Friday, April 2, 2010

STUDENT OUTREACH IN CHHOUK DISTRICT Sokrith: "Khmer Rouge Is Bad and Good"

Ser Sayana

From my youngest years, any stories about the Khmer Rouge that I heard from my parents, neighbors and even at school sounded like fiction to me. I thought that the Pol Pot, Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan clique were only names people called supposed or alleged national traitors. I think that I did not believe because it was too much to believe. All I heard about was starvation, killing, suffering, forced labor, cursing, scolding and blaming. I saw no proof or evidence, but only words and drawings in primary school textbooks. Later, in early 1990s, my home in the Russey Keo district of Phnom Penh came under Khmer Rouge guerrilla gunfire. I still thought it was a rebel group against the government called Khmer Rouge soldiers. In 1999, I came to realize the truth after reading more than two hundred notebooks written and used during the Khmer Rouge period and collecting interrogation and prisoner lists from Tuol Sleng.

Since 2005, there have been efforts by NGOs and educational institutions to inform the public, victims, survivors, religious groups, and youths about KR history. The Student Outreach project is a program created in 2005 by the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) to educate youths about the Democratic Kampuchea period and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). It has designed and implemented a variety of activities to raise public awareness about and understanding of the Khmer Rouge history as well as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal process.

The Student Outreach team has been working with high school and university students, both public and private, on activities including voluntary work, introductory sessions on KR history and the ECCC law and agreement, interview techniques, report writing, and study tours.

To reach out to students using another approach, we plan to visit schools in different provinces once every one or two months to meet with recruited students, arrange local tours and bring students from different schools together in Phnom Penh to participate in trial hearings and/or study trips of significant historical sites in the city. The first province we chose to visit is Kampot. We did that in mid-March 2010. Parts of Kampot province were still dangerous to travel even more than 25 years after the KR collapsed in January 1979. In June 1996, KR guerrillas frequently destroyed villagers' properties and belongings and kidnapped hundreds of villagers to Taten forest in Koh Sla district. Four foreigners were arrested by the KR guerrillas in the area of Voar mountain.

We traveled to Chhouk district in Kampot province with another colleague, Piseth Phat, to work with a group of students who had been selected by their English teacher, Matthew Rullo, a U.S Peace Corps volunteer in Cambodia. We arrived at Hun Sen Chhouk high school the afternoon of March 17 and met with the school's vice director, Mrs. Yoek Nhaun. I had planned with Matthew to have one or two survivors speak to the students about their experiences during the Khmer Rouge and what they most remember from that time. It turned out that two additional female teachers at the school who survived the Khmer Rouge regime were also interested in speaking to the class about their personal experiences.

About 40 students from grades 10 to 12 joined the class. I first introduced ourselves, where we are from, and the purpose of the trip, then spoke about KR history and the ECCC's second case (Case 002). I asked the class if they believed that the KR period did occur and if they had previously learned in class about that period. Some students replied that they believed the KR did exist from 1975 to 1979. They heard about it from their parents, relatives, teachers at school, TV and radio. From their answers, I noticed that they knew more than I did when I was their age. It seemed that they were very intelligent.

A few questions were raised by the students. How did the KR regime happen in Cambodia? Why did they want to kill? How did people survive? Why did they kill men more than women? I had four survivor teachers take turns telling their personal stories to the class. The four teachers were Mr. Net Kab, 67, a history teacher at the school; Mrs. Yoek Nhaun, 58; Mrs. Sok Lang Sat, 59; and Mrs. Kum Sakrun, 57. After hearing their stories and holding a discussion with the four teachers, each participant received a new DC-Cam booklet called "Genocide: The Importance of Case 002," and an ECCC booklet called "Introduction to the Khmer Rouge Tribunal."

