Dealing with the past
When I attended courses on Germany’s Holocaust for nearly three weeks, I was appalled to see the similarities between the history of massacre and devastation faced by Cambodians and Germans, and the disparate strategies that have been taken towards reconciliation.
The Khmer Rouge left two million dead between 1975 and 1979 while the Nazi regime killed six million European Jews, along with many others, between 1939 and 1945.
While these figures might make modernity seem bleak to many, they instead reminded me of a presentation by Steven Pinker, a Harvard University psychology professor, called “A history of violence”, which argued that “today we are probably living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence”.
The speech, which can be found on ted.com, asserted that horrific events such as the Khmer Rouge and the Holocaust have “led to a common understanding… that modernity has brought us terrible violence, and perhaps that native people lived in a state of harmony that we have departed from.” If Pinker is right, we have become a more peaceful people as time has gone on, but the question remains, was all of this violence necessary?
Looking at the world from the perspective of a 22-year-old, I dare say that Cambodian youth today find it hard to relate to what their parents went through about three decades ago. The difficulty that young Cambodians face in understanding their past is no surprise, considering the dearth of school lessons and study trips devoted to the darkest chapter in Cambodia’s recent past.
People say the future of a country depends on the quality of education among the youth, but how can national reconciliation happen, allowing people to move on, when young people are not taught about their past and encouraged to prevent its repetition in the future. Very few hours of schooling are devoted to this chapter of our history, let alone sending school-children to places like the former torture centre Tuol Sleng, which saw the brutal killing of over 15,000 “enemies of the regime”.
Learning history from books might transfer facts, but going to the places where history happened will give young people insight into the reality of the cruelty that once reigned over Cambodia and the actual causes of the atrocities.
High schools in Germany send students to places like the Dachau concentration camp, where political prisoners were tortured or forced to work to death, history exhibitions, and memorial sites for victims once or twice a year. I was flabbergasted to see flocks of schoolchildren on the paths around Germany’s many memorial sites and attending seminars about Nazi victims. Although some efforts have been made to expose Cambodian youth to their past, such a scene is simply non-existent in Cambodia.
Besides education, I learned of many other policies that Germany’s government passed to bring the country closer to reconciliation; decisions that Cambodia’s government has shied away from. On the heels of the regime’s collapse, the new government applied denazification, banning former Nazi officials from participating in the post-war government.
Along with public apologies to the victims, massive efforts have been made educationally, financially and symbolically to heal the country and enlighten their youth.
Another noteable difference is the commitment of each government in bringing justice to those involved in the massacres. While Hun Sen has suggested that, in order for the country to move on, the five suspected Khmer Rouge leaders currently awaiting trial be the last to face the KRT. Just three decades after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Germany is still trying men such as John Demjunjuk, a suspected former guard of an extermination camp in Ukraine, 67 years after his alleged offences, under the legal principle that crimes must not go unpunished.
Cambodia is no doubt recovering, but more effort needs to be shown for the millions of dollars that are being spent on the trials. Moreover, young people must engage in dialogue about the past in school and communities. If they cannot relate to it and adapt accordingly, history becomes likely to repeat itself.
To this end, the government and the Documentation Centre of Cambodia have recently produced Khmer Rouge history textbooks now being put to use throughout Cambodia. However, this is simply not enough to overcome the barriers to understanding that are blocking youth from engaging in public dialogues about the country’s sad past and, more importantly, how to brighten its future.
A UN report released in 2009 reveals that knowledge and age hierarchies exclude youth from local decision making processes regarding local development. It is no secret that Cambodia is an extremely hierarchical society where the voice of the youth is barely considered. Their political thoughts are hushed by parents at home and discouraged at school.
Cambodia can move on from the Khmer Rouge, but those involved must realize that reconciliation may start with the people who endured tragedy, but will continue only by truly engaging Cambodia’s youth.