​Challenges of teaching a brutal past | Phnom Penh Post

Challenges of teaching a brutal past


Publication date
08 January 2010 | 08:02 ICT

Reporter : Robbie Corey Boulet

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DC-Cam hopes that its history lessons about the Khmer Rouge can promote reconciliation, but pushes teachers to use new techniques.


Takeo Province

ON a recent Thursday, a classroom full of high school teachers in Takeo province sat in groups of five sharing survivors’ recollections of 20th-century mass atrocities.

In one group, the first teacher to speak delivered a five-minute summary of the Holocaust structured around the account of a Jew who fled the ghetto in Horochow, Poland, to forage in the forest. “It’s an amazing thing,” the teacher said, reading from the survivor’s account. “When one is hungry and completely demoralised, you become inventive. When I even say it I don’t believe it – I ate worms, I ate bugs, I ate anything that I could put in my mouth. And, I don’t know, sometimes I would get very ill.”

Another told the group about the killing of more than 8,000 men and boys during the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, relating the story of a 17-year-old, identified as Witness O, who survived and later testified in court about his experience. “The soldiers tied Witness O’s hands behind his back with a kind of very hard string, and then put him in another classroom, where he could feel clothes under his feet,” the teacher said. “When all the men’s hands were tied, the soldiers took them out of the building and put them on a truck.”

A third teacher told the group about the Iraqi government’s 1988 campaign against the Kurds, reading aloud the account of a labourer who was nearly buried alive in a mass grave. “When I sat down, I was hit on the back of the head,” he read. “I fell down inside the hole. I saw one of the guys inside the hole, and I lost my consciousness.”

And then it was Yeb Dodon’s turn. The 55-year-old teacher from Kep was tasked with providing a brief history of the Khmer Rouge regime. It was this history that was the focus of the training programme, organised by the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, in which the teachers had been participating for the past two weeks.

The training was one of six held in November and December that covered A History of Democratic Kampuchea, the first government-sanctioned textbook about the regime. Between now and the end of 2010, the 186 teachers who participated will, in turn, help to train 3,000 of their peers.

DC-Cam is hopeful that, 31 years after the regime fell from power, the curriculum can help Cambodia along the difficult road to national reconciliation, though doubts remain about whether the teachers will be able to successfully implement the innovative methods it prescribes.

Beginning his presentation, Yeb Dodon said: “Khmer Rouge was the name the King gave to his communist opponents in the 1960s. April 17, 1975, ended five years of foreign interventions, bombardment and civil war in Cambodia. On this date, Phnom Penh fell to the communist forces.

But under Democratic Kampuchea, all the people were deprived of their basic rights.”

He went on from there, eschewing the survivor’s narrative he had been given and instead reciting facts about the leadership structure of the Khmer Rouge, its 1977 four-year plan and its construction projects. He touched on Norodom Sihanouk’s support of the regime, and how the King was later placed under house arrest on the Royal Palace compound. But just as he began to tell of the abolition of religion, Christopher Dearing, who was helping to run the training for DC-Cam, told the teachers that time was up.

Yeb Dodon closed his book and laughed. “I think there is too much,” he said.

Written by DC-Cam researcher Khamboly Dy and published in 2007, A History of Democratic Kampuchea offers a straightforward and thorough account of the regime’s rise, reign and legacy, though one that skirts several points of contention, such as whether the 1979 overthrow by the Vietnamese amounted to liberation or an invasion.

The teacher’s guidebook has been more controversial. During the approval process, members of a Ministry of Education review committee occasionally clashed with DC-Cam staff members over how the material should be taught, objecting to some of the more interactive lessons.

The guidebook calls for, among other things, an in-class lecture by a survivor of the regime, an interview with a former cadre and a role-play in which students pretend to be both victims and perpetrators of Khmer Rouge crimes.

Teachers who participated in the Takeo training said they were apprehensive about the interactive and small-group activities, many of which differ markedly from the traditional lecture-style teaching methods commonly employed in Cambodia. Several said, in fact, that they were far more concerned about the format of the lessons than their content.

“Dividing in groups is new for me, and I have never really done this before,” said Sam Rethy, 55. “Usually I just have my students read and answer questions, without any activities.”

Yeb Dodon said he was grateful for the exposure to new techniques, though he added that he was worried about the prospect of having to actually use them on his own. “I think this guidebook and the foreign instructors taught me how to teach more effectively,” he said, “but it is going to be very difficult to follow these instructions because my teaching style has never been to divide people in groups and have discussions like this.”

Though DC-Cam Director Youk Chhang said he believed the teachers had adapted to the methods, the organisers of the Takeo training indicated that there could be obstacles down the road.

“In relation to history teaching, the differences in pedagogy are not great or insurmountable: the main difference relates to a greater emphasis on organised student participation and collaboration,” Laura Summers, a Cambodia expert at the University of Hull in the United Kingdom who served as a training monitor, said via email.

