The Killing Fields revisited;Briefing;International

19th March 1999 at 00:00

Twenty years after the genocide that ripped the heart out of Cambodian society, writers of a new history curriculum are facing a dilemma.

Do they tell it like it was, and risk stirring passions about an era which scars the past of virtually every family in the country, 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 drafting new textbooks.

He expressed fears of copycat behaviour, as with young neo-Nazis in Germany. The country is still dogged by extreme violence and a worsening problem of gun-toting teenage gangs. So his team has adopted a moderate approach to recounting the Killing Fields.

The new history texts, which are still in manuscript form, only cover the Khmer Rouge years for pupils aged 17 plus. The drafting team argue that younger children are too young to be taught in depth about the genocide, and already hear about the 1975-79 era, during which some 1.7 million Cambodians died, from their parents and mass media.

The reconciliatory approach is a sign of the times. Cambodia is now free of civil war, following the collapse of the Khmer Rouge, and the defections of top guerrilla leaders to the government.

"During the 1979-1989 period, children were taught a lot about the Khmer Rouge and taught to hate them," said Mr Omsameng.

The government installed by Vietnam, which ousted the Khmer Rouge from power when its forces invaded Cambodia in 1979, even designated an annual "hate day". Classes on the labour camps, torture and mass deaths were routine. The shadowy Brother Number One, Pol Pot, was demonised.

Since 1992, when the process of national reconciliation began, lessons on the Killing Fields have been toned down, avoiding provocative words like "genocide".

Siv Thuon, who wrote the 11 pages on the Khmer Rouge in the new textbook said the young should learn about that era, but not in a provocative way.

Some teachers fear the young are learning to forget too fast. "Sometimes I get the feeling that some children think the Killing Fields are a fiction made up by the teacher to scare them," said one teacher in a high school in the Cambodian capital.

But Supote Prasertsri, an education programme specialist for the United Nations Education and Science Organisation in Phnom Penh, said the Killing Fields should be kept in perspective.

"There are 2,000 years of Cambodian history. The Angkorian period (that saw the construction of the monumental Angkor Wat temple) was when Cambodia contributed most to the world.

"The Khmer Rouge period was only three years or so, and there wasn't much contribution from that apart from the genocide. The only lesson to be drawn from that is not to repeat it," he said.

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