We'd like to imagine that people have an instinctive and intuitive way of confronting history. We'd be wrong, of course. The best example, perhaps, is Germany, which has been issuing mea culpas for the behavior of the Third Reich non-stop since its defeat in the second world war, and owned up to its own murderous history. The reality, however, is that German self-awareness is more the exception than the rule.
Many Russians are only dimly aware of the extent of the brutality of Josef Stalin's regime, and many of those who are, see no need to be ashamed of them. Students in Japan know very little in depth knowledge about Japan's role in World War II. I've even had a chance to examine a Japanese high school level history book for myself, and you can imagine my surprise when the entire section on this rather pivotal conflict in Japanese history was two paragraphs long, and capped off with a little cartoon Zero pilot waving a surrender flag. When asked for a translation, I was given one "Japan entered an armed conflict with the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and other allied countries. Mistakes were made by the military leadership, resulting in a Japanese defeat after atomic bombs were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki."
Ah. Who would need to know more than that, anyway?
Now in 2007, Cambodia is struggling to deal with its own history.
In 1975, a Maoist guerrilla army called the Khmer Rouge conquered Cambodia, led by a man named Saloth Sar, but better known by his now infamous nom de guerre Pol Pot. Within days of seizing power, Pol Pot began one of the most infamous genocides in human history. Pol Pot rebooted Cambodian history, and instituted his "Year Zero" program to turn Cambodia into an entirely agrarian Maoist society. "Class enemies" like teachers, engineers and doctors were either executed outright, tortured to death, or sent to the fields to work themselves to death as slave laborers. By the time the Khmer Rouge were overthrown by a Vietnamese military invasion in 1979, nearly two million of Cambodia's eight million people had perished.
"We are building socialism without a model. We do not wish to copy anyone; we shall use the experience gained in the course of the liberation struggle. There are no schools, faculties or universities in the traditional sense, although they did exist in our country prior to liberation, because we wish to do away with all vestiges of the past."- Pol Pot
Though removed from power, the Khmer Rouge did not entirely disappear. The military faction retreated to isolated strongholds in the Cambodian boondocks, fighting a low intensity guerrilla war against the Cambodian government. Pol Pot himself died in 1998, his body burned on a bed of trash and discarded tires. However, many of the new leaders of Cambodia were either members of the Khmer Rouge, or had collaborated with the Khmer Rouge, like Prime Minister Hun Sen, Cambodia's de-facto dictator since 1997.
So what have Cambodians learned about the Khmer Rouge and the genocide? Well, it's tricky. The Vietnamese installed government of the 1980's took a nakedly propagandistic anti-Khmer Rouge angle, which denounced the Khmer Rouge and glorified the Vietnamese invasion, but students learned very little about the events themselves. When Hun Sen took power, information about the genocide started flowing somewhat more freely. It was now safe for educators to acknowledge the existence and scope of genocide, and it was also safe to acknowledge the role and responsibility of Pol Pot. Controversies, inevitably, arose. For example, were the Vietnamese liberators or invaders? And, naturally, discussing the role of any former Khmer Rouge serving in the current government remains uncomfortable.
Therefore, nobody should be surprised when Hun Sen's government recently squashed a history textbook that gave a complete chronology of the Khmer Rouge, calling it "unsuitable" for inclusion in the curriculum (they haven't censored it completely, however) for fear that it may cause embarrassment for former Khmer Rouge currently serving in the government. One member of the textbook committee went as far as to say that there should be a 60 year waiting period between an event and its discussion in history textbooks. By that timeline, German students would still be waiting for classes dealing with the Berlin Wall.
For young Cambodians, their knowledge of the genocide is mostly anecdotal, passed along by oral histories from the survivors. Is it any wonder some of them have chalked these horror stories up to gross exaggerations? Cambodia is doing more to confront history than Russia or Japan, but like so many others, the catharsis of coming clean can't compete with the reluctance of politicians to answer awkward questions about their involvement.