In Cambodia, a Clash Over History of the Khmer Rouge

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By Erika Kinetz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 8, 2007

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia, May 7 -- In a country where half the students who enter grammar school never finish, Cheak Socheata, 18, is among the most privileged of her generation: She made it to college.

But even Cheak, a first-year medical student at Phnom Penh's University of Health Sciences, has learned next to nothing in school about the Khmer Rouge, who in a little less than four years in power executed, tortured and starved to death an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians, about a quarter of the population.

"I just heard from my parents that there was mass killing," Cheak said. "It's hard to believe." Her high school history teacher told her the basics -- the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 -- and advised her to read about the rest on her own, she recalled.

Nearly three decades after the Khmer Rouge were overthrown, a battle over history is underway in Cambodia. On one side are forces eager to reckon with the past, both in school and at a special court set up to try the surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Many teachers, students and activist groups say more should be taught about the Khmer Rouge years, which is virtually absent from school curriculums now.

Blunting these demands is a government whose top leaders were once associated with the now-defunct communist movement and who seem loath to cede control over such a politically sensitive chapter of Cambodian history.

"Suppose that ever since 1945, Germany had been ruled by former Nazis," said Philip Short, author of "Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare," a biography of the Khmer Rouge leader published in 2004. "Would the history of the Nazi regime be taught honestly in Germany today? This is now Cambodia's problem."

A new high school textbook about the era, the first written by a Cambodian, was recently published by the Documentation Center of Cambodia, an independent institute in Phnom Penh that specializes in Khmer Rouge history. In "A History of Democratic Kampuchea," author Khamboly Dy, 26, spells out in 11 detailed chapters the rise, reign and fall of the Khmer Rouge, who called themselves the Communist Party of Kampuchea and the country, Democratic Kampuchea.

A Cambodian government review panel deemed the book unsuitable for use in the regular curriculum. Instead, the panel said the book could be used as supplementary reference material and as a basis for the Ministry of Education to write its own textbook.

"It's a start. The door is open," said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center, which has been pushing to get a textbook into classrooms since 1999.

Short said Khamboly's text is hard to fault on substantive historical grounds. "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 said.

Its sidelining reflects the failure of the country's current leaders to move beyond their Khmer Rouge past, he said. Prime Minister Hun Sen, National Assembly President Heng Samrin and Senate President Chea Sim were all middle-ranking Khmer Rouge officials, he said.

The three men left Cambodia for Vietnam in the late 1970s and returned with Vietnamese army forces that overthrew Pol Pot in 1979. Today, their political legitimacy rests in part on their credentials as men who helped free Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge tyranny.


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