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Injecting something new into the study of Cambodia’s dark past

New initatives seek to change the way the history of the Khmer Rouge regime is taught in Cambodian classrooms. Photo supplied
New initatives seek to change the way the history of the Khmer Rouge regime is taught in Cambodian classrooms. Photo supplied

Injecting something new into the study of Cambodia’s dark past

Cambodia’s grade-12 students currently have their sights set on the future: August 8, the date of the national high school exit exam. But if history is any indicator, a few of the questions should be rooted in the past. It’s just unclear which part.

“I think [the history] of the Khmer Rouge regime will be on the exam,” said Naw Chanthy, a student at Sisowath High School. “But last year, the exam paper didn’t even include it.”

Such an omission would be a poor reflection of longstanding efforts to bring the Khmer Rouge into the classroom. The Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) first published a guidebook for teachers nearly a decade ago, and – after years of pushing – the government made A History of Democratic Kampuchea a mandatory text for grades 7 and up in 2009.

DC-Cam continues to train teachers, though there’s a growing gap between those who lived through the regime and those who did not.

In practice, implementation varies. Sao Putheavy, one of Chanthy’s classmates, said she had had little exposure to the text.

The standard government textbook covers the Kingdom’s history from the fourth century to the present in fewer than 100 pages. “We’ve learned [history] only two hours per week this year,” Putheavy said. “I think this is not enough.”

Both Chanthy and Putheavy were participants in a six-month pilot initiative designed by DC-Cam’s genocide education program that wraps today, after travelling to 14 public schools and reaching 952 students – roughly half of those in grade 12 in Phnom Penh – in special three-hour sessions.

Teacher Pheng Pong-Rasy of DC-Cam.
Teacher Pheng Pong-Rasy of DC-Cam. Athena Zelandonii

The program’s coordinator, Pheng Pong-Rasy, said that some of the students had never discussed the Khmer Rouge regime in the classroom before, and that most still learned primarily from family stories. “They said they did not learn the Khmer Rouge history because vacation is coming, or final exams are coming,” he said this week. “But that is no excuse.”

Pong-Rasy speaks softly like a mild-mannered instructor, but he has an intent focus on answering the “deep questions” his students ask: not just why the Khmer Rouge wore black, but what was at the heart of the regime’s ideology, or why members of the international community did not act.

“Some teachers use the same methodology: just reading a book, and the students stay quiet,” he said. “But I ask the students to work for me.”

The results might be mixed. One month on, some students seemed to recall only gore. “My teacher had taught us just from the book,” said Chanthy. “But it was different with DC-Cam – they showed us the pictures at S-21 [prison] with real torture, and blood on the floor. I’ve never even been there.”

In this respect, Chanthy is the norm. While S-21 – now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum – is frequented by foreigners on vacation, only 3 per cent of the city’s public-school students have paid the museum a visit, according to its director, Chhay Visoth.

It recently spearheaded its own program that aims to bring rotating mobile exhibitions into classrooms. “Students get bored of the same sad stories,” Visoth told Post Weekend earlier this year. “They need something new.”

It’s not the only initiative pursuing alternate means of teaching history. With the support of their government, two German filmmakers, Marc Eberle and Nico Mesterharm, have collaborated with local partners on a Khmer-language two-hander play, called The Courageous Turtle, that they claim is the first theatre production to be brought to Cambodian classrooms. It integrates discussions with civil parties into the experience, and has just received the support of the ECCC. EU funding will come in August, according to the pair.

The Courageous Turtle has been performed 162 times in seven provinces. Photo supplied
The Courageous Turtle has been performed 162 times in seven provinces. Photo supplied

The Courageous Turtle takes a bit of an allegorical angle: it follows a high-school student who learns about his family history, and takes lessons from his amphibious pet. (“Stick out your neck in order to move forward,” Eberle explained.) And it is somewhat future-focused – asking students how they might be courageous with present-day issues and highlighting the courage of the civil parties in court.

To date, the play has been performed 162 times in seven provinces, with plans to expand nationwide. The actors are recent graduates of the Royal University of the Fine Arts – they could be the students’ peers.

Eberle and Mesterharm both agreed that genocide education in Cambodia “didn’t compare” to that in Germany, where it seemed to be part of the everyday curriculum.

Perhaps the past is too close. “The biggest difference here is that history is political, especially the way that it is taught in schools,” Eberle said. “It’s teaching this part of history in a country that… hasn’t come to terms with its history. The way to talk about the Khmer Rouge is very problematic. A lot of the people who were part of [it] are still in power.”

The ‘political’ is something Youk Chhang, DC-Cam’s director, thinks about often. “History is always focused on politics, not personal stories,” he said this week. “And I think what has also been lacking is a culture of debate. You need to allow the students to become teachers.”

But for now, students are awaiting their exams – and the results of anything else might be mixed. “I don’t blame young Cambodian students for not being interested – they want to look forward,” Eberle said. “At the end of the day, it is just school.”

Additional reporting by Vandy Muong

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