On Testimonial Therapy & the Life Project


What testimonial therapy does is try & bring private suffering into public & political spheres.

Igner Agger


Inger Agger (IA) is a psychologist, currently working with the Danish Institution Against Torture,(DIGNITY) and the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies. She visited Hong Kong in early March to conduct a workshop on Testimonial Therapy, which is her area of expertise. Basil Fernando (BF), Director Policy & Programmes, Asian Human Rights Commission, spoke with Ms. Agger, exclusively for Torture magazine. 1)


BF: First, could you start by sharing your personal background? How did you get involved with developing Testimonial Therapy?

IA: Actually it goes more than 40 years back, all the way back to the 1970s, when I was part of a consciousness-raising group, in a women’s movement known as the “Red Stockings Movement”, and there we worked with testimony. That was the first time I tried giving testimony. One of the main methods of the consciousness-raising groups was for women to give testimony about their private lives and try to see their personal experiences in a political perspective. Our slogan was “to make the private political”. So we tried in giving testimony about our own lives to see how we, as women and girls, had been oppressed by the patriarchal society, in which ways this oppression had shown itself in our own lives and become conscious of that. So that was the main objective of the consciousness-raising method. In this consciousness-raising group I gave testimony about my own early childhood trauma. For the first time I was able to speak about the loss of my mother and my separation from my family when I was four to five years old, and to see how this painful story related to the post-war situation in Danish society in the 1940s, in which many women – of which my mother was one – could not get any education that enabled them to support their children if they got divorced. When a child is separated from their parents they will often blame themselves and feel shameful about not being like other children. The consciousness-raising group helped me to see my “private pain as political”, and this empowering experience gave me the initial strength to start a lifelong process of liberating and healing myself. I was gradually able to formulate a “life project” of exploring ways of healing trauma – both for myself and for others. I actually wrote my thesis about it for my masters in psychology. So that was the first time I tried giving testimony and I thought it was such a powerful experience that I never forgot it and I have worked with it in different variations ever since, in everything I’ve been doing.

BF: Your Masters was in that?

IA: Yes, on the Consciousness-Raising Method in the Women’s Movement 2). It was published in 1977, in Danish, by the Danish Pedagogical Institute. This method included testimony as a main principle for connecting the private, individual level with the political level. One of the aspects of testimony that I experienced at that time and have met many times since is the fascinating way that testimony can change the energy in a group. When someone says: “Let me tell you what happened…” it can have an almost palpable, electric effect on the audience.

BF: You are touching the heart of the issue here. So what testimonial therapy does is try to bring private suffering into the public and political spheres.

IA: Exactly. I spent my first six years of in a so-called “free school” which had been created by a group of parents opposition to the “black” authoritarian school system we had in Denmark at that time. The “Free School Movement” was amongst others, inspired by Grundtvig, and think that the method of creating liberating testimonial narratives, which I met in the Movement, touched me at a deep because this spirit of freedom, poetry, creativity, and discovery had also been an important part of my learning experience in “free school”. It is so interesting that you Basil, have also been inspired by Grundvig have promoted his ideas in the “Folk School Movement” among human rights in Asia.

BF: Grundtvig was very important to my own development and that of the Asian Human Rights Commission. I fact, I discovered N.F.S. Grundtvig on my own.I came across one of his quotes in a book, and felt, it said something very close to the way I was beginning to see things. I then inquired about him and I was told that the library in the Lutheran seminary, may have some of his writings. In fact, I found three books there. Later, I told some friends at the Danish Institute of Human Rights that I wished to know more about him and his work. The Institute provided me a fellowship for three months. I came to Copenhagen, met many people associatedwith the Folk School Movement and was able to read a lot more about Grundtvig. I visited the home for elderly people where there is a large statue of him, close to the central bus stand in Copenhagen. During those three months I wrote a book, comparing the ideas of Gruntvig and the Indian political leader, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. It was later published under the title “Demoralization and Hope”. At the AHRC we adopted the folk school approach as a framework for our discussions and educational work. Everyone who participated in our programmes have expressed appreciation for the “folk school style”.

Now returning to your work, this, in fact, has quite strong philosophical roots. The whole idea of the development of consciousness and what you are really advocating is not just that public politics, but also that the private lives of individuals should be brought into the public sphere, and that a working method for implementing this should be created.

