History Books

by Ann Kohler, Mar 23, 2006 | Destinations: Cambodia / Phnom Penh

Cambodia, 2004 - For the first time in decades, Cambodian school children are catching a glimpse at their own complicated, recent past.

Some 25,000 new history books are being distributed in the capitol, Phnom Penh, this year. Before, history books taught Cambodia's ancient history -- which dates back to the 6th century -- and ignored the more brutal tales of Khmer Rouge impresario Pol Pot. But now, with the new books, a generation of students may be learning about the painful past that their parents had hoped to lock away forever.

I recently visited a school in Southeast Cambodia, where more than 80 students were crammed into wooden desks, awaiting their turn to practice English.

"Good morning," says the teacher, barely older than her students. They stand with a roar.

"Good morning!" they sing.

They address me, and then sit down to practice their lessons, written in outdated British grammar books that were donated to the struggling rural school.

"Do you know Pol Pot?" the teacher asks them, in Khmer.

"No," they answer, confused. One posits that Pol Pot was a "bad man," but that's all he knows. Even the teacher has a hard time explaining. They all look to me, the foreigner, to explain.

It's a phenomenon most would reserve for poor students who live in the country. But after nearly ten years of teaching only ancient history, Cambodia is left with an entire generation of children ignorant of their recent past: Namely, the US bombing of Cambodia during the early 1970s, the subsequent Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia in 1975 and rule until 1979, the nearly two million people who died during those years, the ten-year Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia until 1989, and the peace process that helped shepherd in the current government.

Back in the capitol, in Phnom Penh's largest public high school, I hope to find students who've learned a little more.

But 20-year-old student Sua Chan Kosal says the little he knows of recent history he learned from his family, not in class.

Pegged by other students as the brightest in the group, he stands shyly to address me.

"History we study only one day a week," he says with a slight grin.

"I hear a little about Pol Pot from my parents. They say 'Oh, it's very bad, very bad.' But that is all they say. They don't want to remember the bad experience.

"But they say, 'You're a student, so you should learn a lot.' I think all Khmer people should learn about this experience. Because I think all people in the world don't want this experience again."

Other students agree. When pressed, many admit they know little about Pol Pot.

Like other Asian nations, Cambodia is no stranger to revision. With a new leading political faction every few years, the country of roughly 11 million people regularly retools its history.

The current government contends that a careful interpretation of history is the only way to maintain peace in areas that were held by Khmer Rouge guerillas until just a few years ago.

With this in mind, independent scholars have little say in the process, admits En Om Samen, who heads the government committee that authored the new history books.

"We don't want Khmer children to repeat the bitter history," he told me one day in his office. "What is nasty, we try to bury, even the smell. If we described in detail the way they killed people, children might imitate it. History for students must be written carefully."

Critics argue that it's been written a bit too carefully -- even in its latest incarnation.

In the new books, only Pol Pot is named, while his henchmen -- who are still alive but have yet to face a genocide trial by international judges -- remain anonymous.

Moreover, Cambodia's arch enemy, Vietnam, is barely mentioned in the new book. Instead, credit for toppling the Khmer Rouge is given mostly to men like the current prime minister, Hun Sen, who fought alongside Vietnamese forces in 1979. That said, the book has at least six pages dedicated solely to the Khmer Rouge, which most agree is a surprising leap forward.

Chhang Youk directs of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which collects potential evidence for any future genocide trial.

"I think it's a good start," he told me, as we looked at copies of the new books.

"You have to start from somewhere. So then you always can challenge -- can perhaps perfect it. If they can differentiate between historians and government employees they can do better -- but they can not. If they can see themselves as historians, as scholars, they will be free to say anything they like. I understand they feel that this is a very complicated issue. But they should lead the students, encourage the students to pursue their own research."

The books are being distributed around the country and will come under review again next year. But as one history-book committeewoman put it, to know why changes haven't come more quickly, one must still turn to the leaders of government for answers.

* * * * *