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Last Updated: 08/12/2008
Cambodia's untreated wound
Vicheth Sen

The Khmer Rouge regime and its genocidal aftermath have left a psychological legacy that has crippled the development of Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge regime collapsed almost three decades ago; however, the lack of a healing process for the victims of the trauma, the erosion of trust initiated by the regime, and the delayed establishment of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal and the public distrust in the hybrid court, have still trapped the victims in the past trauma, which prevents them from letting go of their past traumatic experiences to fully contribute to the development of Cambodia.


Cambodia has turned over the page of the chapter of its darkest history, between 1975 and 1979, yet the regime has left a deep wound in every single Cambodian who experienced the brutality of that period. This wound has yet to heal, and it has weakened Cambodia’s struggle to recovery. Officially known as Democratic Kampuchea, the Khmer Rouge regime was declared a “genocide” by the United Nations (Colletta & Cullen, 2000, p.2), and was judged “a Cambodian version of a holocaust” (Bit, 1991, p.77). The genocide has injured not only those who directly experienced the atrocities, but also the generations that followed. Mysliwiec noted that “no period has had a more devastating impact on the whole of society as the Khmer Rouge regime, leaving deep scars among Cambodian people” (as cited in Sen, 2008, p. 2). Indeed, the Khmer Rouge genocide and its aftermath have left a psychological legacy that has crippled the development of Cambodia.

The atrocities of the Khmer Rouge genocide and its aftermath

Following the coup d’état in 1970 resulting in the overthrow of the then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk as Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Cambodia, Cambodia was renamed the Khmer Republic under the leadership of General Lon Nol, whose military government was supported by the U.S. government. This regime, notorious for its deep corruption, came to an end when the Khmer Rouge soldiers led by Saloth Sar (widely known as Pol Pot) marched into Phnom Penh and took over the whole country on April 17, 1975. Many city-dwellers welcomed these young soldiers with relief. They were happy that the revolution was a success and that the civil war was over; they bid farewell to the Khmer Republic in hope. Nevertheless, their ray of hope was just a quick flash, and the reality and nature of the new regime took them by surprise and so the darkest chapter of Cambodian history began.

The Khmer Rouge regime was officially known as Democratic Kampuchea (DK). Different authors on Cambodian history have named the government during that period differently. Michael Vickery (1984), for instance, calls it a “peasant revolution[ary]” government (p. 66); while other scholars define the regime as “totalitarian” or “revolutionary totalitarianism” (Peou, 2000, p.55). Whatever the classification of the government, one thing is certain: it was a genocidal regime which caused the death of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians (when Cambodia’s total population was less than 8 million) due to political execution, and the overwork, disease, starvation and malnutrition that came as a consequence of the “radical social and economic changes” implemented by this new government (Amer, 2007, p. 733).

In its plan to initiate a so-called utopian agrarian society, the Khmer Rouge first of all turned Cambodia back to Year Zero by emptying the capital and the major cities and by evacuating the people to rural areas. No private ownership was allowed. Use of currency was abolished. No international organizations or foreign embassies were allowed to open, and foreign staffs were forced to leave the country. Cambodia was confined within its border with no connections to the outside world. The Khmer Rouge wanted to change Cambodia into a unique country in the world, by trying to remove “all ‘contamination’ from outside” (Martin, 1994, p. 187). They called themselves Angkar (the organization), which Pol Pot described in 1977 as “the political bureau of the central committee of the Communist Party” (Martin, 1994, p. 158).

The Khmer Rouge introduced a new regime of state-initiated mass violence against its own people, through the engineering of “systematic attacks on traditional Cambodian society—on norms, culture, religion, organizations, networks, and even the family” (Colletta & Cullen, 2000, p. 23). Cambodia, under the Khmer Rouge, was like a state-sized concentration camp, or an open prison. The Khmer Rouge operated with a very high level of secrecy, even the local officials, cadres (kamaphibal) and soldiers (yothea) did not initially know who their leader was. It “embodied an effective and invisible power to which everyone owed total obedience” (Martin, 1994, p. 158).

The Khmer Rouge started their political execution by killing those who had connections, or were deemed to have connections, with the previous regime. They targeted military and police officers, civil servants, teachers, students and other intellectuals. They accused these victims as being the enemies of Angkar. Any bespectacled people and those with pale skins and soft hands were also targeted (Chandler, 1991). It is estimated that approximately 200,000 Cambodians (Colm & Vann, 1996, p. 94) were the victims of political killings. Only a few were able to escape this extermination by hiding their personal backgrounds and their identities, which later led to the loss of self-identity and self-esteem.

