Many Cambodians cannot read. The adult literacy rate is around 65 percent. In the early 2000s, UNICEF estimated that 65 to 70 percent of all Cambodian children started school, but many repeated first grade two or three times or dropped out by the second grade. Most of the drop outs were girls. One UNICEF official told the New York Times, "they can't build an economy on that. not even agrarian."

In the 1960s, Cambodia had a relatively good education system and the literacy rate was high. But that system was essentially wiped out by the Khmer Rouge After the Khmer Rouge years, schools had to be built up from scratch. The of students attending formal classes rose dramatically in the early 1980s. Today only about half of school age children attend school, and even then schools are so crowded that often more than 80 kids are squeezed into a classroom the size of a living room. It is not unusual for schools to have a morning shift for one set of students and an afternoon shift for another group.

Education is poorly funded. Most of the government budget goes to the military and security; little is left for education. For a while the amount of money spent on education was falling rather than rising.

Nearly every village and town used to have a “wat” , with a temple monastery, and dormitory for monks. The wat often either had a school or supported a school. The government supported the wat schools.

History of Schooling and Education in Cambodia

Traditional education in Cambodia was handled by the local wat, and the bonzes were the teachers. The students were almost entirely young boys, and the education was limited to memorizing Buddhist chants in Pali. During the period of the French protectorate, an educational system based on the French model was inaugurated alongside the traditional system. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

Initially, the French neglected education in Cambodia. Only seven high school students graduated in 1931, and only 50,000 to 60,000 children were enrolled in primary school in 1936. In the year immediately following independence, the number of students rapidly increased. Vickery suggests that education of any kind was considered an "absolute good" by all Cambodians and that this attitude eventually created a large group of unemployed or underemployed graduates by the late 1960s. *

From the early twentieth century until 1975, the system of mass education operated on the French model. The educational system was divided into primary, secondary, higher, and specialized levels. Public education was under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education, which exercised full control over the entire system; it established syllabi, hired and paid teachers, provided supplies, and inspected schools. An inspector of primary education, who had considerable authority, was assigned to each province. Cultural committees under the Ministry of Education were responsible for "enriching the Cambodian language." *

Education Under the Khmer Rouge

Under the Khmer Rouge, schools were closed and destroyed and intellectuals were executed. Educators and teachers were subjected to, at the least, suspicion and harsh treatment and, at the worst, execution. Children were regarded as pure and uncorrupted blank slates who were best able to absorb Khmer Rouge dogma. Khmer Rouge "schools" were set up to this end.

Like the radical exponents of the Cultural Revolution in China during the 1960s, the Khmer Rouge regarded traditional education with unalloyed hostility. After the fall of Phnom Penh, they executed thousands of teachers. Those who had been educators prior to 1975 survived by hiding their identities. Aside from teaching basic mathematical skills and literacy, the major goal of the new educational system was to instill revolutionary values in the young. For a regime at war with most of Cambodia's traditional values, this meant that it was necessary to create a gap between the values of the young and the values of the nonrevolutionary old. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987]

In a manner reminiscent of George Orwell's 1984, the regime recruited children to spy on adults. The pliancy of the younger generation made them, in the Angkar's words, the "dictatorial instrument of the party." In 1962 the communists had created a special secret organization, the Alliance of Democratic Khmer Youth, that, in the early 1970s, changed its name to the Alliance of Communist Youth of Kampuchea. Pol Pot considered Alliance alumni as his most loyal and reliable supporters, and used them to gain control of the central and of the regional KCP apparatus. The powerful Khieu Thirith, minister of social action, was responsible for directing the youth movement. *

Hardened young cadres, many little more than twelve years of age, were enthusiastic accomplices in some of the regime's worst atrocities. Sihanouk, who was kept under virtual house arrest in Phnom Penh between 1976 and 1978, wrote in War and Hope that his youthful guards, having been separated from their families and given a thorough indoctrination, were encouraged to play cruel games involving the torture of animals. Having lost parents, siblings, and friends in the war and lacking the Buddhist values of their elders, the Khmer Rouge youth also lacked the inhibitions that would have dampened their zeal for revolutionary terror. *