IA: Yes exactly, and I think it’s all connected with the radicalization that was also happening at that time among the students in the Western World – in the sixties and seventies. I thought a lot about that when I was in Hanoi last week, and visited the Hoa Lo Prison museum (called the “Hanoi Hilton” by the American pilots that were detained there during the Vietnam War). There I saw photographs from the demonstrations of the Vietnam Movement in France and the US, and I remembered how it was a very powerful experience for myself to participate in these demonstrations. In 1967 I worked as a volunteer at the Russell Tribunal, also known as the International War Crimes Tribunal or Russell-Sartre Tribunal, which was a private body organized by British philosopher Bertrand Russell and hosted by French philosopher and playwright Jean-Paul Sartre. One of its sessions, concerned with the US aggression towards Vietnam, took place in Roskilde, Denmark. Representatives of the Black Panther Movement also participated in the Tribunal and told us how “Black is Beautiful”. Of course, as everybody else I knew, I participated in the Vietnam demonstrations in front of the American embassy in Copenhagen, where we met regularly and in which we ran while we shouted “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh”. All this happened while I was studying psychology, and so I realized when I was standing there in the Hanoi museum, how important that had been for my own radicalization or politicization of my consciousness and that this inspiration had given me the wish to work politically with psychology, not just to view a person’s psychology as an individual phenomenon, but as connected with their context – their surroundings and society. It was very important for us at that time, for the radical psychologists, to fight for this viewpoint: we were not trying to change people so that they became better at accommodating a repressive system; no, we wanted to support them in liberating themselves from oppressive structures. This meant that we had to see and understand people’s suffering in political terms and not as an individual trauma or mental health problem. “They are not ill, they are suffering from the dictatorship and the oppression”, as the Latin American psychologists said at that time, and that brought me into the Latin American understanding of things which helped me connect psychology and the fight for human rights. In 1969 I had gone to Cuba and lived there for a year, and as many others at that time, I also went on pilgrimages to other communist countries: the Soviet Union in 1973 and to China in 1976 in search of alternatives to our own, capitalist societies. Later on, many of us became disillusioned with the ways in which these utopian dreams had been realised by authoritarian, centralized governments. Instead we turned towards the development potential of grassroots movements in local communities, and searched for other ways in which people could organize and liberate themselves.

I travelled to Latin America in the eighties and experienced the approach of the Latin American psychologists and psychiatrists, who saw mental health as strongly linked to human rights. Their discourse was based on the principle of connecting “human rights and mental health” (derechos humanos y salud mental). This was an approach they had developed as a response to the various dictatorships in Latin America, in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay at that time. Many doctors, psychologists and social workers who were part of the left-socialist movement had been imprisoned and tortured, and they developed their approach as a resistance against these dictatorships. As I had learned Spanish in Cuba I was able to read the documents of the Latin American psychologists, and in reading these conference papers I read – for the first time – about the testimonial method that Chilean psychologists had developed as part of their resistance movement. This method was very similar to the consciousness-raising method I had met in the Women’s Movement and I felt very familiar and “at home” with it. The Chileans had – sort of accidentally – discovered that when the lawyers from the resistance movement made testimonies with victims to keep as evidence against the dictatorship, it also had a beneficial and therapeutic effect on the victim. Lawyers of the resistance collected testimonies of human rights violations during the dictatorship in Chile under the protection of the Catholic Church. They kept these testimonies of torture hidden with the purpose of using them after the end of the dictatorship as evidence. But then, while recording these legal testimonies they discovered that this process also had a psychotherapeutic effect on victims. So they started working more consciously with this method and started writing about it. Later, in 1983, a Chilean psychologist and a psychiatrist under pseudonyms published a very famous article in English about their testimonial method3) . The real name of the main author was Elizabeth Lira, a prominent Chilean psychologist whom I interviewed later as part of a research project in Chile in 1988-89.

In 1984, I started working for the Rehabilitation and Research Centre for Torture Victims (RCT) 4) in Denmark, as a clinical psychologist, and this gave me a unique opportunity to work with political refugees from Latin America, and in this way work “politically” with psychology. I have to thank Inge Genefke for giving me that opportunity. I tried using the testimonial method with the refugees and I published my first international article about it in 1990 – that’s 23 years ago 5) . I also used the testimony method in my PhD research, in which I had made testimonies with 20 Latin American and 20 Middle Eastern women who had been tortured and were political refugees in Denmark 6) .

BF: Could you say more about the Chilean approach? You said you started reading their papers during your visit to Chile. Can you say more about what they were doing, what those people were trying to do?

IA: Are you familiar with their work? The radical mental health professionals in Latin America worked on basis of the same understanding as the radicals in Europe and the US: that “the private is political”. Their way of phrasing it was by connecting human rights and mental health, and they were always emphasizing that we should not pathologize victims. They are not “ill” – they are suffering from the dictatorship. So the Latin Americans emphasized that we should always see the suffering of torture victims in a political perspective and that this approach would be the most healing for victims of human rights violations. One of the objectives of these Latin American psychologists was to try to re-establish the connection of the victim to his or her political project – the “life project” as they called it. At that time, torture victims in these countries were often politically active people in the socialist movement. They could be political party or trade union leaders – people who were active in politics and whom the dictatorship tried to crush. And so the therapeutic goal was then to strengthen the victim so that he or she could re-establish this project, the life project, which gave their life meaning. I describe this approach in detail in a book based on our research in the Chilean Human Rights Movement 7).

BF: Is this in English?

IA: Both in English and it was also published in Spanish, in 1996, in Santiago de Chile. The Spanish edition was edited and revised by Elizabeth Lira 8) . I had received a grant to do a post-doctorate research project in Chile and based on this research I wrote the book in cooperation with my ex-husband, who is a psychiatrist. We went to Chile and interviewed psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers from the Human Rights Movement and that was just in the transition period at the end of the eighties, when Pinochet was ousted and they had their first democratic elections. So that was happening at the time of our arrival, actually. It was a very interesting period to be there. So, now the mental health people could talk freely about their work and we interviewed many mental health professionals who had been in prison and tortured themselves.

