Youk Chhang with students

The story of Youk Chhang is one of hope and grit at its best. As a genocide survivor, Chhang has a lot to share about what happened during one of the darkest crimes against humanity in Cambodia from 1975-79.

Chhang was nearly 14 years old when the Khmer Rouge regime committed its worst atrocities. When the radical communist group won the civil war in 1975, it marked the beginning of a dark chapter in the history of Cambodia.

Until the time the it was defeated by the Vietnamese forces in 1979, hundreds of thousands were tortured under the guise of bringing about a revolutionary transformation. Whole families died from execution, starvation, disease and overwork. Chhang’s family was one of them.

“The Khmer Rouge were deeply rooted by doctrines of communalism. They followed their ideology blindly. They treated people not as humans but as elements. They believed that only their revolution would make the society better. In their eyes, the revolution was the glory. They thought killing only two million will help them reach their goal. It seemed like a small sacrifice in return of a better society. They forgot that they were dealing with human beings,” Chhang says.

The Sleuk Rith aims to be a physical legacy. The institute will be an education hub and conduct some major research in genocide studies.

- Youk Chhang

Born in Phnom Penh, Chhang, 58, witnessed his family suffer — driven out of their home to work as slaves in a rural commune, the death of his father and five siblings, and nearly 60 of his relatives. He himself was tortured when he was arrested for picking mushrooms in the rice fields to feed his pregnant sister.

The Khmer Rouge operatives accused his sister of stealing rice and a soldier cut open her stomach, killing her.

Chhang’s mother then pushed him to escape the country. “I trace back my journey to the 80s. After fleeing from Cambodia, I officially became a legal refugee at the Thailand border. Then in 1986, I was sent to the Philippines. From there, I went to Dallas, in the US. At that time I had $5 in my pocket. The journey is indescribable. Now if you think of it, it seems impossible — crossing borders and landmines to reach even Thailand in the first place,” he says.

Chhang went on to earn a graduate degree in politics from University of Dallas and over the years worked at several organisations such as the Center for the Study of Genocide, Conflict Resolution, and Human Rights at Rutgers University, and the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC).

Chhang now heads the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), a private organisation that over the past decade has collected a trove of 600,000 pages of documents, 6,000 photographs and 200 documentary films recording the Khmer Rouge rule.

With funding mostly from the US government and from Sweden, he and a staff that have mapped about 20,000 mass grave sites, 189 prisons and 80 memorials, and have transcribed 4,000 interviews with former Khmer Rouge cadre.

Chhang has also testified as a living witness to the genocide. But doing this has meant that he had to return to his home country and face the haunted past.

Photographs of victims of Khmer Rouge at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh. Image Credit: Supplied

“I always wanted to come back,” he says. “I began realising this when I started filling information on the official US documents, like the social security etc, where everything had a box to mention which place you originally came from. At that time, the Cambodian economy was slowly opening up. But my dream was to be accepted and more importantly, make my mother proud of me, make her happy. I was young but in my mind, I was already willing to give up my pain and past for reconciliation. To heal myself, I talked to scholars, learnt something new every day. Thus, I became ready to confront history.”

Upon his return to Cambodia, Chhang started work at the UNTAC. The Khmer Rouge leaders, facing the war crimes trials by now, felt threatened and exposed. “In the beginning, I had to work in remote provinces in the country. The Khmer Rouge continued their atrocities by boycotting the elections and would not let work happen. They refused to admit their wrongdoings in the past. So, I decided to stand up even if it meant picking up a fight with the Khmer Rouge. I put my life in front of them when confronting their leaders. This had to be done to reclaim humanity. To threaten me, they sent some soldiers to my sister’s house asking me to back off. However, instead of approaching the UN or the police or the embassy, I went to their leader’s house. They are cold-blooded people. But why should I be afraid? If you worry then you will remain a victim forever. These are human rights violations and dealing with those involves risks,” he says.

One of the achievements of DC-Cam is that now it is mandatory for all high schools and colleges in Cambodia to teach history. One wonders how learning about a gruesome past will help the future generations?

“It is important to learn history. It is important to learn from the past mistakes so that the young generation can go around freely. Education is one of the approaches. It opens minds as well as helps discover closure,” Chhang says.

DC-Cam publishes a magazine called Searching for the Truth as a means to reach out to the people and it has received widespread appreciation. “This magazine is something very close to my heart. It is a medium to communicate the voice of a survivor. Since it was started in 1999, it has always had a positive impact. I write a letter to the survivors in every issue with affection for the loss of a loved one. Of course, there are so many new mediums these days for the young to express themselves, especially social media. We make use of these platforms too” he says..

Horrifying memories

As part of the outreach programme, DC-Cam has also produced a few documentary films, namely, Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock & Roll, A River Changes Course and recently My Father in Heaven.

Chhang’s years of relentless struggle to come to terms with the horrifying genocide memories have been duly acknowledged. He was named as one of Time magazine’s 60 Asian Heroes (2006), Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World (2007) and bagged the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2018.

Chhang strongly believes that the past needs to be consciously preserved for a future which thrives on justice and peace.

Chhang has also testified as a living witness to the genocide Image Credit: Supplied
Chhang has also testified as a living witness to the genocide

The Sleuk Rith Institute, currently in the last stage of completion, will incorporate a museum, research centre, graduate school, document archives and research library, set in an expansive new park south of the centre of the capital, Phnom Penh.

“The Sleuk Rith aims to be a physical legacy. It will uphold human values. The institute will be an education hub and conduct some major research in genocide studies,” Chhang says.

“When I returned to Cambodia from the US, I saw my mother only after 20 years. I do this for her and mothers like her who have suffered. She is 92 years old today and my only wish is for her to be happy and not carry all the tragedy in her heart,” he says.

Manasi Mathkar is a writer based in Manila.