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Law: Khmer Rouge Survivors


Leakhena Nou founded the Applied Social Research Institute of Cambodia to document the stories of survivors of the Khmer Rouge. Now she is working to bring those stories of the Cambodian Diaspora in the U.S. to the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia.

playing backgammon
Leakhena Nou of ASRIC interviews a Khmer Rouge survivor in Portland, Oregon. © 2009, Foreign Interest
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Searching for Survivors


By Sherry Harbert, Foreign Interest


Across the table from Leakhena Nou, a Cambodian women silently fills out a form. She is neatly dressed, polite and unusually somber. Her deep focus is only interrupted by each new question, but she soon regains her composure to continue with her handwritten responses. It is a scene that has been repeated many times with Cambodian women and men throughout the U.S., this year. Some have only revealed their story for the first time in handwritten notes on the questionnaires.


Nou, who teaches at California State University-Long Beach, realizes that the responses from the questions are critical to understanding the magnitude of the memories and experiences buried away by so many survivors of the Khmer Rouge atrocities in the late 1970s. She founded the Applied Social Research Institute of Cambodia (ASRIC) to begin the extraordinary work of documenting the stories of Khmer Rouge survivors now living in the U.S. She used her expertise as a sociologist and her personal experiences as a Cambodian to design questions that require a delicate touch with psychological precision to break through the decades of trauma and hopelessness of its victims.


“Their memories have been suppressed for 34 years,” said Nou. But she sees the process within a process that can break through the repressed memories. “Some survivors have a difficult time in the beginning. Then they begin to write their testimony. They begin to trust, they begin to see the value of their story. They begin to realize that justice is in their hands. They can rationally, emotionally and chronologically share their stories.”


The questions that Nou developed to grasp the most buried memories of survivors are not complicated. They may even seem rather simple. Yet Nou’s questions prove to be subtle prompts that unlock the intricate memories of many Cambodians who would prefer to forget their past. Nou knows they cannot forget. For if they do, history may forget them. Nou is making sure no one forgets.


Nou and her legal team travel around the U.S. to conduct formal presentations of the Cambodian Diaspora Victims’ Participation Project for the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). The ECCC was created in 1998 to create a judicial process to prosecute perpetrators of crimes against humanity from the then-Democratic Kampuchea from April, 1975, to January, 1979. The ECCC is comprised of the two traditional branches in law, the prosecution and the defense. But what makes the ECCC so historic is the recognition of the victims and their participation within the proceedings. The Victims’ Unit was established to support direct survivors in the judicial process of the ECCC. Since October, the court has accepted 5,044 victim information forms that are now officially considered part of the court. But those official records are only from survivors living in Cambodia.


Nou founded ASRIC to extend the involvement in the ECCC to survivors who lived in the U.S. “A lot of survivors have never told their stories because they thought it didn’t matter,” said Nou. “It does matter for the ECCC. It matters for the survivors and for the families.” ASRIC works with the Asian Pacific American Institute of New York University (APA) and partners with the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Law International Justice Clinic. Nou said the goals of ASRIC are to provide an opportunity for recovery, educate the next generation and the community, and to help survivors participate in the ongoing proceedings of the ECCC.


As the memories of torture, starvation, slave labor, missing family members and horrific deaths flow onto the pages of the questionnaires, each question is building a meaningful library of testimonies that can impact the proceedings against some of the most culpable  perpetrators of the genocide during the Khmer Rouge’s reign. Nou’s work not only gathers personal stories, but aims to submit them as legal testimonies. “This is history in the making,” said Nou.


ASRIC has only weeks left to complete the process. The court has set a deadline, although vaguely, before the end of the year for survivors to submit their testimonies. It took 30 years to bring a few of those responsible for the Khmer Rouge atrocities to court, but now that the process is in place, there is a race for inclusion of survivors’ statements in the multifaceted ECCC system.


Nou understands the enormous gravity required of ASRIC’s mission. It merges the legal and psychological worlds of the survivors. It is also bringing healing to many who have been emotionally lost since those dark years long ago. The mission is to establish a legal trail of survivors’ statements that will not allow the regime to destroy the final piece of their acts─the historical legacy of the genocide.


From Long Beach, California, to Boston, Massachusetts, Nou and her legal team have witnessed a great diversity in the people who survived the Khmer Rouge genocide. She has also witnessed one prevailing element throughout the testimonies. “They all come with one thing on their mind─justice,” Nou said. “Justice for us, justice for our families both who survived and who died. They also come for the next generation so the same traumatic experience never gets inflicted again.”


Nou was struck by a recent interaction with a survivor that reinforces everything she has worked to achieve with ASRIC. “One survivor experienced so much trauma witnessing the executions of her family and then receiving multiple death threats. The loss of her family members was very traumatizing to her,” Nou said. The woman began to write her story in a methodical way to detail every event. Nou said it was a nine-page narrative that left her speechless. “It was amazing,” Nou said. “By the end, she detailed how each family member was killed, moving down in time. By the end, the woman said she now had honored the spirit of her loved ones. She said now she could rest, because she had found justice.”


