Unveiling a Dark Chapter in Cambodia's Past ; an Update for Cambodian High School Textbooks Stirs Debate on How Best to Teach about the Violent Rule of the Khmer Rouge

Article excerpt

Teachers around the globe have long struggled with how to answer thorny questions from their students about such issues as race and religion - often opting to sidestep them altogether.

In some nations, though, students can pose an even more- sensitive question: Why did the leaders of our country mercilessly kill hundreds of thousands of their own people?

In Cambodia, teachers still have few answers.

"There are so many questions," says Samon Sany, a longtime history teacher for 11th- and 12th-graders. "Especially among students whose parents were killed. Even after they learn about Hitler and other leaders around the world, they still can't understand what [Khmer Rouge leader] Pol Pot wanted at that time."

Reigning for three years, eight months, and 20 days, starting in 1975, the communist Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia committed some of this century's worst crimes against humanity.

The hermetic nature of the regime, the freshness of events in people's memories, and integration of many of the movement's former members into society and the current government have left lingering a host of questions, often making teachers uneasy.

Perhaps emboldened by a newfound sense of peace or the increasing possibility of a tribunal to hold the Khmer Rouge accountable for genocide, Cambodia's Ministry of Education has decided to unveil a Khmer Rouge chapter in 12th-grade social science books in September. Up until now, many have criticized the treatment of this subject in textbooks as too thin on substance or too laden with propaganda, depending on the government du jour.

Government writers

The textbook committee that created the chapter consists of government school teachers and Education Ministry officials. Public and nongovernment experts were mostly excluded in shaping the chapter, which has raised some concerns about what it will be teaching to hundreds of thousands of students.

"Right now, everyone wants to talk about the Khmer Rouge, and suddenly a textbook's coming out," says Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which houses thousands of papers and photographs to be used as evidence during any future Khmer Rouge tribunal. "I'm worried about a formal textbook coming out that would carry thousands of mistakes and false information. They need to take time, do research, look at all the sources, because the quality of a book is based on source, not who wrote it."

The chapter has yet to be released for public scrutiny, but its creators say they avoided more-controversial information and focused instead on the experiences of people who lived in Cambodia during the period it depicts. The main sources are the chapter's four writers and two editors.

It will likely include descriptions of how families were forced to work long hours and were often hungry during this period, but will exclude such details as death tolls and the names of many leaders.

"We had no need to look through a lot of documents, because the six members of the textbook committee are living documents," says Chhut Sereyrum, a 12th-grade history teacher and one of the writers. …