Identifying and Countering Holocaust Distortion: Lessons for and from Southeast Asia

Cambodia

1. Background and context

  • Basic facts about the modern history of Cambodia and the main cases of mass violence

17 April, 1975 - 7 January, 1979: The Khmer Rouge regime and the Cambodian genocide: the systematic persecution and killing of ethnic Khmers, Vietnamese, Cham (Muslims), other minorities and foreigners.

In April 1975, after a five-year civil war, the Khmer Rouge movement led by Pol Pot seized power in Cambodia and established a totalitarian regime known as Democratic Kampuchea. In a short time, they eliminated private property, markets, the cultural scene, and educational and political institutions, and forced the urban population to work in agriculture under arduous conditions. The murderous regime caused an enormous population transfer: a massive and sudden displacement of people from towns and cities to the countryside. During the first stage of the genocide, the Khmer Rouge divided and classified society into ‘them’ and ‘us’. They created the notion of external and internal enemies, who were portrayed as impure, different, and foreign, and who had allegedly betrayed and threatened Angkar (‘the Organisation’). By imposing divisions in society, the Khmer Rouge also destroyed all kinds of solidarity among people, creating an atmosphere of constant fear and suspicion.

Soon, a quarter of the Cambodian population, up to two million people, was exterminated through forced labour, exploitation, starvation, and at sites of extermination, such as Security Centre S-21 (presently the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum), as well as other sites known as the Killing Fields.

See: Chronology of key events.


Questions for Critical Thinking:

1. ​What were the main features of the Khmer Rouge genocide? 
2. ​Is the Cambodian genocide sufficiently well known and recognised internationally?

  • Historiography: the main themes and elements of memorialisation

I n postgenocide Cambodia, the former sites of destruction - Security Centre S-21 (presently Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum) and the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek - have become the central spaces of memory. Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek Killing Fields serve as unique testimonies.  

Although Rithy Panh’s literary autobiographical account, The Elimination focuses on humans’ survival in extreme circumstances under the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, it also demonstrates the universal significance of the Cambodian suffering. His documentary films on the Cambodian genocide include S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine and Rice People, the first Cambodian film to be nominated for an Oscar. Hollywood actress and human rights activist, Angelina Jolie’s Netflix movie, First They Killed My Father is based on the testimony of Loung Ung, who survived the Khmer Rouge regime between the ages of five and ten years. The film brings the story of the Khmer Rouge and its murderous regime to a global audience.


Rithy Panh with cofounder of NEVER AGAIN, Rafał Pankowski at the event‘The Missing Picture: Rethinking Genocide Studies and Prevention’ organised by International Association of Genocide Scholars, Phnom Penh, 2019 (Сredit: NEVER AGAIN Association)

In 2015, a memorial monument to the victims who perished at Security Centre S-21 was erected

Nearly eighty memorials have been built. Around 20,000 mass graves and sets of remains have been preserved.

Detention and torture room, Security Centre S-21, Tuol Sleng  (Сredit: NEVER AGAIN Association)

Chum Mey, pictured above with the cofounder of NEVER AGAIN, is just one of thousands who were imprisoned at S-21, and one of a very few to have survived the experience. Chum Mey was a mechanic before his imprisonment. He survived by being useful to the Khmer Rouge, helping to repair the typewriters used to note details of their interrogations. Tuol Sleng,  2018 (Сredit: NEVER AGAIN Association) 

Arn Chorn-Pond, a Khmer Rouge survivor and cofounder of Cambodian Living Arts (Credit: VOA/Irwin Loy, Wikimedia commons)

Victim-survivors have coped with the past atrocities and memories using oral history, as well as different forms of art, poetry and theatre performance.

Valuable initiatives have been launched in commemoration of the Cambodian genocide through music. The Khmer Rouge sought to destroy the traditions of Khmer music and dance.

Those traditions have since been recreated and celebrated through the work of Cambodian Living Arts, established by Arn Chorn-Pond, who as a child survived the genocide: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UHd8-zseEaU

Kak Channthy (Credit: Julien Poulson, Cambodian Space Project)

The rock band, The Cambodian Space Project has endeavoured to revive and celebrate the memory of the Cambodian rock 'n' roll and pop scene that thrived in the 1960s and 1970s, and included figures such as Ros Serey Sothea, the singer who perished at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. The lead singer of Cambodian Space Project, Kak Channthy died in an accident in 2018. Her legacy continues.

