Cambodians realized early that a society cannot know itself, if it does not have an accurate memory of its own history, whereas I felt we in Kashmir are yet to think seriously on these lines
Every conflict in the world has a unique trajectory of its own. It may as such not be right to draw parallels between any two apparently similar looking conflicts. However, there are many lessons that stakeholders of different conflict situations can learn from each other.
Based on this thought, let me share about my visit to Cambodia some time back, which gave me an insight into how they have documented their history of conflict and moved beyond the rhetoric of pain and suffering to that of reconciliation and peace to rebuilt their life.
It’s an accepted fact that, it’s not always easy to reconcile with the past, especially when it happens to be as bloody, as is experienced by the Cambodians, but one can draw lot of inspiration from the way their society has reconciled and moved to building a better future.
I was filled with deep respect and appreciation for the determination and resilience exhibited by them.
Cambodia happens to be one of those unlucky countries that have witnessed genocide. Theirs lasted from 1975 to 1979 at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime.
The Khmer Rouge abolished the monarchy and established a radical agrarian society based on Maoist principles, where they leashed tyranny on the people. They targeted anyone who spoke a foreign language, wore glasses or had soft hands as it signified they were non-agrarian and educated.
Thus, they killed all professionals, intellectuals, clergy, students and minorities. Money and technology became a forbidden entity.
It is estimated that approximately 1.8 million people died as a result of murder, starvation and forced labour by them.
The massive scale of destruction by the Khmer Rouge regime was only known after it was defeated in 1979, by the Vietnamese army who invaded Cambodia in retaliation for a series of cross-border attacks. Even then, Khmer Rouge lingered as a rebel force for another 15 years, hampering peace and development.
The Vietnamese occupiers, to justify their own invasion and further prove to the world how destructive the Khmer Rouge were, identified mass graves, dug up bones and counted skulls as superficial evidence of conducting documentation.
In face of official obduracy on transitional justice, as relatively little was done by their government to prosecute “known perpetrators” for the mass atrocities; NGO’s took the lead in preserving evidence of Khmer Rouge atrocities and in “searching for the truth.”
A “Documentation Commission” to tell the story of the Khmer Rouge, by conducting interviews which represent what is known as “living documents” was formed.
This was done based on the belief that “victims” want to tell what happened to them, be acknowledged and know how and why atrocities occurred.
Moreover, an accurate accounting of past crimes would apply pressure to remove perpetrators from power and raise awareness toward preventing future abuse.
My visit to various Museums like the Genocide and Tuol Sleng Museum, helped in building an understanding of the context of Cambodia’s history, root cause of genocide and civil war.
It was interesting to note that these museums don’t focus so much on the killing and torture component but rather on the cause and effect of conflict, and how Cambodians have transitioned it.
Variety of exhibits like photographs, select documents, films etc were on display that depicted various important era of their history, like when, Khmer Rouge forces took power in Phnom Penh.
A part of this, museum is in the former Beoung Trabek High School which was once an interrogation centre, under the Khmer Rouge regime.
Many items that were used for torturing the victims during that phase have been kept on display, leaving the visitor no doubt of how ruthless they must have been.ost of these prisons were known by a code name S-21, reminding me of the infamous “Papa-2” interrogation of Kashmir.
One of the things that is impossible to forget and keeps haunting the visitor, is the memory of the hundreds of photographs of helpless Cambodians facing death which were taken in a secret prison in Phnom Penh, between the middle of 1975- 1979.
Several prisoners, with their blindfolds removed, just staring at their captors, having no idea where they are, who is taking the pictures or what will happen to them. Every picture has a haunting effect on the visitor as fear and trauma is written all over their faces and they seem to be asking the never-answered question. Why I am being killed? Why me?
Interestingly, the exhibit includes pictures of both the victims and the perpetrators, but it is very difficult to make out who is who amongst them, as both, captured and frozen in the moment by the lens, stare out, with fear and anxiety written all over their faces.
It is believed none of the prisoners was ever released after torture and interrogation (stretching over several months) and all of these men, women and children were brutally put to death, mostly in the countryside where victims were taken singly or in groups usually at sunset and executed.
