Chean Song Lay, 18, stood before the fading photos of the dead at the Choeung Ek killing fields, taking furious notes in a small notebook decorated with pink tulips.
Behind her lay the mass graves—grassy pits still scattered with dry, bleached bones and stray scraps of fabric. Before her, written on huge placards, were the outlines of a history she had learned little about in school and was only beginning to understand.
“Before, when my parents talked to me about Pol Pot, I believed just a little bit because I did not see the skulls with my own eyes,” said Chean Song Lay, who was one of 343 students and 38 teachers from Ang Snoul High School visiting the site Dec 19—the first large-scale field trip of high school students to Choeung Ek since 1979, according to the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which organized the tour.
“Today I see that Pol Pot really killed so many people,” Chean Song Lay said. She then began to cry.
Like many young people in Cambodia today, Chean Song Lay has heard dark stories of the Pol Pot years from her parents. But the privation and suffering of that time is increasingly difficult for young people—especially in the provinces—to make sense of, human rights workers and young people say.
In part, the generational divide is a sign of success for Cambodia.
To well-fed children, their parents’ stories of subsisting on spoonfuls of watery rice gruel, insects and snakes sound like punitive fairy tales parents everywhere lay on their children.
“We don’t eat snakes in the forest,” said Vichhra Muoyly, 21, an assistant at the Khmer Institute of Democracy. “The idea makes me want to throw up,” she said.
Vichhra Muoyly helped produce a new film called “Wanting to See the Truth,” which aims to help young Cambodians understand the horror their parents lived through.
The 35-minute film, which was produced by KID and the Open Society Justice Initiative, is based on 117 interviews conducted around the country.
In their research, the KID staff found a gap between young people in Phnom Penh, where many knew about the regime of Democratic Kampuchea, and those in the provinces, where many did not.
“In the provinces, we had trouble finding youth who did believe,” said Tara Urs, a fellow at the Khmer Institute of Democracy.
Lack of education is part of the problem, human rights workers and educators say.
Since the early 1990s, students have learned little in school about the regime of Democratic Kampuchea. With the lack of historical information on that regime, it is too easy for them to say their parents are just making it up.
“When a kid doesn’t eat all the rice on the plate, his mother tells him, ‘If you were in the Pol Pot regime, you would die because you don’t have enough food,’” said Nou Va, 27, a program officer at KID. “The kid says, ‘Oh, she’s just saying that to blame us. I don’t believe it.’”
The Documentation Center of Cambodia has spent two years writing an 11-chapter, in-depth history text on Democratic Kampuchea for high-school use, and is now awaiting approval from the government.
Sar Ment, deputy director of Ang Snoul High School, said that only six out of the 52.5 hours in the history curriculum in grades 6, 7 and 8 are spent on the Khmer Rouge regime.
“Lack of evidence and no real curriculum,” said Hang Chhum, the director of Ang Snoul High School. “That’s why the students don’t believe the Pol Pot regime really existed. Also, it’s modern society: These students were born without war, so they forget the past,” he said.
This is a far cry from the 1980s, when school students were bombarded with information—some say propaganda—about the Khmer Rouge.
“There are kids who learn too much about the Khmer Rouge time and kids who learn too little,” said Reach Sambath, press officer for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, who spoke with the Ang Snoul school students after their Choeung Ek visit.
“Me, I learned too much. We spoke about the Khmer Rouge every day in the classroom and textbooks until 1991, when we had the Paris Peace Accords,” Reach Sambath said.
In 2002, a high school history textbook that covered the Pol Pot regime was introduced in schools, but quickly recalled after controversy arose over the book’s omission of Funcinpec’s 1993 electoral victory. A new version of the text has yet to appear.
In post-conflict Cambodia, history remains highly politicized.
Dy Khamboly, 26, who wrote the new DC-Cam textbook, said he struggled over a number of issues when writing the book.
For instance, regarding the number of people who died during the regime of Democratic Kampuchea, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea of the 1980s said more than 3.3 million, while historians Ben Kiernan says 1.7 million and Craig Etcheson 2.2 million.
Dy Khamboly said that rather than trying to decide himself, he included all the figures and indicated where the data came from.
Another issue was whether the Vietnamese “invaded” or “liberated” Cambodia in 1979. In the book, they simply “came.”
“The idea of the text is to provide facts about what really happened,” DC-Cam Director Youk Chhang said.
“From that, people can create their own interpretation,” Youk Chhang said.
DC-Cam declined to provide a copy of the textbook for review.
Dy Khamboly said the book traces the history of the Khmer Rouge back to the Indochinese Communist Party, which was founded by Ho Chi Minh in the 1930s; talks briefly about Lon Nol’s regime in the 1970s; and discusses the leadership structure and geographical divisions of the Democratic Kampuchea regime.
The book also touches briefly on the secret US bombing of Cambodia of the late 1960s; and mentions the fact that China, North Korea, Vietnam and Laos maintained embassies in Phnom Penh during the Khmer Rouge years, Dy Khamboly said.
But the focus, he said, is on the victims. “We focus on how the Khmer Rouge treated Cambodian people…the young generation should know about this.”
Youk Chhang said that in July, DC-Cam submitted the manuscript to the prime minister’s office, which requested two minor changes.
The first was to alter the draft of the preface. The second, he said, was to change the phrase “Khmer Rouge defectors” to “Democratic Kampuchea cadres” in the section of the book that describes the departure of a number of Khmer Rouge—Senate President Chea Sim, Prime Minister Hun Sen and National Assembly President Heng Samrin, among them—for Vietnam in the late 1970s.
“When we use ‘Khmer Rouge,’ it’s not official language,” Youk Chhang said. “‘Democratic Kampuchea’ is official.”
A review committee comprised of members of the Ministry of Education, the Royal Academy of Cambodia and the Council of Ministers met Dec 14 to discuss the manuscript, according to DC-Cam.
Youk Chhang said he hopes to get their approval by early next year. If they do not get approval, he said DC-Cam would publish its own version of the text.
Tun Sa Im, a member of the review committee, confirmed that committee members were reviewing the book, and referred further questions to the committee’s chairman, Im Sithy, secretary of state for the Ministry of Education.
Im Sithy could not be reached for comment Monday.
“After the end of the trial, we hope there will be a correct history everyone can accept,” Reach Sambath said.
“We hope that after the trial is finished, we will have a new chapter of a book that can be read by all.”