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During the four years of the Khmer Rouge regime, between 1.7 and 2.5 million Cambodians died from execution, torture, starvation, overwork, and sickness. 63 A vast prison system was instituted across the country. Although it is difficult to estimate the number of prisoners, it could reasonably be in the range of 400,000 to 600,000 people.64 At Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh alone, at least 14,000 people were tortured and executed.65 Our earlier studies suggest that exposure to violence influences attitudes towards peace and justice.66 To better understand factors influencing respondents’ knowledge, perception, and attitudes towards the Khmer Rouge regime and the ECCC, this survey assessed exposure to violence during and after the Khmer Rouge held power. Eighty percent of respondents in our survey considered themselves victims of the Khmer Rouge. Nearly all those who lived under the Khmer Rouge regime identified themselves as victims (93%), while half (51%) of those who did not live under the regime said they were victims.

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63 See Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime (Yale University Press, 2000), and Kiernan, “The Demography of Genocide in Southeast Asia. The Death Tolls in Cambodia, 1975-79, and East Timor, 1975-80,” Critical Asian Studies (2003), 35/4: 585–97.

64 Henri Locard, “The Khmer Rouge Prison System,” in Khmer Rouge History & Authors: From Stalin to Pol Pot—Towards a Description of the Pol Pot Regime (Phnom Penh, Cambodia: ADHOC and Center for Social Development, January 2007).

65 David Chandler, Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999), 6.

66 Vinck P, Pham PN, Stover E, Weinstein HM, “Exposure to War Crimes and its Implications for Peace Building in Northern Uganda,” Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) (2007) 298/5: 543–54; Pham PN, Weinstein HM, Longman T. “Trauma and PTSD symptoms in Rwanda: implications for attitudes towards justice and reconciliation,” Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) (2004), 292/5: 602–12.

A Population-Based Survey on Attitudes about Social Reconstruction and the Extraordinary Chambers In the Courts of Cambodia Among respondents who lived under the Khmer Rouge regime, the survey found over two-thirds reported having experienced starvation/lack of food (82%), lack of shelter (71%), personal property stolen or destroyed (71%), and forced evacuation (69%). Approximately one in four respondents reported having been tortured (27%) or having witnessed torture (30%) and/or killings (22%).

Many respondents said they had been forced into labor (63%) and 61 percent were separated from family members. Fewer reported having been abducted for over a week (8%), forced to physically harm someone (2%), and/or forced to kill someone (2%).

Since the conflict and violence persisted after the Khmer Rouge regime was forced from power, the survey also assessed exposure to violence after the Khmer Rouge regime among all respondents.

Reported frequencies of exposure to violence were always lower after the Khmer rouge regime compared to during the Khmer Rouge regime, with the exception of becoming disabled as a result of combat, injury due to landmine or unexploded ordnance (1.7% during, 2.1% after), and rape or other sexual violence (0.6% during, 0.9% after). 67 Respondents who lived under the Khmer Rouge regime are significantly more likely to have been exposed to violent events.

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67 There is anecdotal evidence substantiating that rape and other sexual abuse happened frequently during the KR; most of the victims were executed. See Nakagawa Kasumi, Gender-Based Violence During the Khmer Rouge Regime. Stories of Survivors from the Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979), (Phnom Penh: June 2007). See also, “Victim of Khmer Rouge sexual abuse seeks justice,” International Herald Tribune, September 3, 2008, available at http://www.iht.com/articles/ ap/2008/09/03/asia/AS-Cambodia-Khmer-Rouge.php.



KNOWLEdGE Nearly thirty years after the end of the Khmer Rouge regime, two-thirds of the current population of Cambodia is estimated to have escaped the violence and abuses of that period: 68 percent of the population is 29 years old or younger.68 Scholars and practitioners have pointed to the lack of public education policies to examine the past in Cambodia, resulting in limited knowledge about the Khmer Rouge, especially among the country’s youngest citizens.69 Four out of five respondents (81%) in our survey who did not live under the Khmer Rouge regime described their knowledge of that period as poor or very poor. Six percent said that the primary source of knowledge about the Khmer Rouge was school.70 Media also played only a minor role, including radio (6%), television (1%), and newspapers (1%). For most (84%), the main source of information was family and friends. However, 69 percent of those who did not live during the Khmer Rouge period rarely or never spoke about the regime.

