Exploring the Role of Collective Memory for Reconciliation: A Comparative Case of Guatemala and Cambodia


Giovanni Dazzo

May, 2020


In this paper, I explore how collective memory—or, the memories of a group generated through shared experience and values (Halbwachs, 1951/1992)—manifests itself in the process and path toward reconciliation. I seek to understand how theoretical conceptualizations of collective memory apply in transitional justice spaces (Brants & Klep, 2013; Chirwa, 1997), particularly in Guatemala and Cambodia, where political and military leaders did not necessarily take responsibility or offer apologies to affected populations during war crimes trials and truth commissions (Bret, 2016; McGrew, 2011). Through this comparative case study of Guatemala and Cambodia, I am interested in understanding how collective memory has been negotiated and contested through the use of narrative (Klep, 2012).

More specifically, my interest lies in analyzing how narratives—e.g., text, oral histories, art (e.g., street art, community art)—are constructed by affected populations, and whether it seems that these narrative forms contribute to reconciliation or healing. Through this comparative case study, I seek to answer the following research questions: (1) How, and in what ways, have affected populations utilized various narrative forms to negotiate and contest collective memory? (2) Does the narrative process seem to lead to healing or forgiveness, despite the absence of other precursors for reconciliation, such as formal apologies?

For this comparative case study, I have chosen Cambodia and Guatemala based on three criteria, some of which I mentioned above. First, while both countries experienced prolonged periods of mass atrocities and rights violations, trials were held decades after these periods ended. Second, while truth commissions and criminal tribunals have been held, leaders did not offer apologies to affected populations. Last, those who held various roles and responsibilities during each country’s armed conflict continue to remain in some form of (political, military, and/or economic) power; thus, official or national narratives—through political discourse established during war crimes trials or even educational texts, such as history books—create a master narrative that may not memorialize victims or may even seek to hide the past.

Before moving on to the comparative case study of Guatemala and Cambodia, I first outline theoretical conceptualizations of collective memory and reconciliation. I then review how formal transitional justice processes—such as criminal trials and government-led truth commissions—may attempt to formulate (authoritative) collective memories of trauma and injustice, in an effort to establish a national narrative that promotes reconciliation. I then consider how communities in Guatemala and Cambodia have formulated their own collective memories—providing examples of community-led text and art—to counter master narratives established through traditional transitional justice processes (e.g., trials, government-led truth commissions). By juxtaposing formal and community-led narrative processes, I demonstrate how each serves a purpose on the path toward reconciliation. However, I also seek to highlight how formal transitional justice processes can often lead to a national (master) narrative that complicates how affected communities negotiate and construct collective memories to reconcile with past trauma.

Collective Memory and Reconciliation: A Brief Literature Review

In this section, I bring together the concepts of collective memory (Halbwachs, 1950/1980, 1951/1992) and reconciliation (Lederach, 1997). Based on the foundational sociological work of Halbwachs (1950/1980, 1951/1992), an individual’s memories are composed of both an individual and collective element. Although memory was originally seen as a purely cognitive state, or appearing solely in one’s consciousness, Halbwachs (1951/1992) argues that an individual’s memories are often dependent on society and to the groups which we belong. By listening to the recollections of others, an individual places their thoughts within “a collective memory and social frameworks for memory” (Halbwachs, 1951/1992, p. 38). In noting the social and relational aspect of memory, Halbwachs shows the mutually reinforcing nature between the individual and collective. As an individual hears the memories of others within a group—whether these originate from family members, religious groups, or a social class—these recollections can reinforce an individual’s idea of self while further reinforcing their identity within a group. This mutually reinforcing nature between the individual and collective demonstrates how memory may transcend temporal boundaries: As an individual hears collective memories of the past, recollections can encourage present membership within a particular group identity, in turn, bonding them toward a shared future.

Related to Halbwach’s (1951/1992) conceptualization of memory as relational and traversing temporal boundaries, I focus on reconciliation as “a place, the point of encounter where concerns about both the past and the future are met” (Lederach, 1997, p. 27). As Lederach (2005) notes, an integrated framework for peacebuilding can take a number of forms on the path to reconciliation, from (inter)governmental processes, such as truth commissions and war crimes tribunals that seek accountability and public acknowledgment of abuse (Hayner, 2001); restorative justice initiatives that aim to repair victim-offender relationships, such as community circles (Zehr, 2002); and, counseling and trauma healing initiatives to address collective and generational trauma. Lederach (2005) illustrates how these strategies seek to retell stories and experiences—or, in his words, re-story—in an effort to “renegotiate history and identity” (p. 145). However, for affected groups, the recognition and negotiation of this history and identity can become rooted in experiences and recollections of trauma, forming a “collective memory of times when they were deeply violated by the other” (Lederach, 2005, p. 142).

