In Search of Lost History

Socheat showed me a picture he had drawn of Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s historic temple complex, and told me of his day at school. But standing at his orphanage in Siem Reap, I wasn’t thinking about his country’s rich culture. A question had been lingering on my mind.

“Socheat,” I said, “Do you learn about the Khmer Rouge in school?”

He looked at me for a moment before I saw a glimmer of recognition in his eyes. “Yes, the Khmer Rouge,” he answered. “It was a great sickness in Cambodia.”

Encouraged, I asked if he knew how many people had been killed by the genocidal regime. He replied that he did not know anyone had been killed. Nor did he recognize the name Pol Pot. “It was a great sickness” was all he could tell me. Yet he did better than his friend, 16-year old Sopphat, who had never even heard the term “Khmer Rouge.”

Socheat and Sopphat’s discouraging responses represent a general trend of ignorance and misinformation in Cambodia’s classrooms about the genocide that between 1975 and 1979 killed 2 million Khmer, more than one-quarter of the country’s population, and whose lasting effects have hindered societal growth ever since.


Details about who was a victim and who a perpetrator in this genocide are controversial and ill-defined, complicating the problem of disseminating accurate information. In a village 50 miles south of Phnom Penh, I met with Him Huy, a former Tuol Sleng prison (S-21) guard responsible for transferring prisoners from the prison to the Choeung Ek killing fields to be murdered. He spoke calmly from the wooden floor of his stilted house, as a fan hummed in the background over the sound of livestock below.

“I was a victim of the Khmer Rouge,” he claimed, explaining that he had been forced to leave his village as a teenager to work for the regime. He knew that if he did not perform his duties, he would be killed along with the prisoners he sent away.

In 2009, when Huy was profiled by The New York Times, he said, “I did not volunteer to work at S-21. We were all prisoners, those who killed and those who were killed.” He continued, “And in fact, for a lot of the staff there, the day came when they were killed, too. In the daytime we’d be eating together, and in the evening some were arrested and killed.”

I asked Huy if he had taught his children about the Khmer Rouge or about his role in the regime. He looked straight at me but evaded the question, saying only that he tells his story willingly to visitors like me. If Huy has not informed his children of the genocide, he is among thousands of other parents and teachers across the country who remain silent about the Khmer Rouge, either because they wish to put a painful past behind them or because they are ashamed of the role they played 30 years ago.

Socheata Poeuv, who traveled to Cambodia to create a documentary titled “New Year Baby” about her family’s experiences during the genocide, was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and raised in Texas. Now a student at the Yale School of Management, she said she grew up relatively unaware of her country’s dark past. Her parents, like many Cambodians, were hesitant to tell her and her siblings about what they had been through.

Pictures of Khmer Rouge victims line the walls at Security Prison 21, where nearly 17,000 people were imprisoned between 1975 and 1979

“When I was growing up, my parents barely talked about their past, so I grew up not understanding what happened to them at all,” she said. “I had a better idea of what happened in the Holocaust than what happened to them.”

When they finally opened up to her, she said she felt alienated from them. She was forced to confront the fact that her parents had a secret life before she was born, one that she could never fully understand.

“On the one hand, Cambodians don’t want to talk about their experience be cause it is very painful to recount and they don’t see the immediate point of doing so,” Poeuv continued. “On the other hand, they don’t want to be forgotten. I think they want their children and grand children to know who they are and know their story.”


In the public sphere as well, there are those fighting to spread awareness. Yuok Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, the research institute responsible for collecting evidence for the tribunals and creating textbooks about the genocide, said he has worked to make genocide education mandatory in 1,700 high schools across the country. Yet too often teachers and parents who were victims or perhaps even members of the Khmer Rouge regime refuse to include the material in class.

“Genocide education is important be cause it is a new way to look into a form of truth and reconciliation,” Chhang ex plained. “I tell students that genocide is no joke: You sit, you read the textbook, and there will be an exam at the end of the school year.”

Educating the public about Cambodia’s genocide is one way for victims to get back what they lost during the Khmer Rouge regime: access to education. Indeed, ac cording to the Cambodian Poverty Assessment, all educational achievements prior to the Khmer Rouge were eradicated by the regime, which destroyed schools, equipment, and books. Additionally, an estimated 75 percent of all teachers and secondary school students were killed or went missing during that time. According to Chhang, studying the genocide is a statement that what transpired will never be forgotten.

Yet as a result of opposition from teachers, as well as strong governmental disapproval from those complicit in the genocide, it took the Center nine years to write their 98 page textbook, “A History of Democratic Kampuchea,” about Pol Pot’s regime. Before this text was published in 2007, virtually nothing was taught about the Khmer Rouge. For example, in 2000, a ninth-grade textbook included only a short section about the genocide:

“From April 25 to April 27, 1975, the Khmer Rouge leaders held an extraordinary Congress in order to form a new Constitution, and renamed the country ‘Democratic Kampuchea.’ A new government of the DK, led by Pol Pot, came into existence after which Cambodian people were massacred.”

There was no mention of Tuol Sleng, the prison where more than 17,000 Khmer were tortured and held captive. There was no mention of the killing fields, where men, women, and even children were taken to be executed, sometimes for something as harmless as knowing French or wearing glasses. And there was no history of Pol Pot, Duch, or any of the leading Khmer Rouge officials, whose plan to revert Cambodia to its original agrarian state resulted in one of the most deadly social engineering experiments the world has experienced.

But it may be unfair to expect Cambodian schools to teach about the Khmer Rouge regime when the education system as a whole is broken, admitted Poeuv. Cambodian teachers are often poorly trained and even more poorly compensated, leaving many unready to offer comprehensive genocide education to their students.


Ready or not, the creation of the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia has brought Cambodians face to face with their past. Although many Cambodians are still unaware of the Khmer Rouge genocide, these tribunals set up to try the top five Khmer Rouge officials have brought much needed publicity to the event. Duch, the head of the Tuol Sleng prison who was recently tried, admitted to his role in the genocide and received a 19-year sentence for his crimes. In the process, hundreds of victims were reminded of the horrors they once faced.

Chhang told me that he hopes the tribunals will help those victims move past the genocide and become more open to genocide education. “In the big picture, the court is extremely important for Cambodia to move on, as people, almost 86 percent, support it,” he said. “But in the smaller picture, there are technical is sues, as there are so many egos involved in the tribunal, and in many cases they reach unethical conclusions.”

Egos and questionable conclusions aside, though, many see genocide tribunals and education as the first steps towards healing for Cambodia. As the world proclaims “never again” after each genocide that occurs, education will be fundamentally important if future killings are to be prevented.

Back at the orphanage, I told Socheat and Sopphat what I knew about the Khmer Rouge. They killed nearly 2 million Khmer, I said, and their rule lasted for four long years. They killed people arbitrarily, sometimes simply for appearing intelligent.

“Two million people. That’s bad,” said Socheat. “I will ask my teacher about that.”

Nikita Lalwani ’13 is an English and Humanities double major in Morse College. This spring, she co-led a group of 14 Yale students to Cambodia to study the genocide. Contact her at