During the Khmer Rouge years, the great strides made in literacy and in education during the two decades following independence were obliterated systematically. At the beginning of the 1970s, more than 20,000 teachers lived in Cambodia; only about 5,000 of the teachers remained 10 years later. Soviet sources report that 90 percent of all teachers were killed under the Khmer Rouge regime. Only 50 of the 725 university instructors, 207 of the 2,300 secondary school teachers, and 2,717 of the 21,311 primary school teachers survived. *

The meager educational fare was centered on precepts of the Khmer revolution; young people were rigidly indoctrinated, but literacy was neglected, and an entire generation of Cambodian children grew up illiterate. After the Khmer Rouge were driven from power, the educational system had to be re-created from almost nothing. Illiteracy had climbed to more than 40 percent, and most young people under the age of 14 lacked any basic education. *

Blackboards at one Khmer Rouge school read: “No stealing. No drunkenness. No prostitution. No marriage outside the commune. No commerce without permission. No contact with outsiders. No listening to any radio station other than that of the Khmer Rouge. Anyone who disobeys the Angkar will be killed." Angkar was a Khmer Rouge organization.

Children were taught the revolution was the only thing that mattered. Some schools taught guerilla warfare techniques to children and instructed them how to make victims “break into convulsions and die.” On the blackboard at one school it was written that contacting outsiders was a crime punishable by death.

School After the Khmer Rouge

Education began making a slow comeback, following the establishment of the Vietnam-backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK). French anthropologist Marie Alexandrine Martin describes the educational system in the PRK as based very closely on the Vietnamese model, pointing out that even the terms for primary and secondary education have been changed into direct translations of the Vietnamese terms. Under the PRK regime, according to Martin, the primary cycle had four instead of six classes, the first level of secondary education had three instead of four classes, and the second level of secondary education had three classes. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

Martin writes that not every young person could go to school because schooling both in towns and in the countryside required enrollment fees. Civil servants pay 25 riels per month to send a child to school, and others pay up to 150 riels per month. Once again, according to Martin, "Access to tertiary studies is reserved for children whose parents work for the regime and have demonstrated proof of their loyalty to the regime." She writes that, from the primary level on, the contents of all textbooks except for alphabet books was politically oriented and dealt "more specifically with Vietnam." From the beginning of the secondary cycle, Vietnamese language study was compulsory. *

French teachers experienced unanticipated problems teaching Cambodian immigrants in the 1990s. One history teacher was teaching her students about the Vietnam War and Cambodia when one of the Asian students in her class broke into tears. The teacher asked the student what was wrong. She answered that her father was shot and killed by the Khmer Rogue in 1975 and she and her mother suffered for years in concentration camps before they escaped to Thailand.

Buddhist Education

Before the French organized a Western-style educational system, the Buddhist wat, with monks as teachers, provided the only formal education in Cambodia. The monks traditionally regarded their main educational function as the teaching of Buddhist doctrine and history and the importance of gaining merit. Other subjects were regarded as secondary. At the wat schools, young boys — girls were not allowed to study in these institutions — were taught to read and to write Khmer, and they were instructed in the rudiments of Buddhism. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

In 1933 a secondary school system for novice monks was created within the Buddhist religious system. Many wat schools had so-called Pali schools that provided three years of elementary education from which the student could compete for entrance into the Buddhist lycées. Graduates of these lycées could sit for the entrance examination to the Buddhist University in Phnom Penh. The curriculum of the Buddhist schools consisted of the study of Pali, of Buddhist doctrine, and of Khmer, along with mathematics, Cambodian history and geography, science, hygiene, civics, and agriculture. Buddhist instruction was under the authority of the Ministry of Religion. *

