Kong Monirath sat on a small wall looking down on the numerous river cruise boats on the Tonle Sap below him.
Behind the 21-year-old, Phnom Penh bustled with the usual energy of a Wednesday morning as people went about their day-to-day lives, a sharp contrast to what was happening in the city 30 years ago in the dying days of Marshal Lon Nol’s Khmer Republic.
Like Kong Monirath, more than half of Cambodians living in the country today were not yet born when the Khmer Rouge advanced on the capital on April 17, 1975, and soon after emptied the city of all its inhabitants to begin its murderous social experiment.
Like many of those born since the Vietnamese invaded in 1979, toppling Pol Pot’s nightmarish Democratic Kampuchea, the majority of Kong Monirath’s information about those three years and eight months came from his family.
“I have only heard about it as told by the older people,” Kong Monirath said. “They told us that during that time, people were killed cruelly.”
In the years following the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime to the Vietnamese, a post-war baby boom took hold in Cambodia.
Prior to 1998, the last Cambodian census conducted was in 1962 because of war and political disturbances. At that time, the population stood at 5.7 million. Estimates say there were an estimated 7.7 million Cambodians living in the country when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, and more than 1 million Cambodians were estimated to have died before they were toppled.
In 1998, the National Institute of Statistics pegged the population at 11.4 million, of which 42.8 percent were under 15 years of age.
The most recent figures put Cambodia’s population at 12.8 million, with an estimated 60.6 percent (about 7.75 million) of the population born in 1979 or later.
Kong Monirath said he can remember his family first telling him about the Khmer Rouge when he was 12 or 13 years old.
“Usually during their free time, the older people still talk about it,” he said.
“Some were forced to overwork, some were executed, some were killed for petty mistakes,” Kong Monirath said.
Amongst those who died, he said, were his grandfather and uncle, though he didn’t know how or where.
Eleven members of Lip Sour Molivann’s family died under the Khmer Rouge regime, the 15-year-old said.
The grade 9 student at Sisowath High School also said it was his parents who told him about the years they worked under the regime in Kampot province.
“My parents just told me during that time they were forced to overwork and not given enough to eat,” he said. “Some people stole potatoes to eat and were killed.”
Lip Sour Molivann said he wanted to learn more about the history of the Khmer Rouge but was too busy with school, where he hasn’t yet been taught about the regime, and other activities.
“I feel very sorry for some of my relatives,” he said. “I feel very interested, but I am too busy.”
Other students and young people interviewed last week said that their parents never told them about their experiences and many were unable to name any leaders of the regime besides Pol Pot.
“I only heard on the radio that some people were killed, but I do not know why,” said Rera Vanna, 14, as he stood outside Chaktomuk High School on Wednesday.
“My parents told me a little bit, but they did not go into details,” he said.
Sophan En, 20, left school in grade 7 and moved from Kompong Speu province to Phnom Penh and never learned about the regime.
“I just heard about the killing, but I don’t know clearly about that,” Sophan En said Wednesday as he sold soft drinks in front of the Naga Casino.
“My parents did not tell me about it,” he said, adding he wasn’t really interested because it was the past and not important to his day-to-day life.
Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said most young Cambodians know about the Khmer Rouge through their families and limited teaching in school but often have other priorities.
“Like many other young people around the world, they pay attention to movies and video games and DVDs,” he said. “It’s hard for survivors to explain, but if you start with the children, I think that’s the best healing medicine for parents.”
He said the government can kick-start that dialogue by including Khmer Rouge research projects in schools.
“I think it’s the government that has an obligation to teach it in school,” he said. “I think that would help. It’s really a part of their family history.”
Minister of Education Kol Pheng said he couldn’t comment on whether he thought children knew enough about the Khmer Rouge regime.
There is a committee reviewing the history curriculum currently being taught in Cambodian schools, he said.
“You will see when the new text books come out,” he added and promptly hung up his phone.