Volume 5 Number 1
After the Killing Fields
01 January 1992

As the Cambodian peace plan swings into action, a survivor of Pol Pot's terror talks to Mike Brown about justice and forgiveness.

Among eight million Cambodians, Kassie Neou's story is nothing very exceptional.

He was a drop in the rivers of people driven out of Phnom Penh at gun point by Pol Pot's `liberating' army in 1975. In the exodus, his young wife vanished and has never been traced. His father, a village head, was executed by the Khmer Rouge. Dumped with a train-load of 12,000 others in Battambang province, Neon laboured on a plough team under scorching sun and torrential rain, suffering starvation and disease. When a few careless words in English revealed his social status, he was sent to a `re-education camp', where he was saved from execution by a young guard' whom he had secretly entertained with classic Khmer children's stories.

When in 1978 the Vietnamese ousted Pol Pot, Neou was released and escaped into Thailand with his mother and two children, only to be forcibly returned to Cambodia with 43,000 others across a mine field. Injured by an exploding mine, he walked with his family for 59 days, surviving on weeds.

After recovering for some months, he and what remained of his family escaped into Thailand again and spent 18 months in refugee camps until they were resettled in the USA. He married a Cambodian widow, Polly, and, with six children between them, they struggled to rebuild their lives - Kassie starting as a taxi driver and Polly working in a bank.

Many Cambodians - and Vietnamese, Eritreans, Jews, Poles, Ugandans... - can tell similar stories. What makes the Neous significant is their decision to move beyond their suffering to bring national healing to their `gentle land'.

A Harvard psychiatrist, who spent a few days interviewing people in one of the refugee camps on the Thai border, found it hard to define the immensity of the task. Here, he exclaimed, were 180,000 classic cases of post-traumatic- stress. How could one start to bring healing?

How do you reconcile a country where one quarter of the population was killed in four years? Where a generation has grown up with war, bombing, invasion, cruelty? Where not one family is untouched?

The answer, for a start, is a political one. The United Nations' peace plan provides for international supervision of a ceasefire, withdrawal of foreign troops, disarming or cantonment of warring armies, protection of human rights and national elections under UN auspices. A Supreme National Council (SNC), representing the four main Cambodian factions, has been formed to act as a legitimate authority during the transition. Under the agreement signed in Paris in October, the SNC has delegated the implementation of the peace plan to a huge 23-nation force, which will be the largest UN operation ever mounted.

The peace plan is to be completed in 18 months. The process is fraught with difficulties and contradictions: but it is the only window of opportunity the Cambodians have had for years.

Even if the UN plan works, will there be national reconciliation? Kassie Neou posed the question to an international conference of people from crisis areas held in Switzerland last summer. `The battle for peace has to be won from here first,' he said, thumping his chest.

To illustrate his point, he described his 195 days in re-education camp. Five times he was beaten unconscious by Khmer Rouge soldiers, who had orders to eradicate social classes identified with the old regime. As a former English teacher and translator, who had directed a programme of English education on national television, Neon qualified. But, through all the torture, he never revealed his identity. Each time he was beaten, he looked at the faces of his torturers and told himself that, when the time came, he would do `three times worse to them'.

The time did come, months later, as he waited in the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp for settlement in the US. `From the hell of death,' he recalls, 'Khao-I-Dang was like being in paradise alive.' He spent all his waking hours working with the relief agencies, CARE, World Vision and the UN teams, gaining a position of influence in the camp and with the Thai army officers who ran it.

Then one day, amongst the thousands flooding across the border, he recognized one of his Khmer Rouge torturers. `Instantly I saw in my mind how he had raised his bamboo stick to hit me.' With his Thai army connections, he could easily eliminate the man.

As he pondered what to do, Neou's mind went back to his high-school years when he lived in a Buddhist monastery. On Sundays he had attended churches, learning English and the teachings of Christianity. Both faiths stressed forgiving your enemies, returning hatred with love. `I didn't want to believe it,' Neon told his audience in Switzerland. `Revenge is part of the Oriental culture.' But he decided to put these teachings to a trial.

