Forgiveness over Khmer Rouge: a journey or an obligation? A Beginning of Dialogue

Editor’s Introduction:

Forgiveness is a frequent topic of discussion among Friends these days. For American Quakers, most of whom live in relatively comfortable circumstances, the issue is typically posed in personal terms: as a means of coping with lingering grievances, failed relationships, family trauma; in broader social contexts, it might involve experiences of group injustices based on poverty, race, gender.

But what about forgiveness in a larger context – say, a genocidal holocaust? And what if such situations involved crossing the boundaries of major religions? Is “forgiveness” a universal concept or aspiration? Is it always possible, or even desirable?

All these queries were bundled concisely into the interview below, which came to hand in a book-length report, A World of Torture, published early this year by ACAT-France. ACAT is the Association of Christians for the Abolition of Torture, based in Paris. Claire Ly, as described here, is a Cambodian who managed to survive the loss of many family members, extended torture and internal exile, at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Raised a Buddhist and steeped in its traditions and covictions, she later converted to Christianity.

Now Claire Ly writes and works to bring the two traditions, Christianity and Buddhism, into conversation, as part of her own ongoing process of coming to terms with her experiences. This encounter, it seemed to me, could bring important new perspectives to “forgiveness work” and thought among in particular, Friends. I sought permission from ACAT-France to reprint it here, which was graciously permitted.

Having no expertise in Buddhism, I sought out an American Quaker who is highly-prepared to pursue this dialogue: Sallie King, who has made a career of Buddhist-Christian scholarship, conversations and peace work. Sallie eagerly accepted the invitation, and the result is, I hope, the beginning of a broader conversation, among Friends, and beyond our borders, religious and territorial.

Interview with Claire Ly,
writer, philosopher and lecturer at the
Institut de Sciences et Theologie des Religions (ISTR)

[ACAT Introduction] 17 April 1975: Having fought a civil war for five years against the authoritarian and pro-American regime of Marshall Lon Nol, who came to power following a coup d’Etat, the Cambodian communists (Khmer Rouge) entered the capital Phnom Penh, seized power and established Democratic Kampuchea. They immediately began to implement a policy of terror targeting all symbols of “Western decadence”, executing intellectuals, members of the bourgeoisie, notables, those with links to the former government and anyone who opposed them, by emptying towns and cities of their residents. In just four years, 2 million people, almost a quarter of the country’s population, died as part of the regime’s efforts to purify society. Claire Ly, like most urban dwellers, was sent to a labour camp in the countryside. She managed to survive but lost almost her entire family at the beginning of the bloody revolution. Formerly a Buddhist, she converted to Catholicism. Here, she looks back on her past and the notion of forgiveness, in conversation with Jesus Asurmendi, director of the ACAT France Theology Commission.

Claire Ly

Jesus Asurmendi: How did you survive when the Khmer Rouge came to power?

Claire Ly: As soon as they entered the capital, they shot anyone who had held a position of responsibility before they seized power. My father, who was a businessman, my husband, who was a bank manager, my older brother, who was a member of Parliament, and my younger brother, who was a businessman and married to a French woman seen as an imperialist, were all killed. I was teaching philosophy at the time and was in charge of overseeing the translation of French schoolbooks within the Education Ministry; what saved me was my status as a woman. I disguised my professional identity and passed myself off as an uneducated member of the bourgeoisie, whose only role in life was to marry a man from a similar background, so the Khmer Rouge sent me to the countryside to purify myself by growing rice, digging canals and building dams in a re-education and labour camp.

J. A.: Were you subjected to ill-treatment and torture there?

C. L.: I suffered extreme levels of psychological torture above all. I was two months pregnant when my three-year-old son and I were sent to the camp, and not only was I allowed to breastfeed my son, but I also had to breastfeed the other detainees’ children and vice versa. We all had to take on a role as mother of all of the State’s children under the new society that the Khmer Rouge wanted to build. We were also deprived of sleep and food, we used to get up as the sun rose at 4 am, and we were only entitled to one bowl of rice per day. Hunger is a powerful weapon, you know, which can very quickly encourage you to speak out against others. People will say anything to get something to eat. What’s more, we never knew what task they would give us next, we obeyed orders, it was that simple. If you wanted to survive, you didn’t ask “why?” or “how?”, you couldn’t ask any questions. Angkar, the umbrella organisation of the Khmer Rouge, did our thinking for us.

