By Erika Kinetz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 8, 2007; Page A14
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia, May 7 -- In a country where half the students who enter grammar school never finish, Cheak Socheata, 18, is among the most privileged of her generation: She made it to college.
But even Cheak, a first-year medical student at Phnom Penh's University of Health Sciences, has learned next to nothing in school about the Khmer Rouge, who in a little less than four years in power executed, tortured and starved to death an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians, about a quarter of the population.
"I just heard from my parents that there was mass killing," Cheak said. "It's hard to believe." Her high school history teacher told her the basics -- the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 -- and advised her to read about the rest on her own, she recalled.
Nearly three decades after the Khmer Rouge were overthrown, a battle over history is underway in Cambodia. On one side are forces eager to reckon with the past, both in school and at a special court set up to try the surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Many teachers, students and activist groups say more should be taught about the Khmer Rouge years, which is virtually absent from school curriculums now.
Blunting these demands is a government whose top leaders were once associated with the now-defunct communist movement and who seem loath to cede control over such a politically sensitive chapter of Cambodian history.
"Suppose that ever since 1945, Germany had been ruled by former Nazis," said Philip Short, author of "Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare," a biography of the Khmer Rouge leader published in 2004. "Would the history of the Nazi regime be taught honestly in Germany today? This is now Cambodia's problem."
A new high school textbook about the era, the first written by a Cambodian, was recently published by the Documentation Center of Cambodia, an independent institute in Phnom Penh that specializes in Khmer Rouge history. In "A History of Democratic Kampuchea," author Khamboly Dy, 26, spells out in 11 detailed chapters the rise, reign and fall of the Khmer Rouge, who called themselves the Communist Party of Kampuchea and the country, Democratic Kampuchea.
A Cambodian government review panel deemed the book unsuitable for use in the regular curriculum. Instead, the panel said the book could be used as supplementary reference material and as a basis for the Ministry of Education to write its own textbook.
"It's a start. The door is open," said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center, which has been pushing to get a textbook into classrooms since 1999.
Short said Khamboly's text is hard to fault on substantive historical grounds. "It deserves to be not merely an approved textbook for Cambodian schools but a compulsory text, which all Cambodian schoolchildren should be required to study," he said.
Its sidelining reflects the failure of the country's current leaders to move beyond their Khmer Rouge past, he said. Prime Minister Hun Sen, National Assembly President Heng Samrin and Senate President Chea Sim were all middle-ranking Khmer Rouge officials, he said.
The three men left Cambodia for Vietnam in the late 1970s and returned with Vietnamese army forces that overthrew Pol Pot in 1979. Today, their political legitimacy rests in part on their credentials as men who helped free Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge tyranny.
Heng Samrin said it was unfair to implicate him and other top officials of the ruling Cambodian People's Party in the crimes of the Khmer Rouge.
In an interview with a Cambodian journalist, he maintained that the term "Khmer Rouge" refers only to people who joined the National United Front of Kampuchea, which in the first half of the 1970s fought the U.S.-backed Lon Nol government but later betrayed the revolution and killed innocent people.
He and his colleagues only fought to liberate Cambodia from Lon Nol and his imperialist henchmen, he said. "We were not involved in the Khmer Rouge regime," he said, adding that he had been only a "simple soldier."
Khamboly said that picking his way through politically charged points was the most difficult aspect of writing the book, which was printed with $10,000 from the Soros Foundation's Open Society Institute and the National Endowment for Democracy. By citing sources, focusing on survivor stories and seeking neutral language, Khamboly said, he hoped to avoid political tussles.
It wasn't enough. The committee that reviewed the text criticized it for giving too much attention to the years after 1979, when Cambodian factions fought a long civil war, and for tracing the roots of the Khmer Rouge back to the struggle against French colonization and to Ho Chi Minh's Indochinese Communist Party.
Committee members also said naming individuals associated with the Khmer Rouge government was "unnecessary" and a threat to their safety.
History "should be kept for at least 60 years before starting to discuss it," said committee member Sorn Samnang, president of the Royal Academy of Cambodia, a graduate school, according to the minutes of a Dec. 14 meeting of the review panel.
There is a long-standing political debate in Cambodia over whether Vietnam liberated or invaded the country when it ousted the Khmer Rouge.
Khamboly's book uses neither term, saying only that Vietnamese forces "fought their way into Cambodia."
"We use facts," Khamboly said. "Whether they invaded or liberated the country is an interpretation."
But in Cambodia, as in other post-conflict states, there are few facts that belong to everybody. In a Sept. 19 letter to Hun Sen, the premier, his education adviser, Sean Borat, generally praised the book but took issue with Khamboly's failure to characterize the Vietnamese action as a liberation.
He also objected to the book's characterization of Cambodians who returned with the Vietnamese in 1979 as "Khmer Rouge defectors." That phrase, Sean Borat wrote, must be deleted because "the Cambodian People's Party did not originate from Khmer Rouge soldiers but from a massive movement that emerged to oppose the brutal regime led by Pol Pot."
The offending phrase was removed from the final version of the book.
Young Cambodians haven't been formally taught much about the Khmer Rouge in school since propaganda texts of the 1980s, when Cambodia was ruled by the communist government that the Vietnamese installed. Those books depicted the Khmer Rouge with such graphic ferocity that some children grew up thinking they were actual monsters.
These books were taken out of use in 1991, when U.N.-brokered peace talks ended more than a decade of civil war and led to elections.
In 2002, a 12th-grade history textbook touching on the Pol Pot years was introduced but quickly recalled after controversy arose over the book's omission of the 1993 electoral victory of the royalist Funcinpec party. A new version of the text has yet to appear. Ministry of Education officials say they plan to publish a new book in 2009; they blame the delay on lack of funds.
In the meantime, Cambodia's youth are "a lost generation," said Chea Vannath, former president of the Center for Social Development, a local rights group. In the absence of a shared national story about the Khmer Rouge, a thousand conversations, fractured by politics, rumor, myth and the varieties of human experience are being passed down to a sometimes skeptical younger generation.
"When a kid doesn't eat all the rice on the plate, his mother tells him, 'If you were in the Pol Pot regime, you would die because you don't have enough food,' " said Nou Va, 27, a program officer at the Khmer Institute for Democracy, a nonprofit group that recently produced a documentary film about the generation gap. "The kid says, 'Oh, she's just saying that to blame us. I don't believe it.' "
The battle for history is also being waged at a former military headquarters on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where a special tribunal set up by the United Nations and the Cambodian government is struggling to bring to justice those leaders of the Khmer Rouge who survive. (Pol Pot died in 1998.)
Efforts to establish the court go back a decade. Despite recent signs of progress toward convening trials, many observers have concluded that the Cambodian government is not ready for a truly independent inquiry into this chapter of the nation's past.
"Were Hun Sen and his colleagues to permit an honest appraisal of the past, it would be the best proof that they have finally broken with that past and moved out from under the shadow of their Khmer Rouge origins," Short said. "Unfortunately, all the signs continue to point in the opposite direction."
Cheak, the medical student, has a more immediate concern. It's about Khamboly's new book. "Where," she asked, "can I get a copy?"