Listen to The Cambodian Space Project: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=noM82VINHRE   

Questions for Critical Thinking:

Look at the photographs of the two monuments: a statue of a victim at Tuol Sleng by French - Cambodian artist, Séra Ing and the Roundabout Statue Celebrating the Overthrow of the Khmer Rouge by Vietnam. What role do these monuments play in constructing collective memory about the Khmer Rouge and its atrocities? 

  • The role of Cambodia in the Second World War, memorialisation of the Second World War: does it exist? In what forms?

From the late nineteenth until the mid-twentieth century, Cambodia was colonised by France. During the Second World War, the French Vichy regime (which was subordinate to Nazi Germany) nominally maintained the French protectorate over Cambodia and other parts of Indochina. The fascist model of political mobilisation was introduced to Cambodia by the French colonial authorities of that time. Fascism found support among Cambodian activists who viewed the model as a modernising ideology. Led by the French governor, Jean Decoux, this led to the formation of the Khmer youth movement, Yuvan (based on the European model, complete with symbolism such as the ‘Roman salute’). The exclusion of Jews from the colonial service was accompanied by the dissemination of antisemitic propaganda, which echoed the French far-right discourse predominant in the metropole.    

After French colonial control was succeeded by a Japanese occupation, the emerging radical nationalist movement embraced the opportunity to grow. The pro-Japanese radicals gradually expanded their influence and staged a coup d'état in August 1945. They remained in power until October 1945, when French control was reestablished. This is arguably a unique case of a pro-fascist movement seizing power during the final days of the Second World War.

The Second World War is not widely remembered in Cambodia, and no monuments or memorials of that period exist in the country. One of the few known examples of memorialisation of the conflict is the publication of Anne Frank’s diary in the Khmer language.

Later, the memory of the Second World War in Cambodia was overshadowed by other tragic events: the Cambodian Civil War and the Khmer Rouge genocide. 

Nevertheless, the Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot displayed somewhat of an obsession with Adolf Hitler in his speeches and private talks, according to King Norodom Sihanouk’s memoir published in 1980.

Members of the Yuvan youth organisation march in support of the Vichy government in France. (John Tully, A Short History of Cambodia: From Empire to Survival. (2006). Allen & Unwin)

  • Aspects of social diversity, the main minorities in the country, cases of persecution after 1945

Although minorities have been present in the country, the majority of the Cambodian population are ethnic Khmer followers of Buddhism. The largest minorities in Cambodia are the Cham Muslim community, ethnic Chinese and ethnic Vietnamese, as well as numerous smaller indigenous groups, such as the Khmer Krom and the Kuy. Under the Khmer Rouge regime, the Cham and Vietnamese, specifically, were targeted for extermination. The last surviving leader of the Khmer Rouge, Khieu Samphan was convicted for genocide against Cambodia's Muslim Cham and ethnic Vietnamese by the international Tribunal for Khmer Rouge crimes in 2018. 

Explore more: Minorities and indigenous people in Cambodia


Cambodia has 884 mosques and 314 Islamic schools, according to figures from the Ministry of Cults and Religion in Cambodia (Credit: Sayana Ser)

Questions for Critical Thinking:

1​. How can war affect minorities? Are they especially vulnerable? 
2. What preventive measures to protect minorities might exist in times of conflict? 

2. Existing types of Holocaust and genocide denial and distortion


  • Multideniers

Some of the discursive strategies of Holocaust deniers are similar to those used by those who deny the Cambodian genocide. In some cases, the denial or distortion of both is even promoted by the same actors, who can be described as multideniers. The phenomenon concerns Cambodia particularly.