BF: Could you say more? Because I think you are now touching something dynamic. You are really linking the element of mental health and the political ethos. In the post-Hitler period, the psychologist, Alexander Mitscherlich, who wrote Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior, did his clinical work with patients and then he came to the conclusion that the things that his patients were complaining about had nothing to do with illness, but was a result of their inability to come to terms with Germany’s political past. The repression of the political problems that were associated with the Hitler’s regime period was causing the mental illnesses. In Asia, this has not been brought forth in a forceful way. Still, psychology is about individual health, the individual person. You try to< help them get out of depression or something like that, but the larger issue, that political repression is a cause of disturbed mental health, is ignored.

IA: I would say that the main conclusions we drew from the research in Chile was the importance of a movement, the Chilean Human Rights Movement, as a protective shield or context for the victims and for the mental health workers in the resistance movement: they were not alone. They were part of this large movement which they had developed very expertly in Chile. We also noticed the way in which the mental health people had developed a system of helping victims organize themselves in groups, such as groups of former political prisoners, or family members of torture victims, or mothers of disappeared people. These groups were very good at organising in Latin America and seemed to have a great therapeutic effect on the victims.

So we observed the activities of the groups and wrote about it. I guess that was the main conclusion from our research, how important it was to support these kind of protected networks in situations of human rights violations, and in Chile, the Catholic Church had an important role as a part of this protective network. When I later worked as a researcher from 2010-2012 in Cambodia, I did not see this type of protective organisations for victims to the same extent, although some NGOs were trying to promote it. In Cambodia, I found that Buddhism had an important protective and healing role.

BF: That’s very important. I think it was the Jesuit priest from El Salvador, Ignacio Martín-Baró, who, in his work on social psychology, pointed out the need for dealing with the structural issues, which cause mental illness.

IA: Yes he was a great inspiration for me also, and for the Chileans, definitely. I have during my whole career been opposed to a medical, clinical approach to torture, to what the Chileans call a “medicalizing” of political problems.

BF: Can you explain that, why you are opposed to it?

IA: Yes, because by medicalizing, by diagnosing, and pathologizing victims of torture, and victims of political oppression, you are in a way giving them the responsibility for their pain. It’s like saying they are sick or “crazy” because they are “weak” and could not resist. Mostly, victims do not appreciate that. You should instead place their cause of their mental suffering where it belongs, in the political structures. By doing this you might also support them in becoming conscious of the reasons for and the meaning of their mental symptoms, of how they have been persecuted, and learn that their symptoms are a result of that outer pressure, not because a personal illness or weakness or of being mentally ill, crazy, suffering from PTSD, or whatever people believe about themselves. This can enable them to become survivors and participate again in their “life project”.

BF: So it is getting a person to come to a recognition, or understanding, that his problem is related to what has taken place in his society and giving him a method of understanding the process of healing, while also trying to support him in engaging with his society.

IA: Yes absolutely. Many other psychoanalytic or psychological theorists have also emphasized re-connecting to the “life project”, but they have used other terms for it. I have found the writings of Carl G. Jung, the great Swiss psychoanalyst, very important, especially his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, in which he describes his own self-actualization process which has involved what he calls “transcendence”, the integration of the diverse systems of the self toward the goal of wholeness and identity with all of humanity. Transcendence also includes a spiritual or religious dimension, which is an integrated part of self-actualization.

BF: That is a very dynamic thinking process.

IA: Yes, and that is what you can encourage when you are making a testimony with an individual victim. That’s why the attitude of the human rights defender who is helping the victim make their testimony is so important, because the human rights defender can help the victim to become conscious of this. So the human rights defender is active in his or her response to the victim, and should help victims to contextualize their suffering. This includes helping victims to understand how their testimony can help other victims and how it can become a weapon in the fight against dictatorships. Essentially, this means helping victims to see the political meaning of their private pain.

You can work with testimony in many ways, and the model, which includes a culturally adapted testimony ceremony at the end of the therapy process, is a special Asian brief therapy version of the method. Supported by the RCT, I developed this model in an action research project from 2008-2010 with the RCT’s local partners. We started with a pilot project in India 9), and continued in Sri Lanka, Cambodia and the Philippines. This work with testimony ceremonies also brought me in closer contact with Asian spirituality and the great resources for healing, which are part of many Asian cultural and religious traditions, and inspired me to continue my testimony work with a research project in Cambodia on local approaches to healing of trauma.

BF: So the idea of developing the document, the testimony, is working with the victim to get him to realize that what he is going through is related to much larger issues, helping him to come to that recognition, and then holding a public ceremony where he makes a declaration about it.

IA: Completely correct and very well expressed. Yes. And this is why it’s so important to train human rights defenders to understand that this story is not just something which is out there that they just need to record, but that they are helping the victim to come to that understanding – to see their suffering in another perspective and to record that. The public ceremony at the end of the testimony process also plays a very important role, because it links the victim to the community through a public acknowledgement and mobilisation on basis of the narrative about the human rights violations suffered by the victim 10). This public ceremony can also be seen as a re-connection with the life project or, in Jung’s terms, a ritual in which the victim can re-connect with his or her spiritual and transcendent self.

