Thursday, October 28, 2010

The memory cascade in Cambodia

When I first began working in Cambodia almost fifteen years ago, I was shocked to learn that the history of the Khmer Rouge was not taught in the schools (prior post). The Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) began pushing in 1999 to change this situation, publishing a high school textbook on the Khmer Rouge regime in 2007, the year after the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) began operating. The DC-Cam has subsequently held numerous teacher trainings to educate teachers in methods of presenting this history to their students.
Earlier this month, just two weeks after the indictments were filed in Case 002 at the ECCC, Indra Devi High School in Phnom Penh unveiled new anti-genocide slogans on their library building. The signs, pictured at left, say "Talking about experiences during the Khmer Rouge regime is to promote reconciliation and to educate children about forgiveness and tolerance," and "Learning about the history of Democratic Kampuchea is to prevent genocide."
Through these signs, the DC-Cam aims to raise awareness among teachers and students about genocide and genocide prevention, a task that is particularly important given that 70 percent of Cambodians were born after the end of the Khmer Rouge regime. By early next year, every high school in the country will display similar slogans.
The timing of these successful efforts to memorialize the crimes of the Khmer Rouge and the creation and operation of the ECCC are not coincidental. The ECCC has arguably served as a catalyst for this memory cascade, creating political space for non-governmental organizations to pursue creative transitional justice efforts. Other efforts have been more closely tied to the ECCC, such as the DC-Cam's Living Documents project through which victims of the Khmer Rouge visit to the tribunal to watch a trial and then facilitate public discussions about the proceedings in their home village.
But all of the numerous memory projects that have proliferated in recent years owe a debt to the tribunal. Though the ECCC's role in formal accountability has been limited to the senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime, the tribunal has played a crucial role in enabling a much broader range of activities, all of which will work in tandem to ensure that mass crimes are never again committed on Cambodian soil.

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