Nearly 600 Buddhist primary schools, with an enrollment of more than 10,000 novices and with 800 monks as instructors, existed in 1962. The Preah Suramarit Buddhist Lycée — a four-year institution in Phnom Penh founded in 1955 — included courses in Pali, in Sanskrit, and in Khmer, as well as in many modern disciplines. In 1962 the student body numbered 680. The school's graduates could continue their studies in the Preah Sihanouk Raj Buddhist University created in 1959. The university offered three cycles of instruction; the doctoral degree was awarded after successful completion of the third cycle. In 1962 there were 107 students enrolled in the Buddhist University. By the 1969-70 academic year, more than 27,000 students were attending Buddhist religious elementary schools, 1,328 students were at Buddhist lycées, and 176 students were enrolled at the Buddhist University. *

The Buddhist Institute was a research institution formed in 1930 from the Royal Library. The institute contained a library, record and photograph collections, and a museum. Several commissions were part of the institute. A folklore commission published collections of Cambodian folktales, a Tripitaka Commission completed a translation of the Buddhist canon into Khmer, and a dictionary commission produced a definitive two-volume dictionary of Khmer. No information was available in 1987 regarding the fate of the temple schools, but it is doubtful that they were revived after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. *

Private Education in Cambodia

For a portion of the urban population in Cambodia, private education was important in the years before the communist takeover. Some private schools were operated by ethnic or religious minorities — Chinese, Vietnamese, European, Roman Catholic, and Muslim — so that children could study their own language, culture, or religion. Other schools provided education to indigenous children who could not gain admission to a public school. Attendance at some of the private schools, especially those in Phnom Penh, conferred a certain amount of prestige on the student and on the student's family.[Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

The private educational system included Chinese-language schools, Vietnamese-language (often Roman Catholic) schools, French-language schools, English-language schools, and Khmerlanguage schools. Enrollment in private primary schools rose from 32,000 in the early 1960s to about 53,500 in 1970, although enrollment in private secondary schools dropped from about 19,000 to fewer than 8,700 for the same period. *

In 1962 there were 195 Chinese schools, 40 Khmer schools, 15 Vietnamese schools, and 14 French schools operating in Cambodia. Private secondary education was represented by several high schools, notably the Lycée Descartes in Phnom Penh. All of the Vietnamese schools in Phnom Penh and some of the Chinese schools there were closed by government decree in 1970. There was no information available in 1987 that would have indicated the presence of any private schools in the PRK, although there was some private instruction, especially in foreign languages. *

At private schools in Cambodia children learn English and Chinese. Some still teach Vietnamese.

Primary and Secondary Education in Cambodia

Primary education, divided into two cycles of three years each, was carried out in state-run and temple-run schools. Successful completion of a final state examination led to the award of a certificate after each cycle. The primary education curriculum consisted of arithmetic, history, ethics, civics, drafting, geography, hygiene, language, and science. In addition, the curriculum included physical education and manual work. French language instruction began in the second year. Khmer was the language of instruction in the first cycle, but French was used in the second cycle and thereafter. By the early 1970s, Khmer was used more widely in primary education. In the 1980s, primary school ran from the first to the fourth grade. Theoretically one primary school served each village. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

Secondary education also was divided into two cycles, one of four years taught at a college, followed by one of three years taught at a lycée. Upon completion of the first cycle, students could take a state examination. Successful candidates received a secondary diploma. Upon completion of the first two years of the second cycle, students could take a state examination for the first baccalaureate, and, following their final year, they could take a similar examination for the second baccalaureate. The Cambodian secondary curriculum was similar to that found in France. Beginning in 1967, the last three years of secondary school were split up into three sections according to major subjects — letters, mathematics and technology; agriculture; and biology. In the late 1960s and the early 1970s, the country emphasized a technical education. In the PRK, secondary education was reduced to six years. *

School Life in Cambodia

The school year begins in October. In places where proper functioning schools exist, children begin school at 7:00am and wear uniforms with white shirts and dark skirts or pants. Students learn to read, write and do arithmetic in Khmer. Many of the nicest schools are built in places where foreigners can see them so the government can say that the foreign aid it receives is well spent.