The most severe destruction of Cambodian culture was indeed the attack on traditional familial values. Family life was practically destroyed (Martin, 1994; Bit, 1991). Children were separated from their parents and lived far away from them (Kiernan, 1997). Because spies (chhlop) were everywhere, people tried to avoid conversations, even with small children (Martin, 1994). Moreover, the Khmer Rouge tried to brainwash the children by encouraging them to spy on adults, such as their parents, and teaching them the slogans of the regime, such as “I’m not killing my mother—I’m killing an enemy” (Martin 1994, p. 182). The conversations between husband and wife were reduced to mere exchanges of eye contacts, or at best hushed whispering of some words, even when they were physically together. This marked the end of the role of the family as a fundamental social unit and support.

In addition to the depletion of the familial values, Angkar also tried to destroy interpersonal trust among family members, friends, neighbors and acquaintances. Intimates and old friends were incentivized to give information leading to the identification and arrest of “the supposed enemies of the revolution” (Bit, 1991, p. 81). The people were under close surveillance all the time, especially at night. “Because everything they did seemed to be observed, people remarked in awe that ‘the Organization [Angkar] has a thousand eyes’” (Chandler, 1991, p. 260). As well as the severe assault on family values and the destruction of interpersonal trust, Angkar also abolished all fundamental social institutions, including schools, hospitals, and pagodas (Buddhist temples). Monks were defrocked and made to work like lay people (Martin, 1994), whereas the pagodas were transformed into prisons, torture centers, or warehouses.

The Khmer Rouge genocidal regime thankfully came to an end on January 7, 1979. However, its aftermath is utterly devastating. First of all, the destruction of the physical infrastructure was an enormous challenge for the new government because of its vital role in restoring the country’s collapsed economy. The next challenge was the loss of human resources badly needed to help redevelop the country. Virtually all intellectuals, such as civil servants, doctors, teachers, technicians, and students from the previous regime, had been executed during the regime. The United Nations Development Program estimated that only approximately “300 experienced or qualified people of all disciplines were left in the country” after the end of the regime (Bit, 1991, p. 90). What remains from the massacre of the Khmer Rouge is a large number of orphans and weak and sick people. It is estimated that immediately following the fall of the Khmer Rouge, there were an estimated 200,000 orphans who were in dire need of immediate support (Bit, 1991). Moreover, the continuing fighting between the remaining Khmer Rouge soldiers and the army of the new regime was another challenge for the new government. Actually, after the collapse of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge genocide, the civil war went on until late 1998. With the death of almost all experienced and qualified people, and the destruction of all major sectors such as education, economy and health, Cambodia needed to start from scratch to rebuild its shattered society.

No single traumatic episode, not even the barbaric extremes of the most recent period fully account for the state of anomie which characterizes Cambodian society today. It is the collective experiences which have compounded the problems still to be faced and expunged from the collective memory (Bit, 1991, p. 92).

The aftermath of the Khmer Rouge genocide is, therefore, the trauma of the entire nation. It is a collective experience of mass violence by the state against its own people. Until the trauma is healed and until the traumatized victims let go of all too vivid past, Cambodia’s struggle to recovery and development will remain a huge challenge, even after three decades of the fall of Pol Pot’s barbaric Khmer Rouge genocidal regime.

The lack of a healing process

First of all, the lack of an appropriate healing process for the traumatized victims of the Khmer Rouge regime has prevented the people’s full potential to contribute to the development of the country. A country can develop only when it has sufficient healthy human resources. However, how can Cambodia develop at the speed it should when virtually all its intellectuals were executed during the Khmer Rouge regime and the remaining people are too psychologically traumatized to fully use their potentials to help develop the country? The most important point is that there is little or no healing for the victims of the trauma. The lack of timely healing for the victims of the trauma has resulted in the prolongation of the trauma. From time to time, the victims are still reliving their past experience, imprisoning them in their trauma. This is not only because the experience of trauma evolves over time, but it can also be revived by a similar event or experience (van der Kolk & McFarlane, 1996), or a “trigger” experience (Witzel, 2007).

The lack of appropriate and timely healing and social support for the traumatized victims has led to damaging effects. With the right kind of support, the likelihood of the victims developing “full-blown PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder]” can be reduced and the “recovery and adjustment” quickened (de Silva, 1999, p. 127). However, for about three decades now, not much attention has been paid to the healing of the trauma. Only recently have certain non-governmental organizations (NGOs) paid attention to the psychological trauma of the population. The NGO help, however, seems to be too late because the trauma effects seem to have been passed on to the second generation of the Khmer Rouge victims and, for a number of victims, the trauma has developed into full-blown PTSD. For instance, according to Kenzie, “virtually all victims of the Khmer Rouge period suffer from PTSD” (as cited in Bit, 1991, p. 114).

