Pondering History

Why Classes Shy Away From the Killing Fields

Kang Om, a professor of pedagogy at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, has kept the textbooks he used when he was a primary school teacher in Kompong Speu province in the early 1980s. One chapter he taught to second graders is called “Tuol Sleng Prison,” another one “The Happiness of the Cambodian People after Liberation.”

Kang Om’s books feature drawings of skulls and of torture methods carried out in Khmer Rouge prisons. He still remembers one lesson that his 8-year-old students would read again and again until they knew it by heart: “We are children. We have to remember all the things that the Pol Pot clique did. We’re determined to struggle and fight them until we succeed.”

It’s a message no longer taught in Cambodian classrooms. “I felt the lessons were right at the time because I was angry at the Khmer Rouge,” says Kang Om who lost two relatives during the Killing Fields regime. “But now it‘s not so good anymore.”

Af­ter driving the Khmer Rouge out of Phnom Penh and installing the People’s Republic of Kampuchea government in 1979, Vietnam used the education system to vindicate its “liberation” of Cambodia and to vilify Khmer Rouge guerrillas and their opposition allies—including then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk.

But the People’s Republic gradually turned away from a socialist to a market economy and its leaders began negotiating with their enemies—a process that led to the 1991 Paris Peace Accords and Cambodia’s first democratic elections in 1993.

With the arrival of the constitutional monarchy, the genocide textbooks of the 1980s disappeared. Currently, neither schools nor universities offer classes on the regime that is believed to have killed more than 1.7 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1978.

While the need to teach a generation born after 1978 about the Khmer Rouge is widely acknowledged, there is confusion as to what should take the place of the People’s Republic’s simplistic condemnation of the “Pol Pot/Ieng Sary clique”—especially because mem­bers of that clique are now part of the political establishment.

Moreover, most of today’s major players have at one point in their political careers sided with or against the Khmer Rouge, sometimes switching from one side to the other. Pol Pot may be condemned universally, but other aspects of the 1970s and 1980s are likely to elicit conflicting interpretations.

More than a dozen recent interviews with teachers, officials and experts suggest there is hesitation, even reluctance to introduce a textbook about a history that is so closely intertwined with contemporary politics.

Technically, writing this textbook is the task of the Ministry of Education’s history committee—a group of seven teachers who meet on weekday afternoons in a small third-floor room on Norodom Boulevard. There are maps on the wall, papers and dictionaries scattered across the table.

Funded by Unesco, the committee is supposed to write an all-encompassing series of history textbooks free from ideology. “We have to write a history that is in line with the major statements of the Constitution, including freedom of expression and the multi-party system,” says Supote Prasertsri, the group’s Unesco adviser. The buzzword is the new “student-centered approach,” a kind of treasure hunt that has students exploring and researching goals set out by the books.

Slowly, the committee is working its way through different ages, publishing one book a year. The release of a brief chapter about the Khmer Rouge era is tentatively scheduled for the year 2000.

But many steps will have to be taken before this “student-cen­tered approach” to the Khmer Rouge era makes it into classrooms. Research and writing follows instructions by the Ministry of Education. Additional committees and ministry advisers chip in before the draft is passed on to the secretary of state for the final go-ahead.

“The Min­istry of Ed­ucation sets all the goals,” says In Om Sameng, the head of the history committee. “We just research what the ministry wants.”

Layers of officials and committees, each checking on the one be­low, suggest a procedure that is more hierarchical than egalitarian. One Western expert who has spent years working with the Cambodian education system says that it is dominated by an “almost feudal patronage system” in which policies are dictated from the top. As for writing textbooks, he says that “nothing is published until it’s authorized, and authorization involves the recognition that it’s politically acceptable. Nothing gets written if it’s not politically acceptable.”

Yet, the “politically acceptable” attitude toward those responsible for the genocide is elusive and subject to change. So Muy Kheang, director of general education, recalls how the twists and turns of politics governed the education system in the 1980s. “After 1987, the state government softened its attitude because they negotiated with Khmer Rouge representatives in Paris,” he says, “so the education system had to change as well.”

More recently, defections of people like Ieng Sary, the re­gime’s foreign minister, have further blurred the official distinction between Khmer Rouge villains and converts. In mid-June, Second Prime Minister Hun Sen suggested that the door was open for intellectual leader Khieu Samphan to defect. One week later, Hun Sen—himself a Khmer Rouge commander until fleeing to Vietnam in 1977—reversed his position, saying that Khieu Samphan had blown his chance.

Uncertainty about whether Khmer Rouge leaders will ever go to court may contribute to a widespread sentiment that the history of the Khmer Rouge is still ongoing and cannot be taught just yet. “We have difficulty writing a textbook because the Khmer Rouge are still alive and we’re still alive,” says Bun Sok, the undersecretary of state for Education. “We cannot estimate who is right and who is wrong. That’s up to the international court.”

A team of UN experts is expected to arrive in November in order to gauge the possibility of such a tribunal. In the meantime, education officials suggest, national reconciliation should take priority over an in-depth education about the past. “Since 1993, the government has educated Cambodian people to love everyone, including the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese,” says So Muy Kheang.

Consequently, the current plan is to introduce only a brief “report” that deals with a number of aspects of life under the Khmer Rouge regime but av- ­oids contentious issues. Ac­cording to So Muy Kheang, the lessons won’t address anything that “affects government policy today.”

Another delicate aspect of the Khmer Rouge era is the anti-Vietnamese rhetoric employed by Khmer Rouge leaders throughout their political careers. Unesco adviser Supote says that, while his organization uses education to promote peace in Cambodia, some lessons about the Khmer Rouge might prove tricky. “You may come across statements that express hatred towards the Vietnamese,” he says. “To write this positively is very difficult since there is a long history of conflict between Cambodia and Vietnam.”

Still, he says that the Vietnamese aspect of Khmer Rouge history should not be ignored and that education can help strengthen the bond between the two nations: “Students should be allowed to debate this. But we should avoid emotions. It has to be objective and in­clude all dimensions of the issue.”

One of the di­mensions that no comprehensive textbook could afford to ignore is the 1979 Viet­na­m­ese invasion that brought to power a political leadership surviving in today’s Cam­bo­dian People’s Par­ty.

Taking credit for an end to the genocidal regime is part of the political platform of the CPP. In a statement made on the campaign kick-off day in June, CPP President Chea Sim reminded voters: “At a time when the country suc­cumbed to the genocidal disaster created by the Dem­ocratic Kampuchea regime after April 17, 1975, the Cambodian People’s Party was the only outstanding force that stood up leading the Cambodian people’s struggle to liberate the nation from the vicious regime.”

But the CPP spotlight on a military operation that was effectively carried out by a foreign army has its pitfalls. At student protests in early September, slogans and banners calling Hun Sen a Vietnamese “puppet” showed how quickly anti-government sentiment and Khmer nationalism can turn into an explosive mixture.

Paradoxically, says David Ashley, a historian of the Khmer Rouge, the party has to “emphasize the liberation of the 7th of January while downplaying, for political reasons, the role of the people who actually carried out the liberation — the Vietnamese army.”

A local political analyst specializing in education and human rights, too, says that “it’s hard for the CPP. They rarely say that the Vietnamese army came. It’s always ‘We came to save the Cambodian people.’ They know how unpopular [the Vietnamese invasion] is with the Cambodian people.”

The primary opposition party Funcinpec, on the other hand, has its own public-relations dilemma. In the 1980s, Funcinpec teamed up with the Khmer Rouge to battle the Vietnamese-run government. This opposition alliance which also included Son Sann’s Khmer People’s National Liberation Front party was recognized by the UN as the legitimate representative of Cambodia.

Funcinpec’s attitude to recent history is awkward, Ashley says, because the party wants to “justify its post-1979 alliance with the Khmer Rouge while not damaging its domestic and international credentials by appearing to deny the crimes [committed by the Khmer Rouge].”

Nevertheless, Tol Lah, the Funcinpec Minister of Education who left his post after factional fighting in 1997, says he favors a straight-forward approach to history. As for the 1980s alliance, he says: “Like it or not, it happened. I’m not in favor of rewriting the 1980s. I’m in favor of writing history as it is.”

Tol Lah adds that during his reign at the Ministry there were discussions about whether to introduce Khmer Rouge lessons in primary or secondary schools but no ideological debates or disagreements between members of the two parties.

Yet, many believe that the divergent histories of the coalition partners may have contributed to the delay in introducing lessons about the Khmer Rouge.

Political analyst Kao Kim Hourn cites the debate about January 7, 1979 as the prime example: “When they sit down to write, what would they name it: Vietnamese liberation? Entry? Invasion? Occupation? This is a big issue for the two major political forces in this country.”

Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, says that the past is politically charged because party members don’t have enough information to say who’s responsible. “So when you’re CPP you say that Funcinpec was involved with the Khmer Rouge [in the 1980s]; when you’re Funcinpec you say that Second Prime Minister Hun Sen was involved with the Khmer Rouge.”

Youk Chhang, whose business card carries the motto “Searching for the truth,” hopes that the research carried out by his office will eventually help create a thorough textbook about the regime.

But elsewhere in Cambodia there is scarce evidence of extensive research and in-depth analysis. The historians who have written about the Khmer Rouge are almost exclusively foreigners. Few of their works — widely available in Western libraries and bookstores — have been translated into Khmer, which poses yet another obstacle to introducing classes in Cambodian schools and universities.

At the Royal Unversity of Phnom Penh, where a four-year history degree includes lectures on the Sihanouk and Lon Nol eras, department head Sorn Samnang says he hopes to introduce classes about the Khmer Rouge soon. But for now, “there aren’t enough competent teachers [to teach that period.] There aren’t enough documents written in Khmer. That’s why it’s difficult for young lecturers to teach that period in detail.”

The notorious secretiveness of the Khmer Rouge regime creates additional problems. Iv Chan, the program director of the National Higher Education Taskforce, says that many works by foreign scholars are not objective enough to be used in classes on the Khmer Rouge. “We have no original documents that would allow us to reach conclusions about the political perspective of Pol Pot,” he says. “Many scholars interpret. Their interpretations are the result of a lack of documentation.”

But Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, counters that the demand for an absolute truth about the Khmer Rouge is part of the current paralysis. He makes a case for a more democratic education system that would allow a variety of different interpretations — no matter how experimental — to enter the process of getting at the truth. “We need to accept that books might have mistakes,” he says. “Too many sources can be confusing but truth cannot be had from one source only.”

Lao Mong Hay thinks that politics prevails at the expense of the kind of public and intellectual debate that the country needs to deal with its difficult past. “When you go to the countryside, people invariably will talk about the Khmer Rouge,” he says. “We need to study the Khmer Rouge past because we cannot hide it.”

The lack of a textbook about the Khmer Rouge, says Youk Chhang, is “a symbol of the loss of Cambodia’s identity. This gap needs to be filled. Without proper research [and teaching]. Cambodians can only look at part of the puzzle. They have to bring the puzzle together. Every survivor is a page in the genocide.”

Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians living today have seen the genocide happen and will not forget about it. On the face of it, combining witness accounts and basic historical facts in a textbook should not be impossible. In fact, education officials do plan to base their upcoming Khmer Rouge “report” on interviews with survivors.

But at a time when the spirit of national reconciliation only barely covers up underlying tensions, even the vaguest accounts and the most basic facts can spark political rows. Consequently, many experts and observers are not overly confident that an in-depth education about the Khmer Rouge will be introduced to Cambodia’s curricula anytime soon. Says historian Craig Etcheson: “Exactly where Cambodia’s schools will find the balance between the necessity of a truthful history and the requirements of national reconciliation is a question which will likely bedevil the country for some time.

(Additional reporting by Kay Kimsong and Khuy Sokhoeun)



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