Finally in Control of the Past


ASRIC’s mission is to bring the voice of the Cambodian Diaspora into the current process of the ECCC. It is a mechanism with which more survivors are discovering a new freedom that had evaded them for decades. Nou’s work is providing survivors with a tool that they can utilize to take hold of their past and future. ASRIC is the difference between remaining a victim of the past and becoming a part of the present process.


“This process transformed the survivors,” said Nou. “This is much more than research. My objective with ASRIC is to help the community.” Nou wants her work to build the next generation. “I want them to be proud of who we are.” The goals are important to Nou and ASRIC’s mission. She has seen the mental and physical consequences of genocide. It does not end when the killing stops.


Nou has witnessed hundreds of cases that point to the ongoing destruction of the Khmer Rouge. “It’s a combination of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) of the unresolved issue of the Khmer Rouge and the daily hassles of living as a refugee that are seriously impacting on the health and social aspects of the community and the survivor.” As a sociologist, Nou could not avoid the impact that the Khmer Rouge had on the survivors. And even as the years passed, she noticed how those traumatic experiences continued to impact the survivors. She expressed her frustration to the audience at Second Khmer Rouge Tribunal (KRT) Forum in Portland, Oregon, in August. “I see, unfortunately, our community not getting better. The survivors are getting sicker.” She said that those findings has compelled her to respond, both as a professional and as a Cambodian.


Nou explained that the first generation usually retreats within themselves, while the second generation exhibits identification confusion. “It’s a denial to learn of their parents’ suffering,” said Nou. She said the second generation are typical adolescents that focus on their dreams and future, so the first generation remains silent as a way to distance the horrors of the past while trying to forge a hope of the future for their children. The natural progression creates a void between the generations that Nou hopes to close.


“ASRIC is trying to move them beyond the hopelessness and helplessness in the community,” said Nou. “It’s about focusing on the strengths and cultural assets. It’s about healing from the past and getting them excited about the present to move forward toward a new existence.”


Witnesses of the Past and Present


Nou represented ASRIC at the KRT forum with a public demonstration of the organization’s work. Organized by the Cambodian American Coalition of Oregon (CACO), the KRT forum featured some of the major leaders of the Cambodian Diaspora in the U.S. The forum brought together young and old in an alliance to respect the past and build toward a future beyond the Khmer Rouge. At the beginning of Nou’s segment, she expressed the importance of the forum as a vehicle to share the stories of the survivors with the community. “Your stories are important,” she told the audience. Nou also told them why they were important. “You have the responsibility to tell other generations. If you stay quiet, the truth will never come out.”


Nou invited two survivors to participate in a public display of ASRIC’s questionnaire. Melanie Lim and Kourano Khem agreed, walked onto the stage, then sat in front of a large screen that displayed Nou’s questions in English and Cambodian script. Both are survivors who witnessed great atrocities.


Before she began her questioning, Nou opened with a profound directive to the audience. “We are survivors, not victims,” she stated. “The court may call us victims, but we’re fighting to be called survivors. The fact that these people can sit here on stage and tell their stories is an act of courage.”


It took a great amount of courage to speak before an audience about the impact of the Khmer Rouge for Lim and Khem. It was not the safe environment offered through the quiet writing of responses on the questionnaire. It was not conducted in an intimate setting with family. Lim and Khem, each with one of their teenage children, opened up to the world about their experiences.


Khem told how he was 16 years old when the Khmer Rouge took over his country after the Vietnam War decimated Southeast Asia. His son, not much older, gazed at his father as he began to detail his experiences. Khem, like most of the citizens in the worn-torn nation could not comprehend the dark reality of the Khmer Rouge when they first took power in 1975. But it would only take days for Khem to realize that the Khmer Rouge were not interested in healing the nation from the war. “The first day the Khmer Rouge came, they told us to leave the city because the Americans were going to bomb it.”


Each question faded away as the survivors recalled their horrors. Khem said that one of the first acts of the Khmer Rouge changed his life. “They shot a guy right in the street,” he said. “It still haunts me.” He was soon forced into slave labor for the regime. And like most of those who were not rounded up and killed, Khem almost starved to death. Khem was captured by the Khmer Rouge in 1977 when he tried to escape Cambodia to find some place with food. The Khmer Rouge was notorious for killing people for eating a blade of grass. “They caught me near the border,” he told the audience. “I knew many of them. But the ones I feared the most were the ones I didn’t know. They had to prove they could kill, so they did.”