Collective memory, then, becomes a way for groups to recognize a shared past of abuse; in turn, formulating a group identity that provides support and social solidarity in the future (Brewer, 2006). The renegotiation of history and identity, subsequently, becomes a vital concept in understanding how the process of healing and reconciliation is encountered—in formal or community-led processes, or to address individual or collective traumas. In environments of protracted conflict, collective memories may be formed as a consequence of hearing others’ recollections of past trauma, but there also seems to be a need to establish a shared experience and a shared future for reconciliatory purposes.

Collective Memory in Transitional justice

In formal transitional justice processes—such as criminal tribunals and government-led truth commissions—there has often been an attempt to search for facts in an effort to establish “a shared truth about crime and injustice that allows sense to be made of a traumatic past and is a prerequisite for a stable future” (Brants & Klep, 2013). According to Brants and Klep (2013), proponents of these mechanisms state that there is an ability to establish “a coherent collective memory” (Osiel, 1997) or “national narrative” (Minow, 2008). However, Brants and Kelp argue that while these formal procedures may serve the purpose of bringing forth justice, an overreliance on these mechanisms may conflate fact-finding with truth. While these mechanisms may be effective in creating a national narrative for the pursuit of security and stability, critics often argue how collective these “collective memories” can be (Chirwa, 1997; Winter, 2006).

As Brewer (2003) notes, “nations and memory are indivisible” (p. 215). However, if a formal process such as a trial can only use memories if they meet evidentiary requirements, it begs the question of whether the “collective memory” will only serve the State’s purpose of constructing a national narrative, or if it can also provide a space for victims to experience reconciliation. Truth-finding through a purely legalistic process, then, complicates the relationship that the victim-survivor has with the transitional justice process and presents a paradox. Trials provide a space for victim-survivors to bear witness, but if truths are contradictory or memories are blurry, they cannot be corroborated as fact; in turn, confounding the master narrative sought by the court and State.

The process of establishing a master narrative, however, is not solely established through international criminal trials. Processes such as truth commissions are often sought by governments so as to provide “an official version of events” (Brewer, 2003, p. 219). Through a truth commission, there is an emphasis in “producing a report that acknowledges victims’ voices and endows them with official authority vis-à-vis the nation and the world” (Brants & Klep, 2003, p. 43). While trials must follow due process, truth commissions are often designed to serve a restorative function—providing a space where competing memories may reside. However, the purpose behind truth-telling in truth commissions has come under scrutiny as questions arise over their effectiveness in promoting healing (Hayner, 2011) and securing reparations (Laplante and Theidon, 2007).

Phelps (2004) also calls into question how witnesses’ testimonies will be used within a truth commission’s official report—i.e., the basis for the national (master) narrative. For instance, after the Chilean National Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Rettig Report (named after lawyer Rául Rettig, president of the Commission) essentially buried the testimonies of victim-survivors by only recognizing the dead or disappeared as victims (Brants & Klep, 2003; Phelps, 2004). While the Rettig Report did acknowledge acts of repression and torture committed under the military regime, it did not acknowledge the role of individual perpetrators. Thirteen years later, the Rettig Report was followed by the Valech Report (named after the president of the National Commission on Political Detention and Torture); however, in this case, it sought to name those who were detained and tortured by the State for political reasons. Similar to the Rettig Report though, the Valech Report did not name perpetrators (Brants & Klep, 2013).

While these government-led truth commissions produced important historical findings on the abuses suffered by the population, both fell short in naming perpetrators. In these reports, the names of victims and survivors are in full display, but the torture and detention they suffered are historically marked as the responsibility of faceless, nameless perpetrators who were never put on trial. With trauma acknowledged but responsibility foregone, it is evident how victim-survivors’ testimonies were co-opted in an effort to authoritatively construct a collective memory that served the State’s objective of national reconciliation. As communities felt their memories were shunned, victim-survivors and human rights groups sought reconciliation in their own manner, through “public manifestations of memory in memorials, monuments, and the creation of visitor centres in former torture and detention centers” (Brants & Klep, 2013, p. 45).

Comparative Case Study: Guatemala and Cambodia

As with the example of Chile, in this section I present a comparative case study of two nations—Guatemala and Cambodia—where victim-survivors and human rights groups have sought to construct collective memories of past trauma. First, I briefly introduce the formal processes (e.g., international criminal trials, government-led truth commissions) taken in each country. I then highlight several examples of how communities have contested the national (master) narrative produced and on display from formal mechanisms.

