Many high school and university students in Cambodia are not well aware of the history
of Democratic Kampuchea. And many also seem to have little grasp of world history
and politics. During the campaigns preceding the 2003 national elections, for example,
the media solicited several high school students' opinions about the characteristics
of the leaders they would like to see elected in Cambodia. One 15-year old boy said
that he wanted to have a good leader who loves the nation like Hitler, is serious
like Stalin, is friendly like Churchill, respects ideals like Lincoln, and is brave
like Napoleon. Impressionable and ill-educated youth like this boy might be easily
persuaded to adopt extreme and possibly dangerous ideologies, as did the Khmer Rouge.
Some Khmer Rouge survivors wanted to live in the dark past of the Khmer Rouge regime
because of their recent poor living conditions, while others believed that the Khmer
Rouge policy was very good, but bad in terms of arbitrary killing. This is because
those people lost their spouse, children, and relatives during the Khmer Rouge regime;
hold up many painful memories; and also lost productive forces. This is also seen
as a grim sign of the Khmer Rouge atrocities torment Cambodia's youth.
Cambodian youth need to learn their country's history if they are to help build a
nation that does not repeat the mistakes of its past. One of these "mistakes"
was the rise of the Khmer Rouge. Their massive violations of human rights and their
responsibility for the deaths of 2 million people must be fully understood by more
than the regime's survivors and a handful of scholars. Without addressing the historical
truths about the Democratic Kampuchea regime, the leaders who were responsible for
committing one of the most extreme genocides of modern history will not be held accountable.
They will continue to live with impunity, as they have for the nearly 24 years since
the regime fell.
Future generations of Cambodians need to see how the shadow of Democratic Kampuchea
still hangs over Cambodia today. By killing those with education and those who might
voice opposition to the regime, by tearing families apart, by destroying both commerce
and the arts, and by traumatizing and entire nation with fear and grief, the Khmer
Rouge nearly destroyed Cambodia's culture. It has also hindered the country's development.
Providing a brighter future for Cambodia will be a long-term process. It will involve
reconstructing the economy, strengthening the organs of democracy, and educating
the younger generation about the consequences of the past. It will also involve forgiveness
and reconciliation, which will allow us to heal and move forward. Only when we understand
our past can we move toward a society that respects the rule of law and individual
- Vannak Huy - Researcher, Documentation Center of Cambodia, Phnom Penh
(Vannak Huy is the author of The Khmer Rouge Division 703: From Victory to Self-Destruction).