From 11 to 13 June, I had the honor of joining a group of students and educators from Pursat province visiting the Anlong Veng Peace Center. Guided by DC-Cam staff, we embarked on a multi-day exploration of Cambodia’s living past, probing the legacy of the Khmer Rouge in a region heavily impacted by conflict in the latter decades of the 20th century. 18 of us in total participated in what DC-Cam has come to call the Anlong Veng “Peace Tour”: myself, two staff from DC-Cam, six high school teachers, and nine of their students — all of whom were nominated to join the trip due to their academic standing and eagerness to learn about Cambodian history.
I was struck from the outset by students’ high level of attention and engagement. As we passed between historical sites ranging from Pol Pot’s grave to Ta Mok’s former home, all of the participants discussed the implications of these historical sites for Cambodian identity today. In addition, both the students and teachers alike actively participated in the more structured lectures that Dr. Ly Sok-Kheang delivered at the Peace Center itself. The sessions in the Peace Center provided an overview of Khmer Rouge history as well as the local history of the Anlong Veng community. While based around a PowerPoint presentation, the lesson felt much more like a dialogue than a monologue. Different prompts opened up interactive discussion as students and teachers alike asked questions and shared reflections. This level of interactivity is rare in Cambodian classrooms, as Kheang later explained to me. Experiential education programs such as the Anlong Veng Peace Tours help students to build personal connections with the past, a vital component of history and human rights education. When students and teachers alike feel themselves embedded in a larger historical narrative, they are bound to take more seriously the often-uttered cry of “never again.”
The Anlong Veng Center is a work in progress. Many of the Khmer Rouge historical sites scattered near the Cambodian-Thai border are in a state of disrepair; others, such as Son Sen’s grave, lack even a historical marker. This lack of upkeep, of course, was one of the primary reasons that DC-Cam decided to create the Center, to ensure that this history did not wash away with the yearly rains that carve muddy channels through the roads of Anlong Veng. But rather than feeling “incomplete,” the Center’s ongoing evolution invites others in to help envision what a hybrid human rights-history center might look like in Cambodia. Students gave feedback on the master plan for the community’s renovation and offered their perspectives on how the center could best serve Cambodians of all walks of life. DC-Cam staff will incorporate these contributions in their ongoing work in the community.
After the Peace Tour concluded, I continued with DC-Cam staff to Siem Reap. There, at Hun Sen High School, they led a Classroom Forum with roughly 120 students. I had accompanied other DC-Cam staff to other Classroom Forums around Phnom Penh before and knew the general format of these presentations, which blend Khmer Rouge history lessons with oral history methodology. As with the group of students at the Peace Center, however, the students at Hun Sen High School participated much more actively than I’d seen students engage at other schools.
Part of the reason for this may have to do with the different approach to assessing and responding to students’ prior familiarity with Khmer Rouge history. At the outset of the Classroom Forum, Kheang asked students to spend ten minutes writing a response to the question “What do you know about the Khmer Rouge?” His forthright prompt elicited nervous laughter from the crowd, a nearly universal reaction across different student groups. This is not surprising when one considers that, strapped for time, history teachers in schools across Cambodia rarely devote more than a few hours a year to the history of Democratic Kampuchea. But rather than embarrass students for what they didn’t know, DC-Cam staff instead collected and anonymously shared the responses to establish a base off of which to build. The answers ranged widely, from “the Khmer Rouge killed many people” to “they forced work” to “they wore black shirts and pants.” In cases where students’ answers weren’t clear, many volunteered to stand up and clarify their positions: again, this group came across as confident and excited to participate, a stark contrast to the timidity I’d seen in other classrooms. In addition to these responses, students also submitted one question each that DC-Cam staff later answered over the course of the session.
After this introductory exercise, Kheang delivered his presentation on the history of the Khmer Rouge. The lesson focused first on the definition of genocide and the background context that led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge — including the origins of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) and the covert U.S. bombing in eastern Cambodia and Laos. A timeline of the Democratic Kampuchea period (1975-1979) followed. The part that most engaged students, however, was the review of Democratic Kampuchea’s major leaders. In an exercise that mixed historical empathy with revelation of the Khmer Rouge’s brutality, Kheang asked students to read out loud quotations from Pol Pot, Ta Mok, and Khieu Samphan, among others. As students channeled the words of these Khmer Rouge leaders, they better understood the gravity of the Khmer Rouge years and the totalitarian ideology that motivated the regime.
An overview of the Anlong Veng project concluded the Classroom Forum, but not before students had a chance to ask questions of the DC-Cam staff. After an hour and a half of intensive Khmer Rouge history, students felt more confident to make informed questions about the material. Their questions, focusing on the legacy of Khmer Rouge in today’s Cambodia, struck at the heart of what it means to remember, to commemorate, and to reconcile with the past. One student’s question echoes with me still: why, he asked, wasn’t genocide — as a concept, as a history — taught in Cambodian schools? It’s a question that deserves an answer and an intervention for a generation of Cambodians eager to engage with their history. Hopefully the Peace Center will prove to be an engaging forum in which to explore and better understand similar questions.