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Textbook opens young eyes to Cambodian past

- The Washington Times - Friday, June 22, 2007

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia

Cambodia offers plenty of Khmer Rouge "killing fields" attractions. There is a grisly genocide museum complete with torture instruments and the sites of mass graves that draw camera-toting tourists.

But for the country's schoolchildren, the Khmer Rouge regime remains off the curriculum, leaving students virtually clueless about how the now-defunct communist group became a killing machine in the late 1970s.

Now that knowledge gap is being partially filled through the newly released "A History of Democratic Kampuchea," a textbook about the Khmer Rouge's 1975-79 rule by Khamboly Dy, a Cambodian genocide researcher.

It's a start in Cambodia's painful journey to recover from the devastation of the period, said Mr. Khamboly Dy, a 26-year-old staffer at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, an independent group collecting evidence of the Khmer Rouge atrocities.

"Nothing can compensate for the Cambodian people's sufferings during the Khmer Rouge," he said, adding that teaching about the regime's history "is the best compensation for them."

The book was released at the right time, as Cambodia is ready to put surviving Khmer Rouge leaders before an internationally backed tribunal for genocide and crimes against humanity, Mr. Khamboly Dy said.

Still, the 100-page textbook isn't slated for general classroom use. Mr. Khamboly Dy said 3,000 copies in the Cambodian language will be given to libraries, students and teachers free of charge, and more will be printed once additional funds can be raised.

David Chandler, an American scholar and author of several books on Cambodia, said a straightforward account is long overdue because the government "seems unwilling to produce such a text, or at least does not share a sense of urgency about exposing this period of the past."

Some former members of the Khmer Rouge continue to hold senior positions in the regime.

Most books about the Khmer Rouge era, when about 1.7 million people perished through hunger, disease and executions, have been written either by foreigners or overseas Cambodians. Few of these have been translated into the Cambodian language, and none is widely available.

Khmer Rouge history was featured briefly in a high school social study textbook in 2002 before the entire book was yanked off the curriculum because it provoked political tension between Prime Minister Hun Sen and his former ally Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

The book highlighted only the victory of Mr. Hun Sen's ruling party in the 1998 national election and failed to mention Prince Ranariddh's defeat of Mr. Hun Sen in the 1993 polls. Despite his party's defeat then, Mr. Hun Sen maneuvered to become a co-prime minister along with Prince Ranariddh before toppling him to grab full power through a coup in 1997.

As a result of the Ranariddh-Hun Sen rivalry, the entire modern history of Cambodia from the French colonial period to the present was expunged from schools, Mr. Khamboly Dy said.

In the new book, the author said, he had to carefully select words to explain certain events, including the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge by Vietnamese troops.

For Mr. Hun Sen and his followers, the Vietnamese were not invaders, but to his opponents they always were.

Mr. Khamboly Dy wrote that the Vietnamese "fought their way into Cambodia" alongside Cambodian resistance forces, including Mr. Hun Sen. "This is the fact. Whether they invaded or liberated [Cambodia] is only political interpretation," he said.

Before defecting, the prime minister served as a military commander with the Khmer Rouge, while ex-King Norodom Sihanouk forged an alliance with them against the U.S.-backed government of the early 1970s.

Researchers say there is no evidence linking Mr. Hun Sen and King Sihanouk to the Khmer Rouge atrocities despite their past alliance with the now-defunct communist movement, making it unlikely for either of them to be indicted by the U.N.-backed genocide tribunal. King Sihanouk was under house arrest, and many of his royal family members perished during the Khmer Rouge period.

The government has endorsed the book as core reference material for writing future history textbooks, but not for use in general education, said Sorn Samnang, president of the government-run Royal Academy, who sat on a committee that scrutinized Mr. Khamboly Dy's book.

Although it contained useful information, he said, the book could affect many people still alive who were involved with the Khmer Rouge. He did not elaborate.

Such an attitude only "suggests that any excuse, however shameless, will be seized upon if it helps the Cambodian authorities avoid raking over the past," said Philip Short, who wrote "Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare," a political biography of the late Khmer Rouge leader.

Chey Vann Virak, an 11th-grade student in Phnom Penh, said his history teacher would randomly mention "a little bit" about the killings under the Khmer Rouge.

At home, the 17-year-old said, his parents occasionally recalled for him and his three siblings the sufferings they endured and say, "All of you are just lucky to have been born and grown up in this era."

That is all he knows about the Khmer Rouge.