A Cambodian Perspective: Integration of Transitional Justice into education


Article from: ZFDinfo Newsletter

On 22nd September the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) issued its final judgement on the last surviving leader of the Khmer Rouge regime. Between 1.5 and 2 million people were killed under the Khmer Rouge through a combination of mass executions, starvation, and labour camps during 1975-1979. The ECCC, formed in 1997, has led to three convictions of those most responsible or senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge. While the ECCC may have ended its judicial phase, a new residual phase focusing on disseminating the legacy of the court, especially in the field of education begins.

Sim Sorya is a Legal Officer with the ECCC and has worked with the court since its inception. He emphasizes that there is still work to be done and that it is more important than ever to integrate the lessons and challenges of the court process into education. During his early work he was often confronted with difficult questions from victims and survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime and made efforts to explain the complexity of the court’s mandate and its contribution to reconciliation in Cambodian society.

In 2006, at a public forum in Cambodia about the future Khmer Rouge trials (ECCC), a participant asked why only “senior leaders” and those “most responsible” for crimes would be prosecuted. Another responded: “that would be great because then those to be prosecuted by the tribunal were responsible [for crimes] and our neighbours wouldn’t point to each other anymore.” I imagined a father would be relieved to hear this, if he considered marrying off his child to his neighbour, a former Khmer Rouge cadre. He would want no stigma for his child. 

This is one of the ways in which the complementarity of peace and justice reveals itself in everyday Cambodian life. People’s reflections on real life repeatedly show that limited justice has enabled peaceful co-existence. This simple aspect is the most important, but least discussed, contribution of the ECCC’s legal work.  

However, a long road remains to maintaining sustainable peace. Why? The Khmer Rouge were a symptom, not the cause. Maintaining a peaceful society is a daily challenge, not a one-day job. Marginalized groups operated underground, educated supporters through manipulation, political violence, rote learning of guerrilla tactics and authoritarian management. The legacy of colonization, racial injustice, social inequality, and exclusion were the root causes of the problem. Thus, even though the country has rid itself of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia must ensure it is free of these root causes to prevent a future Khmer Rouge. Only by learning from past mistakes can this be achieved. Education must be a major contributor.  

Post-1979, after the end of the murderous Khmer Rouge era, Cambodian education on the history of the Khmer Rouge has improved in terms of school lessons in high schools as well as, through arts, media, and literature. With the ECCC completing its work, the time is ripe for education to take the next step by focusing beyond the Khmer Rouge. Judges have determined who did what to whom and why. The record is set. Now is the time to address  lessons learned such as reconciliation made possible by peace negotiations and the extent to which gender, youth engagement, justice for human rights violations, methodologies and approaches have played a role in the homegrown peacebuilding model. Cambodia has adopted all this against the challenge of crowded classrooms, rote learning, lack of facilities and qualified teachers.  

The ECCC’s unique and successful model can be drawn upon in pedagogical contexts: sensitivity to conflict; critical, innovative, and comparative thinking; and inclusion of all stakeholders, from victims, students, and families, to teachers, academics, and wider cambodian and international communities. If it was possible in transitional justice, Cambodia can do it in higher education. The ECCC is in a position to bring communities and experts together to design educational materials and programs. But it cannot – and should not – do this alone. As a new partner to the GIZ CPS’ Southeast Asian University Partnership for Peace program, and together with the wider peacebuilding network in Cambodia, ECCC will work on the integration of the court’s legacy into the curriculum of higher education in Cambodia. 

There is a popular saying: “It takes a village to raise a child.” The ECCC is that child in a peaceful village of 16 million Cambodians. It is time for all of Cambodia’s brothers and sisters to come together to understand how this legacy was shaped and will continue to benefit their lives. 

To read more about the ECCC and its most recent judgement visit: Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) 

Written by Sim Sorya, Legal Officer ECCC

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