In late November, my friend and colleague, Thomas, asked me if I was interested in writing a story about former Khmer Rouge cadres turning to Christianity since the fall of the regime in 1979. He had been to Pailin a couple months before to photograph and follow some former KR soldiers, but felt that the story might be better served with a reporter.
Because I am generally pretty apathetic towards religion – in Singapore, I think we use the phrase "free thinker" – I wasn't sure if I was able to approach the story, and the former cadres, with an open mind, so my first instinct was to say no. But the idea of challenging my pre-conceived notions of religion and devoutness, of what it means to have faith and what it means to seek salvation, was intriguing to me. I also came to see my initial reluctance as just another sign that I should always push myself to have an open mind.
In the end, the trip we took with Kuch Naren (AKA reporter extraordinaire and human sunshine) was – to use a religion-inflected word – enlightening. After two interviews, I stopped seeing the cadres under the label of "Former Khmer Rouge Cadre Turned Christian"; it stopped being about religion and more about what comes after a horrible national tragedy.
As Westerners, we often think of traumatic events under a scope of reckoning, forgiveness and emotional reconciliation. But how do Cambodians see it? How do those who suffered horribly wave their experiences away and go on with their daily lives without breaking down? How do those who took part and supported the regime see themselves when they are constantly being vilified in the international and national media – yet also have the incongruous reality of the current prime minister be a former ranking Khmer Rouge cadre as well?
I don't think either of the stories we published in the LA Times (the day after Christmas) or the South China Morning Post will have all the answers – hell, psychologists themselves are having a hell of a time with assessing mental illness in the country because of the different cultural context. But I hope I was able to show some of the inner conflict (and straight-up denial) that exists for the former cadres. Almost 40 years on, national reconciliation – the aim of the Documentation Center of Cambodia – is still not within grasp, and who knows if it ever will be.