Guest post by Michelle Caswell in our Archives Month series Archives For Change: Activist Archives, Archival Activism. Michelle is a Doctoral student at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
I first became interested in records documenting the Khmer Rouge period in Cambodia a decade ago, when I was working as the arts and culture web producer for the Asia Society Museum in New York. For the museum’s website, I interviewed the director of a troupe of classical Cambodians dancers who were touring the U.S. The director, one of only a few classically-trained Cambodian dancers to have survived the Khmer Rouge, was a living archive, defiantly reviving an ancient tradition in the face of genocide, war, and poverty. I would not soon forget his story.
Today, I am doctoral student at the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, focusing on archives, with a minor in languages and cultures of Asia. Compelled by news about the ongoing Khmer Rouge tribunal, I am focusing my dissertation on the use of archival records and function of nongovernmental archival organizations in attempts to hold the regime accountable for the deaths of nearly two million Cambodians. The research discussed in this blog post stems from an interview I conducted with Youk Chhang, Director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), in Phnom Penh in 2010. I plan to return to Cambodia next summer to continue my research.
While much work has been done on the role of archivists in preserving records that document human rights abuses, far less attention has been paid to the importance of the ways archivists describe or classify such records. In a recent paper I’ve posited that archivists can use descriptive metadata to further efforts to hold perpetrators accountable for human rights violations, using the Documentation Center of Cambodia as a primary example. DC-Cam archivists have classified documents about Khmer Rouge victims by ethnic group in order to help bring about genocide charges in the current tribunal.
“Genocide” is a politically contested term, with historians, human rights activists, and lawyers debating its meaning. The legal definition of the term, as solidified in the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, applies only to “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, racial, ethnical, or religious group, as such.” Thus, according to the prevailing standard of international law, genocide cannot be targeted towards members of political parties, social classes, or other groups.
This definition has had important consequences for ongoing attempts to hold the Khmer Rouge accountable for the deaths of nearly two million Cambodians during their brief but devastating rule. Today, more than thirty years after the 1979 overthrow of the regime, four former high-ranking Khmer Rouge officials are currently standing trial in a jointly run Cambodian-UN human rights tribunal, known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). The result of nearly a decade of advocacy, diplomatic wrangling, and political struggle, the trial is the first time Khmer Rouge leaders have ever been brought to justice in a credible court of law. The four defendants, who are the highest-ranking surviving leaders of the regime, have been indicted for genocide, as well as crimes against humanity and war crimes.
But the ability of the ECCC to charge these defendants with genocide was not obvious at the outset, given its prevalent legal definition. Prosecutors must thus prove defendants both intended to destroy a group, and that group must be a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group. This has had wide-reaching implications for the charges filed against the defendants, as it excludes the majority of the Khmer Rouge’s murders, intended to destroy groups based on political affiliation and social class—the so-called “new people”—consisting of Cambodia’s educated classes, urban elites, capitalists, and loyalists to the previous regime.
But the Khmer Rouge also killed members of Cambodia’s ethnic minorities, including Cham Muslims, Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, Khmer Krom, and hill tribe populations. Given the ECCC’s standards, in order to charge the defendants with genocide, prosecutors had to determine that the Khmer Rouge was motivated by ethnic hatred. Archival description would prove crucial in this determination.
An off-shoot of a 1994 project at Yale, DC-Cam became an independent nonprofit organization in 1997. From its inception, DC-Cam has advanced an agenda of accountability, vocally demanding a tribunal. It is hard to overestimate DC-Cam’s role in bringing about the tribunal, as DC-Cam Director Youk Chhang relentlessly demonstrated to the international legal community that the archives had enough physical evidence to convict former officials. Now that the tribunal has begun, records that have been preserved, digitized and described by DC-Cam are the main source of documentary evidence.
While DC-Cam operates four online databases, my focus here is the biographic database. The database classifies its 30,442 biographies by 37 different categories, including: record number, name, sex, position in the Khmer Rouge, party membership, arrest record, date of execution, and ethnic identity. Not every biography has a designated “ethnic identity.” In fact, the “Input Manual” for the biographical database clearly instructs those describing records: “Do not assume ethnicity unless clearly indicated.”
Not only is ethnic identity denoted as a major category, but the database includes a coding scheme for human rights violations based on such ethnic identity. For example, under the heading “death and killings,” there is a subcode for “killing in a conflict between communities, ethnic groups, villages, etc.” and under the heading “discrimination other than types listed above” there is a subcode to denote that such discrimination was “due to race, ethnic background or nationality.” In this way, the architecture of the database provides spaces for human rights violations based on ethnic identity to be acknowledged, classified, tracked, and retrieved. Without such a coding scheme, evidence of killings based on ethnic identity could be easily lost within the other categories of the database.
Despite the complexities of tracking ethnic identity in Cambodia, the DC-Cam’s conscious choice to include ethnic identity as a category decision has had a profound impact on how historians have written about the regime. In fact, at the time of the database’s creation, historians and legal experts did not commonly abide by the notion that the Khmer Rouge targeted its killings to ethnic groups. Instead, the prevailing view of the 1980s and early 1990s was that the regime’s murderous impulses were directed primarily at political or social groups within the predominantly ethnically Khmer society. However, later histories include significant information on the Khmer Rouge’s discrimination of ethnic minorities. By 2008 the term “genocide” simply cannot be ignored in books on Cambodian history.
In turn, these revised histories have had a significant impact on legal adjudication. In 2010, the ECCC formally charged the four defendants in Case 2 with genocide against the Cham and Vietnamese populations. Other ethnic groups such as the Chinese, Khmer Krom, or hill tribes were omitted from this designation. As the ECCC has already exceeded its fiscal and temporal budgets, the limiting of genocide charges to crimes against two groups could be practical, based on potential ease of conviction and the existence of physical evidence. However, while victims groups balked at the omission of genocide charges towards other populations, they also saw any genocide charges as a major milestone in holding the regime accountable.
While a simple cause-and-effect relationship between inclusion of ethnic identity in DC-Cam’s database and formal genocide charges against the Khmer Rouge is impossible to determine, DC-Cam staff had this type of impact in mind when it picked the database’s categories. As DC-Cam Director Youk Chhang said, “the inclusion of the term ‘ethnic identity’ itself is enough to remind scholars and legal experts that such discrimination took place and generate debate about the crime of genocide.” While the Khmer Rouge officials on trial won’t be convicted of genocide based on information in DC-Cam’s databases alone, the inclusion of ethnic identity as a category legitimates it as a significant object of legal and historical inquiry.
Given the complexities of identifying ethnicity in Cambodia, the choice to include ethnic identity in the database was not a neutral decision. Rather, it belies a larger mission to prove that the Khmer Rouge targeted murder to ethnic groups. DC-Cam’s classification system has empowered minority groups by both raising awareness of their suffering and giving prosecutors the necessary legal evidence to charge officials with genocide. In this way, DC-Cam used ethnic classifications to advance accountability within the constraints of the existing legal framework. This is a prime example of how archivists give context to text through description, how that context belies larger ethical choices, and how archival description can have a significant impact on the world outside the archives.
 Estimates of the exact number of deaths range from one to three million. Many died from starvation and disease, while others were executed.