KUALA LUMPUR, June 11 — The grey-haired man sitting opposite me has an easy, open smile; there’s nothing remotely guarded about him. He could be a CEO or a teacher and it is with this disarming candour that he tells me about how he grew up during the Cambodian Genocide in the late 1970s before escaping the clutches of the Khmer Rouge.
Now at 52, Youk Chhang, the executive director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam) and council trustee of the AirAsia Foundation, has really seen it all. With very little bitterness and even less sentiment, he tells me his story.
The dream of an escape
“I was the youngest son,” Chhang begins, “and adored by my parents, as the youngest tend to be. If all my siblings were alive today, we’d number more than 10.”
“Since I was six or seven years of age, my mother kept telling me of a dream she had before I was even born, about how she lost me in the jungle before finding me on a mountain which faced east.”
Apparently, Cambodians believe such prophetic dreams contain both good and ill tidings; in Chhang’s case, it indicated that he was meant for great things but also that he would be separated from his family.
When the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, Chhang was indeed separated from his family and didn’t see them again for months. Eventually, they were evacuated to the Thai border, where the mountain behind their camp was known as The Eye of Buddha by locals.
Chhang believes it to be the same mountain his mother once dreamt of. The dream had come true.
Times were very tough: many starved with food being scarce. Chhang recounts, “I was 13 or 14 years old and one of my sisters was pregnant. She was malnourished and so I stole to the rice fields to pick some mushrooms and vegetables for her. This was a crime back then. I was stealing. When I was caught by the Khmer Rouge, they beat me up in front of the camp, both to punish me and to serve as a warning to others.”
He was then imprisoned and his real nightmare began. “Every evening, they would walk us out for confessions. We would have to think of a crime we had committed, confess and ask for forgiveness. Then the leader would decide whether to execute us or to let us live another day.”
Chhang had to make up a lie every night for weeks before he was released, thanks to the intervention of an older prisoner, who pleaded for mercy due to Chhang’s tender age and family’s neutrality.
“Today, more than 30 years later, I do not know the name of the man who saved my life.”
His career in genocide research and human rights advocacy culminated in his leadership of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam) under Yale University’s Cambodia Genocide Programme.
Yet beneath the surface was a deep-rooted sense of anger and survivor’s guilt that remained throughout most of his adult years. One of Chhang’s most painful memories is of his sister dying a slow, terrible death after having her stomach slashed open by a soldier.
“I have to be honest; in the beginning, I was driven by revenge. This was why I spent so much of my life documenting the atrocities that occurred during the Khmer Rouge regime.”
In total, Chhang has amassed almost 160,000 pages of documents, maps of over 20,000 mass graves and interviewed thousands of former Khmer Rouge soldiers. These were used as evidence to bring about the long-awaited, long-delayed tribunal on the genocide.
“Through my research work, I have come to realise that revenge is not the solution. The only possible way forward is through education, to ensure the people never forget and that history doesn’t repeat itself.”
Change takes time though. When Chhang first advocated chronicling the genocide in Cambodian school textbooks over a decade ago, he faced fear and resistance.
“It’s hard for us to face our past. So I had to take the soft approach: I introduced ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ instead, and this was easier for the system to swallow — the ethnic cleansing of another people other than us. After they accepted the idea slowly, we could then suggest adding the Cambodian genocide into the history books again.”
Today, the painful subject is a mandatory inclusion in history textbooks in Cambodia’s high schools and as part of the foundation course at tertiary level.
Chhang repeats sombrely, “Yes, it’s hard for us to face our past, but we have to remember it in order not to live it again.”
Rebuilding (and healing) a community
As a member of the AirAsia Foundation’s Council of Trustees, Chhang has found synergy between his interests and the Foundation’s in developing social enterprises, heritage and conservation, anti-human trafficking and humanitarian relief in the ASEAN region.
In fact, the first grant from the Foundation was awarded to a project close to his heart. The Cambodian Living Arts project aims to revive ancient Khmer performance arts while providing a viable model to ensure the enterprise’s sustainability.
Currently, the AirAsia Foundation is contributing US$75,105.85 (about RM234,965) to fund the cost of master classes for a total of 100 students in performance and music, and instrument repair assistance. The Foundation is also bearing the start-up costs of a daily ticketed show by the students at the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh.
“AirAsia is ideally placed for supporting such community building projects,” Chhang says, “given their reach and business interests across the region.”
Social enterprises aren’t charity missions; these are real businesses meant to eventually sustain the impacted and target communities through revenue generation.
“They must learn to stand on their own feet,” Chhang insists. “The community is mostly made of Khmer Rouge survivors and their children, but we cannot be victims forever.”
As the Cambodian Living Arts students perform and retell classical tales to visitors and fellow countrymen alike, the past is confronted and their future, hopefully, is rescued. The genocide researcher puts it best: “Art is healing.”
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