NOBLESVILLE, Indiana — Neighbor turned against neighbor. Family members disappeared. Faced with ostracism or even death, youth pledged allegiance to a cause they hadn’t necessarily sought — and committed unspeakable crimes against their countrymen.
There are still landmines in Cambodia, where an estimated 1.7 million people died between 1975 to 1979 under the extremist Khmer Rouge government. Today, however, many of these landmines are not physical, rather unspoken tragedy that looms from the past into the nation’s future.
Some 70% of Cambodians were born after the notorious Killing Fields, but mandatory education about the genocides only began in 2009. And while the Khmer Rouge government ostensibly fell in 1979, in a pragmatic attempt to unify and stabilize a nation reeling from murder and betrayal, Cambodian politicians quickly formed alliances with Khmer Rouge members: Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, one of the longest-serving leaders in the world, is himself a former member.
Cambodia is now facing a turning point, said Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), the world’s largest archive of photography and documents relating to the Khmer Rouge.
“On the one hand, Cambodians run a real risk of losing a firm grip on understanding, memorializing and ultimately accepting a difficult past. On the other hand, a rapidly globalizing Cambodia must take on new challenges of sustainable growth, democratic integrity and human rights,” said Chhang, who was named Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” of 2007.
‘Cambodians run a real risk of losing a firm grip on understanding, memorializing and ultimately accepting a difficult past’
DC-Cam was founded in 1994 through a grant to Yale University from the United States Congress’ Cambodian Genocide Justice Act. Today an NGO, the organization addresses the country’s genocidal past while working to preserve memory and justice.
Chhang told The Times of Israel that one way to deepen the understanding of the Cambodian tragedy is through the study of other global genocides.
Enter Kelly Watson, an eighth grade English teacher from Noblesville, Indiana, who recently spent a week in Battambang, Cambodia, teaching about the Holocaust.
Sound like the wrong cue for this post-genocide Cambodian stage play? That’s because Watson wasn’t exactly typecast.
The long windy road to Battambang
Meeting with The Times of Israel a day after running a marathon — not her first or last for this year — Watson said she was born and raised in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The small city near the Ohio border has, among its quaint nicknames, the moniker “The City of Churches.”
In a cute coffee shop chosen to show off the historic Noblesville town square, Watson said that in her first gig as an English teacher back in the mid-1990s in Lebanon, Indiana, she wasn’t what one could call an expert in the Holocaust when her department chair handed her a rummage sale copy of Elie Wiesel’s “Night” to teach the class.
Watson laughed and said at that point in her life the sum-total of her Holocaust education was a vague memory of watching Meryl Streep’s “Holocaust” mini-series in 1978 and a supposition she’d probably once read “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
Reading the Wiesel masterpiece memoir set in the Nazi death camp Auschwitz, she quickly understood she just didn’t have the professional background or tools to do the topic justice. But she couldn’t find the appropriate resources in Indiana.
The early 1990s, however, was a tipping point for Holocaust awareness in the United States. With “Schindler’s List” and the much publicized opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in 1993, the topic was becoming more accessible to a growing audience.
And so, although she’d never before left the state of Indiana on her own, Watson applied and was accepted to the Washington, DC, museum’s Belfer National Conference for Educators. That conference led to a subsequent fellowship at USHMM, and eventually Watson became a part of the museum’s Regional Education Corps.
In between her day job as an eighth grade English teacher (now at Fishers Junior High) and parenting, Watson began to lecture, among other places, at Indiana’s Bureau of Jewish Education, which today supports the Holocaust Education Center of Indiana. She had become the resource she herself had sought.
While acquiring the skills to be an expert Holocaust educator at USHMM, Watson met a number of like-minded teachers who wanted to apply the lessons learned from the genocide against the Jews in other conflict zones. Independently, these friends organized trips to teach in Rwanda and Bosnia, before eventually founding a non-profit in 2011 called the Educators’ Institute for Human Rights.
Watson is currently an educational program director for EIHR. The project, she said, teaches the best practices of Holocaust and comparative genocide education to teachers, who bring them into the classroom.
Two years ago, with the Rwandan and Bosnian programs ongoing since 2011, EIHR was ready to expand to other conflict zones. Watson chose Cambodia and said she “blindly emailed” DC-Cam’s Youk Chhang, whom she calls “a force.” He immediately responded and the past two years were spent in planning.
In October, Watson was the first EIHR emissary to Cambodia, where she presented on the Holocaust to 100 Cambodian history teachers.
Searching for Anne Frank of the Killing Fields
With enough troubles of their own in their recent past, why should Cambodians want to learn about the Holocaust?
“The history that precipitated the Holocaust carries lessons for every human being regardless of culture, religion, or circumstance,” Chhang explained to The Times of Israel.
