Cambodia Writes First History of Khmer Rouge

A new history project helps Cambodia take a tiny step toward confronting the murderous four-year reign of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. As many as 2 million people died, but the era is barely mentioned in school textbooks.

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Here's a tiny step forward in an effort to confront the terrible past of Cambodia. It's an effort to confront the four-year reign of the Khmer Rouge. During that time as many as two million people died because of murder, starvation, or neglect.

NPR's Michael Sullivan reports from the capital, Phnom Penh.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Khamboly Dy is just 26 years old, too young to remember the horrors inflicted by the Khmer Rouge, who were driven from power two years before he was born. But he's not too young to want to help educate his peers and the next generation about that time, a time largely ignored in Cambodian classrooms.

Mr. KHAMBOLY DY (Author, "A History of Democratic Kampuchea"): That's the problem. In grade nine we have only (unintelligible). And in grade 12 we have about three to four pages. It's not enough.

SULLIVAN: Which is why Khamboly Dy was quick to raise his hand. When his boss at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, or DC-Cam, asked for volunteers for a special project.

Mr. DY: Mr. Youk Chhang, the director of DC-Cam, said, who would like to write the Khmer history? And I said, I'm very interested. And then he selected me. He offered me the opportunity.

SULLIVAN: Khamboly admits he was an unlikely candidate to write such a book. In many ways, not much different than the students he hopes will read it.

Mr. DY: It became a big challenge for me since I don't have any background in history and in research. And I learned history while doing the history.

SULLIVAN: Khamboly drew from material gathered by the documentation center - eyewitness accounts, photographs and letters carefully collected over the past decade. "A History of Democratic Kampuchea" is 80 pages in English and more than 120 pages in the Khmer version, still at the printers. It's the first book about the Khmer Rouge written by a Cambodian for Cambodians about a time that remains politically sensitive since some senior government officials, including the prime minister, Hun Sen, are former Khmer Rouge soldiers.

Mr. DY: When we talk about the Khmer Rouge, we can't avoid talking about the present government or the previous governments. So it's very political. And I have to be very carefully use the language.

SULLIVAN: One example, Khamboly says: the 1979 intervention by neighboring Vietnam that forced the Khmer Rouge from power.

Mr. DY: Whether invasion or liberation is the interpretation of each party. So I said they fought their way into Cambodia. And this is the fact. They fought their way into Cambodia. But whether liberated or invaded, that is the interpretation. So neither of them I used.

SULLIVAN: Government officials did suggest several deletions, including dropping a line that referred to some people now in government as Khmer Rouge defectors. Khamboly Dy says he made that deletion and one more from the preface, but says the body of the text is unchanged. "A History of Democratic Kampuchea" was written specifically for high school teachers and their students. And it's been getting good reviews from foreign scholars.

But the education ministry says it will write its own history book in the next few years. Though it does plan to use this one as a core reference. Khamboly is disappointed with the ministry's decision not to use his book as is, even more so because a U.N.-backed tribunal is expected to begin trials of surviving Khmer Rouge leaders early next year.

Mr. DY: It is very dangerous when genocide education continue to be absent from the official curriculum. It is the only effective measure to prevent future genocide. And also, students should learn the history so that they have enough basis to participate in the tribunal, to follow up the tribunal. They should know the history first.

SULLIVAN: Five thousand copies of the textbook have been ordered, both in English and Khmer. The Khmer version should be back from the printer before the end of the month.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News.

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