Symposium on the ECCC: The Healing of Survivors of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal – Reflection and Recommendation From a Cambodian Psychologist

Symposium on the ECCC: The Healing of Survivors of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal – Reflection and Recommendation From a Cambodian Psychologist

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) was created by the Cambodian government in partnership with the United Nations. Its purpose was to prosecute crimes under international and Cambodian law committed between 1975 and 1979, when Cambodia was ruled by the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), better known as the ‘Khmer Rouge’. On 22 September 2022, the ECCC’s appeal chamber delivered its final judgment, upholding former CPK leader Khieu Samphan’s conviction for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. 

Responding to that final judgment, this Opinio Juris symposium reflects on the ECCC’s trials, tribulations, and legacy. In this post, psychologist Yim Sotheary considers the ECCC’s contribution to the healing process of survivors. 

[Yim Sotheary is a Cambodian psychologist, psychotherapist, and conflict and peace consultant, whose authored works include The Past and the Present – of Forced Marriage Survivors (Cambodian Defenders Project, 2013).]

As a mental health professional who supported many participating victims, survivors or ‘civil parties’ at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), I have seen up close the way that these legal proceedings were part of some people’s healing process.

When most people use or translate the term ‘healing’, they often mean treatment. 

But healing is beyond treatment. Healing is a process not an event. It needs acceptance, knowledge, and awareness about it. It needs support from the person her/himself and the family/community/society.

Healing often hurts at the beginning, and therefore some people give up as they cannot tolerate the pain from flashbacks, the re-experiencing, etc. For trained professionals supporting trauma healing, it is vital to know where to start and how to start especially in cases of confronting traumas. Trauma is a word for some people, but it is a world for those who continue live with it (the past). The world of chaos, confused, the world of the strong images, thoughts and emotions associated to the memory. The world of “I am the victim’, “I deserve not to live”, “I am broken”, etc.  It affects sleeping, daily functioning, and having behavioral problems. 

In my opinion, supporting the healing of someone is not only the task of psychologist, but also needs others who may include psychiatrists, medical doctors, religious healers, family members and the community, and includes institutional supports like legal and social support measures if needed. The approach is often to start with small things. And the small things make a big difference. 

Healing is Important

In my experience from the beginning of my engagement with the justice and healing of survivors through ECCC process, I have successfully tried many approaches where people can find those healing approaches through books, documentation and documentaries about judicial and non-judicial reparation projects. 

One of them that continue to stay close to my heart is supporting survivors to find out their strengths and their resilience from having experienced living in Khmer Rouge times. In other words, having victims/survivors visualize Post Traumatic Growth (PTG) rather than just vividly seeing themselves as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) survivors. I remember I said to them “we need to climb the ladder to see a different view”.

The most important thing about healing is “hope”. If we don’t have hope, we give up, we do nothing. Hope makes you move. At least, when you have hope, you get out of the bed and try something. In a case of depression, it helps you to get up, clean yourself and get out of the dark room. This is already something. Small, small steps help. I mention this because there are a lot of people think that healing is a big issue that is not easily achieved. They often say “I need to meet a famous doctor, a famous therapist in this/that clinic, in this/that country, etc.” I failed many cases in my treatment/trauma care when I meet a client who is just coming in expecting to be fixed without playing an active part themself. I experience cases of success with clients who are active in their healing. 

In my keynote remark at the ECCC Victims’ Workshop in May 2022, a consultative workshop to discuss the residual process before the ECCC comes to an end, I suggested the court, civil society organizations, and anyone who works with survivors must be trauma-informed and sensitive (having knowledge) and do their best to have survivors participate actively. 

Their engagement in the last process before the ECCC’s closure is so meaningful for survivors to come to their terms with, and to close the chapter of, their traumatization. The methodology of work needs to be adaptive. It cannot be the same as the start. It requires asking yourself and asking the survivors “what was missing in our work so far, of our last 16 years? What could be done better?” and then listen to each other among stakeholders to do better.

How Survivors Experienced the ECCC

On the day of the pronouncement of appeal judgment on case 002/2 against Khieu Samphan, 91 year old, and the last to stand trial in the ECCC, I was proud that I could sit there supporting survivors from their first to their last public trial. I am proud that I heard different voices, different noise from the first hearing to the last. 

The noise and the facial expression of civil parties and survivors are so different now. At the start there was so much crying, screaming, and cursing, by the end I saw smiling and walking out of the courtroom hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder, proud and caring about each other. It proves to me that they are not living in the Khmer Rouge past anymore and had become friends through this court process. My tears were of my excitement when some civil parties, some of whom had not seen me for at least 5 years, called me by name and addressed me as “koun” (daughter), and said thank you to me for going through the healing process with them.

However, there are cases that require the ECCC, its Victim Support Section, and civil society organizations to continue working on healing. While everyone was waiting in the court room before the pronouncement, I spoke to three civil parties who sat close to me, aimed at briefing them as part of preparation to listen to the judgment. They said they are not happy today because before leaving home, their children asked them to not come, saying that the ECCC is useless. One of them said her children said, “over the past years, you did not gain anything from joining those events, waste of time and energy and this time you will get nothing again”. 

I gently touched her hands and replied, “I am sorry to hear this and I wish we could do something to prove to your children that your engagement with the process is significant”.

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Asia-Pacific, Courts & Tribunals, Featured, General, Public International Law, Symposia, Themes
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