What does justice mean to Cambodians who have sought refuge in other countries, and what about their descendants? Looking at the lived experiences and notions of the justice of diasporic Cambodians reveals the potential for intragenerational work towards reconciliation and transmission of memory works. Through discussions of survivors’ guilt and trauma, as well as intragenerational trauma, notions of justice can be better understood, writes Myra Torcheux
The genocide in Cambodia took place between 1975 and 1979. 17th April 1975 is entrenched in the minds of Cambodians, as Khmer Rouge troops marched through Phnom Penh and forced its citizens to leave the city. Death toll estimates vary from 740,000 to 3.3 million deaths (Um, 2015); the Khmer Rouge Tribunal situates it around at least 1.7 million (ECCC, 2019). A staggering loss of life and the destruction of society left the country with political, social and economic turmoil even after the Khmer Rouge were ousted by the Vietnamese. A mass exodus of Cambodians seeking refuge took place as they poured into neighbouring countries. The refugee camps became ‘home’ for a few years for many as they patiently waited to potentially be granted asylum in countries such as France or the United States. Unfortunately, the history of Cambodians has been a history of forcible displacement; refugees in Thailand were repatriated in disturbing ways, and others were able to escape to the US and France, where not-so-easy journeys awaited them. Trajectories for these survivors were circuitous and filled with uncertainty, loss and insecurity.
In my dissertation research, I examined the journeys and experiences of diasporic Cambodians. I attempted to situate notions of justice for those who have been forcibly distanced from the ‘homeland’ and their descendants. Questions included: How do survivors make sense of justice? How does the idea of justice travel through generations? Is a justice framework feasible for those in the diaspora? Did the diaspora participate in transitional justice processes? What does justice look like for them? These questions were important for me to find answers to since resources and research concerning the diaspora rarely touch on its notions of justice and concerns. The consequences of genocide and generational trauma are not often explored and considered when evaluating the Cambodian community within host countries either, where Cambodians are often clustered under the Southeast Asian subgroup. Nevertheless, a considerable amount of biographies, testimonies or cinematography concerning the genocide has been produced by diaspora members and refugees, and their lived experiences in their host countries and that of consequent generations are underresearched.
Situating the diaspora
In the span of about five years, around 21% of a population of about seven million lost their lives to genocidal executions, torture, famine, and forced labour, and 90% of the educated middle and upper classes were killed (Genocide Studies Program, 2022, Chan 2015). Of the remaining, 600,000 chose exile and resettled where they could. From 1975 to 1978, about 34,000 Cambodians escaped to Thailand, 20,000 to Laos, and 170,000 to Vietnam, totalling up to 250,000 refugees (Cutts, 2000, Nann, 2007). 1979 was the year the Vietnamese ousted the Khmer Rouge regime, offering a moment of respite for Cambodians, but eventually caused Cambodians to flee due to famine and the Vietnamese occupation (Lieu, 2011). Refugee camps became temporary homes while many awaited resettlement in the US, Australia, France, or Canada. Some lived in them for up to ten years (Nann, 2007). Several memoirs written by survivors cover their youth spent in the Thai or Vietnamese refugee camps. Chanrithy Him (2000), Nary Ly (2019), and Loung Ung (2001) all recount their times as young girls in the camps, pointing out a feeling of safety in comparison to what they endured during the Khmer Rouge. Nevertheless, the sentiment of security is relative since examples of sexual abuse, violence, and police patrol brutality are present in two accounts (Ly, 2019, Him, 2000). Each of them eventually makes it to either the US or France.
Transitional Justice and the Cambodian diaspora
Discussions of transitional justice in diasporic Cambodian literature are rare. Transitional justice emerged in the late 1980s in countries such as Argentina and Chile, which sought to deal with their difficult pasts as they transitioned into democracy. Transitional justice was coined within the post-Cold War era paradigm of human rights and peacebuilding. It took the form of criminal tribunals, truth and reconciliation commissions, memorialisation efforts, and institutional reforms that would reshape society to lay the foundation for a more peaceful and inclusive society (Hinton, 2018, ICTJ, 2022). According to the International Center for Transitional Justice, created in 2001—only after the transitional justice processes in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and South Africa—transitional justice is about the victims and, therefore, assumes that their role will be central in the process.
