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.
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
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
"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