HIGHLIGHTS

  • Youk Chhang, one of the survivors of the Cambodian genocide, has devoted his life to the monumental task of documenting and memorializing the genocide to serve the aims of judicial redress, national reconciliation, and collective healing.
  • Youk suffered the trauma of the death of his father, five of his siblings, and nearly sixty of his relatives. Able to escape across the Thai border to freedom at the age of seventeen, he found his way as a refugee to the United States.
  • Youk found his life-long mission in 1995, when the Yale University’s Cambodian Genocide Project engaged him to head its Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), charged with investigating and documenting Khmer Rouge atrocities.
  • Youk’s work is not only turned towards the past, it also looks to Cambodia’s future: he recognizes that preserving and understanding the past must serve as a powerful safeguard against all those who may seek to distort or erase it.
  • In electing Youk Chhang to receive the 2018 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes “his great, unstinting labor in preserving the memory of the Cambodian genocide, and his leadership and vision in transforming the memory of horror into a process of attaining and preserving justice in his nation and the world.”

 

 CITATION

The five-year Cambodian genocide of 1975-79, that caused the death of at least two million Cambodians, is one of the most horrific episodes in the long, dark history of crimes against humanity. It is imperative to the cause of justice that this horror is not forgotten. Youk Chhang, one of its survivors, has devoted his life to the monumental task of documenting and memorializing the genocide to serve the aims of judicial redress, national reconciliation, and collective healing. More importantly, his work assures that the past is truthfully preserved for present and future generations so that it will not be distorted or ever repeated.

Born in Phnom Penh, Youk was fourteen years old when his family was forced out of their home by Khmer Rouge operatives to work like slaves in a rural commune. He saw his family reduced to extreme privation; was himself tortured and detained; even worse, Youk suffered the trauma of the death of his father, five of his siblings, and nearly sixty of his relatives. Able to escape across the Thai border to freedom at the age of seventeen, he found his way as a refugee to the United States. Years later, he would earn a graduate degree in political science and chose to return to Cambodia when civic order had been restored, enrolling in the human rights and democracy training programs of the International Republican Institute and the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC).

Youk found his life-long mission in 1995, when the Yale University’s Cambodian Genocide Project engaged him to head its Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), charged with investigating and documenting Khmer Rouge atrocities. Two years later, DC-Cam became an independent institute, directed and operated entirely by Cambodians. As its executive director from 1995 to the present, Youk expanded DC-Cam’s work beyond documentation in aid of the Khmer Rouge War Crimes Trials that began in 2009; he pursued the broader task of promoting “memory and justice as the critical foundations for the rule of law and genuine national reconciliation.”

The scope of this work has been immense, arduous, and painfully difficult in Cambodia’s transitioning, polarized society. Despite the destruction, loss, or absence of records, DC-Cam was able to collect and assemble over one million documents, providing over half of these as evidence in the war crimes trials. They digitized these documents for online public access; produced digital mapping of over 23,000 mass graves in Cambodia’s “killing fields”; excavated samples of human skeletal remains for forensic examination; conducted interviews with over 10,000 persons, both victims and perpetrators; implemented research, publishing, and educational programs on genocide, transitional justice and human rights; and promoted public participation in the whole process. Yet Youk’s work is not only turned towards the past, it also looks to Cambodia’s future: he recognizes that preserving and understanding the past must serve as a powerful safeguard against all those who may seek to distort or erase it.

Today, Youk is engaged in building the Sleuk Rith Institute, an ambitious project which will house a museum, archives and library; a research center; and a graduate program on crimes against humanity to sustain what DC-Cam has accomplished and serve as a resource center for a world deeply scarred and still threatened by genocide.

All this is not an abstract mission for Youk but one that is profoundly personal. Of his mother, who, borrowing five US dollars, pushed him to flee Cambodia and whom he would only see some twenty years later, he says: “I do this for my mother who suffered… I want her to be a free woman, not to carry all the tragedy in her heart and in her life.” It is a deeply-felt commitment he has widened into the work of remembrance, justice, and healing for all Cambodians.

In electing Youk Chhang to receive the 2018 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes his great, unstinting labor in preserving the memory of the Cambodian genocide, and his leadership and vision in transforming the memory of horror into a process of attaining and preserving justice in his nation and the world.