By implementing their hate policy against urban dwellers, who were presented to peasants as impure citizens and even as collaborators of the West, by pitting one class against another, the Khmer Rouge broke down existing social links and robbed us of our identity. We completely lost our bearings, it was as if we were in a foreign land when we arrived in the countryside, we had lost everything, all we had was a shirt and some trousers to work in, while the peasants were allowed to keep almost everything they had.

J. A.: Did your Buddhist faith allow you to maintain your morale despite the nightmare you had to endure in the camp?

C. L.: On the contrary, I was consumed by anger and hatred, which are described as “poisons” in the teachings of the Buddha, as well as the desire for revenge, and I was incapable of behaving like a good person in the Buddhist tradition, someone who refuses to engage in violence and does not respond to aggression but instead leaves it to one side. Such a person would have been able to step back from the atrocities being committed by the Khmer Rouge. The Buddha actually spoke about such weakness and suggested a way out: you build what we call a “mental object” that does not exist and use it to bear all of the bad feelings that are crushing you. It’s what modern psychology calls the scapegoat. So I turned toward a mental object that I called simply the “God of the Westerners.” I chose it because it was not my own, it was easier to insult someone else’s God all day long, but also because as a teacher of philosophy, I felt that the West was responsible for the wars in Indochina and Vietnam. Similarly, the ideology of the Khmer Rouge did not develop in Southeast Asia but instead came from Marxism, a product of the Judaeo-Christian culture.

After two years, in 1977, I had a very powerful spiritual experience. I realised that the God of the Westerners was not only my mental punching bag, but that he also accompanied me in my hatred and by anger. I felt his presence, I felt that he was listening to me although I couldn’t speak about it. I had to encounter the Gospel before I could put my experience into words. This whole episode happened in silence, but a silence that was inhabited like that of a mother at the bedside of her sick child.

The logic of Buddhism immediately caught up with me, telling me that it was no more than an illusion, that my mind was playing tricks with me and causing me to fantasise because of the hunger and lack of sleep, but that didn’t change what I had just experienced.

The nightmare wasn’t over yet, however. It continued until I was released from the camp in January 1979, but during the first two years I spent there, I was convinced that I was the only one suffering and that only my loved ones had been executed. I was obsessed with myself, I couldn’t see the distress of others. This new spiritual experience allowed me to reconnect socially, it developed in me a fraternal compassion for the hardship of my people. It allowed me, as a Buddhist, to refer to “my brothers and sisters in suffering”. I started to become friendlier and speak to others, I was no longer locked into my own world. That is the true miracle of the Gospel.

J. A.: When did you convert to Catholicism?

C. L.: When I was released in 1979, I stayed in Cambodia to look for my loved ones, hoping that maybe they had not died as I had been told. Then I fled the violence between the Vietnamese troops and the guerilla movement, seeking refuge in a camp in Thailand. In 1980 I arrived in Ales, in France, where a community of Protestants and Catholics welcomed me in. One day I read the Gospel. It was like an encounter. It was the character of Jesus of Nazareth that drew me in. When we read something, we are affected by what we carry around with us, and I was carrying around a sense of wounded pride. There was a disconnect in my image: I saw myself as an intellectual who had arrived in the land of human rights, where I was equal to French citizens, but I was seen as no more than a transparent political refugee with no identity, “an object of charity”. So I found common ground with Jesus of Nazareth, a wanderer like me. But wandering freely, unable to be labeled by family, religious figures or politicians.

