Many years ago I read an account of a young German university student who,
while exploring his grandmother's attic came across a crate of his father's war memoribilia.
He found many old bits and pieces of military souvenirs and a large collection of
photographs. One photograph showed a deep pit almost full of dead bodies. On the
edge of the pit, blindfolded with hands bound knelt the next victim. The executioner
holding the pistol to the back of the man's head was smiling into the camera. The
executioner was the young student's father.
The young man lived with this terrible secret, telling no one and continually tortured
with the knowledge. To tell anyone would be to betray his father, and to continue
the secret would be to continue the lie. He chose to continue the lie, and the photograph
was found in his pocket when he hung himself a month later.
A young man, loving his father, and refusing to believe the evil of the past. It
has been over 25 years since I read the story, but lately it comes to mind again
and again. In the past several years I have met many young Cambodians - university
students and graduates of many Western universities. Many have returned here to Cambodia
to help rebuild their motherland. I have had the pleasure of knowing some of them
well. I have spent many hours listening to their stories. Some have shared secrets.
Some refuse to discuss what their fathers had done in the past-some refuse to accept
what their fathers had done. Still others refuse to know.
A recent news article quoted a Cambodian leader as saying to his son, a student at
a prestigious American university, "...you will continue when I am gone, my
son". This maybe is to be expected, that a child will follow in the footsteps
of his father. And perhaps it is as it should be. But education can be a dangerous
thing, and a student educated in the West will often begin to question the values
and even the history that has been given to him by his parents. A Western education
gives access to information that would be impossible to find in their homeland where
freedoms of press, speech, and expression do not exist.
I cannot pretend to know the burden imposed by the awesome responsibility of national
leadership. However, I do know history. History is dynamic and alive. The history
of Cambodia is being written every day by the leaders of the country as well as by
the common people. The history that we are making today is the legacy that is going
to be handed down to our children and our grandchildren. National leaders should
be concerned about what their children may learn in a foreign university, or what
their children might find in their grandmother's attic.
- Name withheld on request, Phnom Penh