BF: So the testimonial therapy method is really not a teaching process, it’s a dialogue?

IA: It’s a dialogue! Just as you and I are having an important dialogue right now about certain aspects of my life story.

BF: To get him or her to come out, to express their story.

IA: Yes, but one of the problems is, of course, to help those victims who were imprisoned by accident, or who were not politically active. It is quite common that people are arrested and tortured maybe because they have the same name as someone that the police is looking for, or by another error or just by accident. So it’s actually more difficult to provide psychotherapeutic help to these victims who maybe do not have a life project or a cause they are fighting for.

BF: So a person develops a meaning. A meaning! They are developing something to fight for; to live for. See, this is very different. Victor Frankl’s idea of looking for meaning comes in.

Now, the difference is now in Asia, in a number of places, there is an idea of dealing with mental illness by helping people to forget. Now, for example, in Cambodia, before this new period with the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, they had many ceremonies, rituals, conducted by the Buddhist monks, and various other people, including water purification ceremonies. The victim, who is feeling down and dark, is encouraged to go through a whole process in which the monk tries to make him feel happy internally. By these methods, the monks help him to become a little lighter and then the monk says “forget this”. The same thing was done in Sri Lanka.

IA: Of course I would be very much against that approach. You shouldn’t forget, but maybe forgive! In Buddhist Vipassana meditation and “mindfulness” which I have been working with over the past five or six years, the main principle is not to forget, but to accept and then let it pass. That is a very different process. I also think that meditation is very good for calming the nervous system. By including the body in the therapeutic process the victim can be supported to restore self-regulation and the sense safety and goodness, (which has often been destroyed by torture) as explained by Peter Levine in his book In an Unspoken Voice. In later years I’ve been very interested in combining the Asian spiritual knowledge – represented in the West by, for example, mindfulness andyoga – with the more political approach represented by testimonial therapy. In the testimony ceremony the two approaches come together. The political and the spiritual dimensions mutually reinforce each other. A human being is both mind and body and we must pay attention to both when we search for the restoration of resilience and involvement in the world.


1 (Conversation transcribed by Meredith McBride)

2 Agger, I. (1977). Basisgruppe og kvindebevidsthed: En analyse af basisgruppemetoden som udviklingsproces (Consciousness-raising group and women’s consciousness: An analysis of the consciousnessraising
method as developmental

3 Cienfuegos, A.J., & Monelli, C. (1983). The testimony of political repression as a therapeutic instrument. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 53, 43-51

4 Now: Dignity – Danish Institute Against Torture.

5 Agger, I., & Jensen, S.B. (1990). Testimony as ritual and evidence in psychotherapy for political refugees. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 3, 115-30.

6 Agger, I. (1994). The blue room: Trauma and testimony among refugee women. London: Zed Books. Spanish edition (1994). La Pieza azul: Testimonio femenino del exilio. Santiago de Chile: Cuarto Proprio.

7 Agger. I. & Jensen S.B. (1996). Trauma and healing under state terrorism. London: Zed Books.

8 Agger. I., & Jensen, S.B. (1996). Trauma y sanacion bajo situaciones de terrorismo de estado. Santiago de Chile: CESOC.

9 Agger, I., Raghuvanshi, L., Khan, S.S., Polatin, P., & Laursen, L.K. (2009). Testimonial therapy: a pilot project to improve psychological wellbeing among survivors of torture in India. Torture: Journal on Rehabilitation of Torture Victims and Prevention of Torture, 19 (3): 204-217.

10 Agger, I., Igreja, V., Kiehle, R. & Polatin, P. (2012). Testimony ceremonies in Asia: Integrating spirituality in testimonial therapy for torture survivors in India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and he Philippines. Transcultural Psychiatry, 49(3–4): 568–589.


This article was originally published in


A little tale about lies by Anya Palm

“The neighborhood of Dey Krahorm has never received a social land concession.”

This was the words of Cambodian Information Minister His Excellency Khieu Kanharith when I last visited him for an interview. About a week ago.

But let´s go back a little. Let´s go back to May 2003. Prime Minister Hun Sen gives a speech in which he declares his intention of upgrading 100 poor neighborhoods every year, until all of Cambodia´s urban poor has secure land tenure and full basic services. All the neighborhoods are granted a social land concession. A social land concession means that the state gives the land to the people living on it.

The promise is much needed. In 2003, the South East Asian Kingdom is only a few years away from political instability, frequent guerilla attacks and Khmer Rouge strongholds that just won´t give in.

As a consequence, there is an overwhelming amount of poor people and in addition – a high number of slum dwellers.

Many of them live in the country´s capital, Phnom Penh. The neighborhood of Dey Krahorm, the one the Minister is talking about, is a poor neighborhood just exactly in the midst of the city. This is, of course, quite fortunate for the 805 families living in the community – they can easily earn a living by driving a motorcycle taxi or sell goods on the market.

In his speech in May 2003 Prime Minister Hun Sen names four urban neighborhoods that are to be the first ones to be upgraded. Dey Krahorm is mentioned. Posters are put up in the neighborhood, informing the residents and a decree from the Council of Ministers certifies it. Ironically, most Dey Krahorm does not actually need it, because they already own the land, they live on. But nevertheless, a social land concession is a good thing to have.