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In contrast, about one-third (37%) of those who lived under the Khmer Rouge regime described their knowledge of that period as poor or very poor while about one-third (32%) described their knowledge as good (20%) or very good (12%).71 Eighty percent said that their main source of 68 Computed by the authors using projected population data for 2004 from the National Institute of Statistics (NIS) of Cambodia.

69 See for example S. Linton, Reconciliation in Cambodia (2004).

70 Very little is currently taught in school about the Khmer Rouge regime. However, the government in collaboration with the Documentation Center of Cambodia is currently working on a textbook and training program for teachers.

71 The poor or very poor level of knowledge even among those who lived under the Khmer Rouge may be explained by the climate of secrecy with which the regime surrounded itself. It is likely that people knew about living conditions at their location but had very limited knowledge and understanding of the broader situation.

A Population-Based Survey on Attitudes about Social Reconstruction and the Extraordinary Chambers In the Courts of Cambodia information about the regime was based on their own experience, while 17 percent mentioned family and friends. School (1%) and media (radio 1%, television 1%) were rarely mentioned among the main sources of information. This group spoke more frequently about the Khmer Rouge regime compared to those who did not live through it, but still 40 percent of them rarely or never spoke about it.


The limited knowledge of the Khmer Rouge regime may influence how meaningful the proceedings of the ECCC are for the Cambodian population. On one hand, the trials could be of no concern to those who do not consider the Khmer Rouge period as an integral part of their history. On the other hand, the trials may open a dialogue and generate interest in learning more about the Khmer Rouge regime.

Seventy-seven percent of all respondents said they wanted to know more about what happened during the Khmer Rouge regime, while 85 percent of those who did not live under the Khmer Rouge regime wanted to learn more. When asked about the value of truth seeking, 86 percent of respondents believed establishing the truth was necessary. Sixty-four percent agreed with the statement that people could not reconcile their differences without knowing the truth about what happened. Most respondents disagreed with the proposition that it was too late to learn what happened (74% disagreed), that a written historical record was not necessary (81% disagreed), or that what happened was already known (65% disagreed).

Results among those who lived and those who did not live under the Khmer Rouge regime were similar, suggesting a desire for the truth and education about what happened during the Khmer Rouge regime. However, only half (50%) of respondents would be willing to talk openly in a public setting such as a court or a public hearing about what they or their family experienced during the Khmer Rouge regime.

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When asked about which mechanisms would be appropriate to establish the truth, nearly half of respondents (45%) stated they did not know. The remaining respondents recommended trials (14%), dialogue with victims (12%), a truth commission (8%), or allowing people to talk freely (7%).



Recognition and acknowledgement of past crimes are often necessary steps for social reconstruction and reconciliation.72 The survey results presented above suggest that there is a general lack of knowledge and understanding among respondents about what happened during the Khmer Rouge regime.

The survey further examined Cambodians’ perceptions of the Khmer Rouge.


Respondents characterized reconciliation as the absence of violence and conflict (56%) and as unity and living together (33%). Some respondents also mentioned communicating and understanding each other (9%) and good education (5%). Eight percent stated they did not know how to define reconciliation.

The survey asked respondents about their level of comfort interacting in various social settings with former Khmer Rouge members. Despite the various reconciliation programs and activities implemented by the government and civil society,73 one third to one half of the respondents claimed they were uncomfortable interacting with former members of the Khmer Rouge in various situations as illustrated in FIGURE 4. The responses show they were most comfortable going to the same pagoda or having their children attend the same school as children of former Khmer Rouge children. Respondents were least comfortable living in the same household or same community and having their children marry children of a former Khmer Rouge. The responses did not statistically differ between those who lived under the Khmer Rouge and those who did not.

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72 See, for example, Lederach JP, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1997), 29.

73 For examples of reconciliation programs and activities in Cambodia, see Laura McGrew, “Transitional Justice Approaches in Cambodia,” in Justice Initiatives (New York: Open Society Institute, Spring 2006), 139–50. See also, Craig Etcheson, “Reconciliation in Cambodia: Theory and Practice” (Phnom Penh: 2004).

