Blog written by Patricia Zimmermann, Shaw Foundation Professor, Nanyang Technological University and codirector, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
Why we need to know more about Cambodia
When I first traveled to Cambodia in 2003, I was deeply moved---and disturbed.
The contrast between the splendour and awe of the artistry of Angkor Wat and the history of one of the most devastating genocides of the 20th century grounded me. I wanted to understand, if understanding is at all possible in the face of horrors unspeakable.
From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge was in control of Cambodia. They murdered over 2 million people. Cambodia is also one of the poorest countries in the world. NGOs are everywhere, prompting some in Southeast Asia to contend that the country is for all intents and purposes run by NGOs on one side and foreign companies running textile sweatshops on the other.
Meandering the market in Siem Reap, the town near Angkor Wat, I stumbled onto something I had never encountered anywhere in Southeast Asia: pirated copies of David Chandler's book on the history of Cambodia. I've seen pirated Hollywood films, pirated Louis Vuitton, and pirated Lonely Planet guides, but I had never encountered pirated academic history books in a market. David Chandler's books were there, in pirated zerox form. They looked pretty close to the real thing, although the books I bought were missing a few pages, mostly the footnotes. He's one of the preeminent historians of Cambodia. I felt an urgency about reclaiming history in that market.
Several colleagues and friends who work in human rights in Asia steered me to the Documentation Center of Cambodia's site. It captivated me. As a historian, I was struck by how this project was not only doing a history from the point of view of victims and perpetrators, but also creating a living archive to reclaim memories with the goal of justice for war crimes.
We've invited Kok They Eng, from DCCAM, to present at Open Space/Singapore/Southeast Asia at ICA in Singapore.
The Interview with Kok Thay Eng
Patricia Zimmerman: What is your background? How did you get interested in Documentation Center for Cambodia? What is your role there?
Kok Thay Eng: I am a Deputy Director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia. I am currently responsible for overall management, genocide education, translation and interpretation of ECCC related materials, supervising research, family tracing, digitalization, documentation and donor communication. I have a Master's Degree in Peace and Conflict Studies from Coventry University, United Kingdom, received in 2005. I also hold a Master's Degree in Global Affairs from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, received in 2007 and supported by the Fulbright Scholarship. I am a PhD candidate in Global Affairs, with a dissertation research focuses on the reconstruction of Cham Muslims' community in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge and the construction of Cham Muslims identity today as it relates to transnational Muslim networks in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
I began working for DC-Cam in 2001 as a volunteer translator working on Khmer Rouge documentary materials including S-21 prison confessions, Khmer Rouge telegrams, interviews with survivors, Khmer Rouge notebooks, slogans and other documents. I was interested in this job because Khmer Rouge history had not been taught in the school system in Cambodia. The government of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea did teach about the Democratic Kampuchea in the primary school system, but the lessons were organized to promote anger and hatred toward the Khmer Rouge, rather than to teach for an understanding of the Khmer Rouge history.
In Phnom Penh city there is an infamous Khmer Rouge security center called Tuol Sleng prison or S-21 prison and there is also a killing site where prisoners from the prison were executed. This site is called Cheung Ek, locating about 15 kilometer from S-21. During the Khmer Rogue time about 14,000 people were detained, tortured and killed by the Tuol Sleng facility. In the whole of Cambodia, there are about 167 similar institutions and 343 mass graves which had similar roles as Cheung Ek. Evidence of the Khmer Rouge genocide litters the country. It is also in survivors’ stories. It is also conducted in annual events by the government including the annual May 20 day of anger. But for a person to learn about this history in a systematic way, there few documents to read and places to go to.
Back in 2001 I was curious about the history of Democratic Kampuchea. DC-Cam provided an opportunity to learn about this regime and contribute to building memory and seeking justice for the victims.
PZ: Why did DC CAM start? Why is it significant for Cambodia?
KTE: The Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) has been at the forefront of documenting the myriad crimes and atrocities of the Khmer Rouge era. DC-Cam was founded after the U.S. Congress passed the Cambodian Genocide Justice Act in April 1994, which was signed into law by President Clinton. That legislation established the Office of Cambodian Genocide Investigations in the U.S. State Department's Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs in July 1994, which was charged with investigating the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge period (1975-1979).
In January 1995 and June 1997, the Office announced grants to Yale University, enabling Yale's Cambodian Genocide Program (CGP) to conduct research, training and documentation on the Khmer Rouge regime. The CGP was to assemble evidence concerning the leadership of Democratic Kampuchea (DK) and to determine whether the DK regime violated international criminal laws against genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The CGP is an academic program and is not equipped to conduct a legal trial of the Khmer Rouge leaders. It had three main objectives: 1) to prepare a documentation survey and index, 2) to undertake historiographical research, and 3) to provide legal training. The grant expired on December 31, 1996.
In pursuit of these objectives, the CGP founded DC-Cam as a field office in Phnom Penh in January 1995 under the leadership of its Program Officer, Mr. Youk Chhang, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge’s “killing fields.” DC-Cam became an independent Cambodian research institute on January 1, 1997. Since that time, it has continued its extensive research and documentation activities.
