Taipei Times (TT): Talking about the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) — better known as the “Khmer Rouge Tribunal” — some people have argued that we need prosecution before we can reach the point of true forgiveness for the 2 million people who were massacred in the genocide. Do you agree with this view?
Loung Ung: What’s true forgiveness? Is that even possible? All these standards and all these arguments from people with feelings of justice and true forgiveness, this is verbiage that really isn’t going to be possible. Whether it’s the ECCC or the tribunal, truth and reconciliation or the ICC [International Criminal Court], I don’t think we’re ever going to be able to find a method to give Cambodians true justice and true forgiveness.
It really is about education. This is an opportunity to centralize information and to use it as a tool to educate the next generation. [Cambodian genocide researcher] Khamboly Dy just came out with the historical textbook of the Khmer Rouge era. That was only two years ago and it is now being used in school. When I was at the tribunal last year on Feb. 17 — the opening of the tribunal — I was talking with students who didn’t know anything that was going on.
PHOTO: J. MICHAEL COLE, TAIPEI TIMES
TT: For countries like Cambodia, and to a certain extent Taiwan, that went through traumatic periods, what is the role of history?
Ung: History has to be known, it has to be passed on. It is very much relevant. In the west we sometimes study history in a way that is very disjointed and disconnected from who we are today and who we are as a nation. If you look at the history of Rwanda and what happened to the Hutus and Tutsis, and if you look back 50 years down that road you realize that what happened in 1994 [genocide] is very much connected to that past, when the Belgians came in. With Cambodia, Taiwan and the Holocaust, history needs to be taught because it’s our umbilical cord to each other. When we’re disconnected from history, it’s mere facts and events, but the role of history is to go beyond that. We must personalize history in such a way that we become more connected to it, then we give it more relevancy. Then it’s no longer something that happened in 1947 in Taiwan, but something that happened to their parents and how different their lives are today because of that.
TT: Can there be too much focus on past atrocities?
Ung: You cannot have too much focus on atrocity, but you can have too much focus on one aspect of atrocity. The Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum are valid places for Cambodian students and foreigners to learn about the Khmer Rouge, but what those places lack — you get the horrors and the atrocities — but you’re missing the heart of the people who went through it, the heart of the survivors who experienced it and the sacrifices they made so that their grandchildren could be there. Textbooks and the media sometimes focus too much on one aspect of the history, whether it’s for political or ideological purposes, and that’s not real, that’s manipulation.
TT: When I was visiting Cambodia in October I was somewhat disturbed by what looked like the commercialization of the genocide, where it has almost been turned into a tourism industry with T-shirts, DVDs, museums and so on. Any thoughts on this?
Ung: There’s definitely an aspect of that, but it’s very small. This happens everywhere. A couple of years ago, someone tried to open a Khmer Rouge restaurant in Cambodia, where they had blaring Khmer Rouge slogans and songs. The waiters would come in with their black shirts and pants and serve rice gruel and water. The government shut that down; that was going way far in commercializing atrocity. That’s part of the darker side of human nature. Those who commercialize it know there’s a demand [mostly by foreigners], even it focuses on a small four-year blip in 2,000 years of history. The main point of reference for foreigners coming to Cambodia is the movie The Killing Fields, so that’s what they know about the country, but there’s so much more to it.
TT: Can fixation on past atrocities hinder reconciliation? For example, the opposition party in Taiwan has often been accused of focusing too much on the 228 Incident and the White Terror.
Ung: Fixation on anything can hinder progress. If I were fixated on what I address in my book [First They Killed My Father] it would be a negation of who I am as a person because there’s so much more to me. When I was giving a presentation at TAS (Taipei American School), one of students seemed to expect that I would still be that five-year-old in the book. That said, fixation often does not happen in a vacuum — there are reasons for it. For many survivors, we felt that our voices hadn’t been heard, so we fought.
TT: You’ve lived in the US for many years now. What’s your impression of young people today, their understanding of history?
Ung: When you and I were growing up, the act of finding information slowed down how we absorbed it. Now information is moving at such a fast speed, this instant flood of information, we’re at risk of losing our ability to feel and to connect. In the west, it’s a little disheartening. We’re talking about the global world, and yet we look at everything else around us in a very divisive, black and white kind of way — Republican versus Democrat, Christian versus those who are not. And yet the world isn’t black and white. How do you interact with the world when you’re raised like this? We’re only paying lip service to becoming a globalized world. For young people, how you go from local to global is going to be difficult to make when the bridge isn’t being provided.
TT: To this day there are Americans, including diplomats, intelligence and military officials who were in Asia around the time the genocide took place who deny that the US played any role in the rise of the Khmer Rouge.
Ung: They’re in complete denial. It’s on record. The defining moment was when the US backed military coup to oust [King Norodom] Sihanouk from power in 1970 and put in his place General Lon Nol, who opened the door wide open for the US to come into Cambodia. This is not to mention the secret bombing campaigns that went on, unknown to the US Congress or the American people.
TT: During my discussions with reporters in Cambodia, I was given the impression that the conditions that gave rise to the Khmer Rouge decades ago — iniquity, poverty, government corruption — are re-emerging, which could give rise to similar extremism. Have you seen this in your travels through Cambodia, especially in the countryside?
Ung: That’s news to me. I go in three or four months a year. The international community is stronger there and there no longer is superpower interest in the country. I spend a lot of time in the countryside and I don’t feel that. There is more peace and prosperity there now than there was when I first went back in 1995. I feel safer now asking questions and people are more willing to answer, which to me says that they feel safer to speak. I travel everywhere.
If there was a sense of danger, my brothers and sisters would not let me leave their sight.
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