And then…things take an unfortunate turn.

In 2005 suddenly a company makes its entrance in the lives of the people of Dey Krahorm. Construction company 7NG has now – without the knowledge or consent of the residents – made a deal with 35 village representatives to swap the land of Dey Krahorm for a strip of land 20 kilometers outside of the city.

Of course, one cannot sell what one does not own, so the agreement with the company is illegal and invalid. The residents are entitled, not only to remain on their land, but to have it upgraded. The Prime Minister promised them this.

There are absolutely no legal grounds to argue otherwise. None.

But then the intimidation begins.

Now the residents of Dey Krahorm experience theft, sudden fires, destruction of their property frequently. Over the next four years, this practice increases to the point where many of the villagers give up, take the meager compensation offered to them and leave. The ones that doesn´t? They get charged with trumped up charges and has to go to court so frequently, they cannot do their everyday job. They get threatened. They get beat up.

And then one day:

The excavators come.

Early in the morning January 24, 2009, the villagers are awakened by the sounds of their houses being torn down. An army of military police, police officers and company workers have sealed off the area and are aggressively beating down everyone, who steps in their way.

There is one man, who with his palms together raised in the air begs for the chance to go inside his own house and salvage a few of his belongings, while the excavator driver ignores him and carries on. A few moments later, a police officer comes with a fire extinguisher and sprays the praying man straight in his face to get him to move away.

One woman stands on top of the rubble trying to stop the excavator when she loses her balance and falls down under it. Shocked bystanders believe they just saw her die until they see her crying daughter carry her out and get her to a hospital.

In a few hours, the neighborhood is nothing but rubble. Half an hour later, then-Deputy Governor Mann Chouen holds a press conference on the site. Undistracted by the scenery behind him, and of what just happened, he congratulates the police and company workers on the operation.

Meanwhile the families from Dey Krahorm are on their way to the relocation site 20 kilometers from the city, a place they clearly and lawfully refused to move to. And no wonder. Everything out there is inadequate. In-adequate schools for the children, in-adequate hospitals too far from the residents, in-adequate sanitation, water, food…and for jobs? Well, there is a factory out there. It´s owned by the company that took their land.

So – I was in Phnom Penh to see what had happened Dey Krahorm since that day in 2009.

Nothing, really. A lot of the families had gotten a lot more complicated stories to tell now, but very few of them had gotten any better. Many were sick. Many were jobless. All were poor.

And the lucrative land of Dey Krahorm itself? There is a 7NG office there now, but I was not allowed to go in. Instead, I went up to say hello to the Minister and spokesperson for the Cambodian Government to ask him about the Dey Krahorm case. I asked him, why the Cambodian government has not kept their promise about upgrading the communities they had given social land concessions.

You already know what he answered.

“The neighborhood of Dey Krahorm has never received a social land concession.” Wish-wash.

But Mann Chouen – the then-Deputy Governor of Phnom Penh, who held the press conference on the rubble…he received a medal for his work on Dey Krahorm.


Land grabbing is the biggest problem in Cambodia today. It affects about one million people every year. According to the Cambodian Land Law of 2001, people who have been living on a strip of land for five years have the right to ownership. It also states that if land is to be used for other purposes, the residents are entitled to a “fair” compensation. A common land grabbing scenario is selling a piece of land to a foreign company, who then removes the residents living there – like they did with the people of Dey Krahorm. In 2011, the Cambodian Government sold 800,000 hectare of land to foreign companies – in 2010, this number was 200,000 hectare.

Anya Palm
Freelance journalist based in Bangkok

Thai politics costing lives. Again.

Thai politics have been somewhat baffling the past two weeks. So has Cambodian politics. And as always when the two Kingdoms clash and create irrational political atmospheres, people have suffered. In this case, several people have died. But let’s start with the beginning:

About three weeks ago a Thai delegation made a field trip to the disputed temple Preah Vihear. Thailand and Cambodia have been fighting over the temple for decades and despite the temple being awarded to Cambodia in 1962 by the International Court of Justice in Haag, Thailand has never recognized the ownership. The conflict last flared up when the temple was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.

The seven delegates – including an MP and several high profiled politicians – were arrested by Cambodian border police. Shortly after, Thailand’s nationalistic People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) – also known as the yellow shirts – started a demonstration, demanding their government tighten up the policies towards Cambodia.

Actually, they demanded them tightened up quite a bit: They wanted to repeal a Memorandum of Understanding from 2000, they wanted Thailand to withdraw from the UNESCO Committee and all the Cambodians living on the Thai side of the border be expelled.

Yes. The last one was: Kick out all the Cambodians, who happen to live on what Thailand believes to be the Thai side of the border. That will settle the dispute for sure.  

Anyways. That was weeks ago and things have only deterioated from there. PAD has refused to negotiate with the government and is still demonstrating in the streets, causing clogged traffic and general disturbance in the area. Of the seven arrested Thais, five were released, but in an unfortunate and provocating twist, the two remaining detainees were convicted of spying and sentenced to eight years.