PZ: DC Cam is an unusual archive, since it is explicitly connected to memory and justice issues for Cambodia, with a clear agenda. What is its relationship to the genocide in Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge, historical reclamation, and war crimes?
KTE: DC-Cam has two main objectives. The first is to record and preserve the history of the Khmer Rouge regime for future generations. The second is to compile and organize information that can serve as potential evidence in a legal accounting for the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. These objectives represent our promotion of memory and justice, both of which are critical foundations for the rule of law and genuine national reconciliation in Cambodia.
To accomplish these objectives, DC-Cam carries out ongoing research to compile and analyze primary documentary materials collected through various means (including fact-finding missions abroad), attempting to understand how they fit into the overall historical context of the Khmer Rouge period. A society cannot know itself if it does not have an accurate memory of its own history. Toward this end, DC-Cam is working to reconstruct Cambodia’s modern history, much of which has been obscured by the flames of war and genocide.
Patricia Zimmermann: How does the internet and your website function to explore your goals of memory and justice in Cambodia? What are some of its challenges and opportunities?
KTE: The internet has been an important tool for DC-Cam to reach out to Cambodians diaspora living in the United States, Canada, France, Australia and other countries. The internet is also important for DC-Cam to publicize its archival materials to the global audience. However in Cambodia it has been a challenge. DC-Cam is working with the victims in Cambodia and the majority of whom are elderly and living in the rural areas. These people do not have access to the internet. Internet accessibility in Cambodia has been limited in general. But now many students are learning to use the internet whose service is provided by many companies including more than ten mobile phone companies. DC-Cam is conducting regular presentations at schools and universities to show students how they can make best use of DC-Cam resources which are available online.
To response to the conditions of the survivors, DC-Cam has implemented a few strategies including radio broadcast, art performance and free distribution of published materials. Recognizing that some victims are illiterate, DC-Cam read its published materials and broadcast those materials by working cooperatively with provincial radio stations. Radio is widely available in the countryside.
PZ: I've used DC-CAM's website in teaching documentary theory. Although many other archival websites exist with a lot of programming wizardry, my students are always moved by DC-CAM because of the stories victims share. Can you describe your working principles, ethics and politics in how your deal with collecting and cataloguing victims stories and images? What are the issues of circulation and usage that emerge?
KTE: DC-Cam considers itself as a documentarian and a place of documents on issues relating to the Khmer Rouge. We are the collectors of materials and most of the time we focus on quantity of materials of the work that we are doing. We believe that quantity produce a high degree of success, although some people might believe that it could sacrifice quality. We are doing this for a few reasons. To be efficient, DC-Cam works with local volunteers, university students and international experts who would be willing to contribute to our works in a pro bono basis. We also put emphasis on the younger generations who are enthusiastic to work with us for their advancement of their personal knowledge about the Khmer Rouge as well as for their future educations overseas which DC-Cam could provide assistance financially and in many other ways. Because we work with students and local, we have a large quantity of work force who can collect materials and interview people. Because interviewers are local, they are fit to interview survivors and can understand them better. The tasks of improving quality is given to the international experts who provide trainings to the staff. Historians and researchers come and go at DC-Cam to analyze materials that we have collected.
To date DC-Cam has interviews up to ten thousand survivors and former Khmer Rouge cadres of all ethnic backgrounds, Cham, Sino-Cambodian, Vietnamese, Highland people, Khmer, etc.
For genocide education project, DC-Cam has trained 12 national teachers, 184 provincial teachers, and is training 3000 commune teachers. These are history teachers and this project is a nationwide undertaking. We also believe that in our case quantity creates better impact than a few in-depth works.
PZ: Archives always have the challenge of acquisition, collection, organization and usage of material. What kinds of documents and stories does DC CAM collect, and what are the challenges to acquisition, collection, organization? What is the relationship of DCCAM to the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia and the legal prosecution of war criminals?
KTE: Documents from DC-Cam are collected from many sources including individual collections, local government institutions, foreign government institutions and other organizations. When these documents are collected we have sought to obtain the rights to use the materials for legal as well as research purposes. DC-Cam has been employing staff members from the Tuol Sleng museum and the national archive to work on cataloging and preserving of documentary materials. DC-Cam microfilmed those materials, makes duplicate and create special location where the original materials are kept in favorable environment for the documents. DC-Cam is also working on digitalization project to convert all microfilms into digital image files and upload those materials onto the internet for global accessibility to the Khmer Rouge history.
DC-Cam is an independent organization working closely with the ECCC. We have been working with all sections of the ECCC including defense and prosecution sides who seek our assistance in locating materials that they might needs for the court proceedings. Because we have built a large archive, the ECCC has no need to spend much of its resource on seeking these materials. They are readily available to them.
DC-Cam was very active in promoting the establishment of the ECCC and has been providing documents and advices to the ECCC since its creation. We consider the running of the ECCC as partially a fulfillment of our goal of justice.