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Khmer Rouge Genocide Education for Future Female Leaders of Cambodia

Project Overview

A day trip of guided tours to Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek Khmer Rouge Genocide Museums for girls at the Harpswell Foundation in Cambodia.

Identifying the Problem

For Sunny, the purpose of education should be more than simply teaching students about historical facts. It should inspire them to inquire about controversial topics, to compare historical atrocities with the current political and social systems and empower them to contribute to the cause of democracy and the promise of "never again." Education has the power to trigger students’ sense of responsibilities to avoid similar atrocities. 

Holocaust education is an important part of the school curriculum in Europe. Sunny believes that the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge was the Cambodian version of the Holocaust, and that Cambodian students should also learn from its history. The Documentation Center of Cambodia launched a nation-wide genocide education program focusing on the Khmer Rouge, but many young women missed the first round of initiative.

Creating A Solution

Sunny spent a summer working at the Harpswell Foundation, which provides education, housing, and leadership training to girls and young women. She worked with the Foundation to help empower talented but disadvantaged Cambodian female university students in order to prepare them as future leaders of Cambodia. Believing that educating young adults about genocide within their nation’s history is important, Sunny decided to create another opportunity at genocide education for the young women who missed the chance to participate in the Khmer Rouge educational program. In order to ensure that these students had the chance to learn about the Cambodian genocide, Sunny organized a day-long guided tour at Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek. Eighty-four female university students, sponsored by the Harpswell Foundation, attended the trip.

Based on interviews she conducted with Harpswell students, Sunny was aware that instead of having systematically studied the genocide, many of these students only had a basic familiarity with the genocide in the form of a personal collage made up of different pieces of narratives from conversations with their parents or from limited discussions in history class in school. The students read books on Cambodian history, and the Harpswell Foundation organized bi-weekly sessions to allow the students to discuss the readings. Sunny believes that these readings and discussions provided the students with a foundational understanding of the Khmer Rouge genocide, which allowed them to better comprehend their tour experience. 

Sunny believes that the tour complemented what the students have been reading and gave them an even broader and more complete picture of what happened in their country. “Once they know the bigger picture, many of what they have already heard or read about will make more sense to them,” she says. “The different pieces of information they have in mind will automatically be arranged in a way that will show them the causes, the development and the consequences of the genocide clearly.”

Sunny believes strongly in the importance of teaching students that a national atrocity cannot be explained in black and white terms – it is far more complicated than a perpetrator-victim dichotomy. She instead advocates for education that focuses on the various roles people played during a genocide and the reasons for choosing those particular roles. Sunny hopes that the young women who attended this tour will serve as role models and bring the idea of a guided tour to their respective universities so that the project will have a multiplier effect.

Lessons Learned

Because a national atrocity is a complicated and emotionally-charged topic, it is important to consider the age and maturity of your audience before delving into an educational lesson about an issue like genocide. Sunny believes that children under the age of 14 are often too young to handle the subject, and that teaching them about genocide may unintentionally lead them to become prejudiced against the groups who are portrayed as those most responsible for the atrocities, especially when the atrocities were committed by people of a different nation. Sunny was concerned that the students might arbitrarily attribute historical violence to the descendants of the perpetrators, even though the current generation was entirely uninvolved. Sunny believes that these negative consequences can be avoided by waiting until students are older before teaching them about a national atrocity like genocide, as well as having a professional tour guide who has experience informing young adults about such sensitive issues.

Funding

Sunny was able to secure all funding through the Harpswell Foundation. The total cost of this project was $158, which included transportation, the guided tours and the books.

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About This Project

HIA Program:

Poland Poland 2011

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