The PAD immediately demanded the Government got them released. That is, of course, not possible – Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has no right to extract people, who are accused, prosecuted and convicted on Cambodian soil.

So now they demand he step down or else…

And they are not alone: The arch enemies, The United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship – the redshirts – has been gathering bigger and bigger crowds since the state of emergency was lifted in December. They have announced a mass rally this Sunday and their demand echoes the PAD’s: The Government must step down.

However, they have not arrived yet, and PM Abhisit has other concerns as well. In the South, insurgents are fighting for an independent state and that conflict has proved untamable for decades. There are almost daily reports of casualties from the three most Southern provinces of Thailand, and rogue groups of dissidents have recently taken to targeting teachers of the local schools in the area. While the conflict have been there for so long the Government has almost gotten away with just shrugging their shoulders at the on-going violence, the Teachers Unions are weighty voices and stories of attacks on schools are difficult to ignore.

Meanwhile, the Northern border is not much better: Burmese troops have since the election in Burma in November intensified their battle with the local Karen militia, making life for the hundreds of thousands of refugees in camps by the border unstable with frequent battles and intimidation.

And then, four days ago, the troops posted along the Preah Vihear border from both Cambodia and Thailand started to take out the heavy artillery. Reports of casualties vary from five (BBC) to 64 (different local media) and while many have fled the area, some of the villagers have decided to stay. And fight if necessary.

Who can blame them? As the above account reveals, it is very easy to summarize the situation without taking into account how much these situations affect the people living with the violence.  The villagers have lived there for generations and their livelihoods are destroyed by the fighting, yet there are no reports on dialogue with the people in the South, North and now, East.

Of course these days the main focus is on conflict by the Preah Vihear temple, as it rightly should be – there have been armed fighting there for four days  and it does not seem to end anytime soon.

But the focus is on Abhisit and whether he steps down because of it, not on how to solve it or on the people affected by it.

And then, Sunday, something happened that did not get much focus either:

Amidst the fighting a bomb blew up part of the 1100-year-old Preah Vihear temple, the temple this whole conflict is about.  


Anya Palm

Freelance journalist based in Bangkok







Abandon decency. Abandon morals. Put in the guns and get the TEMPLE! by Anya Palm

Preah Vihear is an unimaginably beautiful place. It is a province, but it takes it’s name after an 11th Century Khmer Temple, which towers over the landscape on a 525-metre high mountain. The temple is stunningly well-preserved – there are still carvings of dancing Apsaras, Buddha statues and stone stair cases leading up to a perhaps even more breathtaking view over unspoiled nature.

That is utterly unimportant, though.

The temple is situated right on the border in between Thailand and Cambodia,, and the two nations have been fighting over it for almost a hundred years: As unlucky as it is, the temple itself is situated on the Khmer side of the border, while the entrance of the massive temple area is on the Thai side. None of the countries will give up their rights to the temple. In 1962 the International Court of Justice in Haague awarded the temple to Cambodia. Thailand has not recognized this. That is also not important.

This is important:

In July 2008, it received UNESCO World Heritage Status. And both nations realized the economic ramifications of that.

The decision stirred up the old conflict again and caused Cambodia and Thailand to deploy soldiers on the border. Three months later, eight soldiers had lost their lives in the temple row, without anything new being added to the dispute. A bit of murmur in the respectable governments later, everything went back to normal, just only, now with soldiers with guns at the border.

 These days, the conflict is flaring up once again. Cambodia has recently presented their development plan for the temple to the World Heritage Committee and Thailand fears this plan is a decoy for occupying Thai soil, including the entrance of the temple. Therefore, Thailand has opposed the development plans and is threatening to withdraw from the UN World Heritage Committee altogether.

Now, sable rattling is a move favored by both governments, so the Thai threat was met with a diplomatic: “We will NOT approve the development plan just now, we will delay it till next year” from the Committee.

A diplomatic wise move, but there is one thing Diplomacy seems to have forgotten:

There are PEOPLE living on that border!

People whose lives were suddenly changed when both governments decided to deploy heavily armed troops right where they live. And didn’t bother to make any plans on when they might pull them back – quite the opposite in fact, supported by the UN decision of stalling the Cambodian development plan. No matter how many times the gentlemen in the fancy buildings in the capital say that no orders are given and no fighting will erupt, no matter how many different cries and resultless demands of ending the conflict, it does not change the fact that having your kids play in an area where there are also guns and soldiers is a frightening thing to deal with in your everyday life.

Furthermore: Having put the conflict on hold without resolution means that different groups with strong opinions on the subject (and those are many) now have momentum to continue antagonizing each other – like the Network of Thai Patriots, who this week demanded the government push out all Cambodian people from the disputed area.

“”The government must quickly revoke all the Thai-Cambodian agreements that put Thailand at a disadvantage, expel the Cambodians from the Thai territory and fulfil former prime minister Sarit Thanarat’s desire to retain ownership of Preah Vihear temple,”  Chaiwat Sinsuwong, a leader of the movement, recently stated in the Bangkok Post.

If it was not obvious before that the people who just happen to live near the temple – something that should be very lucky for them – are in a fragile and unstable situation, it is certainly becoming more and more clear now. Who in their right mind just comes right out and say something like: “Throw them out” about a specific ethnic group that has been living somewhere for generations?

