As Cambodia’s ruling party from 1975 to 1979, the communist Democratic Kampuchea regime was responsible for the deaths of up to 2 million people. Laura Summers ’67 helps Cambodian teachers explore this painful past and teach the truth to future generations.
The sound of a low-flying helicopter makes Laura Summers ’67 nervous. As a graduate student in Cambodia in 1971–72, Summers, now a political science professor at the University of Hull (England) and an internationally respected Cambodian scholar, witnessed covert Vietnam War aerial bombardments near Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh. “It was terrifying to feel the earth tremble and see the billowing black clouds from the B-52 bombs,” she says.
After the war, Cambodia endured more hardship under the Democratic Kampuchea regime that held power from 1975 to 1979. Led by communist dictator Pol Pot, the regime’s followers were known as the Khmer Rouge. In a radical attempt to create a classless society, they evacuated cities, abolished the use of money, banned public religious practice, and forced people to work in agricultural collectives. As a result, between 800,000 and 2 million people died of starvation, exhaustion, and disease. The ruling party also purged at least 14,000 suspected traitors from its ranks and massacred those who dared to rise in protest against the environment of terror. Finally, on January 7, 1979, a Vietnamese invasion force deposed Pol Pot’s regime and gave power to a less violent Cambodian communist party that sought its assistance.
The Cambodian government officially suppressed teaching about the country’s troubled history in its schools until 2009, when it invited Summers and other experts to train 186 of its top high school educators (who will, in turn, train 3,000 of their peers) in effective methods of teaching about those harrowing times.
The program, implemented as a Genocide Education Project, uses a newly adopted, official textbook, A History of Democratic Kampuchea 1975–1979, and was inspired by the creation of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC)—a joint United Nations/Cambodian tribunal formally established in 2006 to conduct criminal investigations regarding the violence under Democratic Kampuchea. “The establishment of the internationalized courts created openings for public discussion,” says Summers.
Despite the program’s title, a major issue for scholars like Summers is the use of “genocide” to describe the mass killings that occurred under Democratic Kampuchea. “Genocide involves the intent to eliminate another ethnic or religious group,” says Summers. “Under Democratic Kampuchea, the authorities purged, executed, or massacred those suspected of treachery or anti-party subversion. People from national minority groups were executed or murdered—not because of their ethnic identity, but because they were considered political enemies.”
Because Cambodian schools focus mainly on the country’s ancient history, Cambodians have less exposure to modern world history and a smaller basis of comparison for understanding what happened with the Khmer Rouge in relation to other international atrocities. Through the Genocide Education Project, Summers and her colleagues discuss other massacres—the Holocaust, Iraq’s 1988 campaign against the Kurds, and the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of more than 8,000 men and boys in Bosnia and Herzegovina—in their examination of the Democratic Kampuchea regime.
In addition to guiding them through the new textbook, the teacher training program introduces Cambodian teachers to techniques such as role-play, small-group activities, and moderated large-group discussions—methods that greatly deviate from the traditional lecture and “repeat-after-me” style of Cambodian teaching. These interactive lessons are intense. For example, the guidebook calls for an in-class lecture by a survivor who relates his or her personal experience, an interview with a former cadre—or soldier—of the regime, and role-play in which students pretend to be both victims and perpetrators of the crimes. The Ministry of Education expressed concern over such activities, and educators are wary about breaking from their traditional teaching style.
The Khmer Rouge era is still relatively recent and emotions surrounding it run high. “A few of the older trainees were young adults in the 1970s,” says Summers, “and some may be former members of the Khmer Rouge, many from regions where most poor people backed the failed revolution.”
As a result of the program, Summers and her colleagues hope public discussion and understanding will become easier. In her trainees, she sees a professional commitment to teaching effectively. “There was less resistance to our promotion of equality and democracy in the classroom—or the teaching of ‘new tricks’ as one teacher put it—than you might expect in a culture that is deeply conflicted and in rapid transformation.” Just two years into the program, its success is difficult to measure, but Summers is encouraged by the dedication of Cambodian educators to the enormous task of exploring their recent and painful history in an effort to prepare for a better future.