Speech by German Ambassador - Inauguration of the memorial stupa
Speech by H.E. Joachim Baron von Marschall, Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany, on the occasion of the Inauguration Ceremony of the Memorial Stupa for the Victims of the Khmer Rouge regime (26 March 2015)
Your Excellency Dr Sok An, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister in Charge of the Office of the Council of Ministers,
Your Excellency Chuch Phoeurn, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Culture,
Your Excellency Kranh Tony, Acting Director at the Office of Administration of the ECCC,
Dear Adelbert Eberhardt, Country Director of the GIZ,
Dear Chhum Mey and members of the civil parties
Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
In July last year I had the honour to be invited here, to participate in the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the Ministry of Culture and the Victims Support Section of the ECCC. With this MoU the formal basis was laid for the financing of a Memorial Stupa here at Tuol Sleng by the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. And now, only eight months later, the Stupa is built. I doubt whether in Germany it would have been built as quickly. Congratulations go to the architect and builders. This is cause for celebration. In fact, this is an important day for Cambodia. My wife and I are honoured to share this moment with you all.
Of course the stupa we are inaugurating today is no normal building. It is a physical structure which attempts to commemorate the more than twelve thousand people who were tortured and sent to their deaths here at Toul Sleng during the terror regime of the Khmer Rouge. Men, women and children were all treated without mercy, without humanity, without dignity. They were brought here because Angkar considered them enemies of the people. Some of them had themselves been Khmer Rouge , had committed crimes similar to those they were later the victims of here in Toul Sleng; others had dared to resist Angkar’s human experiment in stone age communism. In the end, they all perished, brutally killed after enduring unimaginable pain inflicted through cruel torture. Their names will be engraved on this stupa. Their story will not be forgotten. The relatives of these victims will now have the opportunity to use this place to remember, to commemorate their loved ones who had to suffer so much, and as a place of prayer and reconciliation – perhaps even a place of forgiveness. And I wish them that this stupa will help them to come to terms with their own grief and sadness.
But there is another no less significant symbolic aspect to this stupa. Together with the adjacent museum, it reminds us, beyond individual suffering and death, of the terrible collective fate endured by seven million people in this country. It reminds us that human beings, terrorised by ruthless despots, can act with unimaginable cruelty. It reminds us to be wary of people and regimes which ignore human dignity. No political goal or ideology, however promising, important or desirable it may appear, can ever justify a political system in which the dignity of the individual is not respected.
Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
As a German, I have always been preoccupied with the question how human civilisation can deteriorate to the point of violating the most fundamental rules of decency and respect for one’s fellow human beings. As you no doubt will know, my country went through a very dark period, when exactly this happened: from a highly civilized society a “leader” emerged, supported by a group of ruthless opportunists and many people blinded by false promises – a “leader” who not only extinguished part of the German population considered unworthy, but also unleashed a catastrophe which destroyed the whole country and much of the rest of Europe. Had Hitler’s true colours been recognized early on by each and every German, this would never have happened. It took Germans about ten years to rebuild the country after 1945. We were helped by our American friends and by several countries who were willing to grant us a debt moratorium. Later, we paid reparations to Israel for six million Jewish lives extinguished in the gas chambers. We paid reparations to various other countries. And we have set up a foundation to the value of ten billion Euros for the compensation of forced labourers. But the millions and millions of lives lost could not be restored. After a period of denial, at the beginning of the 1970s we started a public debate on our past history – a very painful debate. Painful, because it is never easy to admit failure. In fact, one could speak of the collective failure of a whole society. I think, most members of the older generation felt some sort of shame, even those – and they were the vast majority – who had never actively hurt anybody. But this debate about the past, I am convinced, was indispensable.
Yes, we did manage to rebuild our country physically when we were still in denial about our past. We had high growth rates in the 1950s and 1960s, the economy was booming - this was the period of the famous German "economic miracle". But at the same time German society was still carrying a heavy burden of responsibility and guilt. Recently I was surprised to learn of extensive research which has identified collective trauma in German society as a consequence of the Nazi era and World War II. Now I can understand much better the concept of "German angst" – a deeply rooted tendency to worry about the future, a tendeny to doubt one's own capabilities..
