Thursday, 28 August 2014; News by David Nathan
A Cambodian school teacher shows photographs of former Khmer Rouge leaders as he teaches students about Khmer Rouge history. (Photo: AFP)
PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Beginning next month, high school teachers will start teaching a new chapter on Khmer Rouge history. The new textbook material incorporates guilty verdicts handed down in August against two former Khmer Rouge leaders for crimes against humanity.
With the distance of time – it is 35 years since the Khmer Rouge fled Phnom Penh – the teaching of Cambodia’s traumatic Khmer Rouge period is increasingly mainstream in the Kingdom’s high schools.
But until the arrival of a definitive textbook in 2007, students often missed out on learning about this crucial period of Cambodia’s history.
Until then, it was up to teachers to decide whether and how to educate students about an ultra-radical government that killed as many as one quarter of the nation’s population.
“Khmer Rouge history was removed from the curriculum [in the early 1990s] for the sake of peace,” explained Youk Chhang, the executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), an organization that documents stories of Khmer Rouge survivors and perpetrators.
According to Mr. Chhang, during the Paris Peace Talks in the 1990s – in which the Khmer Rouge were one of four political parties at the table – “the UN forced Cambodia to pull out anything about the Khmer Rouge from textbooks because it wanted the Khmer Rouge to join the talks for democracy.”
With Khmer Rouge history off the school curriculum, children were left to learn about this chaotic period piecemeal, from family members and neighbors. But, this education was often heavily subjective, depending on whether the individual was a victim or a member of the Khmer Rouge. Moreover, many who survived the four-year period had such painful memories that they did not want to speak to the next generation about.
“This deprived an education to an entire population born after the Khmer Rouge,” Mr Chhang said.
In 2002, DC-Cam started to advocate adding Khmer Rouge history to the school curriculum. A seven-man committee of high-ranking government officials was established to decide on its inclusion. The motion was supported with a vote of four to three.
Five years later, the organization published an 87-page textbook called A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979). The book was written by Dy Khamboly, a member of DC-Cam, with the aid of Cambodian and foreign historians, such as American historian David P. Chandler. It is now the definitive textbook used in Cambodian high schools. In 2009 it became mandatory teaching material in all classrooms.
To date, half a million copies of the textbook have been printed and distributed to 1,700 schools nationwide. It outlines a basic history of the Khmer Rouge, covering such topics as: the formation and rise to power of the Khmer Rouge; life under the regime, and the reasons that led to its leave. It also includes witness testimony and illustrative photographs, as well as small profiles on leading members.
There are efforts to digitize the textbook so that it can be read on iPads and other digital devices, which should broaden its appeal among Cambodian youth. The book is available in Khmer and in English.
In 2012, DC-Cam conducted its first evaluation of how Khmer Rouge history was taught in schools. They found that many teachers and students were motivated and passionate about the subject. But the subject also provoked resentment and confusion.
“It is a very political and sensitive issue,” said Mr. Chhang. “Many teachers were survivors or perpetrators themselves. And the children’s parents also experienced life under the Khmer Rouge.”
DC-Cam noted that a number of teachers neglected to use the textbook. Instead, they taught their own versions of Khmer Rouge history. Others went beyond the curriculum. In a handful of cases, teachers sold the textbooks to students.
This evaluation also raised concerns that students’ understanding of history was affected by contemporary politics. Mr. Khamboly, the lead author, commented during the 2013 national election that the election “put Khmer Rouge history in a troubled spot, through the resurgent politicization of the history, genocide denial and racist incitement.”
The Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) and opposition groups, including the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), use the legacy of the Khmer Rouge for political tit-for-tats. The CPP is keen to stress that they were the ones who overthrew the Khmer Rouge and brought peace to Cambodia. The opposition frequently charges that the CPP is a puppet of Vietnam, and, at times, indulges in a “historical revisionism.”
The teaching of Khmer Rouge history is now compulsory in Cambodia. Questions on the subject appear on all high school final exams. It is estimated that less than a million high school students have access to the textbook, meaning some students share copies. Yet, this is seen as an improvement on the conditions prior to 2007, when an entire generation of students was denied an education on a key turning point in their nation’s 20th century history. i