Mental Persecution

Feb 07, 2012
-A +A

Cambodia: The impact of truth-seeking on mental health.

1207 Nyrola Ung is confronting her grief outside the courts. PHOTO: Phuong TranOpting out

As of May 2010, 8,200 people had applied to join the court’s first two cases.

“What can the court really do for us?” said Nyrola Ung, 58, who chose not to participate.

She lost her husband and more than 100 other family members. After escaping to neighbouring Thailand in 1980, and then seeking asylum in the US, she returned to Cambodia last year in an attempt to visit the location where she escaped death and to confront her loss.

Sareth Mon, 58, also based in the capital, said she did not have time. A mother of two at the time the Khmer Rouge took her husband away in 1979, she lost her one-month-old baby when she could not produce any more breast milk to keep her alive.

“It is good to have trials, but it seems like a long time ago. The trial can relieve suffering – some people lost their entire families. I know I have a right to tell my story to the court, but I cannot attend because I am busy raising a family.”

One of the first to submit a testimony to the court, Theary Seng, 40, withdrew as a civil party in late 2011, calling the trials “a political farce” that risked raising expectations and harming an already, as she put it, “cynical public”.

A US-trained lawyer trying to set up a civic education NGO in Cambodia, Seng was orphaned at eight when her mother was killed in Svay Rieng Province bordering Vietnam.


For “collective and moral reparations” (because court rules do not allow individual financial reparations*), the court had granted part of survivors’ requests to compile and distribute Duch’s apologies and “statements of remorse”, while it rejected requests to publish the names of civil parties on the court's web page, a state apology, construction of memorials, free healthcare, preservation of former torture sites or a national commemoration day, stating that civil party lawyers had provided insufficient details, and the requests fell outside the court’s jurisdiction and were unenforceable because of Duch's  inability to cover costs.

This decision was upheld on 3 February, as judges explained how the court as a “unique system” cannot grant anything that requires government input.

In a 2010 analysis of 4,000 survivors’ official complaints at the court, 18 percent requested medical services, 16 percent improved infrastructure, 16 percent school construction, 12 percent individual reparations and 13 percent religious ceremonies, according to the DC-CAM.

But even without reparations, eight out of 10 Cambodians surveyed nationwide in 2008 and again in 2010 by the law school at University of California Berkeley said it was important to know the truth and that national reconciliation was impossible without more information gleaned from the trials.

And while it hurts to listen to testimonies and see history rehashed in the media, graduate management student at Pannasastra University, Thach Chanbanha*, 27, said: “If I had to choose between the pain of knowing and no pain from not knowing, I would choose pain.”

This article was first published in IRIN.