Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - New history textbook tackles country's divided past

New history textbook tackles country's divided past

New history textbook tackles country's divided past

The publication of a new history textbook for students is an event that can

ignite heated debate, sometimes even diplomatic rows, between governments.

Witness the recent disputes between Japan and Korea over the question of

"comfort women," or China and Taiwan over the use of language that allegedly

promotes the cause of Taiwanese independence.

While these examples show

us how history may serve political ends, Khamboli Dy's A History of Democratic

Kampuchea (1975-1979) is the product of an independent research institution

dedicated to seeking the truth in order to promote the purposes of memory,

justice and national reconciliation.

The final version of the text has

emerged from a process of research, writing and review established by the

Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam). The book is intended to give grade 12

students in Cambodia an accurate, engaging and informative account of a dark

episode in the recent past that directly affected most of their families as well

as the development of the country in general.

The book supplies an

important gap in current educational resources. The subject of Democratic

Kampuchea (DK) - the regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge - had disappeared

from textbooks by 2002, and other sources, including the Internet, are largely

unavailable in schools. Government cooperation has been obtained to ensure that

all teachers will have access to the new textbook.

The book's publication

is timely, for the imminent trials of some former Khmer Rouge leaders will

undoubtedly stir public interest in the period.

One of the notable

achievements of DC-Cam's project is that this is the first book of its kind

written by a Cambodian.

Khamboli Dy, an employee of DC-Cam, interned at

both the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and Voice of America, where he studied

curriculum development and the design of educational material.


the author has made use of the rich collections of archival materials held by

DC-Cam. The book, then, not only serves as a synthesis of published scholarship,

but also provides readers with access to some illuminating original


Drafts of the book were scrutinized by historical experts,

including the most internationally distinguished historian of modern Cambodia,

David Chandler, who helped Dy make improvements to the text.


structure of the book is chronological, and traces the rise to power,

establishment, rule, and collapse of the communist regime. Embedded within the

narrative is a thematically organized description of aspects of the rule of the

Khmer Rouge: administration, economic policy, daily life, security, the Tuol

Sleng prison, and foreign relations. This structure is suitable and effective

and provides both coherence and comprehensiveness, while breaking up the account

into meaningful units that can be correlated with a series of lessons. Indeed,

it provides a sequence that teachers could easily follow. The text is largely

narrative and descriptive in style, and it offers brief explanations of some


In its discussion of the rise to power of the Khmer Rouge, the

book addresses the basic historical questions - who, what, when, where, and how

- with admirable care, but the more elusive, and pressing, question of "why" is

not answered adequately.

The Khmer Rouge is rightly identified as a

"Cambodian communist movement" whose genesis lay in the struggle against French

rule in the 1940s. The book says its supporters were "peasants" and "nationalist

students," and there is a narrative of the early history of the party which

details its relationship with the Vietnamese communist movement and events in

that country.

Cambodian leaders are identified by name and their roles

described. While these details are important, there is arguably too much

emphasis on individuals and the institution of the Communist Party of Kampuchea.

A description of the social structure of the country is also needed, and the

period of French rule should be described, at least briefly.

Some account

of economic change would be helpful. Then perhaps readers could understand the

grievances of peasants and students and why they found communist ideology

appealing. The international context of the time needs discussion so that the

roles of such influential actors as the United States and China can be


The central chapters of A History of Democratic Kampuchea

provide a wide-ranging and fascinating description of Cambodia under the rule of

the mysterious "Angkar." Topics include the evacuation of the cities, the

division of society into two new classes (the "base people" and "new people"),

the separation of families, mass wedding ceremonies, abuses of children's

rights, and the forced labor that resulted in a huge number of tragic deaths.

There is also some discussion of resistance to the regime, particularly by Cham

Muslims. The repression and mass killings are featured in two chapters, with a

special focus on the Tuol Sleng interrogation and torture center in Phnom


Extracts from personal accounts of people who experienced life in

DK enrich the descriptions: they are an outstanding feature of the book. The

extracts lend authenticity to the account, as the authoritative voice of the

author allows space for other voices representative of the social and ethnic

diversity of the country. They also provide some insight into "how we know"

about life at the time.

In classrooms, they can be used to sharpen

students' analytical skills, as questions of memory, exaggeration, omissions,

distortion and bias are discussed. Learning about the process of constructing

history helps students to distinguish between truth and propaganda, so necessary

if future genocides are to be prevented.

A large number of illustrations

and photograhps support the text - of Khmer Rouge leaders, soldiers, officials,

and projects such as irrigation, of maps showing the sites of mass graves and

the zones and regions of DK. But there are no photographs in the book of

prisoners held at Tuol Sleng, although many exist. These photographs are

important historical sources of what is a principal focus of the book, the

killing of almost two million Cambodians by the direct actions and policies of

the DK government. The text would have been enhanced by a representative

selection of these grim images, emotionally distressing though they


The deficiencies of this book are few. It is the worthy product of a

well-conceived and professionally executed project. It should serve as an

invaluable resource for Cambodian teachers and students alike, and appeal to the

general reader who seeks a stimulating introduction to the


Indeed, the book deserves an international readership. If

similar tragedies are to be avoided in the future, then students everywhere need

to know the truth about what happened in Cambodia during the 1970s. Political

objectives outweighed humanitarian concerns, and voices that told the truth to

the world were disbelieved or sidelined.


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