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DK History: A Lesson That Should Not Be Repeated

A classroom forum on the history of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979) was organized for 50 students at Lumtong Secondary School on January 17, 2020. The forum is designed to equip students with knowledge concerning the history of the Anlong Veng community including its fourteen historical sites, and, most importantly, to provide them with the opportunity to interact and discuss the history in connection with the definition of genocide, human rights and democracy. Each student was encouraged to ask questions and respond to emerging topics of discussions ranging from the beginning of the KR movement to the motives behind the KR’s notorious prison, Tuol Sleng, or, infamous by its code name, S-21. The forum is consistently held as part of the Documentation Center of Cambodia’s (DC-Cam) nationwide effort to promote memory, peace, and reconciliation.

Students from high and secondary schools as well as university lecturers who are teaching history in their first-year program at university level are the main targets for such a forum. DC-Cam-published material “A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979),” photographs of the KR leaders and cooperatives, and documentary films were used as tools to generate a fruitful debate.

At the beginning of the forum, I started with a presentation of the DK history and followed up with photographs that depict the KR leaders and a group of children who walked in a line with baskets and hoes in hand. The other photographs were children working in factories. Next, there was a showing of the documentary film: “Tuol Sleng in 1979.”

The seven-minute documentary DC-Cam received from a Vietnamese TV station contains countless horrible images inside the former Khmer Rouge prison, where approximately 18,000 prisoners were captured, interrogated, tortured, and executed. It shows each of Tuol Sleng’s four buildings and swollen corpses lying on the beds and floors of the former classrooms. At some point, the students spontaneously reacted and murmured that those buildings were identical to Anlong Veng High School. In fact, Tuol Sleng Prison was a former high school that the KR turned in to a prison. Several students, as noted during the screening, closed their eyes in terror while others watched as the documentary showed corpses after corpses with their bellies being cut into open. The footage also showed prisoners dead with their legs still in shackles and iron bars.

After the screening, students were to spend five minutes working with their classmates to discuss and respond to the film. Feedback from the groups are as follows: “It was the regime that created a circle of an unacceptable brutality on its own people,” “The film showed how tragic, brutal, and arbitrary killings took place at Tuol Sleng, conveying an extremely cruel message,” “I am so scared of those images,” “I feel so much pity for those victims,” “It looks like the perpetrators had no mercy at all” and “It serves as a reminder for this and the next generation about the tragic past.”

The footage and feedback brought us to focus on the definition of genocide as stated in the Convention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. After explaining the definition in full, all the students were asked to remember this: the crime of genocide is the “intent” to destroy, in whole or in part, national, racial, religious and ethnic groups. Then, all the students developed their own thoughts about what could lcause a genocide. Their responses varied from each student. While many believed that a lack of respect of human rights is one of the main causes of the genocide, others said that the state of war (intra-conflict) could be easily manipulated to create a situation of the four protected groups, as stipulated in the genocide definition, being targeted and annihilated. Most of the students thought of four possible acts, namely discrimination, holding grudges, violence, and illiteracy, that could lead to genocide. There were eight students who pointed to the Vietnamese and Thais. However, the students did not provide a further explanation in their writing. The students did suggest, however, to incorporation more history in the school curriculum, claiming that it would enable them to broaden their knowledge about these subjects. Below are excerpts from the students’ brief comments:

Lim Panha, 14, who is in grade 9, said: “I have learned a lot from the history of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979) forum, ranging from the establishment of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), torture of people of all ages — young and old —to many being overworked. I watched the footage of Tuol Sleng Prison where people were brutally and heinously tortured. It is an unspeakable tragedy. Having learned about the history from the very beginning of the KR movement to the presents should drive us to become better leaders because we can think critically and make better choices concerning what is good and what is bad. Learning about the history gives us a glimpse in different leadership styles as well as geography. History also informs us whether the people prefered a communist or liberal regime.  I am so content with the teaching methodology as it helps to develop my understanding.”

Kun Samnang, 15, in grade 9, said: “Because of the forum, I got to learn about DK leaders such as Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, and Ieng Sary. I also came to realize what they did to people of all social status. I believe that their rule was so brutal and that they had no empathy for any one neither young and old. They murdered so many people and created a communist rule that brought no advancement or achievement for the entire society. Such a history showed me what happened in the past and how a history is narrated. It also inspired me to think of ways to make a country better.”

Boeuy Srey Neang, 15, in grade 9, said: “The forum allowed me to learn about the genocide and the DK leadership’s infliction of suffering on all people. It showed me how the KR leaders used fear and suffering to rule the country. It makes me think about the different regimes a country could have for the sake of fast growth, and that none of those should be murderous.”

Pho Srey Nay, 15, in grade 9, said: “After seeing the footage, I was extremely shocked and pitiful of those prisoners being tortured without any mercy. Such a woeful scene reaffirmed my mother’s narrative. She lived through the regime, working as a member of the women mobile unit. She was forced to work without sufficient food. She further recounted that anyone who committed any mistakes would be executed and buried in mass graves. Studying this history is very important. To me, I almost could not believe that such a barbarity took place. The history reminded me that our country needs to avoid such despicable acts and restore its image to that of a developed nation.”

Khun Chanou, 14, in grade 9, said: “Learning the story provided me with the knowledge concerning the KR’s rule. We regretted the execution of intellectuals and the inhumane acts of torture. It serves a lesson for all people, especially leaders, not to repeat these mistakes. Instead they should build the country into a place of peace and prosperity. The forum today reaffirmed what I’ve learned from my parents. They told me that they were assigned to carry dirt and performed other tasks in mobile units. Those refusing to carry out the tasks were killed. They also said that the people worked with little rest and did not dare to complain. The footage and photographs made me feel so much so pity for those who lived through that period. To me, the study of history is a prevention measure. We cannot enjoy peace until we tolerate and forgive each other.”

APPENDIX I: Photo Link– https://photos.app.goo.gl/a85cArfEwz2MNWtHA

APPENDIX II: Rasmei Kampuchea News — Classroom Forum on DK History at Lumtong Secondary School — http://www.rasmeinews.com/វេទិកា%e2%80%8bថ្នាក់រៀន%e2%80%8bស្ដីព/

APPENDIX III: Survey Result

TEAM: Mek Navin, Hean Pisey and Ly Sok-Kheang

REPORT: Ly Sok-Kheang

DONOR: United States Agency for International Development (USAID)