"Imagine you were forced to overwork, farming the rice fields … but, ironically, were nearly starving to death,” 45-year-old Hun Thy, a veteran teacher, tells the attentive class assembled in front of him.
“And if you were caught even eating insects … and a cadre saw, you would be in deep trouble. Write a paragraph explaining how you would hide your food.”
Although the “students” quickly begin scribbling ideas – such as wrapping rice in a cotton krama and burying it underground – no one in this class will ever sit an exam on the topic.
But what the 100 high school teachers present are learning this week is how to teach Khmer Rouge history in an engaging way to a generation of youth who have no direct experience of wartime or the Democratic Kampuchea regime.
“Be sensitive to the story. You need to use a sad expression that fits the story’s tone so that the students take it seriously and don’t laugh,” Thy later instructs his training group, after reading the harrowing case study of a female prisoner.
Many of the younger teachers here, however, are in the same boat as their students.
They were taught little about Democratic Kampuchea history during their own schooldays and are too young to have any memories of the period.
“I knew just a little bit about Khmer Rouge history before … from my parents, books and some at school … but nothing like this,” said Nuon Vichea Thika, 23, a teacher from Kampot, on the third day of the six-day training course.
Although Thika may not be able to relate directly to the historical material covered in the textbook, her young age could be an advantage in the classroom.
Older teachers provide a more complex problem for the trainers.
“[Teachers] who have personal experience [of the Khmer Rouge] may teach the students from an emotional [place] and that could generate anger, hatred or revenge amongst students,” said Khamboly Dy, author of A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-79), the government-approved textbook used to teach Khmer Rouge history.
“We have experienced some teachers … [who] want to [discipline] students who are children of former Khmer Rouge cadre more harshly than children of the general population,” he said.
Chea Vet, 44, lived in a Khmer Rouge children’s centre under the regime and says he wants the next generation to “understand” what occurred.
“The records in the books fit with what I know. People ate only watery porridge [every day] and they had to complete whatever tasks Angkar ordered them to do,” the Takeo-based teacher said.
Despite having direct experience, Vet believes he has benefited greatly from the training.
“I know more about the mindset and ideology of the leaders, who were inhumane and immoral," he said. "I have new techniques and experiences … that I will apply in the classroom.”
Some of the more creative of those techniques include fictionalised diary entries, role play and poetry writing.
Comprehensive and compulsory genocide education in Cambodia began only in 2007, when Khmer Rouge historical research organisation the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam) partnered with the Ministry of Education to develop a curriculum.
Although genocide education was introduced following the fall of the regime in 1979, it was a “political and ideological way of teaching” for much of the 1980s, said textbook author Dy, who is also head of genocide education at DC-Cam.
“We want to shift the direction away from that way of teaching to an objective genocide education.… [With] accurate and politically unbiased history.”
According to DC-Cam director Youk Chhang, the establishment of the Khmer Rouge tribunal in 2007 provided a natural “foundation” for such an approach.
Since 2011, questions about Democratic Kampuchea have been placed on the national high school history exam, a compulsory subject sat by all students in the Kingdom.
One question this year – “Who were the enemies of Angkar and what was their fate?” – was particularly difficult, Chhang said.
“The Khmer Rouge definition of the enemy is very tough, and it will force students to talk to their parents and their neighbours to find out the answer. Hopefully, it will create a lot of discussion at the family level.”
Thy, the teacher trainer, said that in his own classes, he sets such dialogue as homework.
“Ideology is a significant challenge [for students to grasp].… Students seem to try to question everything.… ‘If you didn’t have rice, why didn’t you find other things to eat?’… ‘How did only one militia man control and bring a whole group of people to be killed?’
“But [when] students cross-check what they learned in the classroom with their parents, that makes them believe it.”
The power of that kind of testimony to help students, and younger teachers such as Thika, is clear.
“Some old teachers [at the training] talked about when they were in the child unit and they saw Khmer Rouge cadre bringing villagers to be killed.… Some of them also talked about their parents … being killed,” Thika said.
“Raw experience is much better [for learning] than just reading it from the book.”