Khieu Samphan, Khmer Rouge head of state of Cambodia, 1978 (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Case 002 Initial Hearing Khieu Samphan 
(Credit: Wikimedia commons)

 Khieu Samphan was the nominal head of state during the time of the Khmer Rouge regime. He was later convicted for crimes against humanity. His writings are a classic example of genocide denial or distortion: materials in which the author uses arguments that are highly typical of those who deny or distort the Holocaust in Europe. Samphan deflects guilt, a common strategy identified by scholars, such as Michael Shafir in cases of Holocaust denial and distortion.Samphan attempts to shift the guilt to other individuals, such as Pol Pot and to Vietnam, claiming that the worst crimes and atrocities were not committed by the Khmer Rouge regime, but by the Vietnamese army. This kind of blame shifting is highly characteristic of Holocaust deniers and distorters in Europe. 

The French lawyer of Khieu Samphan, Jacques Verges, who is of Thai origin, defended many problematic individuals, such as criminals and dictators. As well as representing the leaders of the Khmer Rouge, he also defended Klaus Barbie, a notorious Nazi criminal, who was eventually arrested and sentenced in the 1980s for his role in the extermination of French Jews. In the course of defending the Khmer Rouge leaders, Verges resorted to discursive strategies that were tantamount to genocide denial or trivialisation and minimisation.  

21 November, 2011: Mr. Jacques Verges, the French international defence lawyer for Khieu Samphan during the first day of the opening statements in Case 002 (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Jan Myrdal was a Swedish public figure, author and activist. Myrdal displayed a clear antipathy against Jews and, in particular, against Israel. He was fascinated with the Khmer Rouge regime and for many years was involved in denying the reality of its crimes in Cambodia, as well as promoting a radical anti-Zionist version of Holocaust distortion, claiming that Israel was exaggerating the Holocaust for its own benefit.

(Credit: Wikimedia commons)

Israel Shamir, who is of Russian Jewish origin and has lived in several countries, including Israel and Sweden, is one of the symbols of the contemporary antisemitic movement. He accuses the Jews and Israel of exaggerating the Holocaust for its own benefit. He has also written articles claiming that the crimes against humanity committed by the Khmer Rouge never occurred. He is a prime example of a multidenier who denies or minimises genocides and abuses of human rights, both during the Second World War and in Cambodia in the 1970s. 

(Credit: Wikimedia commons)

Naom Chomsky is one of the most significant intellectuals of our era. He is not a genocide denier. However, some of his statements, especially those he made in the late 1970s, could be interpreted as minimisation of the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. He has since partially retracted some of those statements. His role during that time concerning the Cambodian genocide, however, remains problematic, as do several of his statements concerning Holocaust denial. Chomsky wrote the preface to an infamous book authored by Robert Faurisson, a French Holocaust denier, who was suspended from his university teaching position and brought before a court for denying that the Nazi gas chambers had existed. Chomsky claimed that he offered the preface in the name of freedom of speech; nevertheless, he was criticised heavily for his role in legitimising some forms of Holocaust denial and distortion, as well as distortion of the Cambodian genocide. 

(Credit: Augusto Starita / Ministerio de Cultura de la Nación/Wikimedia Commons)

Questions for Critical Thinking:

1​. ​Can one form of genocide denial and distortion lead to other forms?
2. ​What similarities are there between different forms of genocide denial and distortion across the world? 

  • Potential local tools for Cambodia to counter denial and distortion: The issue of responsibility and resistance against the Khmer Rouge

Through a complex process of dealing with the past, Cambodians are able to discuss difficult subjects, such as their own responsibility during the time of the Khmer Rouge regime, as well as the population’s resistance during the genocide. 

The resilience of Holocaust survivors can act as a reference and an inspiration to Cambodians in overcoming their own difficult past. 

Resistance occurred under the Khmer Rouge, and some refused to stay silent during the atrocities. Read the story of Bophana, a twenty-five-year old woman who wrote forbidden letters in prison, and was executed by the Khmer Rouge.


Bophana (Credit: Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center)

Stories of minority women’s resilience and resistance under the Khmer Rouge

Around seventy percent of the survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia were women; most were widows. Since the collapse of the regime in 1979, women have been the key actors in mobilising society and rebuilding the nation. They reshaped Cambodia’s economy during the chaotic 1980s and 1990s, when civil war with the Khmer Rouge raged and economic sanctions restricted opportunities for development.