Cheating is such a problem in Cambodia that police are sometimes deployed around schools during important annual examinations. Teachers are reportedly so poorly paid that they sell examination answers to their students so they can make enough money to feed their families. When asked why he took a college entrance exam for his younger brother, Phnom Penh university student Khieu Bora said, "Because I don't have enough money to bribe officials.”

Textbooks were written to engender loyalty to regimes ad ruling ideology. The Khmer Rouge years are for the most part not mentioned in the schools. Passages about the crimes of "Pol Pot and Ieng Sary clique" were deleted from textbooks in the 1990 as a concession to the Khmer Rouge during peace talks. In 2002 an extensive account of the Khmer Rouge period was added. Teachers have said they avoid the Khmer Rouge so as not to upset schoolchildren and divide people.

New Village School in Cambodia

Alan Lightman wrote in the New York Times: “The chief of Tramung Chrum is a small, white-haired man of about 60 with a crinkled face and a quiet dignity. When I arrived at his remote village for the inauguration of its first brick-and-mortar school, he broke out in a huge grin and said (in Khmer through an interpreter), "I feel like a hunter who has just captured an elephant." Tramung Chrum (pronounced Truh-mung Chah-rum) is a Cambodian village of about 500 people, 40 miles from Phnom Penh. Because the village is far from a good road and made up of Muslim Chams in a largely Buddhist country, the Cambodian government has never built a school there. Generations have passed without reading and writing. The history of the village extends back at least as far as the mid-19th century, during the beginnings of the French occupation. [Source: Alan Lightman, New York Times, July 5, 2005. Alan Lightman teaches writing at M.I.T. ]

“Four years ago, a former resident of the village rode his moped to the United Nations office in Phnom Penh and announced that the villagers wanted a school. They had built a roof of palm leaves and were requesting a building to hold the roof up. A Cambodian United Nations worker named Veasna Chea eventually relayed the villager's plea to a visitor from Maine named Frederick Lipp. Mr. Lipp in turn financed the construction of a temporary school made of sticks and palm leaves. Teachers were trained and the first classes began. But the school of sticks and leaves leaked during the monsoons and blew down entirely in heavy winds.

“Two years ago, Mr. Lipp told me of his work. I began making trips to the village. Then, with the contributions of other friends, we built the new school for Tramung Chrum. Tramung Chrum, like many villages in Cambodia, lives on subsistence farming and menial labor. There is no electricity or running water. The men, women and children live in huts made of palm leaves and sticks and own little more than the clothes on their backs. They live a stripped down existence. Yet they crave education. Education ranks alongside food and water as a necessity of life.

“The school at Tramung Chrum, with its three classrooms and library, took four months to build with a 20-man crew from Phnom Penh. A camera recorded the excitement of the villagers as they watched this wonder of concrete and steel girders and tiles rising bit by bit from the dirt. On inauguration day, I was greeted by a gathering of the entire village and a large assortment of officials, including the vice governor of the province, the district chief of police (with his uniformed entourage) and a representative from the national ministry of education. Colored pennants had been hung from tall sticks and a ceremonial platform built out of bamboo and twine. All of the children of the village, about 150 boys and girls, stood on both sides of the dusty path leading to the platform, waving American and Cambodian flags. In the distance gleamed the new school, its pale yellow walls and red roof shimmering in the fierce heat.

“On the ceremonial platform, I found myself seated beside several Muslim Cham clerics, wearing their white robes, and several Buddhist monks in their saffron robes. The monks chanted and tossed a gentle rain of white flower petals onto the heads of the dignitaries. Then, the speeches began.... I looked out at the new school, 50 yards away. I looked at the new flagpole, made of bamboo. I looked at the meandering cows, the principal source of income for the village. I looked at the dirt road leading to Phnom Penh, the scattered groups of fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, the 150 children squatting in front of the platform, miraculously holding still in the heat, listening to the long speeches.

