A new history

Cambodians have mostly heard about Khmer Rouge atrocities from each other. Now schools are addressing the tragedy. Khieu Maly was sitting quietly, ashen-faced during his Khmer Rouge history lesson in 2003, says Song Malet, her grade nine teacher. When younger brother Khieu Vordeth took the same class a year…

Steve Finch and Yos Katank
July 13, 2010

Cambodians have mostly heard about Khmer Rouge atrocities from each other. Now schools are addressing the tragedy.
Khieu Maly was sitting quietly, ashen-faced during his Khmer Rouge history lesson in 2003, says Song Malet, her grade nine teacher. When younger brother Khieu Vordeth took the same class a year later, his behaviour was little different. He was the last of three children by former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan to go through the Cambodian high school system.

“I spoke about Pol Pot, Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary,” says Song Malet of a class that identified key members of the regime.

Although they rank among the better-known of the thousands of “Khmer Rouge kids” that have studied at Hun Sen Krongtepnimith High School in Pailin, a former KR stronghold in western Cambodia, Khieu Maly and Khieu Vordeth are hardly in the minority. Around 50% of students are related to former KR members in this town near the Thai border, meaning history classes on the regime remain sensitive, even today. They are about to get more so.

A new textbook and exams along with an increasingly sophisticated curriculum covering Cambodia’s bleakest period has been introduced in high schools across the country within the past year. In Pailin, teachers like Song Malet only received the new text last month.

The diminished influence of the KR in places like Pailin and arrest of key regime figures (Khieu Samphan’s trial on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity is scheduled to start early next year) has helped reduce tensions that had previously undermined education on this touchy subject.

Still, teaching a young population a recent history as complex, divisive and incomprehensible as the lifespan of the Khmer Rouge is hardly straightforward. To do so has meant rewriting history and undoing much of the indoctrination that has plagued a country whose 30 years of civil war only fully ended in 1999.

For years, information on the Khmer Rouge came from the relatives and friends that experienced that terrible time – in many cases regime members themselves – while formal educational content was minimal and crude.

After the end of the regime that collapsed in January 1979, talk in the classroom about the KR was rampant in Phnom Penh, says Reach Sambath, chief of public affairs at the Khmer Rouge tribunal. All was hearsay and stories based on experiences, none was formally taught history.

“Every day in my class we always mentioned the Khmer Rouge,” he says of his time at school in the capital from 1981 to 1987. “At the time people put all their blame on China. People thought there must be a foreign country behind this.”

People just could not understand why Khmers would hurt and kill other Khmers, he adds.

During a time when the country’s army was still fighting the KR, the text books used were highly politicised. Confusion and contradiction reigned.

“They learned from the government’s side that the Vietnamese liberated us and the Chinese are against us. And you have kids along the border [in Khmer Rouge areas such as Pailin] saying that the Vietnamese invaded us,” says Youk Chhang, the head of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, the archive organisation that produced the new history text book on the Khmer Rouge.

He notes it has taken a long time for the government to generate the political will to teach the Khmer Rouge from a non-political standpoint.

While the Phnom Penh-based, Vietnam-backed government wrote school texts in the 1980s and 90s on how Hanoi saved the Kingdom from the “Pol Pot clique”, in the far west of the country along the Thai border, schools like those in Pailin were educating children with Khmer Rouge-produced books. When students in these areas went to school they learned that the ultra-communist regime had defended and liberated the country from American imperialism. They studied texts on the invasion by the “Youns”, a Khmer term for Vietnamese that some take to be derogatory. Given that the Vietnamese usurped the Khmer Rouge in January 1979 and stayed on for another 10 years in war-torn Cambodia, it was simple to paint them as invaders and colonialists rather than liberators and friends, the official line in Phnom Penh where the KR were mostly portrayed as the devil.

The official line after school was often even more persuasive. When children in places like Pailin went home they would be surrounded by Khmer Rouge members, sympathisers, and still lived under its officialdom.

