Fr Alberto Caccaro, a PIME priest in Cambodia, shares his thoughts about the court ruling upholding life imprisonment for Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan. Both are accused of "crimes against humanity, extermination and murder." Ordinary Cambodians faces many difficulties to overcome the trauma of dictatorship. God's love provides hope against the disappointments of human justice.
Phnom Penh (AsiaNews) – Yesterday morning a joint Cambodia-UN court upheld the conviction of Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, two prominent leaders in the Khmer Rouge Maoist movement that carried out a bloodbath in the 1970s that killed a quarter of the Cambodian population.
Still, the decision is not enough to heal the wounds that people carry in body and mind. What follows are the thoughts of Fr Alberto Caccaro, a missionary with the Pontifical Institute Foreign Missions (PIME) in Cambodia.
After nine years of existence, the special court for crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia has handed down two important and final sentences of life imprisonment. The first one is against Nuon Chea, 90, nicknamed ‘brother number two’ because he was second only to the brother number one Pol Pot; the second is against Khieu Samphan, 85, considered the regime’s ideologue and president of Khmer Rouge state, the Democratic Kamphuchea. These are not secondary characters, but the head, the brain and executive arm of a regime responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million people.
Whilst the verdict seems to finally bring some hope for justice to the Cambodian people and to the families of the victims, neither victims nor their surviving family members can ever be adequately compensated. I am not going into the merits of this special court – set up in 2007 after a difficult compromise between the United Nations and the Cambodian government – nor shall I dwell upon procedural irregularities, corruption allegations, and the huge and uncontrolled waste of money that turned the court into a business for many. To do so would mean that human justice is always partial and fatally unjust in offsetting wrong-doing.
Chhang Youk, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DCC), said that those responsible for the killings should get two million years in prison, one for each victim of genocide, but that is not possible. The DCC researches and records material available on the Khmer Rouge. Since its establishment, it has surveyed 19,440 mass graves and 185 detention and torture centres scattered throughout the country.
Nevertheless, the final verdict of life imprisonment, although "rendered moot" by the age of the accused, could at least help soothe the pain, the lack of meaning in the history of a country where impunity still prevails, where justice always has price or a political hue. I wonder then, after this final verdict, if justice has been done and if, in addition to the verdict, there are other human, cultural and religious resources that can help overcome the trauma and the ghosts of the past.
However, in motivating the sentence, which dates back to August 2014, the court stated that the two accused are guilty of "crimes against humanity, extermination, murder, political persecution and other inhumane acts [. . .] committed in the territory of Cambodia from 17 April 1975 to December 1977".
The first conviction was followed by defence lawyers filing an appeal but the court’s latest decision is final, 40 years after the facts. Some years ago, Chhim Sotheara, psychologist and director of the Mental Health Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation, was called to testify about the devastating effects of trauma suffered by millions of Cambodians during that period of their history. In his view, "symbolic justice" was a minimal outcome of the long and ongoing trial.
In fact, many Cambodians have not yet overcome the trauma, which manifests itself in painful memories, in dreams in which dead family members cry or ask for help, full of fear. It is not true that time heals. Matthias Witzel, who authored the Understanding Trauma in Cambodia Handbook on behalf of the Center for Social Development, noted that many Cambodians still suffer from "post-traumatic stress disorder" from the violence they endured or saw. He explains that defence mechanisms converge in three areas in the human psyche to alleviate pain following a trauma: "dissociation, avoidance, and numbing”.
Many Cambodians live in a permanent state of dissociation and avoidance. They avoid everything that can remind them of the fear and pain they once experienced. They avoid complex situations in which they would be hard-pressed to manage relationships. Often, when there is no way out, they react violently. A lot of domestic violence, in fact, is due to similar untreated trauma, to persistent fear, to a sense of vulnerability and threat that still dwells in the hearts of many.
Political instability on its own, being constantly victims of corruption, or at the mercy of someone, a policeman who stops you in the street or a doctor who will only care for a fee, without being able to ask for explanations or respond because of a permanent sense of inferiority, all this generates more fear and a sense of threat, exacerbated by widespread impunity and the lack of justice. The result is a need for emotional detachment, generalised apathy, censorship of what comes to the surface from the deep wounds of the soul.
At various levels, this inhibits the process of reconciliation with oneself and with others. People prefer expediency and luck, or money, the only tool able to free from any kind of threat. I wonder whether if – in addition to this latest verdict and the next, or to therapeutic counselling, which is too expensive for most people – there are other resources available to people, like religion, Buddhism for instance.
In this respect, I welcome a book released a few days ago by the DCC, because it at least documents an ongoing reflection. Titled Cambodia's Hidden Scars, it is in its second edition, and offers an interesting interview with Sao Chanthol, a monk at the Wat Lanka monastery in Phnom Penh. In it, the monk explores the themes of reconciliation from the perspective of the immutable law of karma of "cause and effect", according to which past lives, acts committed, always have an influence on present life.
The Dhammapada states that "Just as rust arising from iron eats away the base from which it arises, even so, their own deeds lead transgressors to states of woe" (240). This means that a man's destiny is determined and "corroded" by his own deeds. “I cannot reach a firm conclusion on whether what the victims suffered during Khmer Rouge regime [1975-1979] was their Sanchita [karma]. . . Yet, I would like to clarify again that everything happens based on a process of cause and effect,” Chanthol said. Yim Sotheary, a trauma psychiatrist who is also Buddhist, said that whilst believing in the positive influence of religion, she would never tell a patient that what happened to him or her was the result of their karma.
A second and equally rooted belief that does not contribute to the internal reconciliation process, is that the soul of those who have suffered a violent death will never find peace. This explains the repeated nightmares and the visits of dead relatives in dreams. A further difficulty is the fact that in Buddhism we are our own refuge. “One is one’s protector, one is one’s own refuge. There, one should control oneself, even as a trader controls a noble steed. (Dhammapada, 380).
Adding silent pain to the radical solitude of being does not help either, just like the verdict. Even if it is final, it remains external and is not enough to heal the wounds or respond to the pain. I wonder if in this context one can or should suggest other religious perspectives, other interpretations of evil and the suffering of existence. I wonder whether one should not be more daring and proclaim with greater force that “what is central is not the law or legal justice, but the love of God, which is capable of looking into the heart of each person . . .", as Pope Francis says in Misericordia et misera. Indeed, I wonder whether we ought to be more daring.