The high school textbook containing a chapter on the Khmer Rouge was six years in the making. Since at least 1996, officials have been talking about bringing Pol Pot back into the classroom.
It was in that year—as the government negotiated peace with various Khmer Rouge factions—that Minister of Education Tol Lah promised educators and scholars the government would not overlook the history of the Khmer Rouge’s brutal regime in its high school textbooks. “We will not rewrite history. History is to be history. Facts have to remain as they are,” he said.
Last month, 25,000 copies of the 12th grade social sciences textbook were delivered to high schools, full of those facts. A committee at the Ministry of Education—made up of four writers, one editor and two proofreaders—spent 12 months writing the politically sensitive chapter, using both foreign and Cambodian sources in their research.
Top ministry officials and others, including Documentation Center of Cambodia director Youk Chhang, also reviewed the chapter, providing advice and suggestions.
The first draft was finished in July. The textbook had been scheduled to be released in September—at the beginning of the school year—but the publishing date was delayed for unspecified reasons.
The result is an account of Cambodia’s 30 years of turmoil and war that is even-handed in some places. In other areas, the chapter takes the form and style of communist-style political propaganda, Youk Chhang said. But that is more a product of the Soviet-style training many textbook writing committee officials received in the 1980s, he said.
“The committee tried very hard to differentiate between propaganda and history,” Youk Chhang said. “They were being careful. This is a very sensitive issue.”
For example, the chapter does not note China’s support for the Pol Pot regime, although it does state the Khmer Rouge followed the ideology of Mao Tse-tung and received help from China during the 1980s. Also, the Vietnamese military presence in Cambodia in the 1980s was not characterized as an occupation. They were here only “to eliminate Pol Pot’s genocidal regime,” said In Omsameng, chief writer of the committee.
Another problem is the chapter states 3 million people died during the Khmer Rouge regime—a figure often used by the Vietnamese-supported regime. Most foreign historians estimate between 1 million and 2 million died from overwork, starvation, illness and execution between 1975 and 1979.
But the true number is “still a puzzle,” Youk Chhang said. Historians who did research in Cambodia in the early 1980s were not experts in statistics, he said. And the 3 million figure came from a government survey done in 1982 and 1983 that even government officials at the time said was flawed, he said.
In Omsameng said the chapter does not go into great detail on the killings during the Khmer Rouge years because “we don’t want Khmer children to repeat the bitter history.”
“What is nasty, we try to bury even the smell,” he said. “The history book is written in a constructive sense, with a culture of peace.”
Primary school texts during the 1980s included information about the “genocidal” regime, but often used violent images and politically charged language describing the “traitorous” acts committed by the “notorious” rebel leader Pol Pot.
After the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement, teachers were told to cease classroom discussions of the Khmer Rouge period, in order to avoid creating “difficulties” during a politically delicate period. The Khmer Rouge signed the accord but later resumed fighting.
Now, almost four years after the demise of the Khmer Rouge, educators are no longer restricted by political instability. But a lack of historical perspective is still an issue. Normally, historians wait several decades before writing about an event, said Iv Chan, head of the history department at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
“The Khmer Rouge is still an issue for society today,” Youk Chhang said.