The next morning, on March 18, we brought the students and three teachers to Phnom La-ang mountain. We wanted to show the students one of the Khmer Rouge's security offices located next to their village. La-ang mountain is a beautiful site located in La-ang village, La-ang commune, Dang Tung district (formerly Chhouk district), about 15 km from Hun Sen Chhouk high school. The caves in La-ang Mountain were used from 1975 to 1979 for detaining "new" or "April 17" people, and soldiers and police officers from Lon Nol regime. The area around the mountain is littered with more than one hundred mass graves, which are now covered by water and rice fields. About 325 human skulls along with their remains have been excavated from the graves. They are now placed in Wat Stung memorial in Chhouk district.

The students could not go into the caves because the whole area has become a private site for cement production by the Thai Boon Roong Cement Company. For security reason, we were not allowed to go near the mountain or walk around it. We could only view the mountain from the gate and take pictures.

After a short break, we continued from La-ang mountain to Rumlich dam located in Chum Kiri district, about 30-minute drive from La-ang mountain. The original size of the dam was about 10 meters in width. It was expanded during the Khmer Rouge time by forced labor. According to two teachers who used to work there during the Khmer Rouge period, the site was filthy and full of dark flies. Hundreds of people died at the site due to forced dam construction, starvation and disease.

Viewed from outside, La-ang mountain and Rumlich dam are two beautiful sites. Very few visitors would know the mysteries and tragic stories that lie beneath their beautiful scenery.

When we arrived at Rumlich, we were pleased with the strong and cool wind blowing from the west, even though it was the hot and dry season. The wind kept blowing very hard making us feel like it was autumn as we stood on the dam looking out on a wide open lake surrounded by mountains. Rumlich has become a tourist destination, attracting many local visitors during national holidays and festivals who paddle on small boats on the calm surface of the lake. However, we saw no information provided for tourists that might help reveal the KR history of this beautiful place.

At the dam, the students were divided into small groups. Some walked with their teachers. I talked to a student named Sokrith, a 10th grader, at the side of the dam. At one point, I asked him what he thinks about the Khmer Rouge. He replied, "I think the Khmer Rouge was bad and also good." I was intrigued. So I asked him what was bad and good about the Khmer Rouge. He said, "They were bad because they forced people to work to death, and good because they had the idea to build this dam that now is an attraction, their legacy."

Before joining the trip, Matthew taught the students who participated in his English class about Haiku. He let them write about Khmer Rouge. Sokrith wrote:

1. Khmer Rouge is stupid
2. They killed many poor people
3. So, they are crazy.

The Student Outreach team has organized genocide education and justice tours at least once a year, bringing more than 300 students to see the ECCC and visit significant sites in Phnom Penh. The participants are two different groups separated accordingly: university students, and high school students in Phnom Penh and from the provinces. We receive a variety of feedback and reflections from the students afterward, including tour reports, short stories, slogans, poems, letters of thank, and requests from other school teachers and students to join study tours.

The objectives of this program are to provide the opportunity for students to learn more about the development of the ECCC process and the Khmer Rouge history by visiting and seeing genocide sites and not only hearing about it from their parents, relatives, neighbors, and teachers. The goal is for the future generation to continue preserving and honoring the memory and humanity of those who suffered under the Khmer Rouge regime. The tour provided an opportunity for these students from different schools to meet and get to know each other, to be friends and together to find broader understanding of their shared history.

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About Me

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Dara Duong was born in 1971 in Battambang province, Cambodia. His life changed forever at age four, when the Khmer Rouge took over the country in 1975. During the regime that controlled Cambodia from 1975-1979, Dara’s father, grandparents, uncle and aunt were executed, along with almost 3 million other Cambodians. Dara’s mother managed to keep him and his brothers and sisters together and survive the years of the Khmer Rouge regime. However, when the Vietnamese liberated Cambodia, she did not want to live under Communist rule. She fled with her family to a refugee camp on the Cambodian-Thai border, where they lived for more than ten years. Since arriving in the United States, Dara’s goal has been to educate people about the rich Cambodian culture that the Khmer Rouge tried to destroy and about the genocide, so that the world will not stand by and allow such atrocities to occur again. Toward that end, he has created the Cambodian Cultural Museum and Killing Fields Memorial, which began in his garage and is now in White Center, Washington. Dara’s story is one of survival against enormous odds, one of perseverance, one of courage and hope.