Formal Transitional Justice Processes

In each country, formal transitional justice processes occurred at varying stages after periods of protracted conflict. In Cambodia, a formal or government-led truth commission was never established after the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge, which claimed the lives of over 1.7 million (i.e., one-quarter of the population) from 1975-1979 (McGrew, 2011). Conversely, in Guatemala, a formal truth commission—the Historical Clarification Commission / La Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico (CEH)—began three years after the signing of the official peace accord in 1996 (Mersky, 2005). The CEH sought to understand how and why crimes were committed. The CEH narrated how anti-democratic sentiment and structural injustices allowed the Guatemalan military to act with impunity from 1960-1996 and showed that 200,000 individuals were killed or forcibly disappeared, with 83% of victims identified as Mayan.

With regard to trials, the CEH recommended that the Guatemalan State was responsible for holding perpetrators responsible. As a result of this recommendation, José Efraín Ríos Montt—who served as a military General during the armed conflict, as well as President of Guatemala—was put on trial after his immunity as a Congressperson ended in 2012. Although he was tried and convicted of genocide and sentenced to 80 years in prison, this ruling was shortly overturned. In 2016, he died while his case was being retried (Kinzer, 2018).

In Cambodia, five leaders of the Khmer Rouge were arrested in 2007 and transferred to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). The first (Kang Kek Iew) was indicted in 2007; the remaining three (Nuon Chea; Khieu Samphan; Ieng Sary) in 2010. The fifth (Ieng Thirith) was declared mentally unfit to stand trial due to Alzheimer’s disease. Kang Kek Iew—who operated the Tuol Sleng torture and detention center—was initially sentenced to 35 years in prison, which was later extended to a life sentence. Nuon Chea (second in charge after leader, Pol Pot) and Khieu Samphan (who acted as Head of State and succeeded Pol Pot) were charged with crimes against humanity and genocide; both received life sentences. Of these five leaders, two are serving their life sentences while the others died of natural causes while in detention. According to official documentation from the ECCC (n.d.-a), the court provides victim-survivors with opportunities for reparation, while spokespersons have gone on the record stating that the court provides a space for reconciliation (Narin, 2017).

With regard to formal mechanisms providing a space for reconciliation in Guatemala and Cambodia, it should be noted that General Ríos Montt and the Khmer Rouge leaders did not offer formal apologies. While some maintained their innocence or denied their culpability, others were unable to remember important details regarding their crimes; thus, exhibiting a collective amnesia (Chandler, 2008), or a “conscious decision to forget” (Brewer, 2006). Although trials and truth commissions seek to understand what happened and to whom, they often seek to establish individual guilt. Herein lies the paradox in stating that these formal processes can establish a collective memory that is intended for reconciliation: Perpetrators’ and victim-survivors’ accounts are pitted against one another, in an effort to collectively produce a memory that can then be used to establish guilt or a version of history (Brants & Klep, 2013). However, if perpetrators exhibit collective amnesia and victim-survivors’ accounts cannot be corroborated as fact, it can complicate the efficacy of establishing a collective memory for the purpose of national reconciliation.

Community-Based Approaches

While formal processes provide a space to seek facts, “they cannot impose shared remembering” (Brants & Klep, 2013, p. 47). Yet, in contexts where high-profile leaders did not offer apologies and denied culpability during formal processes—as done in Guatemala and Cambodia—there is an opportunity to explore how communities have sought to establish a collective memory of the past. In this section, I highlight a number of approaches exhibited by victim-survivors and human rights groups in Guatemala and Cambodia.

Constructing Collective Memory in Guatemala

Although Guatemala agreed to a government-led truth commission in 1994 and the CEH began in 1999, human rights groups questioned its mandate and whether it could produce a useful report (Mersky, 2005). For this reason, the CEH was preceded by a community-led truth commission: The Interdiocesan Project for the Recovery of Historical Memory (REMHI). This project, led by the Catholic Church and coordinated among several human rights groups, pursued truth-telling by directly engaging communities. From 1995 to 1998, trained volunteers visited communities and collected 6,500 testimonies directly from victim-survivors. As a result, the REMHI Report (1999) was able to document 14,291 separate acts of violence and 401 massacres (noting locations and dates) committed by the military.

Although the REMHI Report did not have a legal mandate and much of its evidence could not be used in court as it did not meet evidentiary standards, this collection of testimonies achieved two important objectives. First, the REMHI Report provided victim-survivors with the space to tell their stories, creating a collective memory of trauma, as directly told by those who experienced abuse. Second, by providing the dates and locations of massacres, it provided a lead for nonprofit organizations such as the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG), which could later conduct forensic investigations and begin the exhumation of mass graves.