“My father told me that during the regime he helped the people to protect the nation,” said the son of a former KR soldier after taking a lunch break from grade nine exams in Pailin.

In every case the story told is different. Verbal histories are nuanced with parts deliberately left out and other asides inserted in or stressed for effect. It’s a story based on individual experience.

“You ask all the kids in this country, everybody [has] heard of the Khmer Rouge, I guarantee you, one way or the other. I mean what else do you expect them to know? They have heard of this because it’s right at home,” says Youk Chhang.

Pailin province is still run by a former Khmer Rouge commander, Governor I Chean, and the son of former regime foreign minister Ieng Sary, Deputy Governor Ieng Vuth.

While the Khmer Rouge today still occupies the town hall in Pailin, they now have a much lesser say in the classroom. But the transition phase – from being told the Khmer Rouge were the saviours of Cambodia in the 1980s, to the late 1990s when teaching started to dictate that the KR were the architects of the country’s own bloody destruction – has hardly been easy.

Song Malet says that when the Ministry of Education assigned her to teach history in Pailin in 2000 (meaning she had to leave her hometown Pursat further east) she says she was scared of standing in front of the relatives of the Khmer Rouge to instruct on the atrocities often perpetrated by their very own families. These lessons have often been hard to swallow.

Historical moment: DC-Cam Director Youk Chhang (right) and the author of the new KR textbook Khamboly Dy (centre) give former KR district secretary Im Chaem a copy of the text Lesson time: History teachers Song Malet (left), Chhoum Akrun (centre) and Kong Chanthy (with two-year-old daughter Ly Lenin) at Krongtepnimith High School in PailinSong Malet and teaching colleague Kong Chanthy remember about four years ago when a student began shouting in the school yard that the Khmer Rouge didn’t kill anyone, that all the teaching was lies.

“Pol Pot’s daughter used to cry in the class room when we taught all this … she cried because her father [was] in the book,” says Youk Chhang.

Suddenly these children had started to hear two different sides – the version of history in the classroom was no longer the same as that at home. It was confusing and often very painful. Which one was right?

Even for the younger generation that lived in places like Phnom Penh where the tales of the Khmer Rouge were always negative, believing what their parents said and what was in the textbooks wasn’t easy, says Reach Sambath. These children did not experience the execution of their family members, the forced labour, extreme food shortages and the complete lack of freedom and subsequent breakdown of society. “They did not see anything like that so they were skeptical,” he says.

For those that know little about the history of the Khmer Rouge but have learned vaguely that this tragic episode happened, the story of Cambodia’s unprecedented auto-genocide sounds almost implausible, like an over-the-top horror film.

“I heard some people say the KR didn’t kill such a big number of their own people,” says student Ros Yong, a grade 12 student at Phnom Penh’s Preah Yukunthor High School.

Add to this difficult comprehension the indoctrination many Cambodians have received, the lack of educators and historians in the country (intellectuals were targeted by the KR regime for extermination) and an under-funded education system, and designing an objective and comprehensive curriculum on the KR becomes a minefield.

The latest text “A History of Democratic Kampuchea” published by DC-Cam is an extensive blueprint of the regime that opens on page two by instructing Cambodian students in grades nine to 12 that nearly two million people died at the hands of the regime (the debated range is anything from 750,000 to about 3.3 million). And concludes: “Democratic Kampuchea was one of the worst tragedies of the 20th Century.”

In terms of the level of detail, the new book goes much further than the state text from 2001 – still in use – noting Pol Pot ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 and that “a lot of people were slaughtered during the time of the regime”, but with little in the way of additional information.

A lot more work has gone into DC-Cam’s edition, with hundreds of interviews with survivors forming the starting point of a project that was approved by the central government back in 2002.

