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What's missing from our history?

Every secondary school student in Cambodia has to study history, but who decides what aspects of Cambodian history students will learn and how do they make those decisions? Lift spoke with some of the country’s most knowledgeable historians, as well as professors and students of history, to find out what students are studying and what parts of Cambodia’s long history are not being handed down to the next generation.
While Cambodian and foreign scholars have written extensively about Cambodia, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport has only recently begun to incorporate many events, such as those that occurred during the Pol Pot regime, into the national curriculum. There is still a long way to go to improve the history curriculum, which the majority of the country will use as the foundation of their knowledge of Cambodia’s past.

“The high school curriculum for history in Cambodia is not a detailed one,” explained Koam Kotra, a history teacher at Pour Un Sourire d’Enfant, an organisation that follows the national curriculum. “It mentions the establishment of the country, but if we look at the history of each Cambodian King and wars with neighbouring countries there is little detail.”

Koam Kotra added that the course books focus mostly on events that occurred before the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975, and that many of the events that have occurred after the regime have yet to be added. He also said that because each new political regime in Cambodia has the power to decide what they want to teach, political motivations have caused much of Cambodia’s history to be lost over the generations.

Heng Phin, a Banon High School teacher in Takeo province, agrees that the turbulence of the past century has made it difficult to tell a consistent history of the Kingdom. “Writing Cambodia’s history depends on each regime that comes to power. Some history gets lost and some history stops being spread,” he said. “The students should know more about the history of each King, territory, colonisation and Democratic Kampuchea in detail,” he said, adding that some of these things are mentioned in the national curriculum but aren’t discussed in detail.

Eng Kim Ly, a director of the Department of Curriculum Development at the Ministry of Education, said that the contents of the history books used in public schools are not very detailed because they are only meant to cover the main events in Cambodia’s past. He suggested that if students want to learn more, they should do research at libraries or other places. But he also said that the ministry has plans to improve their curriculums. “Four hours a week of new curriculum for social sciences will be added to grade 12 curriculum next year,” he explained.

There are other improvements being made to the study of history by groups outside of the Ministry of Education as well. “The book published for students in public schools talks little about the Khmer Rouge regime,” said Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association. “However, the Extraordinary Chamber in the Courts of Cambodia and the Documentation Centre of Cambodia have compiled documents related to the Khmer Rouge and published a book for teachers across the country.” However, he said the project is still in the beginning stages and the book, called A History of Democratic Kampuchea, by Dy Khamboly (see our interview on page 11), has yet to reach many schools. Rong Chhun said that there was a proposal three years ago to make student’s scores on history exams just as important as math and Khmer in order to encourage students and teachers to focus more on the country’s past, but it has not happened yet.

“If we aren’t exposed to our own history, youth will start adapting other cultures,” said Ret Sarmout, a tour guide in Siem Reap. “Cambodia used to be a huge country stretching for over a million square kilometres, and now we are at about 181,035 square kilometres. We need to study why we lost the land and what made us prosperous. The more students that study history, the more they can help protect the country,” he said.

“I know some Cambodian history, but I think my studies at high school are not enough,” said Kouy Chanthy, a student at Banon High School who estimates that she studies history for about an hour a week.

“The content of the classes is too limited; I don’t know details about events from the past such as the Khmer Rouge regime.

“My teacher said that the people who want to know more exact details about Cambodia’s history should buy a history book at the market.”



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