In the 1970s there were serious outbreaks of violence in Germany. Havoc was wreaked and the German Government severely challenged by armed terrorist groups who kidnapped and killed high ranking members of German society including bankers and politicians. We in Germany learned through bitter experience that violence begets violence and that until there is open and honest debate and action to address the totality of a society’s past misdeeds, this violence and accompanying unrest will be passed on from one generation to the next. Denial is not a solution, it simply prolongs the problem.
I am fully aware that comparisons have to be carefully drawn to do justice to the facts and to reach the right conclusions. Nevertheless, the recent history of Cambodia has restimulated my interest in the question of how a society can overcome the emotional and psychological legacy of a traumatizing past. And it is by no means a coincidence that my Government has decided not only to support the ECCC but also the Victims Support Section of the Court. To us, these are two sides of the same coin. It is the role of the Court to establish the facts and the responsibility of individual perpetrators. By making and enforcing its judgments, the Court demonstrates that no-one is above the law. At the same time the Court's judgments help to restore the victims' sense of and belief in justice. It is impossible to maintain a civilised society without each and every citizen having a clear sense of "right" and "wrong". The Khmer Rouge regime destroyed that sense. It must be restored. The Court does help with this. I firmly believe that everyone who is working for a just and fair society and a happy future for Cambodia, based on mutual trust and unity, will understand the value this Court is adding, notwithstanding its shortcomings – and should understand the importance of this Court finishing its full mandate smoothly and effectively.
The Victims Support Section, the other side of the medal, addresses the need to compensate the victims for the suffering which injustice has inflicted upon them. As I have already mentioned, Germany is supporting the VSS. This is done out of a sense of solidarity and a sense of shared history. But I would also like to stress one thing: This support cannot and should not rid the Cambodian people of their very own collectivehistorical responsibility, nor should it replace the solidarity of the Cambodian people with the victims in their midst. Solidarity is a strong, in fact perhaps the strongest unifying factor in a society. Demonstrating commitment to and solidarity with the victims is a very effective way to strengthen unity. I would like to encourage the government to continue and deepen its own engagement in this area.
The VSS, however, comprises yet another element whose importance I would like to stress: that is its role in supporting young people’s education in the history of their country. You may well ask why there is any need to do that. In fact, talking to young people here in Cambodia I have discovered a reluctance to deal with the subject. Like their parents and grandparents, many, feel they should leave the past alone and look to the future. One young woman even told me that she did not like to look at the history of the Khmer Rouge era because it made her feel ashamed of her own people. This is in stark contrast to how the majority of young people felt in Germany at the beginning of the 1970s. They wanted to know what had happened, wanted to understand. They were asking their parents and teachers uncomfortable questions. It was their curiosity that really set in motion the important public debate on Nazi atrocities in the following years. What I observe in Cambodia is that young people sense the reluctance of their elders to talk and, being for the most part very obedient, do not want to embarrass or challenge them. The consequence of this reluctance is, however, that it is the young generation who will carry on the burden of their parents' and grandparents' legacy. The frighteningly high degree of domestic violence but also the low threshold for violence in general is for me a clear indication that there is a lot of unfinished business in this society. I believe that public peace and stability demand a strategic approach towards tackling the issues of the past. Saying this I am fully aware that there are different ways this can be done. I am glad that since several years the history of the Khmer Rouge era in principle is included in the Cambodian school curricula. This is an excellent start. If the teaching is done in a systematic and sensitive way so as to encourage young people to actively deal with the subject, this will be a huge step forward. The young generation needs help in coming to terms with the evil spirits of the past which still haunt society.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Let me close by expressing my heart-felt wish that the stupa we are inaugurating today will become a symbol for reconciliation between the horrors of the past and a bright and happy future for all Cambodians - that it will be not only a place of grief and sadness but also one where people can feel hope for their own and their children's future.
May the victims of the Khmer Rouge rest in peace – may their memory live on forever!