Week 542 – 2008-01-13: No reconciliation without remembrance
The Mirror, Vol. 12, No. 542
The past year brought finally the beginning of the work of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia – the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. It is only natural that 7 January 2008 – a national holiday to remember the end of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979 – got more attention than in former years. But this attention has always been controversial.
The Cambodian People’s Party considered and considers this date as the beginning of a welcome new phase of history, after a time when about a fifth or a quarter of the population lost their lives – nobody will ever be able to establish the correct figures.
The president of the Cambodian People’s Party confirmed their position again some days ago at a commemorative meeting: that the cooperation of Cambodian people and of Vietnamese troops led to the attack and finally the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime.
Other sectors of society have put much more emphasis on considering January 1979 as the beginning of 10 years of Vietnamese presence in Cambodia – pointing mainly to negative aspects of this time. Among the Cambodian population in the border camps at the Thai border, many testified their conviction that they probably would not have survived without the Vietnamese intervention; other political movements acted parallel with the Khmer Rouge faction – some observers called it “battlefield cooperation” – against the new political structures in Cambodia.
The fact that for the first time the leader of the opposition party now reportedly “welcomed the 7 January as a holiday, when Cambodian people’s lives were saved and the country was liberated from the black-clad regime of mass killings,” received wide attention in the media. Such comments were not always focused on the historical remembrance of this day, but some commentators claimed that the newly expressed position reflects only present political interests of the leader of this party.
It is appropriate to add here, however, that this expression of welcome was a qualified, restricted one, as one paper wrote: “Though Mr. Sam Rainsy, the president of the opposition party of Cambodia, recognized the importance of the 7 January 1979, he also considered the 7 January 1979 to be the day when a foreign country invaded Cambodia. He said, ‘If they entered to free us and then they would have gone back home, we would be grateful to them. But they overthrew the Khmer Rouge regime and then they continued to control Cambodia. This was not good.’ He explained that 7 January 1979 also made Cambodia lose its independence and sovereignty, and it was controlled by Vietnamese troops.”
I am a German citizen who had to come to an understanding and evaluation of Germany’s historical point of a new beginning with the end of the Second World War. Though any comparison of different historical situations has problems, I dare to state some facts of our history and how we dealt with it.
In May 1985, 40 years after the end of the Second World War in Europe, Richard von Weizsacker, at that time the president of West Germany – the Federaal Republic of Germany – spoke of the danger of not facing but forgetting and distorting history, and especially of the danger of disregarding that many German citizens had committed crimes. “There is no such thing as the guilt or innocence of an entire nation. Guilt is, like innocence, not collective but personal. There is discovered or concealed individual guilt. There is guilt which people acknowledge or deny… All of us, whether guilty or not, whether young or old, must accept the past. We are all affected by the consequences and liable for it… We Germans must look the truth straight in the eye – without embellishment and without distortion… There can be no reconciliation without remembrance.”
In his speech in the West German parliament during the ceremony commemorating the 40th anniversary of the end of war in Europe, he said:
“Many nations are today commemorating the date on which World War II ended in Europe. Every nation is doing so with different feelings, depending on its fate. Be it victory or defeat, liberation from injustice and alien rule or transition to new dependence, division, new alliances, vast shifts of power – 8 May 1945 is a date of decisive historical importance for Europe…
For us, the 8th of May is above all a date to remember what people had to suffer. It is also a date to reflect on the course taken by our history. The greater honesty we show in commemorating this day, the freer we are to face the consequences with due responsibility…
For us Germans, 8 May is not a day of celebration. Those who actually witnessed that day in 1945 think back on highly personal and hence highly different experiences. Some returned home, others lost their homes. Some were liberated, whilst for others it was the start of captivity.
Some Germans felt bitterness about their shattered illusions, whilst others were grateful for the gift of a new start. It was difficult to find one’s bearings straight away. Uncertainty prevailed throughout the country. The military capitulation was unconditional, placing our destiny in the hands of our enemies…
Yet with every day something became clearer, and this must be stated on behalf of all of us today: the 8th of May was a day of liberation. It liberated all of us from the inhumanity and tyranny of the National-Socialist (Nazi) regime.”
Of course, that day was also the beginning of the military presence of the Allied Forces in Germany who had succeeded to defeat the tyrannical Nazi regime. The Allied Forces stayed in Germany for much longer than the 10 years of Vietnamese presence in Cambodia. There was no way to say that a new Germany could have been reconstructed if those who had entered and liberated Germany would have quickly gone back home.
The Khmer Rouge Tribunal has begun – but it has really only just begun. The new year will probably bring many challenges for society – to deal with the realities, dynamics, and responsibilities inherited from the years 1975 to 1979, as well as from the years before and after, as we had to do also in Germany. So far, there are not many records of dealing with the past, especially no such detailed ones as the German president had shared. No wonder, that his speech received a broad response not only in Germany itself – it was also translated and publicly discussed in neighboring countries in Europe. Furthermore, it was translated into Japanese and into Korean – and was used as reference to deal with the difficult historical heritage burdening the relations of these two countries. Maybe the considerations in this speech by the former German president can also help the necessary discussions in Cambodia.
Source of the full text of the speech: