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Cambodian Students Begin Learning about Khmer Rouge Atrocities
Youk Chhang, who directs the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said that between 20-30 percent of young students in his country are "children of the perpetrators."

Cambodian Students Begin Learning about Khmer Rouge Atrocities

Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, describes the challenges of teaching young people about the country's holocaust. Over the last two weeks of April, he met with students and faculty at UCLA, Berkeley, Irvine and San Diego.

By Kevin Matthews
Senior Writer

So now you have the classroom where there are children on both sides, and now you have the teachers on both sides. How would you teach this thing?

UCLA Today

More than 30 years after the worst mass murder since World War II, Cambodian high school students are for the first time learning about Khmer Rouge atrocities at school, thanks to the work of an independent organization dedicated to documenting the genocide that occurred at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

The task of producing a 100-page textbook on the subject, getting it into classrooms in Cambodia and training 3,200 teachers on how to instruct students about this dark period in their country's history is among the latest achievements of the Phnom Penh–based Documentation Center of Cambodia, directed by "killing fields" survivor Youk Chhang.

With funding from the U.S. and Swedish governments, the center since the 1990s has assembled 600,000 pages of primary documents and 6,000 photographs, mapped out 189 prisons and 20,000 mass graves, and interviewed 10,000 people from the Khmer Rouge ranks. The center's archive has gathered in detail the names, faces and stories that give meaning to what are unimaginable numbers.

As many as two million people were murdered, starved or worked to death in the small country between 1975 and 1979, while Pol Pot's government was proclaiming an agrarian utopia. The archive is central to work begun in 2006 by a United Nations–backed special tribunal established to try the country's aging war criminals for the first time.

"We at the center believe that genocide is a part of us," said Chhang at a talk hosted by UCLA's Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Royce Hall on April 26. "It's our identity. Like a shadow, you can see it, and you don't see it. That shadow is memory. It belongs to all of us."

Chhang, who met over the last two weeks of April with students and faculty at UCLA, Berkeley, Irvine and San Diego, traveled to the campuses under a U.S. Department of Education–funded program to bring distinguished Southeast Asians to California.

One of the center's goals is to make rigorous education about this period in Cambodia's history a top priority.  But not everyone agrees that it should be. Families of victims often are divided over how to remember this period, he said.

For example, Chhang said, his niece, a survivor who lives in Maryland, never saw the point of his campaign for a war crimes tribunal, which couldn't bring back her parents. Chhang's mother, a Buddhist, has said that she forgives the Khmer Rouge.

Chhang acknowledges that he began his work on documenting the atrocities in order to get back at the people who murdered his sister and other family members, and who beat him mercilessly in front of his mother. "Everyone wants justice on their own terms," he told the audience.

A Difficult Task

Chhang estimates that between 20-30 percent of the young students sitting in classrooms are children of the Khmer Rouge.  "So now you have the classroom [where there are] children on both sides, and now you have the teachers on both sides. …  How would you teach this thing?"

Skulls from a mass grave of Khmer Rouge victims in Choeung -- the Killing Fields near Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Skulls from a mass grave of Khmer Rouge victims in Choeung -- the Killing Fields near Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

From his experience of taking groups of 200 students to see the tribunal in Phnom Penh, Chhang knows that young people have their own ways of dismissing the past. In class discussions, some argue aggressively that Cambodians should reconcile and "live together in harmony."

On at least one such occasion, he said, a teacher on the trip demanded the microphone. "He said, 'Look, all of you, you don't understand how I feel. I lost brother, sister, mother, parent. No food to eat. I lost a child. And now you want me to forgive?' The whole room was silent," Chhang said.

Silence fell again during another classroom discussion moderated by Chhang, when he introduced a prison chief and a survivor from the same prison. Initially, Chhang said, the students directed some questions to the survivor. Finally, a 16-year-old student accused the prison head of wanting only power over others. The student's remarks were applauded by his classmates. But Chhang insisted that the man be allowed to tell his story.

"The perpetrators also see themselves as victims," said Chhang. There have been stories of Khmer Rouge who joined the movement for status and protection and then lived in fear of punishment by superiors. Chhang advises teachers to allow students to play the roles of both the perpetrator and victim in class, and to interview their parents about the period.

While he was at UCLA, Chhang visited Professor Geoffrey Robinson's history seminar on political violence and genocide, and he spoke to students learning Vietnamese and Thai. He also visited the USC Shoah Foundation Institute exhibition on the Khmer Rouge Trial. At UC San Diego, he was moved by "Unspoken Words," a theater production by the Cambodian Student Association. In the play by Jennifer Ka, a U.S.-born Cambodian woman seeks to overcome her mother's resistance to talking about the past, a barrier to "a real relationship with her daughter," Ka wrote in an e-mail.

You can see a video webcast of a lecture given by Chhang at UC Berkeley on April 21.

Center for Southeast Asian Studies