Once a Buddhist, I began to listen to Jesus of Nazareth. When I return to Cambodia, Buddhists often ask me what I find in Jesus that the Buddha does not offer. I explain to them that in the Buddhist tradition, even though the Buddha is depicted as a man and not a God, he is presented as a rounded and perfect being who mastered everything in a state of total serenity, who never cried and never became angry. When I read in the Gospel about Jesus becoming angry and crying, I saw him as a master more within my reach. The humanism of the Buddha prepared me to recognise the humanity of Jesus. It was not Jesus our Lord who drew me in, but Jesus the man, to whom I felt closer. And then in 1983, I asked to be baptised.

J. A.: How do you explain the conversion to Catholicism of many senior Khmer Rouge figures?

C. L.: I wouldn’t presume to judge the conversion of others. Perhaps they did it sincerely, I just don’t know. What I denounce is the evangelists, mainly from South Korea, who came to tell them that God would erase their sins and offered them the most beautiful reward in the Christian faith as if it was a commodity. I can’t accept that, I don’t want to be a disciple of Christ alongside those people.

J. A.: As a Catholic, what is your understanding of forgiveness, a key concept in Christianity?

C. L.: First I would say that forgiveness must be dissociated from other concepts such as amnesty, regret, prescription or apology. I understand forgiveness as a force for good, as a pure and selfless act that stands above everything and comes from someone greater than me. Forgiveness is not mine to give, it is not something I can distribute to whomever I wish, as I wish, it is a gift that one must first receive before granting it to another, an act of grace that is accorded to us at the end of a long spiritual journey, one that requires us to rework the past and engage with mourning. Focusing on the past is a duty of intellect that is owed to victims, who wonder about the meaning of all the violence that is unleashed, why they have had to endure it and what they did to deserve it. This duty is exercised as one recounts the past, for oneself and for others, it involves critically drawing on the past and finding the right words, those that can heal wounds, those that create a welcoming and hospitable space for others. Words that the other can understand, words which emerge from the wound itself and transform our painful contractions into life impulses.

In the face of Evil, we all have the duty to try and understand. This is not about explaining or forgiving everything, it is about engaging with reason beyond our passions. It is about focusing on mourning, detaching ourselves so that we may move towards a promise, towards a future that can be built together.

Christian forgiveness is a spiritual path that requires a shift away from self-interest, it is a facet of existence: it is something to be experienced rather than explained or applied automatically. In order to be sacramental, forgiveness must first be existential.

J.A.: What is your own position on forgiveness?

C. L.: I haven’t really tried to forgive the Khmer Rouge yet. I live my life in the Catholic Church, but I feel free not to follow all of its precepts to the letter. Forgiveness is not a commandment or an obligation that is imposed from the outside. No institution can order someone to forgive another.

I first began to truly reflect on forgiveness in 2004, when I returned to Cambodia with my daughter, who never met her father. We returned to the very site where our loved ones were shot dead. We were accompanied by Buddhist friends, who immediately lit incense sticks and began to recite the teachings of the Buddha on non-violence. We listened to them carefully and afterwards decided to recite the “Our Father”, the prayer of Christ’s disciples. The words “Our Father, forgive us our trespasses” made us think. We asked ourselves if, standing on the site where 300 people had perished, we could forgive the Khmer Rouge on behalf of the victims. We came to the conclusion that we weren’t in a position to do so.

J. A.: But you yourself are a victim of the Khmer Rouge?

C. L.: Yes, but others suffered much more than me. I find it a little bit presumptuous to claim to be more of a victim than those who died without ever being given the chance to speak. Francois Roux, the French lawyer who defended Duch at the International Criminal Court, which tried the Khmer Rouge, asked to meet me in Phnom Penh. [NOTE: Kaing Guek Eav, known as “Duch,” was commander of the top-secret Tuol Sleng prison. He has admitted to overseeing the torture of prisoners before sending them to death at the “killing fields” and is serving a life sentence.]