Because the trauma has yet to be healed, the victims are still reliving their past experience, and pessimistic outlook, depression, despair and unwillingness to act are still present in the lives of many present-day Cambodians, a long time after their direct experience of the traumatic Khmer Rouge regime. As van der Kolk and Fisler have pointed out, “[y]ears and even decades after the original trauma, victims claim that their reliving experiences are as vivid as when the trauma first occurred” (as cited in van der Kolk & McFarlane, 1996, p. 9). For instance, a twelve-year follow-up study of Khmer youths who suffered the Khmer Rouge genocidal trauma, shows that almost all of the victims were haunted again and again by the past traumatic experiences (Sack, Him & Dickason, 1999). This indicates that the untreated trauma has a long-term crippling effect on the victims. Their past experience of trauma prevents them from concentrating on the present and looking to the future with hope and new prospects. Thus, they are hindered from fully contributing to the development of Cambodia.

This is therefore an enormous loss of human resources for Cambodia. In addition to the loss of intellectuals through mass extermination by the Khmer Rouge, the remaining people are too ill or too traumatized to concentrate on their work. This is a great loss of labor force for the country. What is profoundly sad about this is that the trauma experience has now been passed on to the next generation of Cambodians, the children of the traumatized victims of the Khmer Rouge regime, through the ways that they have been brought up.

Children of survivors seem to have consciously and unconsciously absorbed their parents’ Holocaust experiences into their lives. Holocaust parents, in the attempt to give children their best, taught them how to survive and in the process transmitted to them the life conditions under which they had survived the war. (Danieli, 1988, p. 283)

Therefore, it is clear that the untreated trauma has not only weakened the capability of the people who directly experienced the initial trauma, but it has also weakened the capability of the next generation. This double loss of a healthy labor force is a double-blow for Cambodia in its struggle to recovery and development.

The erosion of trust

Trust plays a very significant role in securing interpersonal relationships among people. With a high ratio of trust, people really can cooperate and work well together. However, during the Khmer Rouge period, trust among people was severely affected through the implementation of the regime’s political ideology. Even trust between family members and friends was systematically destroyed. In its aim to liquidate people connected to the previous regime, the Khmer Rouge brainwashed the children’s young minds and recruited them as spies of Angkar. These young spies were trained to “watch over the words of adults, whoever they were,” (Martin, 1994, p. 179). Children were encouraged to report to Angkar if their adult family members or neighbors committed any mistake. In addition, trust among close friends and neighbors was also eroded. “Community and family members were encouraged to spy and report on each other, destroying trust and planting the seeds of deeply rooted fear” (Colletta & Cullen, 2000, p. 23). To survive the Khmer Rouge regime, therefore, it was best to trust no one, even family members or intimate friends. It was the only way to avoid being killed too soon, and to survive the regime. “Surviving the Khmer Rouge onslaught required a heightened sense of suspicion of everyone and everything, for life itself hung in the balance” (Bit, 1991, p. 87).

The suspicion and distrust remain, even after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. And this frontal attack on the interpersonal relationships among people, even among family members and friends, has weakened social cohesion. The tragedy of the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities has led to the “fracturing of the community, which leaves its residents trapped in suspicion and distrust,” even if they all underwent common experiences (Bit, 1991, p. 87). The experiences of the trauma and the skills needed to escape from execution have taught the Cambodians to trust no one, even though the regime has ended. The legacy of the Khmer Rouge’s engineering of distrust and fear during its three years, eight months and twenty days in power is “the dissolution of trust within Cambodian society” (Colletta & Cullen, 2000, p. 38). As a consequence, “social cohesion suffers from a continuing atmosphere of distrust” at both the horizontal and vertical levels (Bit, 1991, p. 87).

In the meantime, lack of trust among people weakens individuals’ capability to work together as a group or team. Trust within a society, as Fukuyama (1995) put it, is a fundamental factor for that society to prosper. Lack of trust is, therefore, a formidable obstacle for Cambodia to recover quickly. Present-day Cambodia has witnessed an erosion of trust within its society, ranging from the lack of trust between family members to the lack of trust between neighbors, coworkers, employers, leaders and social institutions. As a result, cooperation between people who do not trust each other is less likely to go smoothly, if not impossible. And this leads to low work productivity, which further drags down the country in its struggle to recovery.

