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Khmer Rouge lessons make impact


Students fill out a questionnaire at a high school in Kampong Chhnang province in January. The questionnaire allows students to rate the quality of the History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979) course. Photograph: DC-Cam

Students fill out a questionnaire at a high school in Kampong Chhnang province in January. The questionnaire allows students to rate the quality of the History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979) course. Photograph: DC-Cam

When Ly Ratanak, a high school teacher in Kampong Chhnang province, taught history to his students, he hardly touched the subject of genocide under the Khmer Rouge.

That started to change about five years ago, when the Documentation Center of Cambodia embarked on its landmark project to print textbooks, train teachers and make genocide education a mandatory part of the curriculum.

This week, DC-Cam monitors are visiting the last of 200 high schools to take the pulse of their efforts and make recommendations for improvement.

The results are a mixture of the good, the bad and the unexpected. But if the reaction of Ly Ratanak is any indication, much progress has been made in a short amount of time.

“It is easy to teach my students now, because we have a detailed document to tell and teach students. They will know a lot about the history of the Pol Pot regime. Before, they thought that it wasn’t true.”

Starting at the beginning of 2011, field workers affiliated with the centre scheduled two trips per month to a sampling of schools in all 24 provinces in Cambodia.

They observed classes, interviewed teachers and talked to students.

DC-Cam head Youk Chhang said difficulties would arise when teachers who suffered at the hands of Khmer Rouge soldiers would find themselves, years later, teaching the soldiers’ children.

The kids would then be singled out for unfair treatment, he said.

“The...teaching, it’s about forgiveness, it’s about remembrance,” he said. “But I guess you can’t avoid being personal.”

Most of the questions revolved around the documentation centre’s main textbook, A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979).

About 500,000 copies of the book were printed, along with teacher and student guides, and sent to all the estimated 1,700 high schools in Cambodia.

Before its publication, there was little or no information available in textbook form about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

According to the documentation centre, a textbook from 2000 about Democratic Kampuchea covered the brutal killings in only a couple of paragraphs.

Teachers are still struggling to incorporate the full story into lesson plans.

At a high school earlier this year in Preah Vihear province, a teacher told students that there was one good thing about the Khmer Rouge era.

“Both the rich and the poor had equal rights,” the teacher said, according to the monitors, before telling the students to ask their grandparents if they wanted more information.

Am Sophal, a teacher in Prey Veng, said the coursework gives students more options.

“Before, the information was from their parents, but now they know it from a textbook. It is the right way to teach the student.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Joseph Freeman at



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