He wanted my opinion on the fact that Duch, having converted to Christianity, intended to ask for forgiveness for his crimes. My daughter and I thought about it, we felt that our country had been destroyed by the genocide and we felt devastated by the disastrous state in which it was left. We were incapable of saying in truth that we had forgiven the Khmer Rouge. So as disciples of Christ, we turned to Jesus on the cross. Jesus did not say: “I forgive them”, but rather “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”. My daughter and I turned to the Father and told Him in total confidence of our weakness, our inability to forgive. We placed ourselves in His hands and entrusted Him with all those who made Cambodia suffer.

Forgiveness is difficult because it asks me as a Christian to take the Lord’s cross seriously and to face the Evil that destroys humans, but it is not impossible because in each of us resides a surplus of goodness that the philosopher Paul Ricoeur calls “capable man”. By following the necessary spiritual journey, perhaps one day, with the passage of time, I will be able to say that I have forgiven the Khmer Rouge.

What I like so much about the work of Paul Ricoeur is that he refers to forgiveness as a voice that is silent but not mute. It is silent because it claims nothing, but it is not mute because it has the capacity of speech. When this silent, capable voice is at work, it restores our consideration for others and allows Christians to believe that they are worth more than their acts.

J. A.: Would you be more willing to forgive if the culprits recognised their actions?

C. L.: Forgiveness is unconditional and comes free of charge. You can forgive someone’s actions without them asking for forgiveness. And conversely, a request for forgiveness need not always be granted. I also think that crimes against humanity, i.e. crimes which are designed to attack the integrity of man, are unforgivable; rather than any human institution, one must look to God Himself, who was just as deeply hurt by these events as me. Otherwise, I feel it would be an act of imposture.

J. A.: Yet forgiveness can help us to rebuild our lives after we endure suffering.

C. L.: Yes, but I wouldn’t force myself to forgive just so I could feel better? Some time ago I taught a class at the Royal University of Phnom Penh to students aged 25 to 30. At the end of the class, one of them came to see me and said: “When I listen to you I see your wounds, which have not gone away, but what is great is that you allow us to touch them, and by doing so we gain the strength to look at our own wounds”. As a Christian, I was reminded of the resuscitated man who said to Thomas: “Reach out your hand and put it into my side”. I have not completely got over the trauma that the Khmer Rouge inflicted upon me, but I am able to name it and share it. Life resumes as we accept the scars of the past little by little.

J.A.: At the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, you had the opportunity to denounce the camp leader who used to attack you, but you refused. For what reason, other than that you had forgiven her?

C. L.: I hated that woman, who used to send us out to pick up excrement and regularly subjected us to lashes of the whip when we failed to show enough enthusiasm in carrying out our tasks. But when the time came to denounce her, I saw in her eyes the same fear that I had felt for four years, the fear of dying, and for a moment I recognised her as a human being. The gaze of another is arresting. There is a reason why people are blind-folded before being shot dead.

J. A.: You were steeped in Buddhism for much of your life. Was the question of forgiveness also part of that spiritual path?

C. L.: For me, the concept of forgiveness as understood in Christianity is founded on the Abrahamic tradition and presupposes the existence of a personal and merciful God. That is not a feature of Buddhism, which does not refer to God but rather to the ultimate truth and awakening. Indeed, the word “forgiveness” has no exact equivalent in my native language: when someone becomes aware they have injured another, they ask them “not to retain the transgression”.

This does not mean that Buddhists are incapable of opening up to the act of forgiveness. They share the Hindus’ primary belief in what is called the law of karma, a Sanskrit word which refers to actions and their consequences. All of our acts, whether good or bad, produce good or bad effects which follow us like our shadow. It is a law of causality, like a physical law. So the average Khmer does not believe in impunity, since all bad actions eventually catch up with us.

The Khmer Rouge used the law of karma as an instrument, they used the notion of retribution to claim that their victims deserved their punishment, that they were suffering the consequences of earlier bad actions. It was terrifying, they made the victims responsible for their own deaths. There were no longer any criminals or torturers. If everything is justified by karma, there can no longer be any injustice. Now that I am a Christian, when I hear Christians say “God is punishing you” or “it is because of God’s will that you have been punished”, I cannot accept it, it’s the same as the Khmer Rouge discourse, which used religion to explain Evil, even though it is something that remains enigmatic. As soon as you start to explain Evil, I think you show contempt for your victims.

