Saturday, 22 March 2008

Cambodian emigres share pain

FORUM: Testimonials from the Long Beach gathering may be offered to war crimes tribunal.

By Greg Mellen, Staff Writer

LONG BEACH - The pain is never far below the surface for Cambodian refugees. Their shared history informs much of what they do and how they see society.

While the recollection and sharing of survivor stories is nothing new, especially in Long Beach, it remains relevant and vital to recovery for individuals and the community.

The memories of the atrocities of the Killing Fields genocide of the late 1970s still run deep and few in Long Beach's Cambodian community escaped without being profoundly affected.

On March 29 at Cal State Long Beach, survivors and those interested in Cambodian social issues will be convening in a daylong event called "Shared Suffering, Shared Resilience: A Critical Dialogue Forum and Film Screening."

The event will have an added layer of relevance as testimonials and discussion may be relayed to the international tribunal in Cambodia that is currently prosecuting alleged perpetrators of the Killing Fields atrocities.

"Many Cambodian refugees say they feel helpless and victimized and unheard by the international community; now here's your chance (to be heard,)" said Leakhena Nou, an assistant professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach and organizer of the event.

The Open Society Justice Initiative, which has a watchdog group monitoring the international tribunal being conducted by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, will have a representative at the forum and will receive and review transcripts from the day.

A representative from the State Department's Office of War Crimes Issues may also attend.

Tracey Gurd, an associate legal officer with Open Society, says the event provides a rare opportunity for refugees in the U.S. to be heard in Cambodia, which really hasn't reached out to emigrants during the tribunal process.

Gurd said that by sharing experiences and giving feedback, Long Beach Cambodians can be engaged in the trial.

Nou, who is also the founder of the nonprofit Association for Social Research Institute of Cambodia which is sponsoring the forum, said this could be the first in a series of similar events both in the United States and overseas.

Nou and her nonprofit have been talking to Cambodian groups in Lowell, Mass.; Oregon; Virginia; and Washington, D.C., about presenting similar programs and seeing what patterns emerge in the Cambodian refugee experience.

The Cambodian-American professor, whose family was able to emigrate before the Khmer Rouge rose to power, stresses that her event is not at all political.

"This is an academic and public event," she said. "It has nothing to do with putting down the current regime."

Rather she says, it is a chance for Cambodians to begin redefining their history and their identity and moving past the suffering to solutions and reconciliation.

The all-day CSULB event will feature discussion panels with both younger and older Cambodians, cultural presentations by Cambodian artists and performers and a screening of the documentary film "Bombhunters" by Skye Fitzgerald.

"The experiences (of Cambodian refugees) have defined their current existence and their future, both positively and negatively," Nou said.

What matters, she says, is "how they use it as a basis to move forward."

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