2005 Newsletter Story
After nearly a decade of painstaking research, the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), a NED grantee, played a crucial role in a tribunal that might finally bring to justice those members of the Khmer Rouge regime who perpetrated horrific crimes against the Cambodian people a quarter century ago.
When the Khmer Rouge came to power in April of 1975, in order to create a “classless society,” they carried out a radical program to return the society to “Year Zero.” Schools, hospitals and factories were closed, banking and property rights were abolished; thousands of people were forcibly relocated from urban areas to collective farms for “reeducation.” As a result of these harsh policies, many Cambodians died from exhaustion and starvation and others were publicly executed. While the exact number of people who died during the Khmer Rouge’s rule is unclear, the Cambodian Genocide Project of Yale University (CGP) estimates the death toll at 1.7 million, which would account for one-quarter of the country’s total population.
For decades, Cambodians and the international community have struggled with how to address the atrocities that were committed, while survivors have lived with the knowledge that the perpetrators have not been held accountable for their crimes, while evidence of those crimes faded away. In early October, 2004, after nearly eight years of negotiations and many false starts, the Cambodian government ratified an agreement with the United Nations to create a tribunal for senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge.
Through its many activities, the Center aims to provide the public with a better understanding of the Khmer Rouge regime and assist Cambodians who wish to pursue legal redress for genocide and war crimes that were perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. DC-Cam was one of the first genocide documentation centers worldwide and it is the only one that catalogues the crimes committed in Cambodia. With over 600,000 pages of documentation from the Democratic Kampuchea era, DC-Cam is the largest repository of materials on the Khmer Rouge.
One of DC-Cam’s many activities is its Promoting Accountability Project. This project has compiled and organized volumes of documentary evidence, such as Khmer Rouge commanders’ correspondence, daily activity logs, testimonies of victims and interviews from former officers. Based on DC-Cam’s archive, which contains over 30,000 biographical files created for Khmer Rouge officials during their time in power, the staff of researchers work on locating and interviewing surviving Khmer Rouge cadres to help establish chains of command and responsibility of senior officials for grave human rights violations. Since the project began in 2001, DC-Cam staff members have interviewed over 1,300 witnesses, mapped 19,521 mass graves and identified 194 prisons and 80 memorial sites.
DC-Cam is also working to ensure that young Cambodians are aware of this incredibly dark period in their country’s history. Many young Cambodian remain largely ignorant of the atrocities committed less than a quarter of a century ago—they either believe that the accounts of their relatives are exaggerated or they simply cannot believe that the genocide occurred.
In 2004, DC-Cam received NED support for the initial stage of a multi-faceted education research and development project, aimed at reversing the current silence in schools on the Khmer Rouge period in Cambodian history. The Center is in the process of preparing a comprehensive resource guide for Cambodian secondary schools, including a list of genocide survivors who are willing to share their experiences with younger Cambodians. DC-Cam has also produced several documentary films and is hosting a weekly radio program that discusses the brutality committed by the Khmer Rouge.
Documentation centers and their outreach programs stimulate public discussion of the causes and consequences of history and are crucial to the establishing and maintaining an accurate collective memory of a society. The motto of another NED grantee, Russia’s Memorial Human Rights Center, reflects this: “A society without memory will obediently play into the hands of any demagogue.” By cataloguing and educating Cambodians and the international community about the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, the Documentation Center of Cambodia is making sure that the public remembers that horror committed by this brutal regime and that those who were responsible for such crimes will finally be denounced, while those who were prey to their harsh policies might finally receive some measure of justice.