The constructive Cambodian

By Keo Kounila

When I attended courses on Germany’s Holocaust for nearly three weeks, I was appalled to see the similarities between the history of massacre and devastation faced by Cambodians and Germans, and the disparate strategies that have been taken towards reconciliation.

The Khmer Rouge left two million dead between 1975 and 1979 while the Nazi regime killed six million European Jews, along with many others, between 1939 and 1945.

While these figures might make modernity seem bleak to many, they instead reminded me of a presentation by Steven Pinker, a Harvard University psychology professor, called “A history of violence”, which argued that “today we are probably living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence”.

The speech, which can be found on ted.com, asserted that horrific events such as the Khmer Rouge and the Holocaust have “led to a common understanding… that modernity has brought us terrible violence, and perhaps that native people lived in a state of harmony that we have departed from.” If Pinker is right, we have become a more peaceful people as time has gone on, but the question remains, was all of this violence necessary?

Looking at the world from the perspective of a 22-year-old, I dare say that Cambodian youth today find it hard to relate to what their parents went through about three decades ago. The difficulty that young Cambodians face in understanding their past is no surprise, considering the dearth of school lessons and study trips devoted to the darkest chapter in Cambodia’s recent past.

People say the future of a country depends on the quality of education among the youth, but how can national reconciliation happen, allowing people to move on, when young people are not taught about their past and encouraged to prevent its repetition in the future. Very few hours of schooling are devoted to this chapter of our history, let alone sending school-children to places like the former torture centre Tuol Sleng, which saw the brutal killing of over 15,000 “enemies of the regime”.

Learning history from books might transfer facts, but going to the places where history happened will give young people insight into the reality of the cruelty that once reigned over Cambodia and the actual causes of the atrocities.

High schools in Germany send students to places like the Dachau concentration camp, where political prisoners were tortured or forced to work to death, history exhibitions, and memorial sites for victims once or twice a year. I was flabbergasted to see flocks of schoolchildren on the paths around Germany’s many memorial sites and attending seminars about Nazi victims. Although some efforts have been made to expose Cambodian youth to their past, such a scene is simply non-existent in Cambodia.

Besides education, I learned of many other policies that Germany’s government passed to bring the country closer to reconciliation; decisions that Cambodia’s government has shied away from. On the heels of the regime’s collapse, the new government applied denazification, banning former Nazi officials from participating in the post-war government.

Along with public apologies to the victims, massive efforts have been made educationally, financially and symbolically to heal the country and enlighten their youth.

Another noteable difference is the commitment of each government in bringing justice to those involved in the massacres. While Hun Sen has suggested that, in order for the country to move on, the five suspected Khmer Rouge leaders currently awaiting trial be the last to face the KRT. Just three decades after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Germany is still trying men such as John Demjunjuk, a suspected former guard of an extermination camp in Ukraine, 67 years after his alleged offences, under the legal principle that crimes must not go unpunished.

Cambodia is no doubt recovering, but more effort needs to be shown for the millions of dollars that are being spent on the trials. Moreover, young people must engage in dialogue about the past in school and communities. If they cannot relate to it and adapt accordingly, history becomes likely to repeat itself.

To this end, the government and the Documentation Centre of Cambodia have recently produced Khmer Rouge history textbooks now being put to use throughout Cambodia. However, this is simply not enough to overcome the barriers to understanding that are blocking youth from engaging in public dialogues about the country’s sad past and, more importantly, how to brighten its future.

A UN report released in 2009 reveals that knowledge and age hierarchies exclude youth from local decision making processes regarding local development. It is no secret that Cambodia is an extremely hierarchical society where the voice of the youth is barely considered. Their political thoughts are hushed by parents at home and discouraged at school.

Cambodia can move on from the Khmer Rouge, but those involved must realize that reconciliation may start with the people who endured tragedy, but will continue only by truly engaging Cambodia’s youth.

You can also read this on the Phnom Penh Post.

17 thoughts on “The constructive Cambodian”

  1. Deedee, all along I’ve known one or two ‘private’ schools that just started to send their students to see the Khmer Rouge historical places, but it looks to me like a piece of propaganda from the school, to show people that they are ‘doing’. To me, for youth to really understand the history, the school needs to give lessons to those students before they go and see a place such as Tuol Sleng, followed by additional information from an expert in the area (tour guide). And, what I’d like to emphasize in the article is that high schools throughout the country haven’t taken this initiative. I’ve interviewed a lot of high school students who visit Tuol Sleng because their friends and family told me to.

