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Clearing the Fog from Khmer Rouge History

While many Americans are familiar with the idea of genocide through education in schools, they may be less familiar with the Cambodian tragedy. Even so, they likely know more about it than everyday Cambodian students. A young Cambodian-American would like to change all that.

“One reason why they are probably the most informed about this issue is because in 30 out of 50 states in the United States, there is a mandate in public schools to teach about to have some kind of genocide or Holocaust education,” said filmmaker Poeuv Socheata, 29, whose “New Year Baby” follows the effect of the Khmer Rouge on her family. “And so almost every American student learns about the Holocaust at some point in their education and some of them will also learn about other genocides.”

An estimated 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, one of the worst atrocities of the 20th Centuries. As many as 2 million Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge, just 30 years later, though their story is less known. Poeuv Socheata, who leads an oral history project at Yale University, says this is because of inadequate education, a problem she is trying to address.

Educational efforts by her and other Cambodian-Americans have paid off, and some American schools are starting to teach of Khmer Rouge atrocities using books like “First They Killed My Father,” by Ung Loung, or Poeuv Socheata’s own 2006 documentary.

Meanwhile, Poeuv Socheata has been invited by the US Embassy to be a cultural ambassador for Cambodia and to screen her film in July.

Poeuv Socheata recently discussed the Cambodian tragedy in videoconferencing with three North American high schools, whose students she said have a good understanding of the concept of genocide.

Cambodian-Americans have only a “vague” understanding of what happened during the Khmer Rouge, she told VOA Khmer, because their parents only talk about it in the educational context of hardship. Students in their native Cambodia should know more, she said.

“For me the idea that in Cambodia now there is a generation of young people who are probably the most educated people in the country [but] who don’t have a full knowledge about what happened during the Khmer Rouge seems crazy,” she said.

The so-called negative transmission of Khmer Rouge history in a family setting is also the case in Cambodia, according to Chhang Youk, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia.

“One negative aspect of parents telling their children about this period is that they tend to use it as a punitive action, like blaming their children for demanding bicycles, motorcycles, and music players when none of that was available during the Khmer Rouge period,” he said. “So this is a mistake we have often overlooked.”

However, he said that informal oral history of an event like the Cambodian tragedy can be important, and is often overlooked. Cambodian youth are everywhere exposed to Khmer Rouge history, he said.

“These stories are all around us,” he said. “So once our youth grow up, they will learn more questions than factual events. Many questions are beyond what students should know or ask about, and they are possibly also beyond a teacher’s ability to answer.”

Questions remain unanswered for many Cambodian youth, who, according to surveys, say they have an inadequate understanding of the Khmer Rouge and want to learn more.

That lack of understanding may soon change. In 2009, the government, with the help of the Documentation Center, mandated the inclusion of Khmer Rouge history in the national high school curriculum—for an estimated 1 million students.

“This teaching will transform us from being a victim to being an educator,” Chhang Youk said, adding that Cambodian seemed more open than other countries to the national education of a national tragedy.

Chhang Youk believes post-conflict countries must learn their history, or they will repeat it, and Poeuv Socheata agrees.

“I also think that as a society, in order to rebuild the country and to create a stronger democracy, it’s very important to implement the lessons that were learned during the Khmer Rouge,” she said.