Teaching A New Generation Of Cambodians History

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Closing arguments finished last week in the trial of the man accused of being the Khmer Rouge's chief torturer. In Cambodia, some people are following the trial closely, while others don't seem to care at all. NPR's Michael Sullivan profiles a woman who is part of the effort to educate a new generation of Cambodians about both the trial and their history. He reports from Phnom Penh, Cambodia.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

In Cambodia, closing arguments finished last week in the trial of the man accused of being the Khmer Rouge's chief torturer. The man known to Cambodians as Conrad Duch is the first of five defendants to be tried for crimes committed by the murderous Maoist regime that ended 30 years ago. The trial has elicited a mixed response in Cambodia, where some care deeply and others not at all.

NPR's Michael Sullivan profiles one young woman who does care.

(Soundbite of music)

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Every Monday, for several months now, two young Cambodian co-anchors have been trying to help the country make sense of the trial in a half-hour-long TV show called, appropriately enough, "Duch on Trial."

(Soundbite of TV show, "Duch on Trial")

Ms. UNG CHAN SOPHEA (Host, "Duch on Trial"): (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: It's 26-year-old Ung Chan Sophea's first on-air gig. She's a print reporter by trade. She and her co-host, another print reporter, are serious and professional. No happy talk, nothing glib or ad-libbed.

Ms. UNG: We cannot laugh. We have to be serious, have a serious face because we are talking about serious problem. People who are watching our program are victim. They suffer. So how can we laugh and play?

SULLIVAN: Back when the trial began, the Human Rights Center at the University of California Berkeley found a staggering 85 percent of Cambodians surveyed had little or no knowledge of the tribunal. That's changed, thanks to better outreach in print, on radio and on TV, where "Duch on Trial" has become a modest hit - one that's made Ung Chan Sophea a celebrity.

Ms. UNG: I'm not really a big star, but become a little bit famous now. When I was on the street or I go out, people recognize me.

SULLIVAN: And that makes her mother proud, even though Ung says the Khmer Rouge wasn't a topic they talked about much while she was growing up.

Ms. UNG: Here in Cambodia, not many family want to talk to their children about this because it's hard and they think that it's painful. So it's not - no need to talk to the children. But I think since the tribunal start and the program start, now young people start to give interest.

SULLIVAN: Not as many as she'd like, she says, especially in the rural areas she's visited as part of her work, places where most young people, she says, are more concerned with putting food on the table than a history lesson. She expected that. What she didn't expect was hearing how some people talked about Duch's TV testimony. She says Duch seems to have done a good job of playing to the audience, selling himself as a victim - a man who simply followed orders, lest he be killed, too.

Ms. UNG: I think before the tribunal now, everyone think that Duch is a monster. But now I think some people start to think that Duch is innocent. I heard some old people say that, oh, he just tried to defend his family. Not innocent, I mean, he didn't want to make it, but he is forced to do it.

SULLIVAN: The idea of Duch as a victim is too much for many of his victims and their families and for the prosecution as well. And while I was just following orders may not be an original defense, it's one that has worked before. And that, says Ung Chan Sophea, is why the next trial is so important. That of four aging former members of the Khmer Rouge leadership who know the answer to the question why, who can help explain the logic behind the policies that left nearly two million Cambodians - a quarter of the population - dead.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Phnom Penh.

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