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An initiative with the Victims Support Section of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia

On Wednesday, 19 April 2017, five civil parties (henceforth CP’s) from Oddar Meanchey visited the Anlong Veng Peace Center in order to learn about the Center and it’s work – Mr Hov Teng, Mr Srang Saroem, Mr Khien Ram, Mr Chea Chhauet and Mr Morn Mao. It is recommended that this project will be incorporated into the Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia (ECCC – known as The Khmer Rouge Tribunal) reparations programme. In order to ensure that the project is an appropriate reparations mechanism, the Victims Support Section (VSS) of the ECCC recommended that CP’s visit the Center in order to give their own informed opinion on the utility and benefit of such a project.

Dr. Ly Sok-Kheang, director of the Anlong Veng Peace Center, brought the CP’s to the Center in the morning. The Center is situated on Dang-rek Mountain, providing a truly remarkable view of Cambodia. Immediately on arrival, the five moved to the cliff edge that offers a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. One can’t help but be struck by the beauty of the landscape; not only that surrounding the area, but the undisturbed nature in which the Center is nestled. Dr. Ly has had students visiting from Phnom Penh plant trees around the Center on prior visits, saying that he feels too often trees are cut down and no new ones planted. These trees are beginning to grow, and perhaps this reflects the potential that the Center has as a reparations programme. A Center for education and dialogue, it has the potential to put down new roots in Anlong Veng.

Dr. Ly began his presentation with the CP’s on this note. First, he explained the objectives of the Center: to further understand and search for a true understanding of Cambodia’s history, which we must do by understanding “the other side of the coin”. Thus, the Center focuses on reconciliation, for both the community and the country as a whole. The Center, Dr. Ly explained, is a library and information desk for young people; from Anlong Veng and Phnom Penh and beyond; from Cambodian and internationally. Next, Dr. Ly addressed the Center’s geography, noting the beauty of its surroundings on Dang-rek Mountain and the scenery’s role in helping to establish the Center as a place for reflection. The Center’s activities – student study peace and Human Rights tours, the proposed tour-guide training programme, research and documentation, and the writing of an Anlong Veng history book, amongst other activities – were described.

Dr. Ly explained to the CP’s that as the final stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, there remains much still to learn from this area. He said that in order to understand the Khmer Rouge regime, we must learn from both victims and perpetrators, but that doing so does not glorify the regime or ex-cadre in any way. Instead, it is important in helping people to understand the Khmer Rouge ideology, which can go some way towards answering questions surrounding the regime’s continued support in these areas even after 1979 and the end of Democratic Kampuchea. Questions about history still remain unanswered, and Anlong Veng is a historical marker for the entire country. Dr. Ly explained that the philosophy of the Center is based on the idea that we cannot reject a particular group in society; to understand the Khmer Rouge and the past, we should start in Anlong Veng, a symbol of dark part of the country’s past, which can act as one component of Cambodia’s history, in contract with sites of great civilisation such as Angkor Wat and Preah Vihear.

Following this, Dr. Ly asked the CP’s for their thoughts on the Center, and its potential as part of the ECCC’s reparations programme. All five agreed unanimously that the center should be incorporated as a reparations programme by the court. Mr. Morn Mao answered first, agreeing with the center and its projects, and praising the Center’s role as a place for study, learning and documentation. He elaborated, saying that in his opinion, the Center would be a beautiful reparations programme if the ECCC decided to sponsor the Center. Given that the Center is within a former meeting room of some of the Khmer Rouge leaders, and in an area where many of these leaders lived and died, Mr. Mao argued that the Center inevitably causes visitors to reflect on the past. He expressed hope that the Center would develop into a place for reading and research about the past, and welcome both Cambodian and international visitors. Answering last, Mr. Hov Teng said that it was important to have a site that commemorates the past in this way – his suggestion, however, was to add to the Center by installing a monument, which could act as a further symbol of commemoration.

We wished to find out more about the CP’s thoughts on the Center and the project, and their opinions on reconciliation and reparations. Therefore, I spoke with each CP individually, to discuss their opinions one-on-one and gain a greater understanding of the support for the Center that they had expressed.