For instance, after identifying a mass grave site and the remains of over 220 people atop the hills of San Juan Comalapa, a community memorial site was built by FAFG and a victim-survivors group, the National Coordinator of Widows of Guatemala (CONAVIGUA). After exhuming some of these remains over a decade ago, FAFG and CONAVIGUA decided to return the bones to the mountaintop where they were found, in an effort to deliver them back to their families and restore some dignity to those who were killed (Strochlic, 2019). FAFG reinterred bodies of those found next to a memorial that was built by CONAVIGUA. On the nimajay—meaning big house in the Kaqchikel language—are murals painted by community artists.

As shown in Figure 1, the community chose to depict a scene of violence from the armed conflict. As mentioned in the REMHI Report, this mural shows the scorched-earth policy administered by the military regime—as illustrated by the village homes being burned in the background. The scene includes indigenous community members being executed by masked military forces, as well as helicopters flying overhead.

However, unlike the facts heard during trials and truth commissions, the left-hand side of the mural includes a symbolic scene in line with Kaqchikel folklore. This scene depicts nature—as symbolized by a human figure—embracing the bodies of the dead. In this exhibition of collective memory, the Kaqchikel artists chose to show how nature has nurtured the bodies of the dead, having come back to life as corn and sustaining the living community members.

The murals of the Kaqchikel Maya in San Juan Comalapa portrays a collective memory of the past trauma that many in this community witnessed and experienced. However, for many in Guatemala City, the crimes committed by the military regime are a distant past and are only stories told by others. For this reason, artists such as Daniel Hernández-Salazar have sought to remind those in Guatemala City of the forgotten past (Hoelscher, 2008) through street art.

In one example, the artist chose to depict an angel, overlaying a photograph of a scapula (from a photo of a victim’s bones) on that of a man. This photograph, portraying “angels screaming at genocidal trauma” were installed across 36 sites in Guatemala City, facing buildings such as the military intelligence facility, army headquarters, and wealthy suburbs. As noted by Hernández-Salazar, he chose to publicly install these angels as an exercise in pushing against collective amnesia (Brewer, 2006; McGrew, 2011); or, to what he refers to as an “institutionalized forgetfulness… fomented by those in power” (Hoelscher, 2008, p. 197). Although Guatemala held two truth commissions, one formal and one community-based, it is worth noting how those in power can exacerbate an institutionalized forgetfulness, or collective amnesia, that slowly dissipates the collective memory of those who suffered trauma.

Constructing Collective Memory in Cambodia

Unlike Guatemala, victim-survivors in Cambodia did not have formal transitional justice processes until the start of the ECCC in 2007. Thus, how did victim-survivors seek to construct collective memories in the absence of more formal processes? Much like civil society groups in Guatemala, those in Cambodia sought to create their own forms of collective memory by coordinating work that is often done by the state. In the absence of a truth commission, victim-survivors did not have the formal space to provide testimony. Thus, organizations such as the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-CAM) sought to preserve stories of trauma—through systematic documentation and archival procedures—in turn, contributing to the construction of collective memories (McGrew, 2011). Since 1995 (just four years after the Paris Peace Agreements), DC-CAM has sought to educate and inform Cambodians and the world of the crimes committed, often replacing the type of work conducted during a truth commission. Through its systematic procedures, its documentation became a primary source of evidence for the ECCC (McGrew, 2011).

While DC-CAM has employed systematic documentation and archival procedures, other nonprofits have expressly focused on participatory or community-based approaches to peace and reconciliation. Youth for Peace has sought to address the structural injustices intensified by the country’s armed conflict by forming peace education curriculum and various activities (e.g., art workshops) for youth. Youth are able to unpack the traumas of the past by understanding history, as well as negotiating and contributing to collective memories through art.

Additionally, through one of its flagship participatory projects, Youth for Peace organizes intergenerational dialogue and study tours to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, so youth can learn about the genocide. They also hold lessons on facilitation skills and nonprofit management, and youth then create and implement their own projects to constructively contribute to the nation’s collective memories of the genocide. Just as Lederach (2005) notes the necessity to address generational trauma as a way to “renegotiate history and identity” (p. 145), Youth for Peace seeks to further the path toward reconciliation by repairing relationships and addressing shared remembering through narratives.

