Cambodian Psychiatrist testifies at Khmer Rouge trial

The following was sent to me by my friend and transcultural psychology colleague Ambreen Mirza. Ambreen is a counselor and supervisor working at TPO Cambodia, in Phnom Penh (see posts from 6/13 and 6/17 of this blog for more on TPO Cambodia), and she’s been going regularly to the ongoing trial of Duch. The following description of Cambodian Psychiatrist Chimm Soetheara’s testimony is lengthy for the blogosphere (even for this blog), but worth every word. Thanks much to her for the donation of her time and her report.

A Great Day for Mental Health

Yesterday I spent the morning at the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. Psychiatrist Dr. Chimm Sotheara, the Director of TPO, the organization I work with, testified as an expert witness at the trial against the accused, Kaing Guek Eav or “Duch”. I have been to the tribunal many times before, but this testimony was different from all the others. Dr. Sotheara is the first Cambodian expert witness to testify at the tribunal, though he himself was only seven years old when the regime came into power.

Tears, deep sighs, long pauses, raised voices, and lowered eyes of various witnesses thus far have all hinted at the psychological impact Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime had on Cambodians, yet Dr. Sotheara, one of Cambodia’s few qualified psychiatrists, is the first expert witness to provide a public testimony of the wide-spread and on-going effect of that trauma.

He talked about two strains of impact. First he focused on the psychological impact on the individual: how the trauma of imprisonment, torture, starvation, slave labor, witnessing deaths, and being forced to execute loved ones has left survivors with severe anxiety and post traumatic stress. Symptoms consist of recurring nightmares, avoidance of people and places that bring back painful memories, and hypersensitivity to everyday events which may trigger flashbacks.  He shared how many of his patients and other survivors are alcoholics, physically and verbally abusive, victims of domestic violence and/ or are suffering from depression.

He then outlined how the Khmer Rouge systematically broke down the very fabric of Cambodian society: children were separated from their parents, and instead “belonged” to Angkar (The Organization). Those lucky enough to live with their parents were forced to spy on them for the regime. Husbands and wives were separated, extended family members lost and killed. In essence, the regime severed relationships, destroyed the sense of community, safety, and spirituality. After the regime ended in 1979, Cambodians had lost the structures that would have allowed them to heal from trauma.  There was no family, no teachers, no doctors, no monks, no honoring of the dead, no comfort, no closure, and no justice.  The very institutions that would help Cambodia recover from the immense trauma no longer existed.

Thirty years later, survivors are still suffering.  According to a research conducted by Jeffrey Sonis, over 14% of Cambodians over the age of 18 show symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Dr. Sotheara is one of 32 psychiatrists in the country, and one of the first 10 trained by psychiatrists from Oslo University in 1994. He had no intention of becoming one, but as a medical doctor working with UNTAC in 1992, trauma and suffering were so prevalent that it became an obvious choice

During the course of the testimony one of the co-prosecutors commented that many of the civil parties dropped out due to fear of facing Duch. Another civil party lawyer shared that his clients felt that the deaths at S-21 lacked motive, they were senseless killings, deaths for nothing. He wondered if this in turn could create more confusion for their clients, and increase their trauma.  Another asked Dr. Sotheara’s opinion about guilt and the widely used defense that members of the Khmer Rouge were strictly following orders; kill or be killed.  He first stated that if the perpetrator was an adult at the time, and not a child, they should be responsible for their actions. However the concept of guilt was far more complex in this scenario. Often times there weren’t clear cut perpetrators and victims. He was referring to members of the Khmer Rouge who were themselves later detained, tortured and killed (such as in prison S-24) by the very regime they served. Perpetrators became victims and victims became perpetrators. Many of the civil parties that recently testified against Duch are ex-Khmer Rouge, mainly prison guards, interrogators, and medics.  This trial is different from others, such as that in Rwanda, where there was a clear ethnic divide between perpetrators and victims.

He did stress, however, the importance of tribunals such as this one, where their past and experiences are no longer abstract,  crimes are being acknowledged, their pain and suffering validated, where they are given a voice, and they can seek and obtain justice (albeit three decades later).  The majority of survivors have been living side by side with perpetrators for decades; they have had no choice but to learn how to co-exist.  But despite this, a survey conducted by the UC Berkeley Human Rights Center shows that four out of five respondents said they harbored feelings of animosity towards those Khmer Rouge members who were responsible for violent acts. Seventy-one percent said they wanted to see them suffer in some way. A third said they wished they could take revenge (37%) against former Khmer Rouge and that they would do so if they had the opportunity (40%). (So We Will Never Forget: A Population-based Survey on Attitudes about Social Reconstruction and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, January 2009.)

One of the co-defense lawyers commented that Duch was not responsible for all of the suffering of the survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime, and was being tried for his role in the S-21 prison. He highlighted the resilience of the Cambodian people, that the country is slowly rising up, making its mark, and is flourishing in many ways.  He added that after this tribunal, he imagines Cambodians will be able to “turn the page”.   Dr. Sotheara agreed that the tribunal is extremely important, and that for some  it would provide answers, healing and closure. For others, however, it could be a trigger for them to re-experience the atrocities committed, and revive the memories of what they suffered.

The co-defense lawyer also mentioned that Duch had sought forgiveness from the Cambodian people, and asked what it would take for them to forgive.  Dr. Sotheara answered that telling the truth was very important, as was accepting ones actions and admitting guilt.  However forgiveness is a process, one that will not happen overnight. There is forgiveness at the individual level, some will never let go of the anger, and some may feel relieved by the truth that emerges from this tribunal.  Buddhists may forgive but know that the perpetrator will get their due karma in their next life. In the humanistic sense, people will forgive when justice is served.

He also stressed that forgiveness needs to happen at the community level, and stressed the need for the creation of local reconciliation commissions alongside the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. This, he said, should be a joint effort of the NGOs, local authorities, and the government, to establish reconciliation forums as an avenue to heal the pain of the victims.

Duch listened intently as Dr. Sotheara testified.  As per usual at the end of a testimony, he was given a chance to comment or respond to the witness (via the President).  He said he was fascinated with what Dr. Sotheara had testified, as he himself has no psychological knowledge (umm, forced confessions, torture…??). He said crimes against humanity were committed and the consequences still continue, and that he accepts responsibility for all crimes at S-21, “legally and psychologically”. He expressed his “gratitude” and congratulated Dr. Sotheara for his “outstanding achievements” and bowed before he was led out.

Dr. Sotheara’s testimony lasted three and a half hours, extending beyond the usual time, during which the mood at the court was distinctly different from other days. There was a sense of calm and relief amongst the witnesses, other survivors, the prosecutors, and even the defense; almost as if the elephant in the room had finally been acknowledged. The President of the Chamber (who has been previously criticized for asking witnesses to “compose themselves” and to “remember they were doing this for Cambodia”) was quiet for the most part, but nodded in agreement many times while leaning back in his chair and processing.  Civil parties shared with TPO counselors later that they felt Dr. Sotheara’s testimony was what they had been waiting for and they felt truly understood.  Most of all, the feelings of thousands of people who were not present were validated and their past experiences and present pain were given a voice.

Duch’s trial will be over by the end of September, but hopefully this testimony will pave the way for more sensitivity in the cases to follow, and greater recognition and action regarding current mental health issues and needs in Cambodia.

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