Cambodia Keeps Lid on Dark Past ; as Cambodia Waits for a UN Trial of Khmer Rouge Leaders, Educators Leave out That Chapter of History

By Montlake, Simon | The Christian Science Monitor, February 12, 2003 | Go to article overview

Cambodia Keeps Lid on Dark Past ; as Cambodia Waits for a UN Trial of Khmer Rouge Leaders, Educators Leave out That Chapter of History


Montlake, Simon, The Christian Science Monitor


Sok Jakrea, a high-school senior, knows a fair bit about the starvation and torture that the Khmer Rouge inflicted on her country. None of it is first-hand: She was born five years after the regime's collapse. The stories come from her parents, who lived through one of the darkest chapters of Asian history.

"It was very difficult for them to live in that time," Ms. Sok says, resting between classes in a dusty schoolyard. "It's good for students to know about the history of Cambodia, but they don't want to know about the bad things."

In the next-door classroom, history teacher Sim Pharoeun is setting a test for her class of more than 50 seniors. The test covers world history - so far she hasn't touched on the bloody Khmer Rouge period of 1975-79.

One reason for her reluctance is that she doesn't have a textbook - the education ministry recalled it last April after complaints over accuracy. The textbook was the first in a decade to add Khmer Rouge to the 12th-grade history syllabus, and teachers haven't yet been issued an updated version.

But the recall is part of a deeper struggle in Cambodia to even begin to address its bloody legacy, let alone reach a consensus on what happened and why. Other Asian nations have also found it hard to face shameful periods of their history - notably Japan's denial of wartime atrocities. But Cambodia's pain arguably cuts deeper: The Khmer Rouge committed genocide against their own people.

Unless the next generation is educated, some observers say, history could repeat itself. People born after the Khmer Rouge now outnumber survivors of the genocide. Others, like Ms. Sim, argue that it's still too soon to understand the atrocities.

"The government doesn't want us to teach this history, because you see we haven't yet discovered the full meaning of the political ideology of the Khmer Rouge. Maybe in the future we will find a fuller meaning, so our current teaching could be wrong," she says.

Some Cambodians believe that this "fuller meaning" requires a tribunal to prosecute former Khmer Rouge leaders accused of genocide and crimes against humanity. Between 1975 and 1979, an estimated 1.7 million people died of starvation, execution, and overwork under the regime.

Last month, Cambodia and the United Nations revived talks in New York about Cambodia's proposal to create a domestic war-crimes tribunal. Last year, the UN broke off similar talks after years of painstaking negotiations, citing concerns over whether Cambodia is capable of holding a fair trial that meets international standards. No decision was reached during the recent talks.

Advocates of a trial say it would create a historical record for future generations and help survivors of the genocide come to terms with their losses. "Many of us find it difficult to move on without any answers. I think that the tribunal will set us free," says Youk Chhang, director of the independent Documentation Center of Cambodia.

But on the streets of Phnom Penh, which the Khmer Rouge evacuated in 1975 as part of an effort to turn the entire country into an agrarian commune, reactions are mixed. …

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