Moreover, it was through women’s unwavering efforts that Cambodian culture, education and traditions were reinstituted into the social structure of daily life. Under these difficult circumstances, the women of Cambodia demonstrated impressive strength and resilience.

Many stories exist of Cambodian women survivors who must deal with the past; one of suffering, loss and pain. Here is a story of two widows who had suffered a great deal during the Khmer Rouge struggling to survive with the responsibility for their children and relatives.


Watch the Symposium presentations:

● ‘Globalisation of genocide denial. The case of genocide multi-deniers’ by Prof. Rafal Pankowski, co-founder, NEVER AGAIN Association, Warsaw, Poland 

● ‘Dealing with the past in Cambodia in the context of genocide distortion’ by Sayana Ser, Peace Institute Cambodia, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. 

● ‘Bophana Center’s work against the denial and distortion of Khmer Rouge atrocities’ by Sopheap Chea, Executive Director at Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

PLAY VIDEO

Stories of minority women’s resilience and resistance under the Khmer Rouge

Around seventy percent of the survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia were women; most were widows. Since the collapse of the regime in 1979, women have been the key actors in mobilising society and rebuilding the nation. They reshaped Cambodia’s economy during the chaotic 1980s and 1990s, when civil war with the Khmer Rouge raged and economic sanctions restricted opportunities for development. Moreover, it was through women’s unwavering efforts that Cambodian culture, education and traditions were reinstituted into the social structure of daily life. Under these difficult circumstances, the women of Cambodia demonstrated impressive strength and resilience. Many stories exist of Cambodian women survivors who must deal with the past; one of suffering, loss and pain. Here is a story of two widows who had suffered a great deal during the Khmer Rouge struggling to survive with the responsibility for their children and relatives.

Sim Maryyah, or Sem Mary (left) and her younger sister Sothea Sem. The photograph was taken before the Khmer Rouge in 1974 (Credit: Sayana Ser)

Sim Maryyah (Sem Mary), 73 

Sim Maryyah, 73 is a Cambodian Muslim woman of Malay - Javanese background. She is the first born among ten siblings in family of merchants. She married Long Sae, a Cambodian - Chinese man. They had four sons and a daughter.  

During the time of the Khmer Rouge, Maryyah had to change her name to Sem Mary for fear of being forced to eat pork and enduring other impositions at the hands of the Khmer Rouge if they knew she continued to hold religious beliefs. Like all women during that period, she had to have her long dark hair, which she loved, cut short. Her female teenage siblings, who were between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, had to lie that they were married and that their husbands had been sent to work in other brigades. 

The Khmer Rouge refused to allow any personal belief, nor ownership of one’s private belongings or property; everything belonged to the Angkar, including the children. They also had to work at the cooperatives and in the rice fields, carrying food to soldiers on the front lines. They were deprived of all their rights and separated from their parents. 

Mary’s father died from illness without treatment during the time of the Khmer Rouge. She also lost two sons and a daughter to the regime from malnutrition and sickness. The Khmer Rouge brought Long Sae to be executed near a pit in Kandal province because he had become weak from overwork in the rice fields, as well as building a dam and a water irrigation system. 

The Khmer Rouge considered those who were too weak or sick to work in the fields or those who did not know how to cultivate rice as city people; those who had white skin or wore glasses were considered social worms, capitalists or enemies. 

The Khmer Rouge almost took Mary’s life when she begged them for information on her husband’s fate. 

‘I was dragged to be killed too. I thought I would die then because I tried to ask them about my husband, but my two little sons of six and eight years old were crying and hugging their legs and begged the Khmer Rouge to release me: “please let my mother go. If you took her away nobody would take care of me, please have pity on us…”,’ Somehow, Mary was released and warned after a Khmer Rouge guard hit her with his rifle, causing her head to bleed. Mary also had her hair pulled by the Khmer Rouge cadres or soldiers and was dragged into a pit. 