Free Breakfasts at Cambodian School Program Stopped Because of Aid Cut

In April 2008, Bloomberg reported: “Thirteen-year-old Pin Oudam gets a free breakfast of rice, fish and yellow split peas every morning at his school in Kampong Speu, Cambodia's poorest province. Next week he won't. The World Food Program cut off rice deliveries to 1,344 Cambodian schools last month after prices doubled and suppliers defaulted on contracts. Schools will run out of food by May 1, depriving about 450,000 children of meals, the WFP estimates. "Over time, this will result in higher malnutrition rates and lessen the physical and mental development of these children at a critical period in their lives,'' says Paul Risley, a Bangkok-based spokesman for the United Nations agency. [Source: Jason Gale, Bloomberg, April 23, 2008 +]

“Record rice prices are forcing relief agencies to cut rations. World Vision International said yesterday it could no longer afford to help 1.5 million poor people. WFP, which helped feed 960,000 people in Cambodia in January, is limiting aid to only the neediest people there, including tuberculosis and AIDS patients, pregnant women and babies. That may leave Pim with an empty stomach. His grandmother, Nov Yim, estimates she will need 180 kilograms (400 pounds) of rice to feed a family of nine until the next harvest begins in September. A 50-kilo bag costs about 150,000 riel ($38) and may rise further, she says. "At those prices, I can only afford half of what I will need,'' says Yim, 61. "Without the extra rice, my children and grandchildren will go hungry.'' +

“The WFP was forced to end the Cambodian school program because suppliers didn't honor contracts to deliver 4,000 tons of rice at $390 to $450 a ton, says Thomas J. Keusters, the agency's representative in Cambodia. Other local dealers quoted prices of $620 a ton that were out of the agency's reach, he says. A year ago, the WFP paid about $260.

The program aims to keep kids in primary school and prevent them from being dragged into the workforce or prostitution. About 69 percent of the children in Kampong Speu province, 50 kilometers (31 miles) west of Phnom Penh, leave school before completing the sixth grade.Te Huoy, 65, doesn't want that to happen to the two grandchildren, ages 4 and 14, she's raising in a Phnom Penh slum. Huoy earns 3,000 to 5,000 riel a day selling empty beer cans and other garbage from the streets of the capital and says it's barely enough to pay for rice, fish and sausages. She spends three-fourths of her income on food, up from half six months ago. "I'm already old and will die soon,'' says Huoy, who never received an education. "My hope is that my grandchildren can continue to go to school.''

Higher Education in Cambodia

Higher education lagged well behind primary and secondary education, until the late 1950s. The only facility in the country for higher education before the 1960s was the National Institute of Legal, Political, and Economic Studies, which trained civil servants. In the late 1950s, it had about 250 students. Wealthy Cambodians and those who had government scholarships sought university-level education abroad. Students attended schools in France, but after independence increasing numbers enrolled at universities in the United States, Canada, China, the Soviet Union, and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). By 1970 universities with a total enrollment of nearly 9,000 students served Cambodia. The largest, the University of Phnom Penh, had nearly 4,570 male students and more than 730 female students in eight departments — letters and humanities, science and technology, law and economics, medicine, pharmacy, commercial science, teacher training, and higher teacher training. Universities operated in the provinces of Kampong Cham, Takev, Batdambang; and in Phnom Penh, the University of Agricultural Sciences and the University of Fine Arts offered training. The increased fighting following the 1970 coup closed the three provincial universities. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