A Population-Based Survey on Attitudes about Social Reconstruction and the Extraordinary Chambers In the Courts of Cambodia Four out of five respondents in our survey 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%). However, one third of respondents (36%) said they had forgiven the Khmer Rouge. Feelings of hatred were more frequent among those who lived under the Khmer Rouge regime compared to those who did not. Likewise, forgiveness was less frequent among those who lived under the Khmer Rouge regime compared to those who did not.

The prevailing belief system of respondents might explain the apparent contradiction between these feelings of animosity and forgiveness. About 94 percent of respondents considered themselves Buddhists. Forgiveness is a central part of Buddhist teaching, affecting one’s mind and karma. One tenet of Buddhist teaching is that “vindictiveness is not ended by being vindictive.” Buddhism also aims at “[bringing] the disturbed minds of both perpetrators and their victims back to a state of moral and spiritual calm, and to reconfigure the natural order”74 In that sense, “forgiveness” is related to coming to terms with one’s past experiences, calming down, or putting aside negative feelings75 rather than being associated with past wrongdoers. When asked about forgiveness, that understanding of the concept could have influenced respondents’ responses. From a Buddhist perspective, this does not contradict feelings of anger or hatred resulting from past experiences and fueled by attitudes and negative stereotypes towards the Khmer Rouge who are seen as “the enemy.”76 Thus, on a daily basis, people are still experiencing anger although some also recognize the need to forgive. It is also possible that the apparent contradiction reflects the difficulty of generalizing findings to all former members of the Khmer Rouge. People could forgive individual Khmer Rouge but still have feelings of anger towards the leaders or the Khmer Rouge violence in general.

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To explore further the theme of forgiveness, researchers asked respondents what needed to happen before they could forgive the top leaders of the Khmer Rouge. The most common answer was the need for punishment (39%). Punishment was more frequently mentioned among those who lived under the Khmer Rouge regime (42%) compared to those who did not (33%). At the same time, one in five 74 Ian Harris, Buddhism under Pol Pot, Documentation Series No. 13 (Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Documentation Center of Cambodia, 2007), 240.

75 S. Linton, Reconciliation in Cambodia, 21.

76 Ibid., 22.

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ACCOUNTAbILITY The previous sections suggest that Cambodians remain divided over the presence in their communities of those former Khmer Rouge members who were responsible for violent acts, and that forgiveness, if at all possible, must be preceded by some form of punishment. We found that nine out of ten respondents believed it is important to hold accountable those responsible for what happened during the Khmer Rouge regime. When asked in more general terms, over half of respondents (55%) believed only the person who directly killed their family, relatives, and friends should be held accountable.

However, when asked to specify who should be held accountable, about half (51%) mentioned Khmer Rouge leaders or officials, and 20 percent mentioned the Khmer Rouge regime in general. Respondents frequently provided specific names, including individuals already deceased, currently in jail, or serving in public positions. Nearly one-quarter (24%) identified Pol Pot, the KR top leader, 11 percent mentioned one or more of the five Khmer Rouge leaders currently in custody (Kaing Guek Eav, a.k.a.

“Duch”; Nuon Chea; Ieng Sary; Ieng Thirith; and Khieu Sampan), and 10 percent stated Chhit Choeun (“Ta Mok”), a senior Khmer Rouge leader. Some respondents mentioned Khmer Rouge cadres (6%), and foreign countries that supported the Khmer Rouge regime (2%). Respondents mentioned the current Cambodian government (58%), the international community (18%), the national judicial system (17%), and the ECCC (9%) as institutions that should be in charge of holding these individuals accountable.

A Population-Based Survey on Attitudes about Social Reconstruction and the Extraordinary Chambers In the Courts of Cambodia The responses to questions of who should be responsible seem to contradict the response that only the person who killed their relatives or friends should be held accountable. The discrepancy could be related to the way the questions were phrased. The respondents may believe that the Khmer Rouge leaders are generally responsible for killing their relatives and want to hold them accountable. Thus when asked in an open-ended manner, they mentioned Khmer Rouge leaders/officials and some specific names. However, when asked specifically if they believe only the person who killed their family or friends should be held accountable they responded yes.

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