Have The Khmer Rouge Trials Helped Or Harmed The Victims?

Aug 7, 2014

Skulls at Choeung Ek Memorial, (AKA "The Killing Fields") outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Credit Newport Preacher / Flickr

When people started mentioning the possibility of using tribunals to bring justice to leaders of the Khmer Rouge, not everyone was thrilled. A 1999 headline from the Phnom Penh Post reads "Khmer Rouge Trials Could Renew Trauma."

It was a legitimate concern. When Jeffrey Sonis and his team began researching the lingering psychological effects of the regime's atrocities, they found that 11% of the Cambodian population was suffering from PTSD - a rate five times higher than in the U.S. Alternatively, many thought the trials were a necessary part of the healing process; that in order for victims to have any sort of closure, justice needed to be served.

So Sonis (who teaches at the UNC School of Medicine) embarked on a-first-of its kind study to determine whether or not the (very public) trials had any effect on those they were being held on behalf of. They followed individuals from communes and villages all over Cambodia, based on the only Census that had been taken since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. And they asked people whether or not the trials were helping, or hurting.

Two convictions came back this week, charging the highest ranking, still living officers of the regime with crimes against humanity. But the jury is out on the greater affects of such media heavy tribunals. Sonis says over the years, after the first Khmer Rouge trial, victims did seem to feel a greater sense of justice being served. However, rates of PTSD have not dropped. But Sonis doesn't think we should expect trials being held 30 years after the fact to have such dramatic effect. The real healing will come, he believes, when the trials are over, and people begin to talk about what it all meant.