Unveiling a dark chapter in Cambodia's past

An update for Cambodian high school textbooks stirs debate on how best to teach about the violent rule of the Khmer Rouge.

Teachers around the globe have long struggled with how to answer thorny questions from their students about such issues as race and religion - often opting to sidestep them altogether.

In some nations, though, students can pose an even more-sensitive question: Why did the leaders of our country mercilessly kill hundreds of thousands of their own people?

In Cambodia, teachers still have few answers.

"There are so many questions," says Samon Sany, a longtime history teacher for 11th- and 12th-graders. "Especially among students whose parents were killed. Even after they learn about Hitler and other leaders around the world, they still can't understand what [Khmer Rouge leader] Pol Pot wanted at that time."

Reigning for three years, eight months, and 20 days, starting in 1975, the communist Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia committed some of this century's worst crimes against humanity.

The hermetic nature of the regime, the freshness of events in people's memories, and integration of many of the movement's former members into society and the current government have left lingering a host of questions, often making teachers uneasy.

Perhaps emboldened by a newfound sense of peace or the increasing possibility of a tribunal to hold the Khmer Rouge accountable for genocide, Cambodia's Ministry of Education has decided to unveil a Khmer Rouge chapter in 12th-grade social science books in September. Up until now, many have criticized the treatment of this subject in textbooks as too thin on substance or too laden with propaganda, depending on the government du jour.

Government writers

The textbook committee that created the chapter consists of government school teachers and Education Ministry officials. Public and nongovernment experts were mostly excluded in shaping the chapter, which has raised some concerns about what it will be teaching to hundreds of thousands of students.

"Right now, everyone wants to talk about the Khmer Rouge, and suddenly a textbook's coming out," says Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which houses thousands of papers and photographs to be used as evidence during any future Khmer Rouge tribunal. "I'm worried about a formal textbook coming out that would carry thousands of mistakes and false information. They need to take time, do research, look at all the sources, because the quality of a book is based on source, not who wrote it."

The chapter has yet to be released for public scrutiny, but its creators say they avoided more-controversial information and focused instead on the experiences of people who lived in Cambodia during the period it depicts. The main sources are the chapter's four writers and two editors.

It will likely include descriptions of how families were forced to work long hours and were often hungry during this period, but will exclude such details as death tolls and the names of many leaders.

"We had no need to look through a lot of documents, because the six members of the textbook committee are living documents," says Chhut Sereyrum, a 12th-grade history teacher and one of the writers. "We lived under the Khmer Rouge regime and know how difficult it was. I think this is enough. We did not describe a lot about this time, only how life was at this time."

The writers tread lightly when it comes to including details. They don't want to repeat the experience during the 1980s occupation by the Vietnamese, the avowed enemy of the Khmer Rouge, when graphic drawings of Khmer Rouge atrocities hung on classroom walls and teachers were forced to use "morality" textbooks instead of history books.

"We didn't want to show the children how the Khmer Rouge soldiers killed people with hoes, axes, and bamboo-stick beatings over the head," Chhut Sereyrum says. "We need to think about the security of the students and how they will think. We need to think especially about the former Khmer Rouge who come back to live with the Cambodian community. We want them to live peacefully with us. We don't want people to remember too much."

A history for parents to tell

In the 1990s, after the Vietnamese had left the job of rebuilding the government to the United Nations, Cambodian society continued to search for peace. Its government was still at war against Khmer Rouge guerrilla forces, and wariness persisted because it was unclear what role Pol Pot would play in the future. (He died in 1998, just as government soldiers were poised to capture the elusive former leader).

Near-silence on the subject swept through many of the nation's classrooms, and an unspoken consensus seemed to emerge - that most of the information relayed to children should come from outside school walls.

"I got most of my information from parents and films," says Roath Sivalen, a 12th-grader at Preah Yukunthor High School in Phnom Penh. "I talk about it with my classmates. I tell my friends what my parents' life was like under Pol Pot and they tell me what their parents' life was like under Pol Pot."

But some experts outside the government say focusing on only the personal experiences of the chapter's writers does not do enough to help Cambodian students understand their past.

These experts argue that the school structure provides an ideal forum for children to engage in healthy discussions about the certain and uncertain details of past events. They encourage an approach that lets children find their own truth, but also avoids fanning widespread feelings of anger and revenge.

"The Khmer Rouge wasn't just about killing and victims," Youk Chhang says. "It was about foreign policies, music, fashion, slogans, songs, medicines, militaries, criminal justice, and political science.

"Every kid in the country has heard the stories of personal experiences from their own parents every single day for the last 25 years," he continues. "There is a way to address sensitive issues for educational purposes."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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