The delayed establishment of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal

The delayed establishment of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, and the skepticism about its hybrid court, have led the Cambodian public to feel that justice may not be served. This also prevents healing from taking place and prevents the country from letting go of its past and moving on. The Khmer Rouge genocidal regime collapsed on January 7, 1979; however, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal did not begin to operate until July 3, 2006 (Menzel, 2007). It was almost three decades since the fall of the regime before the official establishment of the tribunal, known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). Is it too late for justice to be served for the hundreds of thousands of victims slaughtered during the regime? For many, it is certainly too late, and this has had a negative effect on the recovery process of Cambodia. The death of Pol Pot, Prime Minister of DK, on April 16, 1998 without having faced trial; and the death of Ta Mok, the Khmer Rouge Commander-in-Chief of the Southwest Zone of DK, on July 22, 2007, in “pre-trial detention since 1999” (Menzel, 2007, p. 217), have left many to doubt the justice that the tribunal has yet to bring. Moreover, the fact that all of the top Khmer Rouge leaders are now in their eighties is a major concern. Their old age makes them “quite unreliable candidates for the tribunal” due to their health conditions (Menzel, 2007, p. 218). Therefore, the victims of the Khmer Rouge trauma feel that justice may not be served and their trauma may not be healed because of the deaths-before-trial of the top DK leaders and the old age of the remaining key perpetrators.

Furthermore, the lack of trust in the Cambodian judges and prosecutors makes the public skeptical about the rulings of this hybrid court. Although there are international judges and prosecutors working with their Cambodian counterparts, the ECCC has to operate under Cambodian law, and the public has lost trust in the Cambodian legal and judicial system because it is “dysfunctional” (Menzel, 2007, p. 219). Without the proper functioning of the tribunal, healing cannot take place and the legacy of psychological trauma remains. This hampers the regeneration of the country. However, if the tribunal will be a success, it will probably be able to fulfill certain positive functions. A Cambodian NGO leader in 2000 noted several possible purposes of the tribunal:

If this tribunal is conducted well, in accordance with international standards and principles of fair trial, it can at least have the four following good results: first, to provide justice who are victims of this regime (sic.); second, to heal Cambodian society and end nightmares of Cambodian victims; third, to find the truth, so that Cambodians and the rest of the world can know why 1.7 million people died; and finally, I hope that this tribunal can serve as a model to show Cambodian people what the principles of a fair trial are (as cited in Menzel, 2007, p. 224).

However, the public opinion is skeptical about the function of the tribunal and the kind of justice that it has promised to serve. Given the political and legal context of the tribunal, the performance and the qualifications of the Cambodian judges and prosecutors, the health conditions of the key perpetrators and the time frame for the proceedings, as pointed out by Menzel (2007), “it seems better not to expect wonders from the ECCC” (p. 228). It is therefore less likely that the hybrid court will bring the justice the victims deserve, which then complicates the healing of the traumatized victims who are still reliving their past.


The Khmer Rouge genocide has left a major blow on the traditional Cambodian culture. The lack of a healing process for the traumatized victims, the engineering of distrust, fear and coercion resulting in the breakdown of the traditional core values, and the delayed establishment of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal to bring the key perpetrators to justice have combined to prevent Cambodia and its traumatized people to leave behind their past experiences in order to prepare themselves for the future. In particular, the Khmer Rouge genocidal regime has severely eroded trust between individuals, groups and social institutions, which hinders the development of the country. As Colletta and Cullen (2000) put it, “[i]n the postwar era, if this dissolution of trust is not acknowledged and addressed, true reconstruction cannot take place” (p. 38). Lack of trust weakens social cohesion, which in turn weakens individuals’ capability to cooperate and work together effectively. A healing mechanism which takes into account the cultural values of the people of Cambodia is needed to address the untreated trauma of the nationwide victims. For a full and effective recovery of a society, as Richard Mollica has asserted, these traumatized victims cannot be ignored (as cited in Meierhenrich, 2007). The Khmer Rouge genocide collapsed almost three decades ago, yet the wound inflicted by the regime remains unhealed. While the Khmer Rouge Tribunal is under way, there is an immediate need that the United Nations agencies and other NGOs work closely with Cambodia to treat the Khmer Rouge victims who are still suffering from the psychological trauma, so that these remaining traumatized victims will soon recover from the past trauma and begin to live their peaceful lives once again.

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Vicheth Sen is currently a student in the MA in International Peace Studies, Dual Campus Program. From 2002 to 2008, he was a lecturer of English at the English Department, Royal University of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. From 2003 to 2006, he was a teacher of English at the English Language Support Unit, Royal University of Phnom Penh. From 2006 to 2008, he was an instructor of the iBT TOEFL preparation course and the coordinator of the TESOL Certificate Program at the Continuing Education Center, Royal University of Phnom Penh. He holds a Postgraduate Diploma in Applied Linguistics (2005) from SEAMEO Regional Language Center, Singapore. In 2002, he obtained a Bachelor of Education in English from the English Department of the Institute of Foreign Languages, Royal University of Phnom Penh.