By Kendra Bobowick
“I arrived in Cambodia with a sense that tribunals and proceeding with criminal cases against the people who led the Khmer Rouge would be a pathway for getting justice… but so many people I’ve met talk about different reasons that they have decided to forgive the Khmer Rouge — namely, that everyone had suffered at some point. And that to move forward, they need to forgive the past rather than carrying hatred and vengeance in their hearts.” — Newtown native Nikki Singer in Cambodia, November 15.
Newtown High School 2002 graduate Nikki Singer’s current life and work are immersed in the opening of a new gallery devoted to Cambodian recovery from a Communist party reign from 1975 to 1979. In that small stretch of time, several million people died. A quick Google search for Cambodia brings readers immediately to the result: Cambodian genocide. Viewing information about the mass-deaths brings readers to the name Khmer Rouge, the regime responsible for the genocide.
Living in Cambodia for the past five years, Ms Singer has been heavily involved with, and is now director of The Cambodia Peace Gallery in Battambang, which just opened on October 23, 2018. The gallery/museum is run by the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies. She has had a hand in “all aspects of the project — coordinating renovations of the museum site (a former countryside school and community development centre), researching and designing the exhibitions, collecting archives and materials, and developing peace education programs for university students at the museum,” she said.
Ms Singer first visited Cambodia in 2009 as a social work student from Western Connecticut State University and returned in 2014 as part of a field study for her Master of Social Work at Boston College. She had an internship with the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, which runs the Peace Museum. In 2016, she took the lead on coordinating the Cambodia Peace Museum, guided by its founder Soth Plai Ngarm and other Cambodian peace activists to develop the museum.
The new museum showcases peacebuilding, post conflict recovery, and reconciliation in Cambodia following 30 years of war, during which the Khmer Rouge briefly rose, Ms Singer said. “It aims to shift the narrative of Cambodia, dominated by the Khmer Rouge period, from one of suffering and victims to one of strength, survival, and resilience.”
The museum is designed for Cambodians of all ages — “for the older generation who lived through the darkest years of the war to have a safe space to share and reconcile their experiences, to promote healing for themselves, and in families and communities,” Ms Singer said.
“For young people born after the war ended, it is a space to learn about their history” from a positive departure point — “This is how people survived and held onto hope to rebuild the country,” she said.
A Place Of Sharing
Despite a 12-hour time difference between Newtown and Cambodia, Ms Singer was able to provide information and insights to The Newtown Bee about her work.
“I have been in Cambodia for almost five years,” she said. She has plans “to stay for longer,” although she is “not sure yet what that looks like, but I imagine another five years is very possible.”
Now that the museum has opened, Ms Singer said, “Our focus will be on developing peace education programs for university students as well as programs aimed at intergeneration reconciliation — bringing together people who lived through the war period and younger people who were born after the war ended, to heal some of the community divisions that still exist and create space for sharing of stories, experiences, and what people have learned from their experiences.”
“The big next focus” of her future plan involves co-designing the educational and reconciliation programs, she said. “Another one is working with new guides to give tours of the museum, which would be university students, and another way for us to work with young people to gain a deeper understanding of the history, process of ending the war, and how they can play a role in sustaining peace in the country.”
From her time in Cambodia she said she has “learned a much deeper level of patience, and the importance of going with the flow — learning from the people I am working with instead of jumping in and trying to rush the process.”
She said, “Forgiveness, compassion, and justice are also experienced and understood differently. I arrived in Cambodia with a sense that tribunals and proceeding with criminal cases against the people who led the Khmer Rouge would be a pathway for getting justice for people who suffered under the Khmer Rouge.
“But so many people I’ve met talk about different reasons that they have decided to forgive the Khmer Rouge — namely, that everyone had suffered at some point. And that to move forward, they need to forgive the past rather than carrying hatred and vengeance in their hearts. This has really resonated with me,” she said.
