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Genocide memory and commemoration in Rwanda and Cambodia: combating government sanctioned and silenced memory (part 2 of 2)

By Zahava Moerdler 

Collective memory is critical to the way society shapes its perceptions of the world and the way it enforces certain value systems. However, according to Katherine Conway, a scholar on transitional justice, “The government and social institutions control much of the collective memory, limiting discussions of ethnicity and events that took place outside of the specific time frame considered in the official memory.” When governments construct and control collective memory, they may simultaneously hinder the process of healing. As seen in the trajectory of Holocaust memory, the suppression of certain narratives will only allow dominant narratives space in public discourse and in the process of reconciliation. Governments must play active roles in embracing all narratives of survival in order to facilitate the healing process in post-conflict regions. Stifling forms of memory will not only inhibit justice and reconciliation, but it may also serve alternative governmental goals. What tools are available to survivors of the genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia to shift the focus of their respective memory narratives?


Modern day Rwanda represents a complicated memory narrative. On the one hand, since the genocide, a Tutsi-controlled government has been in power and has worked to create perceived forms of reconciliation. On the other hand, Rwanda “experienced failed memory through the experience of chosen amnesia, whereby not only was the society encouraged by the government to forget but forgetting was also employed by the general population as a strategy to cope with their daily lives,” writes scholar Tamara Hinan in an article on collective memory and reconciliation. The government has both promoted a narrative of forgetting ethnic differences in an effort to unite a fragmented country and deemphasized ethnicity in order to legitimize Tutsi minority control. Thus, the government has actively engaged in memory work in order to promote certain narratives over others.

As a result of this, communities within Rwanda are suspicious of efforts to recreate or highlight new collective narratives and restore social balance. Even with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and the gacaca court system, efforts to expand narratives have been met with limited success. Restorative justice is essential for societies to move past the events of conflict and towards peace. However, justice initiatives must be domestic if they are to be successful because the population will more likely accept bottom-up changes rather than top-down impositions. In the aftermath of the genocide, the Rwandan judicial system was in shambles, with only 20 judges in the entire country (previously, there were 785 judges). In 2001, a new initiative called gacaca began. Gacaca (meaning grass) was a court system at the local community level that allowed perpetrators and victims to present their cases in court before the entire community. Despite being hailed as a success, the system had significant problems including: fear of judicial bias, fear of coerced apologies by perpetrators and hesitancy by the victims to tell their narratives in front of the entire community.

Although there have been a variety of legal frameworks working to promote justice and reconciliation in Rwanda, a number of concerns remain, especially since the gacaca courts ended in 2012 and the ICTR is coming to a close: (1) local communities should take more active roles in promoting healing and openness; (2) the government must move past the narrative of deemphasizing ethnicity and embrace all narratives; and (3) each of these levels must work together, or at least simultaneously.


One issue Cambodia faces today concerning healing and reconciliation stems from the nature of cultural memory itself. Cambodian culture focuses much less on interrogating and memorializing the past than Western culture does. As such, Cambodians living abroad in Western countries like the United States and Canada play a large and prominent role in memory narrative construction along with their counterparts inside Cambodia. While many push for memorialization of the genocide by the Khmer Rouge, some forces in Cambodia continue to attempt to suppress the memory. According to Prime Minister Hun Sen, “Cambodia must dig a hole and bury the past.” The Prime Minister is a Khmer Rouge defector and has both personal as well as political reasons for hoping the past can be buried.

Luckily, there are also forces within Cambodia who want to memorialize the past rather than forget. Youk Chhang of the Documentation Center of Cambodia said during an interview in 2010 with the Washington Post, “Confronting the past is just what Cambodia must do to move forward.” He continued, “Reconciliation in Khmer terms is reconnecting the broken pieces. It’s our obligation to put these broken pieces together so that we can understand.” The Documentation Center has taken an active role in promoting narratives and education about the genocide. Along with collecting documents, testimony and video of the genocide, the Center published a textbook in 2008 and has run the Genocide Education Project, a program preparing teachers to teach the genocide, since 2010. Thus, there is a narrative divide within Cambodia as to how to deal with memory of the past and how that relates to shaping the future.

Beyond this, there is a need for a more rights-protective culture as a means of justice in this post-conflict society. Dicklitch and Malik assert that a culture that secures “both civil and political rights, as well as economic, social and cultural rights (as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)” is necessary for any legal process to be truly successful. According Scholar Renee Jeffrey, one of the provisions brought by victims to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed during the Period of Democratic Kampuchea (ECCOC) was for “social services, support for agriculture and ‘justice,’ vaguely define[d].” This provision is indicative of a general trend in Cambodia, where people desire more socioeconomic change rather than mere prosecution and punishment for the genocidal crimes.


Both Rwanda and Cambodia are post-conflict nations seeking to rebuild and unify a fragmented population. Both countries have endured the intrusion of foreign powers in the process of restoration and prosecution (Rwanda through the ICTR and Cambodia through the ECCOC). Both are poor countries working hard to revitalize their economies. Finally, both face similar problems concerning memory of the genocide. In Rwanda, the government both controls the narrative and refuses to address ethnicity. In Cambodia, the government wants to bury the past in order to move on. However, in Rwanda, despite the issues it faced, a local form of reconciliation that recently came to a close may have helped push society to embrace all narratives and remember the past. After all, one of the most successful aspects of the gacaca courts is that it forced acceptance of individualized guilt by perpetrators rather than mass generalized guilt amongst the Hutu population. By contrast, Cambodia is generally still enforcing a program of suppression. Cambodia requires a transition to a rights-based society before any form of reconciliation and true healing can begin. For both countries, it is clear that until a diverse memory narrative is accepted, healing will be limited.

Zahava Moerdler is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Trocaire/Creative Commons