Khmer Rouge archives: accountability, truth, and memory in Cambodia

Historical Geography Reading Group, 23/1/13

Session 5, Semester 2

Caswell, M. (2010) ‘Khmer Rouge archives: accountability, truth, and memory in Cambodia’, Archival Science 10, 25-44

Caswell discusses the role of archives in remembering the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, and in bringing the perpetrators to justice. She emphasises the power of archives in holding the regime accountable, in particular because documentary evidence is often seen as more epistemologically valid than the oral testimony of witnesses. There are, however, differences between historical accountability and legal accountability, which may be much narrower in scope because breaches in legal protocols can make it difficult to achieve convictions. Caswell also covers the role of archives in constructing and preserving memory of the Khmer Rouge period, for survivors and for future generations.

The group found that the article made for uncomfortable reading, given the sheer scale of the crimes committed. Particularly disturbing was the case of ‘Duch’, head of a notorious prison in Phnom Penh. Unlike most other Khmer Rouge leaders, who destroyed recorded evidence during the last hours of the regime, Duch instead spent the time killing the remaining prisoners, leaving behind a large archive containing details of murder and torture. The existence of this evidence was instrumental in bringing Duch to trial, but he and his team of lawyers were using the documentary evidence to try to evade justice. By treating the archive as being entirely accurate and complete, they were arguing not only that ‘if it’s in the archive, it’s true’ but also ‘if it isn’t in the archive, it isn’t true’, thus denying anything that was not explicitly mentioned in the archive. Duch seemed proud to admit his guilt in general, but was denying any specific crime that was not listed in the archive. Members of the reading group recounted their own experiences of discovering how records in archives were often not entirely accurate (perhaps because the recording categories did not fit with how things worked in practice), so no archive should be treated as the sole arbiter of truth.

Some members of the group took issue with the contrast made in the paper (following Pierre Nora) between history, as the official story of past events, and memory, how everyday people recall the past.  It is not clear that the two can be clearly separated. The group also discussed the potential unreliability of memory. Psychological processes may make people forget things that are simply too painful to bear. Alternatively, people who see or hear archival evidence may confuse it with their own life and think that they experienced something that did not really happen. Despite these potential pitfalls, the group saw the archive as a crucial part of coming to terms with what happened under the Khmer Rouge, especially in educating younger people.

The group thought that Caswell was perhaps too evangelical about the ability of archives to provide, ‘accountability, truth, and memory’, but agreed that the paper did raise a lot of major issues concerning the use and reliability of archives. Much of the group’s previous focus has been on local archives, or ‘history from below’, so it was particularly interesting to see archives being used at a national level for purposes of historic justice.


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