`I talked the man into letting me see his wife and baby, who was dying from starvation. I took him to the warehouse where I got food and medicine. I gave him 100 baht in cash. His hands were shaking as he took the money, and tears were in his eyes. Then I knew I had won the battle.'

This experiment had a profound effect on Neon. Yet he remained a fighter. No sooner had he relocated his family in the USA than he began making speeches and media appearances for Amnesty International and other relief agencies.

While still in Thailand, Neon had recorded hundreds of individual accounts of atrocities. Now he and a small team formed the Cambodian Documentation Commission (CDC), aiming to collect sufficient evidence to try 200 Khmer Rouge leaders in the International Court of Justice. His colleagues on the CDC included Dith Pran, whose story was told in the film The Killing Fields, and the actor who played his part, Hang Ngor. In 1987 and 1988, Kassie Neon presented their case to the Genocide Convention and the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, but no government has yet brought it to the International Court.

Meanwhile the Neous translated the UN Declaration of Human Rights into vernacular Khmer and recorded a Khmer language sound-track for a cartoon version of the Declaration produced by Amnesty. The National Endowment for Democracy in the US funded Neou to research human-rights education programmes in Nicaragua, El Salvador and the Philippines which are being adapted to the Cambodian situation. Neou has recently been in the Thai camps and inside Cambodia preparing the human rights training programme to be implemented under the UN peace plan.

Some Cambodians question whether human-rights action - which is bound to entail reference to past atrocities - is compatible with working for reconciliation. One Cambodian activist in the US, whose husband disappeared in a reeducation camp, cites as Buddhist principle `those who have sinned will be punished by other sinners' - a sort of `those who live by the sword will die by the sword' approach. Peace, she says, cannot be built by those intent on punishing the guilty.

For Neou, there is no contradiction. `Within the framework of the peace process, we must have the strongest possible provisions to ensure that the policies and practices of the recent past should not be allowed to recur,'-he says. Whether those who are guilty are brought to trial is an issue for the international community and the Cambodian government formed after the elections.

`For myself, I am concentrating on reconciliation with human rights, based on Buddhist teachings of love and respect for each human being. Forgiveness is the only way to solve our social problems peacefully. It is a moral process. When a person feels he is forgiven, he can realize his mistakes and feel sorry. You cannot change someone unless he agrees to change. Only the tremendous power of forgiveness can do that.'

Has Neon really forgiven? Who can tell? And who has the right to judge? His voice rises when he relates what has happened. He does not hide his feelings. Perhaps for those who have been through such agonies, forgiveness is a daily choice - encompassing not only those who have perpetrated atrocities, but also those who have done nothing to stop them.

This month sees the release of another of the Neous' translation projects - a Khmer version of a video, For the love of tomorrow. It portrays the life of Irene Laure, a French Resistance leader during World War II who overcame her hatred and became a bridge of reconciliation with postwar Germany. Kassie Neon says, `There is one sentence of hers which I love: "All these things I cannot forget, but I can forgive." Someone has got to say that to Cambodians.' He plans to use the video in humanrights education programmes in Cambodia: like everything for the country, funding and distribution are urgently needed.

As director of the newly-formed Cambodian Institute in Washington, Neon is also involved in an initiative to build a national memorial near Phnom Penh to all the dead of the last two decades. Conceived by a coalition of non-political Cambodian groups in North America, Australia and France, the aim is to give the remains of all the victims proper Buddhist rites and house the ashes in a traditional Buddhist stupa. The names of all who died will be recorded there. `We Buddhists believe that unless we give our loved ones proper service, their spirits cannot rest in peace,' says Neou. `It is impossible to bring peace to Cambodia unless there is a proper place to put the ashes and for people to come together and pray. It is healing at the grassroots.'

When Neon was last in Cambodia, he found `desperate need'. `Many people have been injured by land mines. The education system has been destroyed. So has agriculture. There are less than 100 Cambodian doctors for eight million people. Of the adult population, 78 per cent are women - they will take the lead. People seem to be waiting... They have some smiles now, believing that peace will come, even if there is a long way to go.'

Here is one Cambodian who is not waiting - and there are many others like him.