Chung Ek genocide memorial located just outside of Phnom Penh, represents one such site of a former “killing field” where many of those who were detained and tortured at Tuol Sleng were eventually killed and buried in mass graves. Some of them had been shot or suffocated with plastic bags but most of them had died by having their skulls smashed in with shovels hoes and iron bars.
A tall, narrow “Pagoda” (tower) has been built at this site to honor those who died, and is full of human skulls.
The site of such memorials is disturbing, sickening and moving which leaves a deep mark on the psyche about human suffering.
The Cambodians have also created a Documentation Centre; this is mainly for collecting evidence for the Tribunal but at the same time, they have recorded many interesting reflections on the difference between “Truth and Memory”.
A visit to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), commonly known as the “Khmer Rouge Tribunal” gave me a chance to assess critically the models of justice and what is internationally imposed. It was ironical to note that, despite the large scale torture, killings and bloodshed during the murderous regimes of Khmer Rouge, only two of their former leaders “Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea and former head of State, Khieu Samphan, after being found guilty of crimes, against humanity by the Cambodia’s UN-backed court EEEC were “jailed for life”.
It may be worthy to note that both these senior most surviving Khmer Rouge leaders are 88 and 83 years old in age respectively.
The media in the country have also done their bit; they have maintained a center where documentaries and films are being used to tell a range of stories.
What I found most interesting about these was that they are being narrated through the eyes of women, most of them, personal stories that are being used for the sake of transformation and for moving on.
I gathered that the Cambodians had probably realized quite early, that a society cannot know itself, if it does not have an accurate memory of its own history, whereas I felt we in Kashmir are yet to think seriously on these lines.
The more I saw, the more convinced I got, that nowhere else, is documentation more important, than in Kashmir, as decades of conflict, involving numerous ethnic, political factions and several wars have left deep scars on the psyche of the people and as such there is an ardent need to record these happenings to facilitate healing.
It may be pertinent to mention here that though the context of Cambodia and Kashmir differs vastly in political, cultural and religious terms, yet, unfortunate parallels bind the two together, when it comes to conflict and atrocity.
As per reports Kashmir conflict has caused more than 1, 00,000 deaths since 1989 and it is believed that the cause for the deaths have mostly been due to indiscriminate use of force, torture, assassinations, firing on demonstrations, prolonged detentions and target killings. While the official responses to accusations of violence continues to remain as “these are few and far between.”
In 2012, the State Human Rights Commission, reported 2,730 bodies buried in unmarked graves scattered all over Kashmir, believed to contain the remains of victims of unlawful killings and enforced disappearances, yet little has been done by the State, non state actors or human rights organizations to systematically document the past.
Our situation is complex; no doubt, we have contesting truths, narratives and differing perspectives that add multiple layers to it. There is confusion on who is a victim and who is a perpetrator, or both but just because a victim of a crime may have also been a perpetrator at one point, does not mean we shouldn’t try to document their views of what happened in the past.
We have an untapped wealth of information in various forms like those retained in photographs, in addition to our memories, which over a period of time will crumble, fade, and weaken if not organized and preserved.
We could conduct interviews, record oral histories, establishing documentation networks; collect human rights violation incident databases, forensic investigations of mass graves etc.
We could also try using some traditional ways like folk songs, ladie shah, band pather or use the medium of poetry, songs, drama, Art & Craft, letters, rituals, carving wood and stones.
We could even try some modern ones like: Facebook, blogs, YouTube, websites, newspapers, feature stories, documentaries, and radio series as other ways.
I feel all these culturally sensitive methods, will not only help in recording our stories but will help society and the world community to know about our realities, raise awareness and dispel some myths and stereo typing that is associated with us in many places.
Storytelling has been accepted as a powerful way to put ideas into the world and I do believe to tell a story, is also a human’s rights.
The experience from other countries, like Cambodia, that have endured decades of conflict confirms that the demand for information does not fade over time. The important underlying key is to organize and preserve information about the past so that it can be available to meet the demand for truth and accountability as and when needed.
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