The cloak of impunity in Cambodia I: Cultural foundations

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Any attempt to stop cycles of violence requires an understanding of the cultural meanings of impunity, or freedom from consequences. As Cambodia struggles to combat the tide of violence in daily life, at a time when former Khmer Rouge leaders face the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), this article discusses the cultural underpinnings of impunity in Cambodia. In this ethnographic study, data are gathered from survivors and perpetrators of direct violence (e.g. violence against women and children) and public violence (e.g. land-grabbing). Findings show that some perpetrators ‘remember’ having been victims of violence in a previous incarnation and are reborn as perpetrators, while others, born with particular birthmarks, are prone to impunity. From the Buddhist cultural perspective prevalent in Cambodia, the three ‘unwholesome roots’ – craving, anger, and delusion – poison the perpetrators’ minds and lead them on the ‘road to ruin’, imbuing them with ‘clouded moral vision’ that blinds them and results in a failure of conscience. The study’s findings will add to our understanding of the cultural and psychological footprint of impunity, with implications for the development of culturally responsive strategies to end the cycle of violence.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)757-773
Number of pages17
JournalThe International Journal of Human Rights
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 3 Jul 2018


  • Cambodia
  • Generational violence
  • Impunity
  • Khmer Rouge
  • Psychology of violence
  • Theravada buddhism

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