For the first time, high school graduates taking the history portion of the Cambodian National Examination on Tuesday were confronted with questions about the Khmer Rouge regime.
The Education Ministry-authored exam, which is a major factor in determining where students are accepted for college, asked would-be scholars four questions: When did the Khmer Rouge take power? What was the name of the regime’s leader? How did the regime classify regions? Who ran S-21 prison in Phnom Penh?
Students were also instructed to explain why S-21, the Phnom Penh prison where 14,000 men, women and children were tortured before execution, is considered to be the site of a national tragedy.
“We are encouraged that students are being asked about the Khmer Rouge and it is as much the obligation of the government to teach about this as it is the obligation of the student to learn about this,” Director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia Youk Chhang said yesterday.
Mr Chhang said that he was pleased that the Ministry of Education had finally decided to include Khmer Rouge history on the examination because learning about Cambodia’s dark past might help people move beyond it.
Ministry of Education Undersecretary of State Tun Sa-im, who has served as her ministry’s expert on Khmer Rouge history in the high school curriculum, said yesterday that the questions were included this year because of the ongoing trials at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.
According to Mom Meth, an assistant in the Education Ministry’s Department of High School General Education, this year’s national curriculum called for 12th graders to spend approximately 15 hours learning about modern Cambodian history from independence in 1953 to the rise of the current government; and roughly three of the 15 hours would be spent studying the Khmer Rouge.
Iv Thuon, an official in the department of High School General Education, said that the Education Ministry authored history textbook covering the Khmer Rouge—now accompanied in some schools by a more detailed DC-CAM textbook on the subject—offers little detail and often leaves students demanding answers.
“They ask ‘Why, if you were hungry and had no rice, did you not go to the noodle shop?” said Mr Thuon. “They cannot understand what it was like for us.”
Students often arrive at universities with little ability to think critically about history and, in particular, about the Khmer Rouge period according to Sombo Manara, a history professor at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
Mr Manara said his history students are often more versed on the Angkorian period than they are on the recent past.
“Students now have more knowledge than they did before. In the 1990s, I don’t think our students really understood about Khmer Rouge history at all,” Mr Manara said, adding that he believed the increase in historical-literacy was due to the Accreditation Committee of Cambodia’s inclusion of Khmer Rouge history on school curriculums.
The ACC began mandating last year that universities teach students about communicable disease, the risks of drugs, road traffic laws and the history of the Khmer Rouge.