Education under the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot’s new order in the classroom.

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Pol Pot traded in his comfortable French education for a radical repudiation of all critical thinking. He wasn’t against literacy – but he demanded a certain type.

I think in a year of blogs about Savong’s School in Cambodia I’ve referred to the Pol Pot years only sparingly. I refer only cautiously to those years because we are at risk of focusing on the Khmer Rouge as if this was the single shaper of today’s Cambodia. Just as surely today’s culture has been influenced by more than 1000 years of history, and by the French Colonial rule, and by the years immediately after Pol Pot when Cambodia lay adrift, deliberately rejected by the western world, during years of crippling poverty.

But today I thought I’d reflect on education during the Pol Pot years in order to fill a gap in my own understanding. One of the most destructive aspects of the Khmer Rouge, in their effort to disassemble Cambodia, was to attack three pillars of their society: religion, family and education. Sources reveal how they implemented many illogical laws to terrorise the population. You could be arrested for averting your eyes to the left rather than right. If you wore glasses, a sure sign of being a member of the bourgeois intelligentsia, you could also expect to be arrested and executed. Teachers were routinely rounded up, often in front of their students who later reported hearing rifle shots in nearby fields. Their beloved teachers never returned.

For teaching life before 1975 Mitty Steele’s excellent and deeply personal essay is an excellent place to start as she retraces her own father’s history.

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In the Shadow of Angkor: Contemporary Writing from Cambodia Paperback by Frank Stewart (Editor), Sharon May. A compelling account of the survival of literature in Cambodia during and after the Pol Pot years.

In the book above, In the Shadow of Angkor: Contemporary Writing from Cambodia the contributing writers provide not only tastes of modern essays and poetry, but also the recollections from those who recount the elimination of the educated “elite” during the time of Pol Pot. Many writers survived by feigning illiteracy. Even so, by some estimates fewer than 60 academics are said to have avoided execution or death through starvation. Sixty.

What is important to understand is that the Khmer Rouge did not wish to destroy literacy: but they wanted their kind of literacy. By that, say authors George Chigas and Dmitri Mosyakov in their study: Literacy and Education under the Khmer Rouge (written as part of the The Cambodian Genocide Program, Yale University,) the Khmer Rouge wanted an education system that was strong on unquestioning literacy: the blind acceptance of propaganda without critical doubt. For this reason there were people classed as “correctly literate” (for example peasants who could scarcely read – and who accepted what they read,) and those that were “incorrectly literate.”) This latter class were seen as a threat to the revolution and the emergence of the new Kampuchea. So they started eliminating those with a traditional French-style education (most schools in Cambodia still reflect the educational template of the French,) and those who spoke foreign languages such as French. (Today some of the older generation are still fluent in French – though they would have hidden this in the late 1970s.)

A quoted goal from the Grand Plan, put together in 1976 by Pol Pot and eight other leaders stated:

Continue the struggle to abolish, uproot, and disperse the cultural, literary, and artistic remnants of the imperialists, colonialists, and all of the other oppressor classes. This will be implemented strongly, deeply and continuously one after the other from 1977 onwards.

The educational policy of the Khmer Rouge was also very strong on “technical skills” namely the skills required to grow rice, to fish, to farm, as well as to share simple medical knowledge. The goals were not about personal advancement but, rather, the advancement of the collective. The new school system was designed to “teach” not only through classroom activities but through physical labour.  As the plan said:

Daily Education Methods.  Half study, half work for material production

The Yale authors research shows how Individualism was seen as a threat to the Party’s ideology. In the same section of the document that calls for dividing the day between study and work, they found this statement:

“In our educational system there are no examinations and no certificates; it is a system of learning through the collective and in the concrete movement of the socialist revolution and the building of socialism in the specific contexts, especially the co-operatives, factories, and military units.”

The general school syllabus – at least that proposed for 1977 – included:

  • reading and writing
  • arithmetic
  • geography (importantly that of the nation)
  • history of the revolutionary struggle of the people, the revolutionary struggle for the nation, the revolutionary struggle for democracy, the revolutionary struggle for socialist revolution, and the struggle to build socialism.
  • natural sciences, physics, chemistry (as base)
  • the Party’s politics, consciousness, and organisation

That was the stated goal anyhow. In reality the school system was collapsing and the much vaunted revolution ended up an economic disaster. Grand plans, modeled on Chinese efforts under Mao and dubbed The Super Leap Forward failed miserably. The lofty objectives for rice production per hectare and for a bounteous agricultural  production to be shared by all were never even approached. Very soon the nation was cast into famine conditions and the dream to build a new school system never advanced past the opening of a handful of model schools, if that.

What I find amazing is how, through all this, the DNA of the educational system even survived. The collective memory of the education system, as it existed prior to Pol Pot remained loosely intact due I think to three things. One was the capacity of educated people to feign illiteracy and to simply survive by staying quiet and compliant. Next was the escape of Cambodians, mostly to Thailand before locating – mostly to France and the USA – in the aftermath of Pol Pot. Within the Paris and Long Beach communities existed survivors who later helped resurrect the fragments of the education system.  And finally the re-emergence of an education system came from the people themselves – people who had been through school as children. People who knew the value of what they’d lost.

I don’t think of the Pol Pot years without ultimately thinking of the courage of those who faced the terror. Today’s education system in Cambodia is developing again. We now have a cohort of teachers who have had teacher training. There are Khmer text books and universities. I think of today’s system as not only preserving the DNA from earlier times, but also being a system fueled by a deeper thirst for education, and a system laced with resilience and courage.

For more history of Cambodia.

For more facts and figures about present day Education in Cambodia

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A happy/sad punchline with a pair of maimed feet.

A happy/sad punchline with a pair of maimed feet.