Nevertheless, the Cambodian transitional justice process of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) has historically failed to centre the victims and their concerns. Alexander Hinton has contributed a fair amount of work on transitional justice and the Cambodian case (Hinton 2018, Hinton 2010. He discusses the incompatibility of the international justice system with the ECCC’s transitional justice ambitions. The tribunal’s role in this transitional justice paradigm is not simply to punish and transmit memory but to act as an agent of liberal democratic transition. Hinton calls this imaginary an impossible vision and coins it the ‘Justice Façade.’ I would argue that it perpetuates the ‘Justice Façade’ of the transitional justice process as it is situated within an exteriorising liberal thought paradigm which may be inconsistent with the needs of the victims who are supposed to be the central subjects of this process. Perhaps the liberal imaginary has caused the process to stray away from its purpose. Hinton also touches on the legacies of past transitional justice processes, which each had their key issues or local forms of justice, which seem to have been extracted out of context and applied to a universal transitional justice process. Where is the ‘local’ in the ECCC? Is it truly a sincere attempt at transitional justice?
My research intended to look beyond the nation and toward the diaspora. When the ECCC was established, it was caught between particular motives: the transitional justice imaginary that has universalised a process of justice and continues to impose its liberal paradigm and the national political interests that responded to redress justice demands. These interests decenter the victim, who exists in the homeland and the diaspora. De-essentializing and de-universalising the needs and wants of victims is vital in addressing justice. I argue for a historicised and holistic understanding of the lived experiences of victims and the complexity of factors that engender changes in the notions of justice, which I believe are also reflected in generational differences.
I was able to carry out a number of interviews with members of the Cambodian diaspora in the United States and France. There was a diversity of interviewees across age, gender, geographical regions, occupations and generations. Generations became a unit of analysis as it became clear that lived experiences differ greatly across generations, the first generation having survived the genocide and being the first to migrate and the second generation being affected by intergenerational trauma. Another category, called the 1.8 generation, was born in the refugee camps, not knowing their homeland or being born in their host country. The potential of transmission and the alteration of meaning through transmission itself onto another generation has been termed generational passage by Khatharya Um. This generational passage presented itself in various ways throughout my interviews.
The welcome of refugees into the US and France was on different scales and introduced refugees to different ways of life with different struggles to face. Nevertheless, the refugee experience is often dehumanised and reduced to discourses on their integration and assimilation. The conflation between refugees with different lived experiences is consistently made and deters effective discussion. Putting Vietnamese and Cambodians into the same pool of boat peoples is reductionist and dismisses their contrasting identities and histories, especially in the French colonial framework, which treated both completely differently— the former as a colony and the latter as a protectorate. The same goes for the US, which conflates identities, rendering it impossible to set institutions of support in place properly. Cambodian Americans are one of the poorest Asian minorities and have consistently been denied the resources that recognise and tackle the trauma, history of displacement and distrust.
The ECCC was set up to meet transitional justice demands that the international system has deemed normal after mass instances of human rights abuses. Nevertheless, the political and national interests of the Cambodian government pushed the date further and further to have a semblance of authority over the process that would take place. As a result, a hybrid court was created to meet the demands of international justice and national interests, believing that this combination would meet the demands of transitional justice. Nevertheless, the interests at play only decentred the justice aimed at addressing victims.
When thinking about justice, survivors have accumulated a pile of injustices and grown incredible resilience. They are, however, mostly untrustworthy of the transitional justice process, despite having participated in it at the beginning. Doing justice for the dead has been a concern of many survivors who have to deal with the reality that they could never deliver proper justice to their dead loved ones; some of it is reflected in the impossibility of realising the proper burial rituals to honour the dead and ensure their peace in death.
Their resilience comes at a price, and many first-generation Cambodians cope in silence. This silence in itself exacerbates intergenerational barriers while also contributing to intergenerational trauma. Looking at the transmission of memory towards the second generation of Cambodians illuminates the future of the notions of justice and memory work. Second-generation Cambodians lack the resources to properly learn about the multitude of events and factors that culminated in the Khmer Rouge’s dark period. Yet, they live with the burden of the intergenerational trauma passed on by their parents. Until the second generation is able to fully grapple with the lived experiences of the generation before them, and not necessarily their parents, the potential for transmission can be met and serve in reconciliatory processes which give a ray of hope to those who desire a better future for the Cambodian diaspora and community healing.
Future generations of Cambodians can retransmit the tragic history that haunts the community to attain reconciliation of memory works and recognition of the lived experiences of survivors. Second-generation Cambodians have been able to support each other transgenerationally through social media to share their own experiences of intergenerational trauma and injustices they face in their own communities. Being able to resolve the core injustices within the community will, in turn, respond to and disable the discriminations that propelled the Khmer Rouge into power. The burden of settling narratives falls into the hands of a new generation, though it is one with a lot of passion, voice, skills, and hope.
*Banner photo by MARCIN CZERNIAWSKI on Unsplash
*This research was supported by the LSE Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre Student Dissertation Fieldwork Grant 2021-2022.
*The views expressed in the blog are those of the authors alone. They do not reflect the position of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, nor that of the London School of Economics and Political Science.