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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Rebuilding Relations in Cambodia

Phin Chanda

Jun. 27, 2016

Efforts to rebuild relations between victims and perpetrators of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia are making progress but many challenges remain.

Almost 40 years since the collapse of that regime, reconciliation remains an elusive goal.

More than 1.7 million people are believed to have died through massacres or forced labor under the brutal regime. Many survivors are still not ready to forgive.

The Pol Pot regime changed Mam Seila's life forever. Her father was killed. She was forced into hard labor. Now 55, she knows who she blames.

"The woman was an informant. Because of what she said, people were killed," she says. "She might as well have tortured me herself."

The woman lives just a stone's throw from Mam Seila's house. Her name is Ngin Phann. The 67-year-old used to be a local leader of the Khmer Rouge, in charge of supervising construction of a dam. Over 300 women and girls including Seila worked under her.

"I told my bosses who reached their targets and who didn't -- who was good and who was bad," Phann says.

Phann says she also suffers from the past.

"I don't know how many people in the village think badly of me. They don't want to be associated with me, and that's hurtful," she says.

A non-government organization in Phnom Penh is working for reconciliation through dialogue.

Om Chariya is a leader of the project.

"Ever since the Pol Pot regime collapsed, victims and perpetrators have refused to talk with each other. Their relationships completely broke down. Our project aims to promote reconciliation and get them talking again," Chariya says.

The process starts with project members interviewing the victims and perpetrators. They encourage them to talk to each other.

If they agree, a face-to-face dialogue begins. The perpetrators apologize to the victims, and the victims accept the apology. Finally, they visit a temple to make their reconciliation official. They pledge to live as friends.

But in 2 years, only 2 reconciliations have successfully been completed.

Chariya travels to new places every week to encourage people to participate.

"If reconciliation makes people sympathetic and kind to each other, the project is a good one," says one male participant.

"We need endurance, wisdom and thoughtfulness. Even though this is a very difficult task, we want to spread our work far and wide. I'm sure it will lead to true reconciliation," Chariya says.

Forgiveness can take time to achieve. Little by little the NGO is rebuilding relationships, and helping Cambodians look to the future.


NHK World's Hanoi bureau chief Kazuomi Shimizu answered questions about the Cambodian government's perspective on the issue.

Q: How does the government encourage reconciliation?

Shimizu: The NGO initiatives we introduced in the report have been supported by the US government. But they haven’t received any support from the Cambodian government. Actually, Prime Minister Hun Sen has made frequent appeals about the importance of coming together as a nation. But there has been minimal effort by the government to help heal victims and perpetrators and give them closure. And now, time and financial constraints are making the initiatives more and more difficult.

Q: What progress is being made toward reconciliation?

Shimizu: There are several reasons why little progress has been made in achieving national reconciliation. Firstly, during the initial reconstruction period, priority was given to rebuilding the infrastructure and the economy. National reconciliation didn’t receive much attention.

Also, it seems the government wants to avoid confronting the country's tragic legacy -- the mass killings carried out by its own citizens. A special court was established in partnership with the UN to prosecute the leaders of the regime. It appears though that the government wants the trials to end as soon as possible to avoid stirring up hatred again.

It has been nearly 40 years since the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Victims and perpetrators are aging. Some are trying to find ways to reconcile with the past. They want to live the rest of their lives with peace of mind. But to make that happen, the government will have to play an active role and support from the international community will be essential.