However, she added, “Most classrooms will not have the space that we had in the training centre, or the easily moveable chairs with writing arms.

Most schools have heavy, wooden desks and no assembly hall or spare teaching rooms.”

Beyond resource limitations, Dearing said, some of the teachers might lack the confidence to try the new techniques outside the context of the training.

“The idea is to increase the teachers’ competency and confidence in these methods so they will be comfortable using them in large classes. Many are ready to do this now,” he said. “However, I expect that not all teachers would readily implement these methods on their own.”

Youk Chhang defended the interactive teaching methods, citing as an example the comparative history exercise, which he said would contextualise the Khmer Rouge years for students unfamiliar with mass crimes in other countries.

“I want to show that, yes, these are crimes against humanity, but we’re not the only victims,” he said.

The inclusion of a wide range of voices in the lessons, he added, would help to establish a balanced, authoritative narrative of Democratic Kampuchea.

This would be a welcome change from years past, some teachers said. Because the Ministry of Education has never before endorsed a textbook specific to the Khmer Rouge, what little classroom instruction students have received until now has been informal, often drawing heavily from teachers’ personal experiences – or, in the cases of younger teachers, those of their families – rather than peer-reviewed academic material.

For example, Eng Bo, a 39-year-old teacher who travelled from Kampot to take part in the Takeo training, said during a break that, in previous years, he had often told students of being separated from his parents and of being ordered, at the age of 5, to retrieve clothes from the dead bodies of cadres at the cooperative to which he was sent. But he said he had been unable to relate those experiences to broader crimes committed by the regime because he himself had known little about the scale of its destruction.

“I was alive during the Pol Pot time, so some of this is not news to me,” he said. “But this week I have been very shocked to learn about all of the people that Pol Pot killed.”

Reaching for reconciliation

Youk Chhang is convinced that the teaching of Khmer Rouge history can promote national reconciliation – in the acknowledgments of the teacher’s guidebook, he goes so far as to assert that DC-Cam’s Genocide Education Project “has become the truth commission of Cambodia”.

But even among teachers participating in the trainings, he said, there remains a tendency to demonise former cadres, particularly regime leaders.

“The teachers want to see who these people were. They always ask for photographs,” he said. “They want to see their faces. But when they see the pictures, they’re not satisfied because the faces look so human. They don’t see the cruelty. They want to confirm what they already know, and so they keep asking for more pictures.”

He added: “We need teachers to recognise that half of their students are the children of former Khmer Rouge. The regime was bad, but not every individual who joined the regime was bad.”

Historian David Chandler, who has consulted on the Genocide Education Project, said this idea was central to attempts at reconciliation. “I think understanding that human beings are human beings rather than monsters from outer space is crucial for coming to terms with a phenomenon like the Khmer Rouge,” he said.

To this end, even those most deserving of condemnation are presented in a nuanced manner. The guidebook, for example, includes a photograph of Pol Pot, taken in the 1980s near the Thai border, sitting in a chair with his daughter in his lap, smiling, while five other children gather around him.

“I want to humanise him,” Youk Chhang said of the image. “Pol Pot was obviously a bad leader, but I don’t want to create hate.”

The curriculum has been designed to strike a balance between laying bare the atrocities for which the regime is responsible and defusing any tension that knowledge might spark.

Asked to give an example of how such tension might manifest itself, Youk Chhang recalled a textbook distribution event at Phnom Penh’s Youkunthor High School involving Norng Chan Phal, a child survivor of Tuol Sleng prison, and Him Huy, who worked there as a guard.

Though the event was intended to demonstrate the potential for reconciliation between victims and perpetrators, the question-and-answer session went in a different direction.

“At first, the whole class was silent,” Youk Chhang said. “You could tell they were preparing questions. But they were undecided on who to ask.

Finally, one of the students got up and asked Him Huy: ‘Did you join the Khmer Rouge because you wanted power?’ And then the whole class started clapping. The whole class! They did not stop! And Huy tried to answer politely, but the students wouldn’t accept the answer.

“And that kind of question can make a teacher uncomfortable,” he added.

Though the wounds of the regime are far from healed, those who organised the Takeo training said they believed that, by the end, the teachers were capable of presenting the period in a manner that downplayed individual wrongdoing, thereby limiting the potential for similar incidents.

“The teachers recognised that they were not only teaching the history of [Democratic Kampuchea] in terms of raising students’ historical understanding of the period, but also their historical empathy with people who lived during the period,” Dearing said.

Summers noted that many of the teachers at the Takeo training were Khmer Rouge survivors – “so they knew many party, army or co-op cadres as human beings”.

“The teachers were interested in promoting reconciliation through the teaching of history and in preparing their students for life in the rapidly changing social and economic circumstances of today,” she said.

“One teacher stated during a general discussion that a greater knowledge of history would not ensure that all students would become good citizens, but he said ‘we must aim for that’ and then hope that ‘at least some of them will be better citizens’.”


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