A project aimed at educating and integrating Khmer Rouge defectors and their neighbors will be launched later this year in the former rebel group’s Kampot province stronghold, UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization officials said.
The project, which will provide Khmer Rouge defectors and new arrivals in Koh Sla commune, Chhuk district, with a basic education, “aims to give them contact and assure them that they are part of society,” said Benoit Thibaud, program officer at the Belgian Embassy, which is funding the $435,000 project.
Teachers will be brought in from outside Koh Sla to provide classes in reading, writing, farming and business skills, as well as traditional music for people from the community, Thibaud said.
Participants will be selected regardless of whether or not they were in the Khmer Rouge, said Tey Sambo, Unesco culture office program officer. “We will have one member from each family. Indirectly we will reach the 12,000 population,” she said.
The former rebels, who defected in 1996, are cut off from the rest of Cambodia by Koh Sla’s geography, poverty and past, Thibaud said. “You can feel the tension there because people have been isolated for so long,” he said. “[The defectors] are not seen as Khmer because they have a Khmer Rouge stigma.”
Although there is little violence in Koh Sla, tensions have risen since the defection of the rebels in 1996, with the arrival of migrants from outside the commune, hoping to make a living on the commune’s fertile farmland, project officials said.
“You can see [the defectors] are not as trusting, not as welcoming,” Thibaud said. “It takes time for people to trust each other, especially when they are former Khmer Rouge.”
Defectors and their families still wield local power, although they only compose 40 percent of Koh Sla’s population, according to Chhen Sip, former director of United Cambodian Community Development Foundation, an NGO working closely with defectors in Kampot.
Koh Sla is “still controlled by former Khmer Rouge soldiers. Now they are CPP council members,” he said. The defectors are mostly in their late 30s and early 40s, having joined the rebels in their teens, he said.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said that Cambodia will not be able to progress until people come to terms with the human rights abuses of the Khmer Rouge era. People are unable to work efficiently because of trauma from their experiences, he said, adding that when people are reconciled, the country will be able to move forward.
“We have to live together in one society. We have to pull together to develop the country hand in hand,” he said.