IN Cambodian schoolbooks, the Khmer Rouge rule of 1975-1979 practically doesn't exist.
In the ninth grade history book, the regime that oversaw the death of at least 1.7
million people gets a brief ten-line mention, along with all the other governments
that Cambodia has seen in the past 50 years. But apart from that, references to Pol
Pot and his henchmen are hard to find in any written educational material.
And the KR may not be awarded more space in any future schoolbooks. Education officials
are worried that learning about the regime's atrocities will spark hatred in the
hearts of youngsters, thus damaging any attempts at national reconciliation. With
an upcoming tribunal against KR leaders looming, the issue becomes even more sensitive.
Others, however, point out that if the knowledge of the atrocities is not passed
on to future generations, it will all too soon be forgotten.
"The crimes of the regime do not only concern Cambodia. It is a matter for the
whole world, like the crimes of Italy's dictator Mussolini and the Japanese war crimes
[during World War 2]," says philosophy professor Chhay Yiheang.
But at the Department for Pedagogical Research, deputy director Eng Kim Ly worries
that increased education about the KR may do more damage than good to Cambodian society.
Especially now, when the vast majority of former rebels have been reintegrated after
"It is not good to tell the children about such bad things. It can make them
very angry - so angry that they will want to take revenge on each other. We don't
want to cause any more rifts in the Cambodian society," says Kim Ly.
Former professor of Khmer literature, Peng Soy, agrees:
"The KR atrocities should be left in the historic files, so that children can
seek out the information by themselves if they want to. But it should not be taught
in the schools. That will only make our children hate each other," says Peng
That was not a concern during the People's Republic of Kampuchea of the 1980s, when
all students from primary to high school received extensive education in what was
called "political morality". The subject mainly consisted of teaching the
pupils about the KR atrocities and there was no lack of graphic witness accounts,
horrific details and violent photos and posters in the classrooms.
That all started to change in the late 80s when teachers were ordered to begin reducing
the heavy focus on the atrocities. As the Paris Peace Accords grew nearer, the killing
fields began to fade from the classes and the school books, and by the UNTAC-sponsored
election in 1993, they had practically vanished.
I saw it in The Killing Fields
Ching Seyha, 18, used to learn about the Khmer Rouge when she went to high school.
But now, when she is in her first semester of studies at the Institute of Economy
and Management, she doesn't really remember what she was taught about the Pol Pot
"I forget everything. I only know that Pol Pot was a cruel man and that he killed
many people," says Seyha.
She does know a little more than that, though. With some help from her classmate,
19-year-old Him Sopheap, Seyha manages to come up with two more names of the KR leadership:
Ieng Sary and Ta Mok. None of the girls know anything about what role the two former
KR leaders played under the regime or where they are now.
Other little facts have slipped the girls' minds, too. Neither Seyha nor Sopheap
remembers when Pol Pot took power, although they know that he was ousted in 1979.
They have no idea how many people perished during the regime, but both of them have
vivid memories about how they died.
"People were killed by drowning, hanging and handcuffing. Also, a lot of people
starved because there was no food," says Seyha.
So how did they learn about this?
"I have seen the film The Killing Fields," answers Sopheap.
Roland Joffes's Oscar-winning movie is shown every year on Cambodian TV in connection
with April 17.
On the other hand, Seyha has also talked with her parents about the hungry years
during the KR regime.
"They told me that the Khmer Rouge only provided very little porridge to the
people," says Seyha who, when asked, describes communism as a "very strict
school that made Pol Pot want to be a dictator".
Seyha has visited Tuol Sleng and she knows that it used to be a school, then a prison
and that it is now "a museum where they put all the evidence for the new generations".
But she doesn't remember hearing about prison director Duch who is now jailed and
awaiting trial a few blocks away from his former work place.
"I never lived through that time, so I don't know about it. I'm only a kid,
I'm so young," says Seyha.
The most horrible leaders in the world
Houn Thayrasmey and Kong Vuthen, both 18, take an intense interest in the Khmer
"It's important to know about this regime. They were probably the most horrible
leaders in the world," says Thayrasmey.
So both Vuthen and Thay-rasmey try to learn as much as possible about Pol Pot's reign
of terror. Last year they finished high school in Kompong Speu province and now study
marketing at the International Institute of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. But their knowledge
of the KR mainly comes from other sources than their classes in school.
"I follow the news on TV and try to read articles about the subject," says
He then goes on to explain how Pol Pot was influenced by the Chinese communists.
"Pol Pot persisted on becoming a leader, and the rich people didn't like him.
When he came to power, he killed the rich and the educated people," explains
But Pol Pot wasn't the only Khmer Rouge and between the two of them, Thayrasmey and
Vuthen list practically the entire steering committee of the communist party: Khieu
Samphan, Ieng Sary, Nuon Chea, Ta Mok and a few more.
They know the dates of the rise and demise of the regime by heart and maintain that
some three million people died during those years. Of course they also know how people
died - mostly from starvation and disease.
"My grandfather starved to death during the Pol Pot regime. I've talked a lot
to my grandmother about it," says Vuthen.
He and Thayrasmey also follow the debate about a future tribunal to judge former
leaders of the KR regime.
"I would like the government to resolve the problem about how to try the old
Khmer Rouge leaders," Thayrasmey says.
My family was broken up
May Phan, 21, was born the year the Khmer Rouge were ousted. He only made it to
the third grade in primary school, but his family and relatives have often told him
about the Pol Pot regime - and particularly what happened to themselves during those
"My family was broken up and sent to different parts of the country. It was
very hard for people to live back then. The Khmer Rouge would threaten people and
kill them," says Phan.
However, when it comes to factual information, Phan's knowledge falls a little short.
He doesn't know anything about how many people died during the KR regime.
He is a little better with names.
"There was another leader called Khieu Samphan. And recently I heard about Ta
Mok, but I don't know who he was - some kind of soldier - or where he is now,"
His family lives in Svay Rieng province. Phan himself recently arrived in Phnom Penh
and tries to eke out a living as a day worker, waiting outside Wat Lanka for employers
to pick him up.
He has never been to Tuol Sleng, but he has heard about it and knows it was a prison
where terrible things happened.
"Sometimes I get angry about what happened during Pol Pot times and I want to
revenge myself. I just don't know how to do it," says Phan.