The answer is: People, who have been following this conflict for years. Someone, who has forgotten the two above mentioned things and are now only focusing on coming out of the conflict with their national pride intact.  Chaiwat Sinsuwong is far from the only person, who fit that description.

With no solution whatsoever in sight, these harsh demands and strange perspectives on this situation are only going to increase in craziness and frequency. While they do that, the people can do little but sit at the border and hope for some sort of intervention from somewhere.

But where? 


Anya Palm is a freelance journalist and Southeast Asia expert stationed in Bangkok.



In Cambodia, the prize for peace is justice

35 years of prison time for Kaeng Kek Iev – better known as Duch – is strange.  Iev, a prison chief in Cambodia’s notorious torture prison S-21 during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, is responsible for the violent and untimely death of about 14000 people.  

He is the first person ever to stand trial and receive verdict for his crimes during the genocide in 1975-79.

It seemed more appropriate that the judge would read something like “lifetime times a gazillion”, when the first-ever verdict over a Khmer Rouge cadre was read up yesterday at the UN-supported war crimes tribunal in Cambodia.

Nevertheless, the verdict read 35. Of those 35, five was subtracted in compensation for him being illegally detained and another 11 subtracted, because he already served them, while waiting for the tribunal to make up its mind in how to proceed in prosecuting him.

In total, for genocide, crimes against humanity and murder: 19 years. This means the 67-year-old will conceivably have a chance of living as free man in his last years.

Strange. But not that strange.

Already in 1998, the Cambodian government asked the UN for help setting up a war crimes tribunal to convict the perpetrators of the genocide of Cambodia, where approximately 2 million people died, either of starvation, exhaustion or execution. One of the main motivators of setting up the tribunal was the death of Brother No 1, Pol Pot, in 1998. Despite leading the murderous revolution in Cambodia, he was never prosecuted for his crimes.

However, the Cambodian government sanctioned their request with a bunch of demands: The tribunal were to be placed in Cambodia, there was to be an overweight of national staff, the entire budget was to come from elsewhere than Cambodia. Years of negotiation later, in 2006, the Cambodian government got its way – with small alterations – and the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) was established in Phnom Penh.

It almost did not happen at all. Former Secretary General Kofi Annan expressed doubts on the special construction with an overweight of  Cambodian staff – judges in particular – and warned, the Cambodian government had too much influence, a concern that later has proven to be all to valid. He was backed up by pretty much every expert, NGO and non-cambodian official that had their hands on this project.

But still, the tribunal moved forward and why? Because in Cambodia peace was more important than a fair tribunal. After decades of genocide, occupation, coup and political instability, a flawed and corrupt tribunal was better than having no tribunal at all.

This is also why the UN, despite many threats, has stayed in as a partner. From the start, Annan and the UN made clear that they would withdrew their participation, were the international standards not met.

They weren’t. There have been countless examples of both corruption and especially political interference within the tribunal. One example is the documented cases of salary kickbacking that was discovered in Februar 2007. Another the refusal to take the witness stand by several high level politician, when they were summoned by the court. But despite threats of it, UN never withdrew.

Today, we are looking at a painfully controlled tribunal, a way too long process, one extremely low verdict and an equally low number of defendants. These points of critique surface again and again and they do not become any less valid as time goes by, so why do key players, like UN, express satisfaction with the tribunal?

Because it could not have been any other way. It was this or nothing at all.

Had the UN not agreed to the terms back in 1998, Cambodia would never have had the money and competence to establish something like the ECCC. The government would have continued ignoring the shadow of the genocide hovering right over their heads.

And had the UN decided to make good of their own promise and withdrew from the ECCC, Cambodia would have blamed the international society for failing them, just as it did in the 80s, where it let the Khmer Rouge keep its seat in the UN, despite knowledge of their role in committing genocide in their own country.

Any of these events would compromise the fragile political stability, Cambodia desperately needs.

So today, Cambodia has a tribunal, of which it has full political control and on which only politically approved candidates will be tried.

In it’s various positions sit sons, nephews, good friends, people, who have paid people and people, who are owed something…along with just and competent people, who work to achieve what is achievable in the frames they are given.

The prosecution will see no more than ten defendants – and more likely just the five that are already detained, despite the fact that tens of thousands former leaders and war criminals are still living life as free men and woman in Cambodia. Many of those are in powerful positions in Cambodia today.

This is the compromise. This is what we could have. Duch ridiculous low sentence of 19 years is a part of it, however sad, unjust and frustrating beyond words it may seem.

Fair? No. Peaceful? Yes.  







The World's Worst Spy

Sivarak Chutipong is a name everyone, who follows South East Asian news, will recognize. From complete anonymousity just a few months ago, Sivarak Chutipong became famous over night. Why? He is a spy.

The Thai national was working in Cambodia for the company Cambodia Air Traffic, when Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand’s controversial ex-prime minister, was appointed economical adviser to Cambodia in November. Thailand demanded Thaksin handed over, as he is wanted in connection with a corruption case. Cambodia refused, arguing the warrant out for Thaksin was political and therefore illegal. Thailand’s government went into a red hot rage.

