High-School History Text Divides Cambodians

A new textbook on the history of the Khmer Rouge—the Cambodian Communist faction which murdered an estimated 1.7 million people during its four-year reign of terror in the late 1970s—cannot be used as a stand-alone reader for high-school students, says the government in Phnom Penh. Instead, the book will be assigned as a supplementary source and used by the Cambodian Ministry of Education to produce a less controversial work on the same topic.

A History of Democratic Kampuchea, written by 26-year-old Khamboly Dy, provides a warts-and-all assessment of the rise and fall of the Pol Pot regime. It was published by the Documentation Center of Cambodia, an independent organization that specializes in Khmer Rouge history, with funding from the Soros Foundation and the National Endowment for Democracy. The government-appointed committee that reviewed the text criticized it for identifying specific members of the Khmer Rouge and focusing too much on the post-1979 Cambodian civil war. Explaining the reason for his veto, one member of the committee argued that history “should be kept for at least 60 years before starting to discuss it.”

The government’s views clash with those held by a number of young Cambodians who want an open and honest discussion of their nation’s recent history. Cheak Socheata, a first-year medical student at the University of Health Sciences in Phnom Penh, says she’s eager to buy a copy of Khamboly’s book since her high-school teachers glossed over the Pol Pot period. Nou Va, a 27-year-old program officer at the Khmer Institute for Democracy, also thinks it’s time for a fresh and frank assessment of Cambodia’s past. He believes that his government’s refusal to allow a debate to go forward is giving rise to a new generation that does not understand the seriousness of the Khmer Rouge’s crimes. “When a kid doesn’t eat all the rice on the plate, his mother tells him, ‘If you were in the Pol Pot regime, you would die because you don’t have enough food,’” says Nou. “The kid says, ‘Oh, she’s just saying that to blame us. I don’t believe it.’”

Supporters of Mr. Khamboly say the government sidelined his book because too many current legislators were once members of the Khmer Rouge. “Suppose that ever since 1945, Germany had been ruled by former Nazis,” explains Philip Short, author of a 2004 biography on Pol Pot. “Would the history of the Nazi regime be taught honestly in Germany today? This is now Cambodia’s problem.” High-school history textbooks have recently sparked controversy in other countries as well. The government of Japan drew harsh criticism from its neighbors after it issued a secondary-school reader that soft-pedaled the country’s role in WWII.

As reported in the Washington Post.

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