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Brothers in history: Scars of tragedy in Burma and Cambodia

Burma continues to suffer from a conflict that has been described as the longest-running civil war in contemporary history.

While economic and political incentives certainly play a role in the conflict, it is also, without a doubt, driven by difference. Difference can take many forms. Some of mankind’s most horrendous conflicts and instances of mass atrocities were/are predicated on ethnic, national and religious differences.

But are people really different? Our universal humanity stands out before all differences. So when we look to a people in a neighboring country, province, village or house, although there are many differences we can list, there are just as many (and more) similarities as a result of our shared humanity. It is a lesson that post-conflict countries learn the hard way. Cambodia has much to teach Burma’s government and people.

From 1970 and until the surrender of the last Khmer Rouge stronghold in 1998, Cambodia was one of the most volatile and war-torn regions in the world. The country suffered from social turmoil and war since the 1960s (and arguably earlier). And when the communist Khmer Rouge captured the country in 1975, they exploited national, ethnic, and religious differences in their campaign to transform the country. Millions of Cambodians suffered or perished. Survivors today, as well as the offspring of people who suffered and died, continue to harbour animosity for what happened. But with time and effort, Cambodia has made significant strides toward national healing, memory, and justice. The journey was hardly easy, let alone without error, which is why Burma should look to Cambodia not only for identifying solutions to ongoing problems, but also for lessons learned.

I am close to Burma, or Myanmar, both in terms of ethnicity as well as background. As a Khmer, I am linked to the Mon ethnic group in our history. I grew up with this ethnic identity, being reminded of such by my family. I also felt a strong affinity for the country when I visited—as if I was re-connecting with my roots. I can imagine that I am not unique among other Cambodians who visited Burma when I asked myself, “Do I look like a Mon person in Burma?” And I do.

Brothers in arms: Former political prisoners Youk Chhang (right) with 88 Generation’s Chit Min Lay. (PHOTO: Sirik Savina, Director Museum of Memory)
Brothers in arms: Former political prisoners Youk Chhang (right) with 88 Generation’s Chit Min Lay. (PHOTO: Sirik Savina, Director Museum of Memory)

Many Cambodians and Burmese would be surprised by how much they share in experience as well as culture. Both countries have had refugee populations in Thailand. It was in Thailand that I met my first Burmese friend, Maung Chung. We both shared so much in common that we could have been siblings. And like brothers in history, Cambodia and Burma have also shared in the misery of war, violence and oppression.

During the Khmer Rouge period, I was put in prison at the age of 15 and one of my most painful experiences was the memory of being severely beaten by Khmer Rouge security guards during this time. I believed my mother was in the crowd for this ‘Communist people’s court’, and I believed she watched me during this horrible experience. It pained me to think that while being torturing by the Khmer Rouge security guards, my mother chose not to come out and protect or at least beg forgiveness for me. The ‘crimes’ I committed may have seemed trivial, yet at the time they were seen by the Khmer Rouge to deserve swift punishment by death. I was caught picking mushrooms to feed my sister. She was pregnant at the time and consequently, lacking adequate food, she suffered from horrible starvation. Without permission from the revolutionary commander, I tried to obtain some mushrooms from the rice field for her. While I was angry with the Khmer Rouge security guards for beating me, I was also angry with my own mother. Thirty-five years later my mother told me that she was not among the crowd. She said she knew I was beaten up and taken away to a prison nearby, but she only arrived at the crime site after the incident.

While the experience occurred nearly 35 years ago, it continues to linger as a spot in our family relations—producing great emotion and tension. Even though many Cambodians survived the genocide, the experiences continue to impact families, communities and the country in unspoken and often indirect ways. Sometimes the wounds that heal on the inside are far more grievous than the ones on the outside. While 35 years may have covered over Cambodia’s physical scars, the internal and intangible scars are the ones that bear the most intense impacts on a society’s struggle to move forward.

I’ve met many wonderful people such as Chit Min Lay in Burma over the years, and I have seen these scars as well. Locked away for ‘political crimes’, many people spent the best years of their life in prison. Some suffered torture and physical wounds that speak to their intense suffering; however, it is the internal scars that bear the greatest pain on the individual and society. Many former prisoners struggle with reconnecting with their families. Lives were shattered, and family relations were often destroyed.

Likewise, ethnic and religious strife continues in Burma. Many people continue to suffer from discrimination, oppression, and the persistent threat of violence solely on the basis of their ethnic, national, or religious difference. Like Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, the concept of difference continues to overshadow our shared humanity. There is no excuse.


Difference does not have to lead to an “us versus them” mentality; rather it should compel an appreciation for diversity, which is a critical component to all thriving democracies. It is the life force of modern civilisation. Burma will never move forward as a country until it recognises that the vitality and future of its country is directly tied to the extent to which it is able to harness the full participation of its entire population. Countries that ignore (or in many cases, trample) their minorities are, in the least, trading the full potential for their country in exchange for a perceived increase in the security of the majority (or elite). In the worst, they are gambling the future of their country.

While Cambodia has made significant strides in its post-conflict development, it has also made many mistakes that other countries should learn from. It has taken Cambodia over 35 years since the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime to come to grips with the horrors of its history. While the prison walls built by the Khmer Rouge have been weathered by time and development, sometimes the greatest walls are not the physical ones. It is the walls that exist in our mind, built by years of oppression, discrimination, fear, violence, and atrocity that demand our utmost attention. The longer a country waits in confronting these walls, the greater the effort required to surmount them. Cambodia is a lesson in history, but it is hardly alone. The Middle East, Africa, and even the United States stand as examples of the difficult struggle that arises when countries fail to confront their problems (or rather differences).

Burma stands at an opportune time to move forward and learn from Cambodia’s experiences. As brothers in history, Burma and Cambodia have much to learn from each other, and Burma does not have to repeat its brother’s long struggle.


Youk Chhang is the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia. He has authored several articles and book chapters on Cambodia’s quest for memory and justice, and is the co-editor of Cambodia’s Hidden Scars: Trauma Psychology in the Wake of the Khmer Rouge (2011). He was named one of TIME magazine’s “60 Asian heroes” in 2006, and one of the “Time 100” most influential people in the world in 2007 for his stand against impunity in Cambodia and elsewhere.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s, and do not reflect DVB editorial policy.



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