  2. Steven Pinker is just plain wrong and uses an artificially narrow and exclusionary definition of violence. One easy to understand example is poverty. Living in abject poverty, as so many people on our planet do at this very moment, is a form of horrific violence that is perpetrated by the few rich and powerful. It subjugates, represses, enslaves and dooms millions of people to ignorance, poor health, early death and the denial of realizing their full human potential. Poverty and a lack of justice, fairness and equanimity are all virulent forms of violence that wash over generations with a potent and deadly force!

    It is interesting to compare and contrast post-war Germany with post-war Cambodia. In Germany things were done to prevent another holocaust from happening again, but not so in Cambodia. Even Hun Sen himself has said that things could very easily slip back into conditions that would allow another bloody civil war.

    I agree with the comment above that at least some of the educational effort to raise awareness of the past in Cambodia are just “window dressing”.

    Unfortunately it is true that those who do not learn the lessons of history’s “mistakes” are doomed to repeat them. Based on Cambodia’s continued course of enabling a culture of impunity, lack of a credible and independent judiciary, a shamefully ineffective and mismanaged government and grossly distorted balance of power and wealth it is only a matter of time before revolution is once again in the air and blood will be spilled in the streets.

    Is it too late already? I hope not, but hope is insufficient to stem the tide. Radical action is needed now!

  3. Just one more quick thought… as you know there are way more young people in Cambodia than there are old ones. Is it the case here that the few are silencing the many, or is it simply that the many are unaware, uninspired and apathetic?

  4. @Piseth: Thanks, brother, for keeping following my blog and what I write :-).

    @Sopha: Thanks, Sopha.

    @Steve: Thanks very much, Steve, for your comment. I agree with everything with you say. Hope is not enough to make true changes happen. Actions speak louder than words. If every one of the 14 million tried to make a small change where they are with what they have, this would be a dream come true. And, I’m happy to tell you this that something is worth waiting for. :-) In this case, the two thoughts are co-existing. I can come up with one merged idea that the few are silencing groups of people who are trying to help while the many are apathetic themselves, without reaching out to the help provided. There’s a Cambodian proverb that says one person can break a chopstick but not a bunch of them alone, and he needs helping hands. Solidarity and unity are what we need now to break the social barriers so intrinsic in society here. Education is another key to change the quality of the youth and the future alike.

    @Davy: Merci.

  5. Very well written article.

    Cambodia seems to be overly concerned with catching up with the rest of the world and falling into the trap of “development for development’s sake.” I believe you are right in your assertion that the government [and to a certain extent, parents] have failed and is continuing to fail towards fostering awareness of the Khmer Rouge to the younger generations. Such history should be implemented into the secondary school system alongside a peace education curriculum…how possible this is though is probably not a very high probability.

    Perhaps this can be changed one day…

  6. First time read details about massacre in Germany. Good article! I think we all can understand what happen between 1975-1779. It was a nightmare and mistake of the leaders. I hope you read my previous article on my understanding of Khmer Rouge and Pot Pot.

    We cannot do today, but in fact those people should shoot to dead and finish. that’s the justice. but justice sometime is not justice.

    I create a mailing list that would share something between Cambodian blogger, check out this link if you want to join, keep up good work.

    http://eepurl.com/9cHk

  7. I think the Cambodians are being more open about their 20th century past than the Chines. Mao killed many times more people than Pol Pot did, but he is still being treated as a hero in China.

    In fact, disasters like this can happen in any country where a madman gains power. It is an attack of social insanity driven by the “leader”. Cambodians should not think that they are by nature any worse than other people.

    What students need to learn at school is to be very suspicious of Great Men, Leaders of the People, revolutionary heroes, and other plausible, manipulative, psychopathic megalomaniacs.

  8. Thanks for your writing- The Truth will Set Us Free!
    Our world-view matters, so I take issue with Steven Pinker, Harvard.
    He uses the example of cat-burning for entertainment in 16th Century France as proof we are less violent, yet we have aborted 40 million babies in 40 years in the U.S. That is improvement? Some may find abortion less horrific- we have 27,000,000 (27 million!) slaves today- more than the total from 400 years of the Atlantic slave trade.
    The second reference I recommend is the book “UNSPEAKABLE- Facing up to Evil in an Age of Genocide and Terror,” by Os Guinness.
    Our world view matters, because it dictates where we focus our energy: should we spend precious time and resources fighting to end killing animals for food (PETA), or should we fight to end human trafficking and slavery?
    Our world is still evil, and a professor who teaches otherwise risks lulling us into inaction, similar to Germans in the 1930′s (read “Bonhoeffer- Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy” by Alex Metaxas).
    Thank you for educating people about the horrors man is capable of, and for caring enough to promote understanding, compassion, and controlled power to prevent and combat evil.

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