The other fundamental conviction of Buddhism relates to the responsibility of human beings. To recognise that humans are responsible for what happens to them is to recognise the greatness of human beings, something that is all too often forgotten. Responsibility is not given to just anyone, not even divine beings. When an appalling act is committed, such as the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, we have a responsibility not to accept it, to “cut off” the transgression. That is non-violence. It is a moral requirement of Buddhism to do everything possible to alleviate the disastrous effects of bad actions.

This raises a question for Buddhists: when violence occurs on a massive scale, when it is committed as part of a State system, what of my responsibility to “cut off” such actions? What must we do when we are overwhelmed and no longer have the space necessary to withdraw? Faced with this dilemma, Buddhists who have not travelled far on their spiritual path can console themselves with the idea that those responsible will be punished sooner or later, they can avoid the tiring process of reflection and let karma take over. More advanced Buddhists will engage what are known as the four incommen-surable sentiments: benevolence, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity, sentiments that the Khmer Rouge should have felt for their victims in an effort to understand the other. To do this, one must believe not only in individual karma but also collective karma.

J. A: In the West, we tend to think of karma as a purely personal concept.

C.L.: No, it includes a dimension which in the West is expressed in what we call geopolitical and social causes. That was the mistake of the International Criminal Court in confining itself to the period between 1975 and 1979 rather than looking at the collective factors which overlapped and produced the Khmer Rouge tragedy. First, the country was suffering from extreme levels of social injustice, as the wealthy seized its riches and its resources, in effect preserving the hatred that peasants felt towards urban dwellers. King Norodom Sihanouk also had individual responsibility as he never allowed the emergence of any real political opposition. Then there was the responsibility of the international community, as I mentioned earlier, with regard to the Vietnam War and the spread of Communist ideology.

This question of ideology is crucial. Perhaps I am overly influenced by the Buddhist tradition, but I am convinced that people do not behave badly with bad intentions, but rather with good intentions. Of course there is no way to defend the Khmer Rouge, but they really did believe in the new society that they wanted to build. Every time there is a shift towards a singular ideology that will not countenance any criticism, the outcome is disastrous.

Indeed, that is what is interesting about the ICC, which some Cambodians feel is a parody of justice and serves only to flatter the good conscience of Westerners: for the first time, the Communist system was put on trial. As a priority, the tribunal should have created a forum in which the events involving the Khmer Rouge could have been explained in economic, sociological, geopolitical and even spiritual terms, a forum in which the victims and their torturers could later evolve side-by-side, in the “here and now”. That is what I have always recommended, along with a few other Khmer intellectuals.

J. A.: But it is not the role of the ICC to ensure reconciliation.

Claire Ly Book Cover: "Back from Hell"

“Back From Hell,” by Claire Ly

C. L.: That’s just it. I think that the Khmers raised an important issue for the ICC and the wider international community: that of the meaning of justice. If justice is about no more than judging, convicting and punishing, then we are not interested. Of course sanctions are required when the rule of law is violated, and impunity can not be allowed to remain a daily reality, but justice should not stop there, it must introduce the possibility of a shared future after the Khmer Rouge and the collective trauma they caused, without which we don’t know in which direction to turn. We must talk and exchange views, name and recognise bad actions, analyse and understand their causes, and share and confront our pain. To rework the past and engage with mourning, as I have said, is the duty of all witnesses towards Cambodia’s younger generations. It allows us to move beyond all feelings of guilt and any victimisation complex so that we may rebuild our lives as a people and as a country. Isn’t the ultimate aim of justice to help us learn to live together and to renew social links when they are severed by mistrust and hatred of the other?

Interview conducted with the help of Olivia Moulin.

The full text of A World of Torture, in English, can be downloaded here:

For more about ACAT-France, their website is:
(The site is in French, but Google translates it quickly)

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