The first freshly printed copies of a new high school textbook on the Khmer Rouge regime are scheduled to arrive from the printers to the Documentation Center of Cambodia today.
But those books—3,000 of which are in Khmer, 2,000 in English—will likely spend more time in the hands of Cambodian officials and foreign diplomats than Cambodian schoolchildren.
Little is taught in Cambodian schools about the Khmer Rouge years of 1975 to 1979, and DC-Cam has been trying since 1999 to help develop a textbook that would fill that gap.
Their latest effort, an 11-chapter book covering the rise, reign and fall of the regime of Democratic Kampuchea, was written by Khamboly Dy, a DC-Cam researcher in his mid-20s. But despite the praise that has been heaped on it by Western scholars, it has not been approved for use as a history textbook in classrooms.
Instead, a government review panel comprised of officials from the Ministry of Education, the Royal Academy of Cambodia and the Council of Ministers, who were appointed by Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, ruled that the book could be used as “supplementary discussion material” and “as a base to write a history lesson for high school students.”
Nonetheless, DC-Cam Director Youk Chhang is optimistic.
“It’s a start. The door is open,” he said.
Historian Philip Short, who wrote the acclaimed “Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare,” a 537-page biography of Pol Pot, described Khamboly Dy’s book in an e-mail as “by far the best attempt I’ve seen by any Cambodian researcher to give a balanced picture of the Khmer Rouge years. It’s very hard to fault it on any substantive historical issue.”
“It deserves to be not merely an approved textbook for Cambodian schools, but a compulsory text, which all Cambodian schoolchildren should be required to study,” he wrote.
The failure to fully approve the text, Short added, must be a matter of politics.
“This is now Cambodia’s problem. As long as former Khmer Rouge remain at the apex of leadership, it is hard to see why the government should allow the country’s history to be taught objectively,” he wrote.
“The corollary is also true: Were Hun Sen and his colleagues to permit an honest appraisal of the past, it would be the best proof that they have finally broken with that past and moved out from under the shadow of their Khmer Rouge origins,” Short added.
National Assembly President and CPP Honorary President Heng Samrin on Tuesday said he and other CPP leaders had not been involved in the Khmer Rouge.
“We fought against Lon Nol’s regime and the foreign invasion, answering the retired King [Norodom Sihanouk]’s call,” he said, adding that he had been nothing more than “a simple soldier.”
“Pol Pot stole power and committed genocide. That was why we liberated the country from Pol Pot’s regime,” Heng Samrin said.
CPP leaders are not afraid of history, he continued.” We are confronting the past by sending former Khmer Rouge leaders to prosecution.”
The book’s author Khamboly Dy said picking his way through politically charged points—like the number of people who died and whether Vietnamese troops “liberated” or “invaded” Cambodia in 1979—was one of the most difficult aspects of writing the book, which is his first.
Khamboly Dy writes that “nearly 2 million Cambodians” died under Democratic Kampuchea, then cited in a footnote several varying accounts: The People’s Republic of Kampuchea, which took power in 1979, said 3.3 million died; historian Ben Kiernan estimated 1.7 million dead; historian Michel Vickery put the number at 740,000.
By citing sources, focusing on survivor stories and seeking neutral language, DC-Cam hoped to avoid political tussles. The book, for example, says that Vietnamese troops and forces of the United Front for the National Salvation of Kampuchea “fought their way into Cambodia” in late 1978 and captured Phnom Penh on Jan 7, 1979.
“We use facts,” Khamboly Dy said. “The Vietnamese fought their way into Cambodia. Whether they invaded or liberated the country is an interpretation.”
But, as in other post-conflict states, it remains far from clear whether there are any facts that belong to everyone in Cambodia today.
In a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen dated Sept 19, 2006, his education adviser Sean Borat praised a draft of the final text for showing “impartial events that happened during Democratic Kampuchea,” but pointed out two issues Sean Borat said needed to be corrected.
First was the suggestion that Cambodian people have witnessed internal power struggles among its leaders since the collapse of the Angkorian empire. Sean Borat said that the sentence should be changed to reflect the fact that “the Cambodian People’s Party under the glorious leadership of Samdech had never struggled for power with anyone.”
The offending reference was struck from Khamboly Dy’s final text.
Second, Sean Borat took issue with the description of the United Front for the National Salvation of Kampuchea members as Khmer Rouge defectors and the failure to characterize their entry into Cambodia in 1979 as a liberation. DC-Cam altered the first, but not the second phrase in the final text.
Still other objections were raised in a Dec 14 meeting of the book’s review committee, according to a copy of the meeting’s minutes. One committee member said that events must sit for 60 years before they can be studied as history and urged the author, Khamboly Dy, to “show true events” and “avoid giving his own opinion and analysis.”
Another was worried that discussion of violence would lead to more violence. One committee member asked that Chapter 2, which traces the roots of the Khmer Rouge to the struggle against French colonization in the 1940s and Ho Chi Minh’s Indochinese Communist Party, be removed entirely.
In a letter to Sok An dated Jan 3, the book’s review committee had some objections. First, it said the scope of the book veered too far beyond the years of 1975 to 1979. They also objected to naming individuals in the book as “unnecessary” and a threat to their security.
Some argue that the struggle to adopt a history text is not unrelated to the faltering progress of the Khmer Rouge tribunal: Both, the argument goes, suggest that the Cambodian government is simply not ready to confront this dark chapter of the past.
“I think you can work out the causes by comparing the response to the government’s very slow response to the tribunal,” Cambodia scholar David Chandler, who reviewed Khamboly Dy’s text before it was published, wrote in an e-mail.
“There seems to be no eagerness to familiarize Cambodians who don’t remember the Khmer Rouge period with the Khmer Rouge period,” he wrote.
Youk Chhang says he hopes that the historical gap will be redressed sooner rather than later. “If you don’t understand history, it will be repeated,” he warned.
The $10,000 cost of printing the books was covered by DC-Cam with funds from the Open Society Institute, a New York-based foundation created by financier George Soros, and the National Endowment for Democracy, a non-profit, US government-funded group based in Washington DC.
Ton Sa Em, director of the pedagogical and research department of the Ministry of Education, said the book was too long to be used in its entirety in schools. “We are sad that we cannot use it, but we will use excerpts,” she said.
The ministry is currently preparing a new high school history text that covers the Khmer Rouge and is scheduled for publication in 2009, she added.
(Additional reporting by Chhay Channyda)