In 1986 the following main institutions of higher education were reported in the PRK: the Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy (reopened in 1980 with a six-year course of study); the Chamcar Daung Faculty of Agriculture (opened in 1985); the Kampuchea-USSR Friendship Technical Institute (which includes technical and engineering curricula), the Institute of Languages (Vietnamese, German, Russian, and Spanish are taught); the Institute of Commerce, the Center for Pedagogical Education (formed in 1979); the Normal Advanced School; and the School of Fine Arts. Writing about the educational system under the PRK, Vickery states, "Both the government and the people have demonstrated enthusiasm for education . . . . The list of subjects covered is little different from that of prewar years. There is perhaps more time devoted to Khmer language and literature than before the war and, until the 1984-85 school year, at least, no foreign language instruction." He notes that the secondary school syllabus calls for four hours of foreign language instruction per week in either Russian, German, or Vietnamese but that there were no teachers available. *

Describing an English class at a Cambodian university in the 1990s, a National Geographic journalist wrote, “Lizards played tag on the walls. The teacher was a skinny young man....he had barely begun when the single light bulb flickered off, throwing the room into darkness. No one groaned. Two girls stood up and by feel lit oil lamps on the wall...The electricity would come back on but never for more than few minutes...Then the hour was up. Each student dropped 150 riel—a few cents—onto a desktop and hurried home.”

To study medicine in Cambodia it is said requires passing an entrance exam and the payment of a $2,000 bribe.

Textbook About the Khmer Rouge

In June 2007, a new high school textbook about the Khmer Rouge era, the first written by a Cambodian, was published by the Documentation Center of Cambodia, an independent institute in Phnom Penh that specializes in Khmer Rouge history. In "A History of Democratic Kampuchea," author Khamboly Dy, which describes in 11 detailed chapters the rise, reign and fall of the Khmer Rouge.

Ker Munthit of Associated Press wrote: For Cambodian “school children, the Khmer Rouge remain off the curriculum, leaving students virtually clueless about how the now-defunct communist group became a killing machine in late 1970s. Now that knowledge gap may at least be partially filled through the newly released "A History of Democratic Kampuchea," a textbook about the Khmer Rouge's Khamboly Dy, a 26-year-old staffer at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said, "Nothing can compensate for the Cambodian people's sufferings during the Khmer Rouge” but learning about the regime's history "is the best compensation for them."[Source: Ker Munthit, Associated Press, June 18, 2007 ==]

“Still, the 100-page textbook isn't slated for general classroom use. Khamboly Dy said 3,000 copies in the Cambodian language will be given to libraries, students and teachers for free, and more will be printed once additional funds can be raised. David Chandler, an American scholar and author of several books on Cambodia, says a straightforward account is long overdue since the government "seems unwilling to produce such a text, or at least does not share a sense of urgency about exposing this period of he past." ==

“Most books about the Khmer Rouge era have to date been either written by foreigners or overseas Cambodians. Very few of these have been translated into the Cambodian language, and none are cheaply available. Khmer Rouge history was briefly featured 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 had only highlighted the victory of Hun Sen's ruling party in the 1998 national election and failed to mention Ranariddh's defeat of Hun Sen in the 1993 polls. As a result of Ranariddh-Hun Sen rivalry, the entire modern history of Cambodia from the French colonial period to the present was expunged from schools, Khamboly Dy said. ==

“In the new book, Khamboly Dy said he had to carefully select words to explain certain past events, including the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge by Vietnamese troops.For Hun Sen's camp, the Vietnamese were not invaders, but to his opponents they always were. So Khamboly Dy wrote the Vietnamese "fought their way into Cambodia" alongside Cambodian resistance forces including Hun Sen. "This is the fact. Whether they invaded or liberated (Cambodia) is only political interpretation," he said. ==

“The government has endorsed the book only 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 which scrutinized Khamboly Dy's book. Although it contained useful information, he said the book could affect the many still living people involved with the Khmer Rouge mentioned in the work. 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. He said the book is an accurate and objective account of a very complex period, and therefore "deserves to be not merely an approved textbook for Cambodian schools, but a compulsory text, which all Cambodian schoolchildren should be required to study." ==

Knowledge About Khmer Rouge

“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 went through 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. [Source: Ker Munthit, Associated Press, June 18, 2007]