“Cambodians, even the generations born after the genocide collapsed in 1979, understand the suffering of survivors and the impact of genocide on a people and society,” he said. “No genocide, mass atrocity, or social upheaval can be compared to another, but there are certainly general trends, insights, and lessons that have great value in the classroom. We need to study and teach these lessons not only for our own society but other societies suffering today and in the future.”
In 2002, Chhang initiated and edited a translation of “The Diary of Anne Frank” into Khmer. It was distributed to high school students and also broadcasted on local radio stations “to inspire the local population to learn about their own Anne Frank of the Killing Fields at home,” said Chhang.
‘The resilience of the survivors of the Holocaust is a reference for how Cambodians can overcome their past’
“Cambodians studying the Holocaust… can discern lessons that are useful today. The resilience of the survivors of the Holocaust is a reference for how Cambodians can overcome their past,” Chhang said.
In 2007, DC-Cam published its high school history text book, which included Cambodia’s own genocidal past. “In 2009, it became compulsory for all high schools across the country – which is over 1,700 high schools,” said Chhang.
Despite exposure to “The Diary of Anne Frank,” Cambodians know little about Jews or Judaism, or the Holocaust, said Watson. With Watson’s help and that of teachers like her, Chhang is hoping to change that. He said DC-Cam has a variety of proposed national projects to integrate more Holocaust and other cross-cultural mass atrocity education into Cambodian public schools.
“As the principle partner working with the Cambodian Ministry of Education, we intend to incorporate more educational modules addressing the Holocaust as well as other examples of mass atrocity,” said Chhang.
Finding patterns amongst the pain
The US Holocaust Museum is currently hosting two exhibits through October 2017, which highlight the Khmer Rouge period: “Cambodia 1975-1979” features survivor testimony, photographs and videos, and “I Want Justice!” depicts efforts of post-genocide retribution on perpetrators — from the Nazi Nuremberg trials to today’s prosecution of several key Khmer Rouge members.
In late November, a 2014 conviction was upheld of two surviving top Khmer Rouge leaders of crimes against humanity, including extermination, enforced disappearances and political persecution. Currently, they are on trial for, among other crimes, separate allegations of the genocide of Cambodia’s ethnic Vietnamese and Chams.
In addition to museums, the comparative study of genocide among scholars is now de rigueur. Across the globe, there are undergraduate and graduate university programs for Genocide Studies, most with a concentration on the Holocaust.
The Yale University Genocide Studies Program, however, was founded in 1998 after originally concentrating on Cambodia (the genesis for the NGO DC-Cam). Today, the program covers topics ranging from Ancient Genocides to War Crimes and Truth Commissions.
Prof. Ben Kiernan is the founding director of the Yale program. In an email exchange with The Times of Israel, he said teaching about genocides in countries that have experienced them highlights patterns and “offers citizens access to very important data for predicting and hopefully preventing future outbreaks.”
Exhaustively collecting information and comparing it with other cases, allows scholars to “explore what similarities exist (for instance in the statements, plans, and activities of the perpetrators), and therefore try to identify in advance what might become the signposts to the next case of genocide, and enable humanity to stop it before it occurs,” said Kiernan.
“At the very least, careful comparison of different cases of mass murder often reveals unexpected similarities,” he said.
In many instances, what may seem like politically motivated “purges” could in fact be something even more sinister. Taking the case of Cambodia as an example, he stated, “although the mass murder that took place there in 1975-1979 appeared to many observers to be far from an ethnic genocide, but rather a case of political mass murder, in fact the groups that suffered the highest proportions of killings were ethnic groups, namely the Vietnamese, Muslim Cham and ethnic Chinese minorities, even though in absolute numbers the ethnic Khmer majority suffered the most.”
Using the ‘other’s genocide as safe space
Through learning about the Holocaust and the seven stages of genocide, Watson felt Cambodian history teachers “did see the connections and that’s what I was hoping for.”
According to Watson, teaching a comparative study of genocide has other, more immediate and personal implications as well. In looking at their own genocide through the prism of the Holocaust, after decades of suppression of memories, the Cambodian teachers may feel “safer” in addressing them, she said.
“You don’t compare genocides in terms of the amount of pain they caused. Every genocide is absolutely unique,” said Watson. It’s not easy to address an issue “when you’re surrounded by it,” she said. In Cambodia, “the war is still very much with them.”
Many teachers in conflict countries are survivors of genocide themselves, if not the children of survivors. It is important, said Watson that they feel part of a community that understands what it means to be facing a classroom filled with children or grandchildren of perpetrators.
After this first initial visit by Watson, there are plans for more Educators’ Institute for Human Rights teacher trainings in Cambodia, as well as a swap with teachers in the US. Through the dissemination of their personal experiences, alongside the acquisition of theoretical knowledge of genocide, DC-Cam’s Chhang hopes these teachers can make a positive change in the world.
“The circumstances that precipitated the descent into violence and the dehumanization of people bear witness to ways to improve the human condition and make the statement ‘never again’ really matter,” said Chhang.