And froze all trade, talked of ending all bilateral trade, withdrew various key officials from different positions and in general escalated the conflict into a complete farce. The Cambodian response was – of course – every bit as fierce and non-diplomatic: They too withdrew diplomats and toughened up the language to the point where Prime Minister Hun Sen made it clear that he had nothing to lose in an eventual armed conflict. Repeatedly he emphasized his friendship with Thaksin, which is relevant, because the politics of the two countries are just that corrupt.

 And in a matter of days, both the Thai and Cambodian government had taken the conflict so far, they had backed themselves into a corner. The only way of avoiding to lose face for either side was getting into armed conflict – or so it seemed to every expert, op-ed and commentator at the time.

And then, out of nowhere, Sivarak Chutipong shows up.

 The engineer supposedly tried to get access to Thaksin’s flight details and sell them to the Thai government. He was caught and forgot was all the serious political discussions and – so it seems – all perspective. This whole political spat was about Sivarak Chutipong now.

Cambodia convicted him to seven years for spying. Which seems odd in itself – seven years for spying in a country where stealing a bike can land the thief in jail for a decade? Even odder was his pardon by the Cambodian King a few days later and Sivarak Chutipong’s return to Thailand, where he then proceeded to get himself ordained as a Buddhist monk. What happened?

Nothing, probably.

Sivarak Chutipong was just what both Prime Ministers needed to emerge from the situation without losing face. Immediately, the tension had gone down and scattered news reports of random politicians accusing each other of this and that did not generate enough fuel for the stance to continue after all the commotion about the spy.

Having had his name and face plastered all over all news media in the region for two weeks straight after his unsuccessful debut as an undercover agent for the state, Sivarak Chutipong qualifies as the world’s absolute worst spy. Every bit of information about him was revealed and no matter, what he did, the press would cover him like a rock star. Indeed, Sivarak Chutipong is a famous man.

But what about the talks of the stopping the bilateral trade – what was the result of those? What about all the projects that were halted – how much money were lost and how many people lost their jobs? What about all the people living by the border, where the troops of both countries are still deployed – can they rest assured this disagreement will not suddenly flare up over their heads again? What happened with all that after Chutipong’s arrest?

That is not really clear and no one has made an attempt to make it so. The only thing that is very clear today is that however lousy a spy Sivarak Chutipong was, he sure was a very excellent distraction.  


Anya Palm, free-lance journalist







Wild monks should raise concern in Cambodia by Anya Palm

In Cambodia, on TuesdayOct 26, a nun was murdered. She had grabbed the wrong bowl to feed the pigswith and then an angry man beat her to death with a stick for her mistake. Sameday, in an unrelated case, a young student became the center of a drunkenbrawl. Two men got so upset with the student that they beat him with a hammerand an iron bar. 

The only thing those twoincidents have in common – apart from a deadly outcome for the victim – is thatthe perpetrator was a Buddhist monk.

The cases do not standalone. There are frequently reports of Cambodian monks getting into violentfights, watching porn, drinking, gambling, raping and doing pretty much exactlyas they damn well please.

And while a collective consensusof condemning the wild monks arises – it is not difficult to agree thatmurdering someone is wrong – Cambodian authorities either fail to acknowledgeor simply ignore the greater problem.

There are procedures forbreaking the law and those can be followed. (That they tend to be followedsomewhat creatively in the super corrupt Kingdom is another issue.) In anycase, the crime will be dealt with and does not constitute the core of theproblem.

The orange garments do.

Those are symbols of peaceand morality that the Cambodian people need and the role of the bearer in theCambodian society is of crucial importance.

90 percent of the peopleidentify themselves as Buddhist and go to the pagoda on a regular basis. Alarge part of the population is not educated and looks to the monks for wisdomand answers. Most people are raised amidst corruption, violence and poverty;yet, those are the same people that are struggling to rebuild a nationshattered by genocide, occupation, coup and political instability.

There are three corevalues that constitute the pillars of Cambodian society: King, Nation andReligion. While the retired King is largely still who Cambodians refer to whenthey say King, he is in his own way contributing to society by doing what he feelsis best for his country. There are issues, that can certainly be discussed andlooked upon critically, but in the greater picture, King Sihanouk fights forhis Kingdom. As mentioned, the people themselves have taken it upon them torestore the Nation and thus, it lays with the monks the rebuild the Religion.

This is the consequencesof monks running wild: They obstruct the rebuilding of a country that is verymuch only beginning to rise again. They risk that the Cambodian people losefaith in them as role models and if that happens, one ground pillar is missing.

And having identifiedthat, there is yet another problem: What can be done?

This is a difficultquestion. None of the politicians seem to not take up the discussion. If it wasonly because they recognized that politics and religion are two separatethings, they would be excused, but seeing as the religious system is indeedvery politicized in Cambodia, they might for once use it for the good. Alas.None of the chief monks and religious leaders has taken any steps worthmentioning either and the intellectuals and public debaters are a largelypowerless group.

A young monk from the WatLanka pagoda in the capital proposed his idea for a solution in a chat withfriends: Longer training period and defrocking at first offense. His idea -good or bad – will not be heard, though. It is not his place to propose suchthings.

But…maybe it should be?