Erika Kinetz wrote in the Washington Post: “In a country where half the students who enter grammar school never finish, Cheak Socheata, 18, is among the most privileged of her generation: She made it to college. But even Cheak, a first-year medical student at Phnom Penh's University of Health Sciences, has learned next to nothing in school about the Khmer Rouge, who in a little less than four years in power executed, tortured and starved to death an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians, about a quarter of the population. "I just heard from my parents that there was mass killing," Cheak said. "It's hard to believe." Her high school history teacher told her the basics — the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 — and advised her to read about the rest on her own, she recalled. [Source: Erika Kinetz, Washington Post, May 8, 2007 /]

“Young Cambodians haven't been formally taught much about the Khmer Rouge in school since propaganda texts of the 1980s, when Cambodia was ruled by the communist government that the Vietnamese installed. Those books depicted the Khmer Rouge with such graphic ferocity that some children grew up thinking they were actual monsters. These books were taken out of use in 1991, when U.N.-brokered peace talks ended more than a decade of civil war and led to elections. In 2002, a 12th-grade history textbook touching on the Pol Pot years was introduced but quickly recalled after controversy arose over the book's omission of the 1993 electoral victory of the royalist FUNCINPEC party. A new version of the text has yet to appear. Ministry of Education officials say they plan to publish a new book in 2009; they blame the delay on lack of funds. /\

“In the meantime, Cambodia's youth are "a lost generation," said Chea Vannath, former president of the Center for Social Development, a local rights group. In the absence of a shared national story about the Khmer Rouge, a thousand conversations, fractured by politics, rumor, myth and the varieties of human experience are being passed down to a sometimes skeptical younger generation. "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,' " said Nou Va, 27, a program officer at the Khmer Institute for Democracy, a nonprofit group that recently produced a documentary film about the generation gap. "The kid says, 'Oh, she's just saying that to blame us. I don't believe it.' " /\

Clash Over History of the Khmer Rouge

Erika Kinetz wrote in the Washington Post: “Nearly three decades after the Khmer Rouge were overthrown, a battle over history is underway in Cambodia. On one side are forces eager to reckon with the past, both in school and at a special court set up to try the surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Many teachers, students and activist groups say more should be taught about the Khmer Rouge years, which is virtually absent from school curriculums now. Blunting these demands is a government whose top leaders were once associated with the now-defunct communist movement and who seem loath to cede control over such a politically sensitive chapter of Cambodian history. "Suppose that ever since 1945, Germany had been ruled by former Nazis," said Philip Short, author of "Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare," "Would the history of the Nazi regime be taught honestly in Germany today? This is now Cambodia's problem."[Source: Erika Kinetz, Washington Post, May 8, 2007 /]

“The book about the Khmer Rouge era— "A History of Democratic Kampuchea”—fueled the controversy. “A Cambodian government review panel deemed the book unsuitable for use in the regular curriculum. Instead, the panel said the book could be used as supplementary reference material and as a basis for the Ministry of Education to write its own textbook. "It's a start. The door is open," said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center, which has been pushing to get a textbook into classrooms since 1999. /\

“The sidelining of the textbook reflects the failure of the country's current leaders to move beyond their Khmer Rouge past, he said. Prime Minister Hun Sen, National Assembly President Heng Samrin and Senate President Chea Sim were all middle-ranking Khmer Rouge officials, Short said. The three men left Cambodia for Vietnam in the late 1970s and returned with Vietnamese army forces that overthrew Pol Pot in 1979. Today, their political legitimacy rests in part on their credentials as men who helped free Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge tyranny. /\

“Khamboly said that picking his way through politically charged points was the most difficult aspect of writing the book, which was printed with $10,000 from the Soros Foundation's Open Society Institute and the National Endowment for Democracy. By citing sources, focusing on survivor stories and seeking neutral language, Khamboly said, he hoped to avoid political tussles. It wasn't enough. The committee that reviewed the text criticized it for giving too much attention to the years after 1979, when Cambodian factions fought a long civil war, and for tracing the roots of the Khmer Rouge back to the struggle against French colonization and to Ho Chi Minh's Indochinese Communist Party. /\