“We looked at what has been done by the Khmer Rouge, by the government in the last 30 years, and then we started to compile questions posed by the victims about the Khmer Rouge and from there we write the textbook,” says Youk Chhang of the document. Already half a million copies are in use with a further 500,000 planned for distribution by the end of next year.

It is a victor’s version of events, for sure, but also a victim-based, non-political history of the Khmer Rouge, he says, one that treads the political line “as well as can be expected”, adds Cambodian historian David Chandler, who helped review the text.

For instance, while it does not document US support of the Khmer Rouge on the international stage after the regime (but names China and Thailand), Chandler notes that it does go into considerable detail on the earlier pre-regime secret bombing campaign in Cambodia by the US designed to wipe out the Ho Chi Minh trail.

This is information that Cambodians will now have to regurgitate to gain qualifications and launch their careers. Students have in the past few weeks answered end of school year history exams with a large KR component for the first time. Fourteen out of 37 marks on this summer’s grade-12 history exam were awarded for questions on the regime such as “who were the top leaders?”

This is a question that Cambodian society is also asking at the hybrid-UN court in Phnom Penh, another major component of the country’s education program on the tragedy. More than 31,000 people from across Cambodia had visited the court by the time of the first verdict in July, that of Kaing Guek Eav, alias “Duch”, the head of the notorious S-21 prison in Phnom Penh.

As part of its outreach program, the court has also held public forums in six provinces where locals are encouraged to discuss and reflect on what happened, another part of the new education process.

Reach Sambath says that now every high school in Phnom Penh holds an official tour of the S-21 museum to see firsthand the remnants of torture, the small wooden and brick cells and the graves of those that were found dead when the Vietnamese came across the former high school in the capital during the first days after the KR was overthrown.

“[It is] a powerful tool in education because many scars from the Khmer Rouge disappeared,” says Reach Sambath.

Sambath is also a teacher at Phnom Penh’s Royal University at the Department of Media and Communication, his students in July produced a DVD, “Recaptured”, featuring short documentaries shot around the country on memory culture related to the Khmer Rouge era. Media is increasingly being used to educate and jog the collective memory on this tragic recent past. Anti-genocide slogans have even now been posted in schools.

In the book “The Gate”, author Francois Bizot’s recollections of the Khmer Rouge are undermined by the lack of tangible evidence that such a terrible event could have happened.

As these pieces of evidence have disappeared, Cambodia has had to create an information flow that compensates for this passage of time. Keeping the wound partly open is also the main way that Cambodia can hope to fully close it, according to Reach Sambath and Youk Chhang.

Violent act: Men re-enact typical scenes from the Khmer Rouge era on the Day of Anger, a national holiday on May 20 A new history of the genocide, one that is objective, accurate and taught across the country the same way, can at least mean Cambodians are finally on the same page on what happened.

There are still numerous problems to address, however. Teachers like Song Malet say there is still not enough time and space in the curriculum to address all the new material in detail.

One group of grade nine students in Pailin said they couldn’t remember ever having had a formal lesson on the Khmer Rouge, and that was just ahead of their history exam. Indeed, the official history textbooks in some classes for grade nine still only contain a single paragraph on the Khmer Rouge.

It’s a process that requires more time still. But as Youk Chhang and Reach Sambath point out, this new, evolving history is the future of Cambodia. It allows everyone to move on, holds the perpetrators to account historically and gives the victims a voice.

By identifying victims and perpetrators as the very start of this new process, this new education won’t be to everyone’s liking in Cambodia. But then most people in the country seem to agree that places like Pailin were living in the past.

The Khmer Rouge is now history.

Scant education
“From April 25 to April 27, 1975, the Khmer Rouge leaders held a special general assembly in order to form a new Constitution and renamed the country “Democratic Kampuchea”. A new government of the DK, led by Pol Pot, came into existence, following which the massacre of Khmer citizens began.”
The only Khmer Rouge related material in a grade nine social studies text book published in 2000.

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