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Studying the seeds of genocide

A teacher reads a book at a Khmer Rouge history training session at a school in Takeo town last year
A teacher reads a book at a Khmer Rouge history training session at a school in Takeo town last year. Kevin Ponniah

Studying the seeds of genocide

Later this month, 100 educators from Banteay Meanchey and Battambang provinces will gather to attend a seminar on teaching about genocide and Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge-era history, the 12th such workshop since 2009, the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) announced yesterday.

“While these events are critical inputs to the professional development of teachers and the improvement of education in Cambodia, they represent far more than mere training and books,” the announcement reads. “Like the Nazi Holocaust, Cambodia struggles with the painful legacies of violence, oppression and injustice. And like all post-conflict societies, Cambodia’s future depends on its ability to face its past.”

However, this month’s five-day seminar, which starts on January 25, will also look to Cambodia’s future, in part thanks to a presentation by Dr Eng Kok-Thay on The 10 Stages of Genocide – a model by American academic and genocide expert Gregory Stanton that charts a pattern of ethnic estrangement and hostility endemic to genocides around the world.

“I tend to always do this presentation at the training for teachers to understand genocide and how it happens, and how racial discrimination” plays a part, said Kok Thay, DC-Cam’s director of research.

“If you learn about genocide, you understand the pattern … and we want teachers to understand that as well.”

According to Stanton’s model, the seeds of genocide are planted long before the killing starts in the form of classifications meant to establish a sense of “us and them”, a trend seen in Cambodia's historical animosity towards Vietnam and, troublingly, in the anti-Vietnamese rhetoric used by the Cambodia National Rescue Party, Kok-Thay said.

“I think a lot of people don’t understand that such discrimination could lead to the killing of certain groups of people, so that’s why we want to present this,” he said, maintaining that the opposition had not done enough to “isolate” legitimate political grievances – like illegal immigration – from their racial overtones.

“Right now it’s not dangerous, but it’s dividing the people further, making it easier for further stages of genocide to happen,” Kok-Thay added, noting such discriminatory rhetoric might “indoctrinate” the young people who will someday lead the country.

Kok-Thay also accused the government of not doing enough to speak out against the rhetoric, but government spokesman Phay Siphan said yesterday that opposition supporters should already know better than to use “rude words” like yuon – considered by some to be a racial epithet.

“They are well aware that is wrong, so we don’t need to say anything,” he said, noting that such thinking “does not work in this ASEAN context anymore”.

CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann, however, vigorously denied any racial discrimination on the opposition’s part, but maintained nonetheless that “the [ruling Cambodian People’s Party] is subservient to the Vietnamese government,” and suggested that Kok-Thay did not fully understand the issue.

“We do not have any problem with racial issues,” he said. “Our language is just to implement the law – the immigration law, the nationality law – effectively.”

Sovann declined to rebut Kok-Thay’s specific points “through the press”, but reiterated his party’s hatred of genocide while invoking the CPP’s own links to the Khmer Rouge regime.

“We hate genocide. We suffered from genocide,” he said. “The people who committed genocide are still in power.”

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