The Legacy of Silence


Democratic Kampuchea was one of the worst human tragedies of the 20th century. The Khmer Rouge regime claimed nearly 2 million lives, leaving tens of thousands of widows, orphans and broken families. Millions of mines were laid by both the Khmer Rouge and government forces, which have led to thousands more deaths and disabilities since the 1980s. Although the Khmer Rouge regime ended 30 years ago, its legacy continues to affect Cambodia today.

Talking about the Khmer Rouge has been widely taboo in Cambodia since the end of the war. It can be accepted that Cambodia only learnt to breathe again at the expense of silence and the will to forget, which has in turn had detrimental effects on the rebuilding of its society in the aftermath of war. Physical and mental disability is a prominent symbol of the legacy of war in Cambodia. Those who visibly bear the wounds of war have become an unintentional reminder of the country’s unbearable past, and are amongst the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in Cambodia. Visible disabilities have become a social stigma synonymous of exclusion on all levels of society and daily life.

Through developments in justice and education, the process of reconciliation in Cambodia has recently begun to solidify, and with it come the endless possibilities of rebuilding. This body of work is an attempt to define Cambodia’s past in terms that are acceptable for its victims and future generations, through the eyes of those who are striving to rebuild their communities and identity in the aftermath of war. Cambodia is filled with untold stories of overcoming that bear testament to the willingness and efforts of a society to reconcile itself. An open-ended multidisciplinary essay, ‘The Legacy of Silence’ seeks to foster social reintegration, coexistence, and ultimately to contribute to the dialogue of reconciliation in Cambodia.


The Cambodian People's Lament

The Cambodian People’s lament


Is like a turtle dove


That is tossed in a storm. 


Caught in the rain and thunder


Left in the terrible cold


Its eyes


Filled with sorrow. 


Sath Bunrith, Cambodian Poet

Borin Nim bears the wounds of a war that happened before she was born. She is not familiar with the Khmer Rouge, but she is with its legacy. 

Borin’s rehabilitation after her accident was long and painful. She faced a considerable amount of adversity from her community and nearby villages. 

Once she regained her strength, she learned to weave and began working for a local handicraft shop. Borin works with other girls and young women who have similar impairments, giving them a chance at a normal life regardless of disability. 

Borin Nim, 26, from Ta Trav Village, Siem Reap,  Landmine Survivor

Borin Nim, 26, from Ta Trav Village, Siem Reap

Landmine Survivor

Huy Chhean, from Pongro Village, Siem Reap

Child Soldier

Like countless children who were ripped from their families and forcibly  drafted by the Khmer Rouge regime, Huy Chhean returned to his village after the war, having lost not only his family, but also his innocence.



Despite his physical impairments, Huy Chhean became a defining figure in the rebuilding of his village and the spirit of his community.


He stands today as the chief of Pongro Village. 


Huy Chhean, from Pongro Village, Siem Reap. Child Soldier.

Lon Pon, 45, from Pongro Village, Siem Reap

Child Soldier


The Duty of Memory

Sem Paep was drafted as a foot soldier for the government forces during the Khmer Rouge regime.



During an army operation to capture a Khmer Rouge base, a soldier marching in front of him stepped on a landmine. The mine explosion left Sem Paep blind, but he continued working as  a soldier until the end of the war.



Once peace was restored, he was able to go back to his village with his wife and family. Since his return, his impairment became a disability, unable find work and a means to provide for his wife and 4 young children,



Sem Paep is forced to beg in the local markets to subsist. 

His disability has affected his 7 year old daughter, who has stopped going to school to accompany him everywhere and be his eyes.

Sem Paep, 49, from the former province of Phnom Penh, Genocide Survivor

I wade through solitude


to the cottage where we used to


gather to drink rice wine,


enjoying false peace.



I sit under the same palm-leaf roof,


gaze at your chairs


but see no one,


hear only your laughs.



        U Sam Oeur, Cambodian Poet




Sophea Mam, from Samlout, Genocide Survivor.

Panh Mon, from Pongro Village, Siem Reap

Child Soldier


The memories. 


Lots of memories. 


They keep coming back as the


spokes of a turning wheel. 


Always the same. 


As the spokes of a turning wheel. 


The wheel turns in my head. 



            U Sam Oeur, Cambodian Poet



Taem Ham,47,  Preah Dak, Genocide Survivor


Journey to Reconciliation


'I lost my leg doing slave work for Angkar during Democratic Kampuchea.  Angkar killed my parents, and my younger brother and sisters died of famine and poisoning. I am haunted by their spirits, because they are not at peace. The gohsts wander around my dreams, I cannot sleep, a cannot close my eyes. I was 12 years old.



Today I am being fitted for a prosthetic leg for the first time. I am grateful because now I will be able to work in the field, and I can mean something in my village.'

Chhoen Phan, 46,  from O’toteung Village, Siem Reap, Child Slave

Meas Than, 41, from Kompong Chnnang

Landmine Survivor

Aanmin, 93, from Pongro Village, Siem Reap

Genocide Survivor


Chum Mey is one of the 12 people who survived Tuol Sleng Prison, also known as S21, the most notorious regime prison, torture and mass murder site in the country. 



Chum Mey was a leading witness in the first trial of a senior Khmer Rouge figure, Kaing Guek Eav or Comrade Duch. Duch was the head of Tuol Sleng, were as many as 17,000 men, women and children were detained and then killed.



Chum Mey’s testimony could perhaps help bring them a degree of long-delayed justice and national reconciliation.



Chum Mey, 84,  from Prey Veng, S21 Survivor



'This is me, here on the left. I remember this day, but i do not remmeber this photo being taken. It was the day the Vietnamese army broke into S21 and evacuated everyone that was left. I do not remember many details, because I was young.



My mother, brother and I were taken to S21 with other women and children. When we arrived, I recall my mother being very ill. I watched as the guards beat my mother until she lost consciousness. When she collapsed, the guards pulled her up by the hair, beat her more and then photographed her. I was terrified. 



The last time I saw my mother, she was standing by the window of the cell where she was detained, her hands crawling in between the bars. '



Norng Champhal, 48,  from Kompong Speu, S21 Child Survivor


I try to forgive, 


I long to forgive.

But we should never forget.

When we forget it is as if we lost parents, children, brothers, sisters,

Aunts, uncles.

For nothing. 

Ok Kork, Cambodian Poet

Poetry from 

Sam Ou Oeur's Sacred Vows

Sath Bun Rith's Cambodian People's Lament

Ok Kork's Could We Ever Forget


Images and Words Marta Tucci