All of the CP’s mentioned the merging of the beautiful surroundings with a site for education and commemoration. Mr. Mao explained that before visiting the Center, he felt slightly nervous given the historical context. However, on arrival he was struck by the beauty of the location, and told me he felt it was an important site for visitors to both appreciate the scenery and relax, and reflect on the past. Mr. Hov Teng echoed this sentiment, as did Mr. Srang Saroem. Mr Saroem explained that it was his first time in Anlong Veng, and prior to visiting he had not expected the Center’s location to be so beautiful. Further, Mr. Saroem explained that whilst he was in court at the ECCC, he often felt anger and a desire for revenge – he wished for the death of the accused. On arriving at the Center and exploring the site, he explained that he had suddenly began to feel differently; he felt “happy” and a “release” after listening to Dr. Ly talk about reconciliation. Mr. Saroem said that he is realising that revenge is not the most important thing, but instead it is more important to “reconcile victims and survivors”. It was important that the CP’s understood that the Anlong Veng Peace Center does not in any way intend to glorify the Khmer Rouge regime or Anlong Veng’s role in the past, but instead to provide a site for the essential study of this past. From these reactions, it seems clear that not only did the CP’s appreciate the amalgamation of nature and education, but also found the Center and its location to be a positive, optimistic site for the promotion of learning and reconciliation.

Mr. Mao mentioned that after the conclusion of his involvement in Case 002/01, he was not contacted by the ECCC or kept up to date with the trials’ development or conclusion – he was therefore surprised to be contacted by the Anlong Veng Peace Center. This is reflective of the necessity for reparations programmes to provide longevity, and a means of continuing victims’ journey towards achieving their own ideas about reconciliation and justice. Mr. Saroem noted that the court cannot give victims back what they lost, and that the best it can achieve is the imprisonment of top leaders, whilst Mr. Khien Ram noted that the trials allow victims to express their anger about the past, which for some can be healing. But, as Dr. Ly explained, the Center can complement the court. The court can try senior leaders, in accordance with its mandate, right now. However, the Center has longevity, and can allow people to use research and education as a means of condemning the Khmer Rouge regime, socially and academically, indefinitely. The Center represents a means of criticism and expression, and documentation and education, which does not have an expiry date; as Mr. Chhauet noted, the court must be quick in its prosecutions given the advanced age of the accused. By including the Anlong Veng Peace Centre in ECCC reparations, the court will help to counter the limited time frame that its trials inevitably have, by investing in a project that is not constricted by time.

Finally, we must also consider what kinds of reparations the CP’s feel are most important to them. Mr. Khien Ram noted that he was glad that the Center had been established, as he felt reparations should involve the preservation of documents, whilst Mr. Chhauet also noted the importance of education and encouraging the younger generations to study the past. Mr. Teng said that reparations programmes should focus on projects that provide evidence of the past, to ensure such atrocities do not occur again, whilst Mr. Mao focused heavily on the importance of education in reparations programmes. Mr. Mao expressed his desire to pass his story on to younger generations, and felt positive about the Center’s role as a museum that involves young people.

Indeed, from these responses it is evident that the Anlong Veng Peace Center gained unanimous approval from the five CP’s, and that its goals and foundations correspond with the CP’s own desires in terms of reparations, reconciliation and commemoration. Further, it should be noted that whilst only five of Oddar Meanchey’s seventeen CP’s were able to visit the Center to pass their opinions on its work, these five were the only CP’s able to travel as a consequence of illness and the passing of one CP (as was explained to us by the CP’s in attendance). Despite the limited number of CP’s able to attend, the hugely positive and optimistic responses of the five in attendance were extremely encouraging to those of us from the Anlong Veng Peace Center, and it seems that the Center has the ability to extend CP’s, Anlong Veng’s and Cambodia’s wider population’s post-conflict journey beyond the ECCC, as a Civil Party reparations programme. For this reason, we hope that the ECCC will take this preliminary report as encouragement to consider the Anlong Veng Peace Center as a recommended reparations programme. This report is written by Katie Hetherington, an Associate of the Anlong Veng Peace Center and Masters student at the Centre for Conflict Studies, Utrecht University.