Volume 10 Number 1
Should Cambodians Forgive?
01 February 1997

Last year the Cambodian government offered an amnesty to Ieng Sary, the leader of a faction of the Khmer Rouge. The issue raised great controversy. We reprint an abridged version of an article in the 'Phnom Penh Post' by the director of Cambodia's Institute of Human Rights, Kassie Neou.

The amnesty of Ieng Sary is perhaps the most difficult question I have wrestled with in my life. Like most Cambodians, my family and I suffered greatly under the regime in which Ieng Sary played such a prominent role.

In my case, it was not enough that the Khmer Rouge sent me and my family to the countryside to farm without adequate food, shelter and medicine. This was routine - everybody's situation was the same.

No, for the crime of speaking English, I was arrested and pulled by a rope around my neck, stumbling and falling, to the Kach Roteh prison camp. This was only the beginning. I was shackled with all the other prisoners with irons that bit into my skin. My ankles still bear the scars. I was tortured repeatedly, for months. My only relief was when I fainted.

Every night, the guards called out the names of one or two or three prisoners. They were taken away and never seen again - murdered by order of the Khmer Rouge. To my knowledge, I was one of very few prisoners who survived Kach Roteh, which was really a torture and extermination camp. I survived only because I could tell Aesop's fables and classic Khmer animal tales to our teenage and child guards.

Members of my extended family, and a million other Cambodians, died in one way or another at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. So I would be justified in demanding that Ieng Sary be judged for his part in the genocide. I have good reason to hate him and want him severely punished.

Still, in my view, that would not be the right answer for Cambodia. I have come to the difficult conclusion that the Royal Government was right to make a deal with Ieng Sary.

The case presents a real dilemma. Two very powerful concepts are in violent conflict - peace and justice.

If Ieng Sary and his followers stop fighting, then the war will diminish and many fewer Cambodians will die. We should not take lightly a chance to prevent the death or crippling of hundreds or thousands of our fellow citizens, soldiers and civilians alike.

But amnesty means giving up the chance, however slight, of bringing Ieng Sary to justice, and that is a painful prospect, almost unbearable for some people.

Other countries have been faced by a similar problem. Many, like South Africa or some South American countries, have chosen peace and reconciliation over justice. Guilty people have gone free. This is never an easy or pleasant choice. But I think that peace is what Cambodians most deeply want after 20 years of savagery and war.

Furthermore, do we really believe that if a deal is refused, we will have justice? Actually put Ieng Sary on trial? More likely he and his group will stay where they are, fighting. If he is finally defeated militarily at a great cost in lives, he will probably retire to a pleasant exile abroad. So granting amnesty does not mean giving up justice, it is merely giving up the illusion of justice. I might wish that it were otherwise, but that is the hard reality.

All this does not mean there are no risks in negotiation with Ieng Sary. The Government needs to be alert and wise and force a hard bargain. The Ieng Sary faction must become simple citizens like any others, and subject to authority. They must not maintain a separate armed force. Control over the territory where they live must be returned to the government, to administer like any other part of the country. In return, Ieng Sary and his followers should be allowed to live in peace and retain their homes and property.

If Ieng Sary wants genuine reconciliation with the population, he should truly repent the deeds of the Khmer Rouge and make restitution to the society he helped rip apart. It is not enough to say, after more than a quarter of a century as part of the Khmer Rouge, that it was all Pol Pot's fault.

The government must also be sure that Ieng Sary's willingness to make peace is not just a tactical move, designed to give his troops a rest before returning to fight. It must not be just a switch from 'armed struggle' to 'parliamentary struggle' in Marxist terms, with the goal remaining the same - to reimpose a terrorist Khmer Rouge regime. Ieng Sary must genuinely commit to respecting democracy and human rights. The government needs to be able to revoke the deal if he does not keep his end of the bargain.

There was a time when I would have demanded that Ieng Sary be punished. But bitterness and revenge are a poison. Forgiveness is hard but possible.

I do not know her views on the current controversy, but the Cambodian educator Renee Pan spoke two years ago about her personal journey towards forgiving the Khmer Rouge. It meant, she said, keeping out of the fires of egotism, anger and foolishness. The test was when she entered a Khmer Rouge controlled border camp. 'My heart didn't harden, my voice stayed calm. It was in this way that I knew that my wounds had been healed, that my forgiveness was real.' An older Khmer Rouge in the camp asked her, 'Will the rest of the world forgive us one day?'

What is our answer? The Buddha teaches us love and non-violence. Other great religious teachers agree. Jesus said, 'Love your enemy.' For Cambodia, perhaps Ieng Sary is the greatest test of our true forgiveness.
Kassie Neou