The publication of a new history textbook for students is an event that can
ignite heated debate, sometimes even diplomatic rows, between governments.
Witness the recent disputes between Japan and Korea over the question of
"comfort women," or China and Taiwan over the use of language that allegedly
promotes the cause of Taiwanese independence.
While these examples show
us how history may serve political ends, Khamboli Dy's A History of Democratic
Kampuchea (1975-1979) is the product of an independent research institution
dedicated to seeking the truth in order to promote the purposes of memory,
justice and national reconciliation.
The final version of the text has
emerged from a process of research, writing and review established by the
Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam). The book is intended to give grade 12
students in Cambodia an accurate, engaging and informative account of a dark
episode in the recent past that directly affected most of their families as well
as the development of the country in general.
The book supplies an
important gap in current educational resources. The subject of Democratic
Kampuchea (DK) - the regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge - had disappeared
from textbooks by 2002, and other sources, including the Internet, are largely
unavailable in schools. Government cooperation has been obtained to ensure that
all teachers will have access to the new textbook.
The book's publication
is timely, for the imminent trials of some former Khmer Rouge leaders will
undoubtedly stir public interest in the period.
One of the notable
achievements of DC-Cam's project is that this is the first book of its kind
written by a Cambodian.
Khamboli Dy, an employee of DC-Cam, interned at
both the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and Voice of America, where he studied
curriculum development and the design of educational material.
the author has made use of the rich collections of archival materials held by
DC-Cam. The book, then, not only serves as a synthesis of published scholarship,
but also provides readers with access to some illuminating original
Drafts of the book were scrutinized by historical experts,
including the most internationally distinguished historian of modern Cambodia,
David Chandler, who helped Dy make improvements to the text.
structure of the book is chronological, and traces the rise to power,
establishment, rule, and collapse of the communist regime. Embedded within the
narrative is a thematically organized description of aspects of the rule of the
Khmer Rouge: administration, economic policy, daily life, security, the Tuol
Sleng prison, and foreign relations. This structure is suitable and effective
and provides both coherence and comprehensiveness, while breaking up the account
into meaningful units that can be correlated with a series of lessons. Indeed,
it provides a sequence that teachers could easily follow. The text is largely
narrative and descriptive in style, and it offers brief explanations of some
In its discussion of the rise to power of the Khmer Rouge, the
book addresses the basic historical questions - who, what, when, where, and how
- with admirable care, but the more elusive, and pressing, question of "why" is
not answered adequately.
The Khmer Rouge is rightly identified as a
"Cambodian communist movement" whose genesis lay in the struggle against French
rule in the 1940s. The book says its supporters were "peasants" and "nationalist
students," and there is a narrative of the early history of the party which
details its relationship with the Vietnamese communist movement and events in
Cambodian leaders are identified by name and their roles
described. While these details are important, there is arguably too much
emphasis on individuals and the institution of the Communist Party of Kampuchea.
A description of the social structure of the country is also needed, and the
period of French rule should be described, at least briefly.
of economic change would be helpful. Then perhaps readers could understand the
grievances of peasants and students and why they found communist ideology
appealing. The international context of the time needs discussion so that the
roles of such influential actors as the United States and China can be
The central chapters of A History of Democratic Kampuchea
provide a wide-ranging and fascinating description of Cambodia under the rule of
the mysterious "Angkar." Topics include the evacuation of the cities, the
division of society into two new classes (the "base people" and "new people"),
the separation of families, mass wedding ceremonies, abuses of children's
rights, and the forced labor that resulted in a huge number of tragic deaths.
There is also some discussion of resistance to the regime, particularly by Cham
Muslims. The repression and mass killings are featured in two chapters, with a
special focus on the Tuol Sleng interrogation and torture center in Phnom
Extracts from personal accounts of people who experienced life in
DK enrich the descriptions: they are an outstanding feature of the book. The
extracts lend authenticity to the account, as the authoritative voice of the
author allows space for other voices representative of the social and ethnic
diversity of the country. They also provide some insight into "how we know"
about life at the time.
In classrooms, they can be used to sharpen
students' analytical skills, as questions of memory, exaggeration, omissions,
distortion and bias are discussed. Learning about the process of constructing
history helps students to distinguish between truth and propaganda, so necessary
if future genocides are to be prevented.
A large number of illustrations
and photograhps support the text - of Khmer Rouge leaders, soldiers, officials,
and projects such as irrigation, of maps showing the sites of mass graves and
the zones and regions of DK. But there are no photographs in the book of
prisoners held at Tuol Sleng, although many exist. These photographs are
important historical sources of what is a principal focus of the book, the
killing of almost two million Cambodians by the direct actions and policies of
the DK government. The text would have been enhanced by a representative
selection of these grim images, emotionally distressing though they
The deficiencies of this book are few. It is the worthy product of a
well-conceived and professionally executed project. It should serve as an
invaluable resource for Cambodian teachers and students alike, and appeal to the
general reader who seeks a stimulating introduction to the
Indeed, the book deserves an international readership. If
similar tragedies are to be avoided in the future, then students everywhere need
to know the truth about what happened in Cambodia during the 1970s. Political
objectives outweighed humanitarian concerns, and voices that told the truth to
the world were disbelieved or sidelined.