In a meeting of minds, a small town Indiana teacher and a Cambodian scholar documenting the Khmer Rogue atrocities create a workshop for comparative genocide education in Battambang
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.
A talk about Khmer Rouge regime by Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, to the Digital Traveler Group from the Remote Year. (courtesy DC-Cam)
“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.