Khmer Rouge History Back in Schools

Well, this is big news (from VOA):

More than 30 years after Khmer Rouge communist guerrillas marched into Phnom Penh, evacuated the cities, and sewed the seeds for one of the worst genocides of the 21st Century, the Cambodian governments says it will allow the regime’s history to be taught in schools.

The Ministry of Education is finally allowing the years after 1975 to be taught in school. The article doesn’t mention why it hasn’t been taught. After the end of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (1979-1989), and the integration of massive defections from Khmer Rouge armies primarily in the Northwest, these texts were destroyed in the name of National Reconciliation. They were afraid of not being able to successfully control and integrate KR soldiers (and especially their leaders), if the history was told in the way it had been: of a brutal, cruel, and stupid regime that respected nothing but power.

During my fieldwork in Cambodia, I had the opportunity to become friendly with an elderly man who used to work in the Ministry of Ed, and personally helped in the destruction of the PRK-era textbooks on the KR period, after the defections. He retained a number of copies of these books; later I was able to obtain even more from the archives of DC-Cam.  They aren’t so very hard to find, but they aren’t being taught in schools, where history ends before the Khmer Rouge, and usually with the fall of Sihanouk.

The belief was apparently that by ignoring the period and relegating it to individual memories, the period could be ignored, and its effects diminished.  This has helped structure the contemporary relationship to the past experienced by Cambodians of different ages: the elderly are often ashamed of their experiences, as if they somehow deserved them (let’s be clear: they did not), and if they are not ashamed, they are often bitter, or resigned: the younger generation isn’t really interested, and is often outright skeptical of the verity of stories of the Democratic Kampuchea, samay pol pot.

The Ministry of Education has approved plans to incorporate lessons on the period of Democratic Kampuchea, authorizing the independent Documentation Center of Cambodia, which has extensively chronicled the brutality of the regime, to train 1,800 teachers.

Those who are publicly interested in the period are the same people who once attempted to destroy public knowledge of the period: the rulers. Just as the government once attempted to destroy an area of historical knowledge in order to have it suit its purposes, the same (largely, though much bloated) government now restores these periods, but with a new hermeneutic intended to partake of the international discourse of genocide.

“We will organize a guide book for high school teachers, and we will train them on how to present this sensitive era to students,” center director Youk Chhang said. “First we will contact other countries that have the same story of atrocities committed by a communist regime on how they taught their young children in school about the genocide.”