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Khmer Rouge case prods Cambodia's classrooms

PHNOM PENH--Pointing at photographs of two former Khmer Rouge leaders a day after they were sentenced to life in jail, history teacher Ung Ratha asks his students whether justice was served.

One volunteers the punishment was too lenient, as others in the class try to grasp how Cambodia's “Killing Fields” era, once whitewashed from textbooks, left up to two million people dead.

“Some students do not believe it happened because their parents were born after the regime. So they feel that the teachers are making it up,” said Ratha, 43.

But having lived through the Khmer Rouge's brutal 1975-1979 rule, he brings a first-hand account to lessons which only became compulsory for high school students three years ago.

The students flinch when Ratha shows them images of skulls from execution sites, before turning to the first-ever convictions of top ex-leaders to bring this gruesome period of history up to date.

On Thursday, Cambodia's U.N.-backed court found “Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea, 88, and ex-head of state Khieu Samphan, 83, guilty of crimes against humanity, sentencing them to life in prison.

“The verdicts taught me more about the leaders of the Khmer Rouge, the torture and other things they did,” said Khun Monalisa, 18, a final year student at Beltei International School in Phnom Penh.

She has been following the case closer than many young Cambodians — more than half of the population was born after the regime was ousted — as, until recently, schools have taught little about the period.

According to the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), the government went on to remove all reference to the regime from school curriculums between 1993 and 2002 in an attempt at reconciliation with former cadres.

It took years of lobbying before a textbook on the period was eventually allowed in Cambodian schools in 2009, paving the way for a compulsory curriculum a few years later.

Different Versions of History

The Khmer Rouge forced more than two million people out of Cambodian cities and into rural work camps during their rule, wiping out nearly a quarter of the population through executions, starvation or overwork.

Teachers were among the prime targets of the communist regime which systematically killed former state officials and intellectuals deemed a threat to its quest to forge an agrarian utopia.

Incorporating this history into a nation still traumatized by the horrors has been a massive challenge.

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A Cambodian student answers a teacher's question as she learns about Khmer Rouge history in a classroom at a private school in Phnom Penh, Friday, Aug. 8.

(AFP)

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