Today, Cambodia marks the 35th anniversary of the victory over the Khmer Rouge (KR) regime, which put to death nearly two million Cambodians between April 1975 and January 1979.
Although the anniversary has been politically controversial, educating the young generations of Cambodians about the KR period is critical to prevent the recurrence of the genocide, the spectre of which continues to haunt Cambodia today.
In the face of the political deadlock over the controversial national election of July 2013, violence and social upheaval once again threatens peace and national reconciliation.
One of the key avenues to addressing these issues is education, and a key question is: What have we done in the past 35 years in educating our children about the KR genocide?
The efforts in teaching genocide in Cambodia have gone through three important stages of development since they started in 1979.
In the 1980s, genocide education was largely ideological and state-sponsored, and was strictly implemented along the lines of the pro-Vietnamese communist models.
It effectively became a tool for state political propaganda and was part of the competing power struggles both inside and outside of Cambodia.
In the 1990s, when Cambodia transitioned from communism to multi-party democracy, the KR account was ironically completely deleted from the school curriculum, and teachers were reluctant to discuss any questions that touched upon KR issues in their classrooms.
The government policy might be likened to “dig a hole and bury the past”. Although content on KR history was integrated back into the school curriculum in 2001, it was extremely brief – indeed, only two sentences appeared in a chapter on modern Cambodian history in national textbooks.
In 2004, the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) took the initiative to engage the public and the Ministry of Education to digest public opinion and to institutionalise genocide education respectively through its Genocide Education Project.
Within this project framework, DC-Cam augmented the history of the Cambodian genocide from these two sentences to its current position, in which it comprises an entire chapter of its own. Despite the long and concerted efforts in this endeavour, genocide education in Cambodia remains largely limited to the teaching of KR history, while many other important aspects – causes of genocide, genocide and human behaviour, the role of bystanders, genocide and the question of social morality, the impact of colonialism on genocide, genocide prevention, comparative genocide study, genocide in international law and the denial of genocide – have not been adequately addressed.
Given the recent violence, killings, incitement of discrimination and polarisation in Cambodian society, there is an urgent need to pay greater attention to and expand genocide education to allow the young generations to draw upon our nation’s past experiences as lessons that can help shape their individual attitudes and overall social morality.
A comprehensive understanding of the KR genocide and the history of the Cambodian conflicts will mold the young generations to be excellent catalysts for change and produce informed citizens who will contribute to civil society engagement and democratic practices and who will build a just, equitable and peaceful society.
Author, A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979)
Documentation Center of Cambodia