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Looking back to move forward

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University lecturers listen during a training session in Phnom Penh last week.

Teaching the history of the Khmer Rouge regime has gained fresh momentum with the introduction of new resources into higher education institutions throughout the Kingdom.

The move has raised hopes that education can foster an understanding of Cambodia’s tragic past, reconciliation and a commitment to human rights in a new generation.

With the blessing of the Ministry of Education, the Documentation Centre of Cambodia has compiled an ambitious syllabus on the Khmer Rouge to assist history lecturers at 94 universities and institutes.

“We think that without a proper understanding of history… [students] may fail to learn how to address the history properly and understand how the principle of human rights was violated years ago,” said DC-Cam’s director Youk Chhang.

The new course seeks to bring about a deeper understanding of Cambodia’s darkest chapter, the teaching of which has been neglected for decades due to political instability and the sensitivity of the material.

Instead of in-depth courses meant to help Cambodians understand how and why as many as two million of their compatriots died in fewer than four years of Khmer Rouge rule, university students have been left with just a couple hours for the subject in their Cambodian history classes.

Eng Somalin, who has been teaching Cambodian history for six years at the National Institute of Business in Phnom Penh, said last week at a three-day training for university lecturers organised by DC-Cam that she spends only about three hours of class time on the Khmer Rouge during a semester-long course. “We need to teach a lot,” she said. “In 48 hours, we need to teach all of Cambodian history.”

Last year, a new textbook – A History of Democratic Kampuchea 1975-1979 by Dy Khamboly – became required reading for high school students, who must pass an exam on Khmer Rouge history. But study of the period at most higher education institutions was still “very limited”, said Phala Chea, who helped create the syllabus.

“There’s no course on Khmer Rouge history. So if you want to learn that, you have to sit and wait for maybe a day of introduction into the Khmer Rouge culture. Just one day,” she said.

Eng Somalin said students are interested in the subject, despite the lack of classroom attention devoted to it. “They used to hear from their families talking about Khmer Rouge, and they hear something that the Khmer Rouge killed a lot of people in Cambodia, and they worked hard during this regime and sometimes they have a relative that died,” she said.

Historian David Chandler said in an interview in Phnom Penh last week that teaching history has been a “very low priority” for the members of the current regime, who view the subject as risky, especially for the former Khmer Rouge cadre in their ranks.

“If people start writing the book, you don’t know what side they’re on, what opens up, what doors swing open,” he said.

While the Khmer Rouge sought to erase history and all its “contaminating” effects on the idealised Khmer peasant-farmer, Cambodia’s “year zero” may have awakened a new sense of narrative for Cambodians who began to tell their own stories.

Chandler said that Cambodians have generally viewed history as something written by their rulers, but that surviving and coming to terms with the Pol Pot regime has pushed them to take more ownership over their past.

“History was never an important subject in the schools... I think they started thinking historically in the Khmer Rouge period when they started giving these biographies and things and a new sort of conscious came up – that everybody’s life had a narrative shape,” he said.

Youk Chhang wants teachers to engage students on a personal level. “When it comes to the Khmer Rouge, it’s so recent – because their parents were either victim or perpetrators… that they have to accept or rebel to it. And that generates the debate,” he said. “I hope that it will have some impact on their morality, their behaviour.”

While there is a range of teaching methods practiced in Cambodia’s higher education institutions, Youk Chhang said most rely predominantly on a lecture format that presumes “one question, one answer”, making new teaching methods perhaps nearly as controversial as the subject matter.

About 150 lecturers were asked to challenge that format during training at the Institute of Technology of Cambodia in Phnom Penh last week.

During one exercise at the training, after learning about mass atrocities carried out under the Khmer Rouge regime, the lecturers were split into groups and tasked with becoming experts on mass atrocities in different countries, such as Germany and Iraq. Each group then discussed the similarities and differences to the crimes of Democratic Kampuchea.

Chris Dearing, who helped lead the training, said the point of the exercise was to “show how students can actually teach each other in groups with very little teacher interaction”.

Though the course is built around A History of Democratic Kampuchea, the new syllabus goes well beyond the textbook by including materials that debate the definition of genocide, contemplate the meaning of “evil”, and examine specific aspects of Khmer Rouge rule – such as its effects on Buddhism or the Cham, or its policies in Ta Mok’s infamous Southwest Zone.

Vong Sotheara, deputy head of the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s history department, said the teaching methods would be as much of a challenge as the content of Khmer Rouge history. “We have to update our technique of teaching methodology,” he said.

Eng Somalin, the National Institute of Business lecturer, said she would use the new teaching methods and content, but will still only have three hours each semester for Khmer Rouge history. Vong Sotheara may have more leeway, with 10 to 12 hours of class time devoted to the subject.

But DC-Cam hopes that universities and higher education institutes will aim high and eventually create entire courses on the period.

“Cambodians are very proud of history,” Youk Chhang said. “It’s restoring the freedom of expression, a sense of ownership that Cambodians want.”  

Higher education institutions are expected to begin using the new syllabus next semester.

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