Report on History Forum


Genocide Education Project

Provincial Teacher Training

Report on History Forum
By Marquita Smith

November 24, 2009


The History Forum of the Genocide Education Project began with a speech on the history of the Khmer Rouge by Professor David Chandler translated by Mr. Kok-Thay Eng. Professor Chandler has been researching Cambodian history for almost 50 years and is considered an expert in the field. Chandler described A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979) as a thematic narrative history of the regime written in a way for high school students and Cambodians in general to relate. He also hopes Khamboly Dy's research will inspire others to research the past in a systematic way. Chandler said
writing history is a way of gaining possession of the past and though foreign analysis may be helpful, he hopes Cambodians will write their own history. He said it is important to know the why, who, what, where, and how of the Khmer Rouge but because of the horrors it is difficult to write about it in a literary way.

Chandler compared the leaders of the Khmer Rouge to the heroes of a tragedy-never stepping back from what they were doing-but unlike tragic heroes, most of the leaders survived. He stressed the importance of considering the international aspect as well as the Cambodian one when studying the Khmer Rouge. Chandler referenced the CPK's erasure of individuality and the destruction of families, noting that their actions were executed more drastically and destructively than were those of their counterparts in the Soviet Union. Chandler has written elsewhere that Democratic Kampuchea was a Cambodian-imported Communist phenomenon, a unique mixture of Cambodian and foreign elements and finished by saying the "wheel of history," often referred to by the Khmer Rouge, had begun to roll past the leaders of Democratic Kampuchea and the almost 2 million Cambodians killed in less than 4 years.

Afterwards, the Q & A portion opened with approximately ten teachers asking questions. One teacher who was evacuated from Phnom Penh to Kandal province on April 17, 1975 asked why food rations were different for people from the city. Chandler responded that this difference was most likely due to the valuing of "base people" over "17 April" or "new" people. Others asked about the DK regime's interactions with China and Vietnam and the reason for the lack of intervention from the United Nations. Chandler explained that the UN did not then have peacekeeping machine it does now and it could not have voted to intervene in Cambodia. Another asked why these international crimes were not being tried in The Hague, to which Chandler responded that the Cambodian government did not want the trial to take place outside the country and that such an occurrence could have been considered an infringement on Cambodian sovereignty. The last and most open-ended question asked was why the Khmer Rouge did what they did during their reign of power. Chandler responded by telling the teachers it is their responsibility to think about the history to be prepared to answer students' questions as that is the purpose of the forum.

Following Prof. Chandler was former S-21 guard Him Huy. The audience listened carefully as Mr. Huy detailed how he arrived at S-21, some of his experiences while there, and what happened after he left the prison. He arrived in Phnom Penh on April 17th as part of Division 703. As a guard, he says he never killed anyone personally but he was responsible for transporting prisoners to Cheung Ek. He described the day-to-day life of a cadre as "waiting for your turn to be killed." He says he was transferred to
a rice field in 1978 and when the Vietnamese came, he fled with other cadres. Many of the questions asked during the Q & A session revolved around Huy's personal feelings about his role as a guard. One teacher mentioned that Huy did not look like a murderer. Huy stressed that he never killed anyone and the orders to kill prisoners came from Duch. When asked about his desire for the future Huy stated that he does public speaking events such as the forum because he wants people to know about the Khmer Rouge and to teach the younger generation.

Professor Laura Summers's presentation (translated by Terith Chy) about the local history of Pai Lin offered an analysis of the economic success of the short-lived capital city of Democratic Kampuchea, which, in her opinion, showed some of the first steps towards national reconciliation. In 1992, Summers spent two days in Pailin and showed the audience a number of personal photographs of the city as she saw it. Pailin was deserted until the National Army of Democratic Kampuchea reoccupied it in order to prepare it for a visit from the Prince Head of State Norodom Sihanouk. The abandoned homes were repaired by soldiers, each family being responsible for completing the repairs with the materials purchased from Thailand. One photo of Summers and army commanders atop Phnom Yat, a treasured ancient temple, was especially important since the commanders wanted to prove that the temple was not badly damaged and that they were repairing the existing damage. They wanted Cambodians to know that the national heritage was safe in their hands. The city was slowly being revived with a small hotel, apartment building, and pharmacy in place. By 1995, it was an economic success with three thousand people moving to the city each year. The economic and social order of Pailin was a big change from the failed policies of the wartime institution of Democratic Kampuchea. When Pol Pot called for re-nationalization and re-collectivization in 1996 the army commanders in Pailin refused his order. Twenty thousand people abandoned the Democratic Kampuchea movement at this time. Summers says, "The social realities of economic success obliged the commanders to obey the will of their people; they behaved as democrats." By 1998, the population of Pailin was 70, 486, making it the fastest growing province in the country. In closing, Summers said political and economic development is "spontaneous, accidental, cumulative, and hardly ever planned." During the Q & A session, one teacher asked about funding sources besides China for the Khmer Rouge. In response, Summers stated that during the 1980s a small amount of funding was received from a few ASEAN countries but not from any others. Another teacher asked if, based on the information presented, he could deduce that the failure of Democratic Kampuchea was a result of the conflict between China and the Soviets. Summers responded no because that conflict was resolved in 1989 and stressed that Democratic Kampuchea failed mostly for internal, national reasons.

The last speaker of the day was Mr. Norng Chanphal, an S-21 survivor. Norng was one of four child survivors. His father was a cadre in Kampong Speu and in mid-1978, his family received a letter of invitation to come to Phnom Penh. His mother was sick at the time and he recalls S-21 cadre shouting for his family to get out of car when they arrived at Toul Sleng. His sick mother was having difficulty following their orders and he witnessed cadre hit and push her to the ground. After witnessing these actions, he was afraid of what was to come. He and his brother were separated from his mother upon entry to the prison and aside from one very brief glance, he never saw his mother again. Sometime close to the liberation date he hid in a pile of clothes, afraid that if he left he would not be able to find his mother. When Vietnamese soldiers came, they found him and three other surviving children. From his memory, Norng says he was at S-21 for no more than a month but according to documents, he was there for a week or less. During the Q & A session, one audience member asked about the food rations at S-21. Norng says he starved for maybe 4-10 days as all cadres had fled in advance of the Vietnamese arrival. He only remembers having a little water to drink and his brother almost died due to starvation. Another asked if his mother died due to starvation or if she was killed. Norng does not know for sure but said if the Khmer Rouge did not kill her, she would have died due to her sickness. The pain of remembering was still palpable as Norng became teary-eyed while speaking. The final question was whether he was satisfied with the court proceedings. Norng is not satisfied and he says he cannot accept Duch's apology. His beloved mother's suffering is too deeply engrained in his memory. He has waited a long time for this trial and he is hoping for a verdict that will bring justice. After Norng's speech, Khamboly Dy asked all to stand and share condolences for the suffering of Norng's mother.

In close to the day, Dy and Peoudara Vanthan gave thanks to all the international speakers who have helped with the forum. In addition, they gave thanks to all teachers present highlighting that they are an integral part of making the Genocide Education Project effective.