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'Hate' history toned down;Briefing;International

CAMBODIA

Twenty years after the genocide that devastated Cambodian society, writers of a new history curriculum are facing a dilemma: do they tell it like it was, and risk stirring up passions, or skirt the issue?

"Lessons on the Khmer Rouge may cause conflict at the community level and create violence in the minds of young people," said Mr In Omsameng, who is leading a group of historians and teachers currently drafting new textbooks.

He expressed fears of copycat behaviour, as with young neo-Nazis in Germany. Cambodia is still dogged by extreme violence and a worsening problem of gun-toting teenage gangs.

The team has adopted a moderate approach to recounting the killing fields. The texts, still in manuscript form, only cover the Khmer Rouge years at grade 12 (age 17-18) The team argues that younger pupils are too young to be taught in depth about the genocide, and already hear about the 1975-79 era, when some 1.7 million Cambodians died, from their parents and mass media.

Cambodia is now free of civil war, after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge, "During the 1979-1989 period, children were taught a lot about the Khmer Rouge and taught to hate them," said Mr Omsameng.

Some teachers fear the young will forget too easily. "I get the feeling some children think the killing fields are a fiction made up by the teacher to scare them," said Dang, 32, who teaches in a high school in the Cambodian capital.

But Supote Prasertsri, UNESCO education programme specialist in Phnom Penh, said the killing fields should be kept in perspective.

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