Much like Youth for Peace, the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center (n.d.-b) in Phnom Penh “opens the doors to large swathes of memory” by acquiring, restoring, and providing free public access to Cambodia’s audiovisual history that was lost during the decades of war. Through its Acts of Memory project, the Bophana Center has created a free online exhibition (Transmissions 2018) on their website, where victim-survivors tell their stories to youth. These intergenerational dialogues have been recorded, allowing viewers to learn about past abuses. As these interviews are recorded, they also provide a digital archive that can be preserved so future generations can view this content and learn about the nation’s history. This initiative was proposed to the ECCC as a project to aid reparation—through public acknowledgment—for the civil parties in Case 002/02 (i.e., the second trail against Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, where charges of genocide, forced marriage, and other grave human rights violations were heard). As noted by the ECCC (n.d.), donors have provided funds for projects that grant moral and collective reparations “to preserve collective memory and restore victims’ dignity”.

Through this partnership between the Bophana Center and the ECCC, there seems to be recognition that public acknowledgment and collective memory may not occur within the confines of the criminal tribunal. Rather, it is apparent that while a formal transitional justice process, such as the ECCC, focuses on its mandate for retributive justice, it is not limited in lending support to community-based organizations that can offer restorative justice. Although the intent behind formal and community-based processes may differ, the ECCC has been able to support organizations such as the Bophana Center, which may be better placed to provide a space for victim-survivors to re-tell their stories outside the legal boundaries of the court.


In the case of the Bophana Center, there is an opportunity to explore how formal and informal (community-based) processes have worked in tandem. By funding these types of organizations, and explicitly mentioning that these projects are for the purpose of moral reparation and restorative justice, the ECCC has shown that the path toward reconciliation can be one of civil society and government partnership. However, as artists and nonprofits across Cambodia have aided communities in constructing collective memories around past trauma, it has been questioned whether the Cambodian people have reached and will sustain a stage of deep reconciliation (McGrew, 2011). Through extensive qualitative research, McGrew (2011) ascertains that many Cambodians still live in a state of shallow coexistence—with perpetrators and victim-survivors living separate lives and simply tolerating one another—rather than a deep reconciliation based on relationships that are “complex, interdependent, and meaningful” (p. 514). From McGrew’s research, it is demonstrated that nonprofits such as DC-CAM and Youth for Peace have conducted vital reconciliatory work; however, few communities have conducted reconciliatory projects of their own. As McGrew’s findings are from 2011—at a time when only one of the ECCC trials had concluded—there is an opportunity for future research to see how formal processes have contributed to the nation’s collective memory and its path toward reconciliation. Furthermore, through examples such as those between the Bophana Center and the ECCC, there has certainly been an evolution in partnership that did not exist when DC-CAM, as a nonprofit, sought to fill a gap by preserving and shaping the nation’s collective memory.

Recent examples in Cambodia provide a glimpse of hope with regard to how formal and informal transitional justice processes can work in partnership. However, the examples in Guatemala continue to show how communities are continuing to contest and counter the national (master) narrative established through the court. While Guatemala’s formal and informal truth commissions are arguably seen as successes, the overturning of Ríos Montt’s verdict shows how formal processes can still be coopted through political means (Brants & Klep, 2013). As Brewer (2006) notes, there is an opportunity for memory to be seen as a peace strategy. However, when former generals have political immunity or when verdicts are overturned, communities—such as those in Guatemala—may feel the need to respond by shaping their own collective memories as a strategy for healing. In Guatemala, this is evidenced through a Kaqchikel community illustrating vivid images of past atrocities at a community-built memorial site. It is also seen through the work of an artist—such as Daniel Hernández-Salazar—who has strategically placed symbolic angels that keep watch over military and government offices, showing that someone may someday hold them accountable for past abuses.


Whether it is in partnership or as nonviolent demonstration, informal processes (e.g., text, street art) can illustrate a community’s reaction or response to formal transitional justice processes. As Chirwa (1997) notes, collective memory becomes a necessary part of healing and reconciliation as it “invokes shared emotions and consciousness” (p. 482). Much like the concept of reconciliation (Lederach, 2005), collective memory (Halbwachs, 1992) is a relational process that goes beyond individual accounts or cognitive capacity. In the cases of Guatemala and Cambodia, there is evidence that victim-survivors and human rights groups may not have felt that formal processes—such as criminal tribunals and government-led truth commissions—achieved truth or justice. As states seek to create a collective memory on the path toward national reconciliation, there continues to be a need to question whether victim-survivors’ memories are preserved and respected within the “collective”; or, if they are simply being used as a tool to contribute toward a master narrative that seeks security and stability over deep reconciliation.


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