Ieng Sary, the Romeikes, and Your Guide to Remembering Genocide


How do we view genocide in our public memory?

Some answers lie in two news stories from this week. One concerns the death of Ieng Sary, an 87-year-old former Khmer Rouge official who helped kill 1.7 million Cambodians in the late 1970s. The other involves German asylum seekers in Tennessee.

They seem unrelated, but a closer look reveals important unifying elements: both reflect how state-sponsored murder gets treated retrospectively. And both show how disparately each nation has recovered from its troubling and violent past.

Uwe and Hannelore Romeike are devout Christians from southwestern Germany. In 2006, they removed their children from the country’s public school system, claiming they were being "bombarded with negative influences" and taught to disrespect authority. The couple decided to home school them instead.

Unfortunately for them, this is illegal.

Two years and many thousand euros worth of fines later, the Romeikes sought asylum in the U.S., where between 1.5 and 2 million children are home schooled legally. In 2010, an American judge legally validated their flight by claiming the German government was "attempting to circumscribe their religious beliefs" by forcing their children into public school.

This has since been overturned, and the Romeikes’ case will go before an appellate court. It’s the first time a home school-based asylum claim will be heard before an American judge.

German children have been legally required to attend school since 1918, but in 1938, this legislation was fortified to help the Nazi government spread its influence and ideologies. Its legacy remains intact: Germany’s compulsory attendance laws are some of the strictest and most heavily enforced in the European Union.

Photo Credit: Harvard Law Library

It’s unsurprising that the Nazi Party’s legacy can be pinpointed at such a comparatively minute level nowadays. In a way, it speaks to how thoroughly their actions are dealt with in our collective consciousness. Whether through art, legislation, or what have you, the Holocaust is deeply woven into our public memory, and this grants us the "luxury" of seeing its details.

In Cambodia, this luxury is a long way off. Ieng Sary’s death leaves behind only two living defendants to stand trial for the Khmer Rouge’s crimes against humanity. One of them, Nuom Chea, has been in and out of the hospital for years and is not expected to live much longer.

Khmer Rouge prosecutors have been plagued by allegations of wastefulness, corruption, and political interference for years. Their tribunal has spent an estimated $175 million and handed down only one conviction.

Anne Heindel, a legal adviser at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, states that "[Ieng Sary's death is] a tremendous loss for Cambodia's understanding of its own history." She further urges that "the court be ensured sufficient funding to complete its work ... before more ageing suspects and survivors pass away."

Indeed, seeing these incidents alongside each other shows how far Cambodians still have to come for justice. Unlike the Holocaust, significant post-genocide catharsis in the southeast Asian nation has yet to materialize. The longer it takes for the Khmer Rouge's actions to be ingrained in our public memory as "the past," the longer it will be before we can examine its legacy in detail.

And only when we see this legacy in detail will we realize that which is true of all genocide: it's never really "the past." It will always be with us.