After the regime collapsed, Mary was reunited with her mother and siblings. Mary had to take care of nine family members, including her widowed mother, two sons, a younger brother, four younger sisters, and a young niece whose parents had been killed by the regime. Mary had been working hard as a salesperson - a business she had inherited from her father. She sold mainly herbal and traditional medicines, as well as clothes. She would travel to the provinces, walking from house to house, and made friends or asked friendly people to provide her with shelter for a few nights to stay in for compensation. Mary faced many hardships and struggles, but she overcame all of them to earn a living to take care of her loved ones who were young and orphaned; they all depended on her. Her sons and youngest brother went to school, graduated and pursued higher education abroad. Her hard work paid off and all of her siblings and niece now have their own families. 

Although today, Mary is living in freedom with the family of her older son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren, her physical and mental health has weakened and the shadow of a traumatic and painful past remains embedded in her memories. 

My husband was a decent man. He had fair skin and a nice complexion, since he was of Chinese descent. We loved each other. Even today, I dream of meeting him. I want to see him. I imagine his face and what our life would be like if he were still alive.’

Mary with her grandchildren in front of their house. She has lower back pain and diagnosed with arthritis (Credit: Sayana Ser)

Mary (first left), Sothea (first right) with their mother and siblings during their nephew’s wedding (Credit: Sayana Ser)

3. State and nongovernmental initiatives to prevent/counter denial  

Examples of state initiatives:

● The People’s Revolutionary Tribunal was established to try Pol Pot and Ieng Sary for genocide in absentia seven months after the overthrow of Khmer Rouge in 1979. 

● The Renakse documents: Cambodian survivors made around 1.6 million petitions between 1983 and 1984 to encourage the United Nations to acknowledge the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. The petitions describe the atrocities against Cambodians, the methods and the number of people killed, the locations of the killings, and the people’s suffering. 

● National Day of Remembrance (20th May) was established in 1984 to help survivors find reconciliation and speak out about their painful experiences. 

● The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek are sites of evidence of murder and destruction, as well as important venues of collective memory.  

● The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), or the Cambodia Khmer Rouge Tribunal, was established by the Cambodian government and the United Nations in 2003 to try the Khmer Rouge leadership for crimes perpetrated during their reign.

Examples of civil society initiatives

● The  Khmer Rouge History Application was launched on 1st November, 2017 by Bophana Center. It can be accessed from smart devices. It helps young people to learn about the history of the Khmer Rouge, as well as justice, human rights and peace from survivors. 

● Th e Diary of a Young Girl , also known as The Diary of Anne Frank is a Dutch-language diary kept by Jewish thirteen-year-old,  Anne Frank while she was in hiding for two years with her family during the  Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. The family was captured in 1944 and sent to Auschwitz - Birkenau concentration and extermination camp. Anne Frank was once again deported to Bergen - Belsen concentration camp, where she died of typhus in 1945. Her writings were preserved by helpers and presented to her father, Otto Frank, the family’s only survivor. Anne’s diary has since been published in more than seventy languages, In 2002, the Documentation Center of Cambodia published a Khmer-language version of the diary and distributed it among 200 schools and libraries. The diary was translated by a then-sixteen-year old member of the Cham Muslim community in Cambodia,  Sayana Ser

● In 2019, the NEVER AGAIN Association and Heinrich Boell Stiftung Cambodia organised a series of seminars on the Holocaust for Cambodians in the Khmer and English languages in Phnom Penh  the first of their kind in Cambodia. As a follow-up, Heinrich Boell Stiftung Cambodia published a second edition of the Diary of Anne Frank in Khmer language in 2020.

Covers of the first and second editions of Anne Frank’s Diary in Khmer (2002, 2021)

https://www.nigdywiecej.org/en/our-news/177-articles-from-2019/4226-the-missing-picture-rethinking-genocide-studies-and-prevention

Participants of the seminar about the Holocaust in Phnom Penh, coorganised by the NEVER AGAIN Association and the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Cambodia, July 2019 (Credit: NEVER AGAIN Association)

Questions for Critical Thinking:

1​. ​Is The Diary of a Young Girl relevant to Cambodian readers?
2. ​​How can personal stories promote empathy between different groups of victims of genocide?

Literature on the subject

Chandler, David. (2009). A History of Cambodia, Phnom Penh: Center for Khmer Studies 

Chandler, David. (2000). Voices from S-21: Terror and History in PolPot’s Secret Prison. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.