She added, “In Cambodia, there are a lot of contradictions, and it can be confusing to unpack all the dynamics in a simple situation. And yet there is so much strength and resilience and a refusal to be defined by the single worst thing that happened in society that I find incredibly inspiring and humbling.”
She feels “really fortunate to be able to be here and accompany, and hopefully contribute to, the ongoing process of healing.”
Ms Singer’s father Donald Singer visited his daughter in October for the gallery opening. He said, “What an amazing experience it was to visit her for the grand opening. To hear first-hand her knowledge of the subject, the passion which she has to help the people of Cambodia to not repeat, like so many of us, the past or at least understand what took place and why.”
He is proud of his daughter, “But I can’t usually talk because I’m crying with emotion; it has been that powerful of an experience for me.”
The Peace Gallery
Visionary Soth Plai Ngarm founded The Cambodia Peace Gallery. He “wanted to make sure that future generations of Cambodians would not suffer the same as he did,” Ms Singer said. In addition to exhibits, Mr Ngarm envisioned “a living museum that would contribute to social and intergenerational reconciliation, healing, forgiveness, and compassion.”
According to a Peace Gallery Summary provided by Ms Singer, Cambodia’s peace accords were signed in 1991. With so much of the country’s population born after that time, the museum aims to educate the population about past conflicts and stress the importance of peace.
The document states, “The museum will explore more deeply the causes of conflict. While Cambodia is home to museums and memorials about the wars, especially the Khmer Rouge, it does not have a national space to celebrate approaches to peacemaking. The Peace Gallery will emphasize how Cambodia overcame decades of war, celebrating the resilience of the Cambodian spirit. By showcasing positive examples of peace, the museum will contribute to a positive nationalism where Cambodians can share pride in the successes of their country.”
The Khmer Rouge
What is Khmer Rouge? In the 1980s, the Hollywood movie The Killing Fields brought Khmer Rouge horrors to broad attention.
According to information found on wikipedia.org, The Khmer Rouge (Red Khmers) “was the name popularly given to followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) and by extension, to the regime through which the CPK ruled in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979.” Its leader was Pol Pot, and followers were generally known as Khmer Rouge.
“The Khmer Rouge army was slowly built up in the jungles of Eastern Cambodia during the late 1960s, supported by the North Vietnamese army, the Viet Cong… The Khmer Rouge won the Cambodian Civil War when in 1975, they captured the Cambodian capital and overthrew the government of the Khmer Republic.
Following their victory, the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Son Sen, and Khieu Samphan… immediately set about forcibly evacuating the country’s major cities. The regime would go on to murder hundreds of thousands of their perceived political opponents. Ultimately, the Cambodian genocide would lead to the deaths of 1.5 to 3 million people, around 25 percent of Cambodia’s population.”
The regime’s attempts at agricultural reform led to widespread famine, while complications in the supply of medicine led to the death of many thousands from treatable diseases such as malaria, according to information at Wikipedia. “The Khmer Rouge’s racist emphasis on national purity included several genocides of Cambodian minorities. Arbitrary executions and torture were carried out by its cadres against perceived subversive elements or during genocidal purges of its own ranks between 1975 and 1978.
The regime was removed from power in 1979 when Vietnam invaded Cambodia and quickly destroyed most of the Khmer Rouge’s army.”
Pol Pot was denounced by former comrades in a trial in July 1997, and he was sentenced to house arrest in his jungle home. Less than a year later, he was dead.
The United Nations helped establish a tribunal to try surviving Khmer Rouge leaders, beginning work in 2009. Only three Khmer Rouge leaders have ever been sentenced.
Kaing Guek Eav was jailed for life in 2012 for running the notorious Tuol Sleng prison.
In August 2014, Nuon Chea — considered Brother Number Two to Pol Pot — and the regime’s head of state, Khieu Samphan, were jailed for life for crimes against humanity.
In November 2018, the tribunal also found them guilty of genocide over the attempted extermination of the Cham and Vietnamese minorities. It remains the first and only genocide conviction against the Khmer Rouge.