil party told us about the clash between his personal suffering and the concept of karma, while also stressing some degree of clash between the justice of men and the justice of Buddha,” Vincent de Wilde recalled. “In light of the main religion in this country, can karma play a role in the fact that a number of victims do not dare to participate in a legal process before the justice of men and prefer to refer only to the justice of God and not fight as much as they might do in a different culture?” Dr Sotheara Chhim highlighted the fact that the majority of Cambodians believed in Buddhism and therefore in the principle of karma and considered that “vengeance is not a solution to problems.” In his view, “there must be a balance reached between the concept of karma and that of the justice of men so that justice may be given.” However, he deemed, that pertained to each person’s individual action and choice.
Kambol (Phnom Penh, Cambodia). 25/08/2009: Visitors from Stung, the district of the accused, who left their homes at 3am to attend the hearing on Day 64 in Duch’s trial at the ECCC
© John Vink/ Magnum
The victims’ fear about testifying in public
The expert later repeated that the psychological healing of the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime depended on the honesty of the accused and the former Democratic Kampuchea leaders. “We know who those responsible are, but the lack of acknowledgement of responsibility is a further burden on the victims’ shoulders […]. Cambodians are angry with that failure to recognise their responsibilities.” They were also reluctant to come and testify before the Chamber. As civil party co-lawyer Alain Werner observed, some of their clients had felt “too fragile” at the last minute to come and speak and face the accused. “There are several causes,” Dr Sotheara Chhim explained. “First, there is the psychological aspect and the fact that the victims were not treated. I admire the civil parties who found the courage to testify. […] Some say that by watching the trial and seeing the accused, they had flash-backs, they remembered, and the pain was therefore revived. […] They also lack self-confidence and do not feel safe enough to be able to speak in public and they continue to live in fear today. The Khmer Rouge taught people to distrust one another. They made them spy on one another. […] The victims often told us they didn’t trust anyone.”
Justice must be given “in several steps”
For his part, Kar Savuth, Duch’s national co-lawyer, questioned a potential healing for survivors, given that those responsible for the other 200 prisons that existed under the Khmer Rouge, as well as other known torturers, were not prosecuted today. The psychiatrist stressed it was important that justice be given in several steps. “There are the ECCC [Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia], which constitute a somewhat symbolic justice because those most responsible for the Khmer Rouge crimes are being judged here. For the psychological healing of all the victims at the community level, another reconciliation mechanism must be established.” He did not know what form it should take, but expressed his conviction that NGOs, local authorities and the government must join their efforts to set up “a joint reconciliation forum.” He suggested the creation of local courts as an option.
Too soon to talk about forgiveness?
As for his international colleague, François Roux, he returned to the issue of forgiveness – “a slow process,” as the witness described it – “which certainly goes beyond this hearing.” “I do not quite understand that one may ask here a victim who came to express their suffering: are you ready to forgive? That is not today’s debate. You recalled that it is only from the moment that justice is done that, possibly, something may happen between the victims and the accused. But am I right to say that it is too soon today to suddenly ask a victim: are you ready to forgive?” I am not an expert in forgiveness,” Dr Sotheara Chhim said. However, he agreed it was “too soon” to talk about forgiveness “because nothing has been clearly shown yet.” “This process may happen once the trial is over? Forgiveness is both an individual and collective process. […] But some will remain locked in their anger until the end of their life.” He added that this issue of forgiveness was a recent one in people’s minds. For the time being, he hammered, “the most important thing is to reveal the truth.”
Preparing the victims to see some of their expectations disappointed
Then, François Roux claimed it was important to take “a few illusions” away from the victims, by warning them they would not necessarily have all the answers to their questions, “though legitimate,” and that “in spite of that, they will have to seek healing.” “Who can understand Pol Pot? That we seek to establish the reality of the facts, yes. But why the Khmer Rouge regime? Will someone be able some day to explain the ‘why the Khmer Rouge regime’?” The expert considered it was important “to know the truth and that justice be done. That is what the victims wish. Those are the conditions that may lead to the healing of psychological wounds. I think it is difficult to attain this objective. In my view, everybody can project a version of truth according to their understanding. That depends on the degree of acceptability of the truth for the victims. In a word, it is difficult to disclose the truth and those who know the truth are the executioners and God.” No civil party lawyer returned to the issue of forgiveness and its acceptance, which was so skilfully reclaimed by the defence to their advantage.
Duch, ready to hear the victims discuss their trauma
It was the turn of the accused to speak on the contents of the expert’s testimony. From the outset, Duch specified he “did not have any knowledge on psychology,” but considered what had been said to be “positive” because it had no bias.” He recognised that the “immense” consequences of the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge “will still be felt for a long time.” He then again said he accepted the responsibility of the crimes committed at S-21 and deserved “the sentence that will be deemed fair by the Cambodian people.” “When I find myself faced with the victims, the widowers, the orphans, I understand that they condemn me and I bow to these victims. […] I regret that not all had a chance to speak.” Such was the case of Mr Chau Seng’s widower (a former minister under the Sangkum Reastr Niyum who was interned at Boeung Trabek and eliminated at S-21), who chose not to join as civil party, he noted, to “cast a stone at him.” However, he said he was ready to believe she experienced “something that had a long-term psychological impact” and bowed to her “from a distance.” Duch ended his declaration by expressing his “respect” to the public crowding the gallery and including… people from his native village in the province of Kampong Thom.