Witness Will Recall [Past] Memories to Judges

Posted by khmernews on March 30, 2007

At invitation of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), Mr. Rath Ben, Program Coordinator of Inter-Cultural Psychiatry for Refugees in Oregon State of the United State of America, has been staying in Cambodia for two weeks. He gave a training course for 19 staffs of the DC-Cam who have been working on a project named “Victims of Torture” and of the National Authority for Mental Health in order to help them to understand about symptoms of trauma that former Khmer Rouges and victims have during an interview with the DC-Cam. The DC-Cam will also allow the Extraordinary Chamber in the Courts of Cambodia to bring a number of former Khmer Rouges and victims to be witnesses in forthcoming trials if needed.

You have worked with Cambodian refugees in the US. Have those Cambodian refugees had trauma like victims of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia?

I have worked in the US for 28 years and been in charge of a program for refugees. We observed 1,200 refugees who were from Cambodia, Lao, Bosnia and Ethiopia. Every refugee had the same symptoms of trauma. The differences between victims of the Khmer Rouge who live in Cambodia and who are living in the US are that the victims who are living in the US had to adopt themselves to a new way of life and to a new language. It is an additional difficulty that they had to face and to adopt themselves to a new culture which is completely different from their old one. During the first 6 month which we usually call “Honeymoon” period, people met a lot of things that they had never seen before such as colorful lights, televisions and so on. After that period, their past memories came to them again and they felt bored.

What are symptoms which are frequently seen within the former Khmer Rouges and victims?

Preliminary Symptoms of trauma before it develops to be a serious one include memorizing of past events, sleeplessness, difficulties in making concentration… Some patients remain alerted all the time, always recall the past events and are frequently surprised by even a low sound. Meanwhile, a symptom of mental illness appears. By the way, former Khmer Rouges did not want to think about what happened in the past and even tried to forget the past completely, so it really affected their physical development. While visiting doctors, they used to complain about their backaches; however, the doctors claimed that they were not infected with any virus and their illnesses were a result of their bad dreams and sleeplessness which have seriously affected their health and lives in their societies. A number of former Khmer Rouges and victims tried to treat their “Trauma” themselves by deciding to drink alcohol, use drugs and play gambling. Those bad acts destroyed their health and properties and sometimes provoked domestic violence.

Will trauma of last generation people cause serious consequences for their future generations who did not experience the Khmer Rouge regime?

After the end of the Second World War, Jewish victims of genocide in Europe in 1939-1945 who then immigrated to the United States of America did not tell their children about their past experiences. All the people who experienced such brutal acts did the same things by not telling their children about their miserable pasts. Children lived in a silent life and could not develop good relationships with their parents. The victims of the Khmer Rouge used to impose strict controls on their children. If their children do something wrong, they will tell them off right away. Those parents did not tell their children about why they were blamed. As a result, the parents’ unreasonable blames constitutes a wall that divided parents-children relationship. We all know that traditional way of providing education is one among other reasons that have led to the breakdown of parents-children relationship; nevertheless, the trauma is still a crucial problem contributing the most to the breakdown. When those children have had their own children, they will act toward their children differently from their parents. They explained and shared every knowledge and understandings with their children and even giving them much freedom. I have noted that there have been the same problems taking place in both the USA and Cambodia.

What does your mission to the DC-Cam mainly focus on?

The DC-Cam taskforce named “Victims of tortures” has conducted interviews with former Khmer Rouges and victims. They already did interviews with 300 people. The interviews will be needed by the Khmer Rouge tribunal. However, interviewers had not known about what are preliminary symptoms of the trauma within their interviewees so that the DC-Cam invited me to train them. I trained them to understand about the symptoms of trauma and how to inform the authorities and relevant NGOs about that. I gave them all knowledge I have known. We not only treat trauma patients with medicines, but also pay close attention to their social and family contexts. In addition, we must adhere with both western and traditional way of treatment. We also need assistantance from monks and magicians. I also trained them to control their emotion during the interviews because sometimes they felt very sorry for their interviewees until they thought that they were victims of the Khmer Rouge genocidal regime too.     

Do you think a verdict issued by the trial will make things better? Will it reopen wounds of past experiences which have been completely forgotten?

At least, the trials will respond to such a rhetorical question. Cambodia needs reconciliation and a number of people to make accountable to their wrong doings. In this regard, there have been many controversial ideas among the general public about whether or not the past experiences should be forgotten or remembered. Whether the answer to this question is positive or negative is not important. The country need to treat its wounds and at least, a number of people must make their accountable although it is just a formality. The trial might make the trauma of the Khmer Rouges and victims even worse. It is common that we should be aware about this. The recall of very boredom and incident in which people have lost any member of their families will make their trauma become more serious. Therefore, we have selected witnesses in advance. We cannot urge them to appear in the court right away without preparing them beforehand.

You only refer to witnesses as victims but [Cambodian] judges and co-prosecutors themselves are also direct or indirect victims of the Khmer Rouge regime. Will they respect the professional ethics of their jobs? 

Judges has also been asked about this question. Witnesses will recall past memories to them. How will they make judgments? The question will then be directed to the judges and prosecutors.

Do you think that every legal official [of the tribunal] should receive psychiatric tests before they start a trial?

I have no idea. But they must be fair. The court should seriously consider this problem. We are ready to help them if they need.    

(Informal translation)
-Extracted from: Cambodge Soir, #2745 Friday- Sunday16-18 March 2007. 


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