Narrating Justice in Cambodia

Report from Dr. Tallyn Gray, 2017 ASEAS(UK) Research Impact Award Recipient

Tallyn Mountain in Anlong Veng in Northern Cambodia
Mountain, Anlong Veng, northern Cambodia | Image Credit: © Tallyn Gray

My research asks: ‘What is the social and cultural meaning of justice in post-genocide Cambodia? ‘ I examine how local ideas of justice following the ‘Khmer Rouge’ atrocities have been conceived and enacted, concurrent to and preceding the start of the UN-backed tribunal, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). I unravel the narratives of justice shaping Cambodia’s history of violence – from trial processes to informal rituals of memorialisation, from authorised to marginalised narrative forms – to rethink the processes that give meaning to the terms that define Cambodian collective and intergenerational memory: genocide, transition, and justice.

My research focuses around what I term competing narratives of justice. There is a narrative endorsed and promoted by the Cambodian Government for the last forty years and they also perceive the tribunal’s mandate to end when the trials of the Senior Leadership (Case 002) have concluded. This is in conflict with the UN wing of the court’s intentions that there should be further cases pursued in line with the mandate to try senior leaders and those “most responsible”  – a category that encompasses those not at a cabinet level. The Cambodian government are deeply against this, most likely as further trials would begin to expose uncomfortable histories of currently serving ruling party officials and their action during the Khmer Rouge era.

During my fieldwork in 2017 I spoke to jurists at the tribunal about their assessment of the trial thus far;  although there are some confidential elements to this  the main result of these discussions is that I have gained a much deeper understanding of the ECCC at what is likely to be final stage, as well as having my own ‘theories’ confirmed as “a fair analysis” by those in the know. I spoke with relevant Khmer Rouge Trial monitoring NGOs. The general sense is the ECCC has entered a phase where the extra cases will not go ahead due to government interference. Although many believe that “symbolically” the trial is over, they are concerned with its legacy in terms of legal reform and education.

Many civil parties I spoke to are deeply disappointed with the Tribunal’s progress and  feel aspects of the story of the Khmer Rouge era being effectively shut down. The civil parties I spoke to in general had the sense that the ECCC narrative of the era is now establishing a history they feel does not reflect their own. Many feel excluded from the institution that is supposed to offer them justice.

At Documentation Centre of Cambodia, I did archival research and also conducted an interview with the director about the ECCC’s legacy. I gathered in-depth oral histories from three survivors of slave-labour and two civil parties at the ECCC who provided me with oral histories about forced marriage.

I also visited Palin province to research former Khmer Rouge diehards who have converted to evangelical Christianity. I interviewed three such men. This is directly relevant to my work in that one of the principal ideas of justice in Cambodia is based on Karma. Another interesting element of Palin society is the nostalgia many have for the Khmer Rouge. In an additional three interviews, I found a former Khmer Rouge official who was willing to talk about how they missed the Pol Pot era and felt the ECCC to be merely victors’ justice.