“Committee members also said naming individuals associated with the Khmer Rouge government was "unnecessary" and a threat to their safety. History "should be kept for at least 60 years before starting to discuss it," said committee member Sorn Samnang, president of the Royal Academy of Cambodia, a graduate school, according to the minutes of a Dec. 14 meeting of the review panel. /\

“There is a long-standing political debate in Cambodia over whether Vietnam liberated or invaded the country when it ousted the Khmer Rouge. Khamboly's book uses neither term, saying only that Vietnamese forces "fought their way into Cambodia." "We use facts," Khamboly said. "Whether they invaded or liberated the country is an interpretation." But in Cambodia, as in other post-conflict states, there are few facts that belong to everybody. In a Sept. 19 letter to Hun Sen, the premier, his education adviser, Sean Borat, generally praised the book but took issue with Khamboly's failure to characterize the Vietnamese action as a liberation. He also objected to the book's characterization of Cambodians who returned with the Vietnamese in 1979 as "Khmer Rouge defectors." That phrase, Sean Borat wrote, must be deleted because "the Cambodian People's Party did not originate from Khmer Rouge soldiers but from a massive movement that emerged to oppose the brutal regime led by Pol Pot." The offending phrase was removed from the final version of the book. /\

"Were Hun Sen and his colleagues to permit an honest appraisal of the past, it would be the best proof that they have finally broken with that past and moved out from under the shadow of their Khmer Rouge origins," Short said. "Unfortunately, all the signs continue to point in the opposite direction."

Former Khmer Rouge Stronghold Struggles with History

Reporting from Pailin, a former stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, Brendan Brady wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Twelfth-grade teacher Sam Borath recently asked her students in Svay, a town in northwestern Cambodia, to write down the names of five leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Simply identifying top figures, however, can be an awkward exercise. Many communities would rather not stir up memories of the war-torn past, particularly in this region. Svay is part of a thin belt along the northwestern border that remained under the control of ultra-communist Khmer Rouge leaders and their militias for two decades after 1979, when the regime was ousted from power in Phnom Penh. Many residents still defend the regime's legacy, contending that it had rural interests at heart. But a new national curriculum requires schools to tackle the controversial topic as a way to confront and reconcile the past. "Some did it," Sam Borath said of the writing exercise. "But some just wrote down one name. Others didn't even hand it in because their parents told them not to." [Source: Brendan Brady, Los Angeles Times, December 10, 2010 ]

“Students in Svay were introduced to the new lessons in November. "A lot of the students are curious to know what happened," Sam Borath said. "But many parents are former Khmer Rouge, so they discourage their kids from learning about it. They think we are teaching their children to be angry at them."

“After the Khmer Rouge was ousted in 1979, Pailin became the base of its insurgency before morphing in the late 1990s into an autonomous zone for former regime leaders who agreed to leave the movement. A decade later, the province has been reincorporated into the country. Convincing former Khmer Rouge cadres that they'll benefit under a society that prosecutes the regime's top officials remains a hard sell here. Mey Meakk, a deputy governor in Pailin province and former secretary to top Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, contended that his old boss deserves all the blame and everyone else should be left alone.

“Back in the classroom, Pailin's high school teachers were trying to raise awareness one lesson at a time. Most of them grew up elsewhere and don't share local sentiments. "We talk about the torture, how people were evicted from the cities, the endless hard labor," said Long Vannak, a 12th-grade history teacher who had moved here. "Many of the students are interested in this history." Sat Sorya, 20, one of Long Vannak's students, struggled to make sense of the many disturbing snippets she'd heard over the years from relatives, classmates and the media. "I want to know why they killed so many of their own people," she said. "I want to know why they left their own country in such terrible condition."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2014

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