One of the standing jokes I have with the SOC students in Cambodia is how I mysteriously lost two toes on my right foot. I offer all kinds of explanations (tigers, sharks, crocodiles) but none of the students ever believe me. “You lie!” they laugh at  me. “Tell us what really happened.”

One day I met the parents of one of the students – on the left – and his father showed me the scars he suffered as a 16 year old when Pol Pot came to power. A bullet wound had fractured his wrist, while sniper fire had ripped a scar across a calf muscle. And even his right foot bore the marks of the conflict – a landmine I think – because his big toe was missing. The student and his friends urged me to show his dad my foot – so I took off my sandal and revealed my own tragic right foot. The two of us men laughed in recognition (he’s almost the same age as me) then we stopped laughing as if on cue. Clouds gathered over our cross-cultural “snap!” moment. They were the clouds of war, and of terror and of bitter memories. On the surface our wounds were similar, but mine were superficial, while his went right back to his heart.

Each night I dream of Cambodia

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Today I exist in two places at once. Right now I’m in my New Zealand office designing a questionnaire but at the same moment I’m in Cambodia and thinking about one of the scholarship students who lost her brother, through sickness, this week. The tragedy has pulled me back to Bakong and I wish I could be at the school staff meeting today to extend my condolences.

What I experience, a deep sense of living in alternative states is not uncommon for visitors to Cambodia. I’ve met many others whose dreams each night take them to Cambodia and the people they have met there. I’m not alone in my experience, back in 2004, of returning “home” to Cambodia even though I had never before set foot there. What is it about Cambodia that exerts this spell?

I put the presence of Cambodia deep within my subconscious down to the problems and riddles that the nation perplexes us with. How can such gorgeous people have turned in on themselves during the Pol Pot years? How could this have happened?  To what extent did the politics of our western countries play a role in this? To what extent were we complicit in this tragedy?

And today’s problems worry me each night. How can we assist more young Cambodians? What can I do better?

For sure, my feeling of returning home in 2004 came – I’m positive – from growing up with South East Asia imprinted, thanks to the US/Vietnam war, on our TV screens. Those paddy fields and sugar-palms trees were immediately familiar.

But the dreams I harbour most nights? They come from a country that faces new troubles and challenges ahead.  By nature I’m a puzzle solver, and every night I wrestle, always unsuccessfully, with the questions facing modern Cambodia.

Sinn Sisamouth and the golden age of Khmer pop

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The golden, liquid talent of Sinn Sisamouth has become a touchstone for memories of any Cambodian who lived before, and survived the horrifying Pol Pot years from 1975-1979.

When I became interested in in Cambodia, following a journey there in 2004, my search for Khmer music led me over and again to YouTube clips featuring Sinn Sisamouth. This clip (link here) is not untypical – a light pop melody that fuses western and Cambodian styles.

Every nation in the 60s had its own pop idols. Back then the recording business was highly localised and few artists – Elvis and The Beatles being rare examples – transcended the world stage. So within this context popular music in Cambodia adapted western music but combined this with its own traditions.

If you visit Cambodian nightclubs you’ll hear a dominant diet of hip hop, but the music that most fills the floor, still, is the traditional popular Romvong which is the music that drives the circle dance of the same name. These tunes, always sung in Khmer, feature a signature beat that belongs to the East, as well as keyboards and – sometimes, accordian which echos, I suspect, the French influence from the 1920s.

In the 1960s the move to guitar driven sounds led to adaptations of the US sound – including surf guitar, the Twist and the European classic romantic ballads such as Rain & Tears. (Modern version here.)  The up-tempo releases (See this clip featuring footage from a contemporary movie or this one also featuring contemporary clips) in the 60s were probably outweighed by the romantic romantic ballads.

Among the local pop stars Sinn Sisamouth was the giant. A congenial guy, he was vocally talented and also a prolific songwriter. I can’t over emphasise his status – to Cambodia he was Paul Simon, Andy Williams and Elvis all wrapped into one. His music, including dozens of duets with  female leads such as Ros Sereysothea (this clip captures the French influence) dominated the airwaves from the late 1960s through to the earl 1970s.

Then Pol Pot came to power and all promoters of anything vaguely western were rounded up, captured and tortured. Sinn Sisamouth was made to walk in circle, around and around until he collapsed and died of exhaustion.

Today thanks to YouTube and the patient curation work of American based Cambodians such as Darren Kham (Subscribe to his YouTube account) much of the music has been rescued and in many cases digitally restored so that the golden days of popular music, and the heart rending vocals of Sinn Sisamouth have been preserved.

Typical of the comments posted under his YouTube clips:

When I fell in love for the first time, it was like, everything is possible and everything is sweet and happy and awesome, and this song made my first love even deeper like an ocean and wider like the universe. But then, like everything in this world, it ends, though my memory of this song remained as wonderful as it was then.

Or simple memories of better times:

When I was little, I remember my parents listening to songs like this on car rides.

If you can, try and get hold of the documentary Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten which traces the rock and roll era of Cambodian music.

One of the people quoted in the documentary is the lead singer for the modern group Dengue Fever, Chhon Nol. Dengue Fever represents an interesting phenomenon: the group is based in the USA and founded after their lead guitarist visited Cambodia and discovered the 60s pop sound. Well worth listening to: their songs such as Tiger Phone Card capture perfectly the well crafted Cambo-Pop sound of that era.

Today, pop music in Cambodia retains some of this same nostalgia. There is still a strong taste for romantic ballads, and remakes of the music of Sinn Sisamouth and his peers are not uncommon. I find it quite powerful when I read the comments on YouTube. People with scarred pasts find healing and hope, still, in Sisamouth’s music.

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Still I Strive – A Cambodian Movie worth checking out.