After the Khmer Rouge lost power in 1979, the genocide did not end for Khem. He described how he couldn’t sleep at nights due to nightmares. It was only after he was able to leave Cambodia, first settling in Canada, then the U.S., that the nightmares began to subside. Khem continues to live with the realities of the Khmer Rouge, though he now sees how they were able to take control. “There were foreign people who made the war, so how do you punish them?” he asked when looking at how to punish the Khmer Rouge. “There were the American bombers. You can see how they devastated the land. The Khmer Rouge took revenge on us, but the foreign countries were responsible for the war.”


Lim recalled life before the Khmer Rouge was filled with the beauty and depth of the Cambodian culture. It is Khmer, but is vastly different from what the Khmer Rouge (Khmer and red) sought to create after the Vietnam War. Lim remembered how family was everything in her culture. She came from an educated family, which would soon be considered an enemy of the state for the Khmer Rouge. Intellectuals and professionals were the first to be exterminated by the regime.


The devastation of the Vietnam War proved to be a perfect foundation to launch the Khmer Rouge’s vision of society. Cambodians joyfully welcomed them after the end of the war. “I heard some bombing,” said Lim. “But when the Khmer Rouge came, they said it was for peace.” It was only a few weeks into their regime that the Khmer Rouge’s true mission was exposed. Lim’s father, a teacher, was summoned to a meeting with the new leaders. He would never return. “The killing, the starvation, the lies, they lived lies,” said Lim.


Like Khem, Lim also had relatives who were part of the Khmer Rouge. “At first I wasn’t afraid to speak in front of them,” she said. “But later, I was afraid to even speak.” Lim said she saw all emotion leave those who identified with the Khmer Rouge. “There was no emotion for family.” Lim would soon find herself separated from her family. “At the time, I was all by myself,” she said. “I didn’t think anyone was alive.” Lim’s fears were well justified. The Khmer Rouge killed the educated class in their warped view of a egalitarian society. But that society was far from equal.


 From Questions to Answers


After more than 30 years, there remains a myriad of unanswered questions about the Khmer Rouge and its continuing affects. ASRIC’s mission is to help survivors find answers that will help survivors regain their lives. The organization provides a neutral environment that helps survivors talk about their experiences as the first step in that process.


Many of the individuals that Nou has interviewed have kept their stories secret from their friends and family. As with Khem’s reactions, the vivid details that emerge from ASRIC’s questions trigger more than memories. Nou said that she sees the patterns in human suffering complicated by their suppressed memories. She is concerned about the  ongoing mental and physical consequences for survivors who cannot escape the grasp of the past. But she also sees a future where survivors can move on.


“What I’m finding when we give them the opportunity to open up, too often people don’t care about the stories as much as when you give them the opportunity to open up from the hopelessness and helplessness of not feeling they could ever make a difference,” she said. “They find the truth, then they can reach out to find they can make a difference.” Nou sees ASRIC as a think tank of multiple levels that can offer opportunities for survivors to see beyond their past in terms of law, society and human rights.


Building trust in the community is how Nou envisions one step in the healing process to move beyond the genocide. She hopes that ASRIC helps educate the world of the severe impact of genocide. “It is also important to realize where genocide is happening now,” she said. “It is important to know where it is starting and how to prevent new genocides. ASRIC looks beyond to how we can stop other genocides.”


Though the deadline for submissions of survivor statements to the ECCC is fast approaching, Nou is looking beyond to continue her work. “I hope ASRIC to be a catalyst, an ambassador for peace,” she said. “We have volunteers across the globe committed to our vision.”


Nou and her team at ASRIC have accomplished an extraordinary feat. Their work to reach out to survivors has built a momentum to bridge lives throughout the world. Nou believes it is a natural progression. “We’re simply igniting that connection. That stroke of a pen reveals the truth. We use their words to help reveal the truth.”


ASRIC continues to transform the legal identification of survivors through the questionnaires. The impact of ASRIC’s work is gaining international attention and helping more survivors regain their dignity. “I’m using my academic knowledge and international clout to help Cambodia and the community move beyond the suffering,” said Nou. “It’s transforming the horrific past into a good for the future.” Nou hopes to be a role model for young women to show that women can accomplish great things with their voices. “We can do wonders.”


Nou’s voice extends beyond the U.S. She gave her first presentation for ASRIC before the Supreme Court Chambers of the ECCC at the Summer Institute in International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights conference held in Bali, Indonesia this summer. Her talk was before the distinguished judge Motoo Noguchi. Nou recalled Noguchi’s inspiring response. “He said, ‘if we hear the voices of the Cambodian people, maybe our actions may be meaningful’.” It was a profound statement that only Nou heard. “He was the only one listening,” she said, “because he was the only one in the room.” Nou continues to work to ensure survivors of the Khmer Rouge never again have their voices raised in an empty room.


(updated on November 24, 2009, to correct date of Bali conference.) November 23 , 2009

© 2009, Foreign Interest



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