Traffc Accident in Cambodia

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Literacy and Education under the Khmer Rouge

By George Chigas and Dmitri Mosyakov
The Cambodian Genocide Program, Yale University

(Featuring an overview of Revolutionary Flag Magazine)

Introduction

It is estimated that over 1.7 million people died from starvation, execution, disease, and over-work during the Cambodian genocide, which took place between 1975 and 1979. It has been established that the Khmer Rouge targeted particular groups of people, among them Buddhist monks, ethnic minorities, and educated elites, who were referred to as "new people."1 Unlike the "base people" who joined the revolution prior to 1975, "new people" did not take part in "the struggle" to defeat the US-backed Lon Nol regime. As such, their commitment to the Party Center and its policies was considered suspect. When villages and regions were not able to fulfill the Center's expectations for rice production, for example, the Party looked for scapegoats rather than reassessing its goals. While "capitalist imperialists" were a standard target of Party rhetoric, the Center looked increasingly inward rather than outward to find enemies. "New people" as a group provided an easy target and were increasingly singled out as traitors intent on sabotaging the goals of the revolution. To avoid being targeted, "new people" tried to hide their group identity and be as inconspicuous as possible. One way of doing this was erasing all signs of education under the previous regime.

But was the ability to read and write grounds for persecution under the Khmer Rouge? To avoid being targeted, people did not wear glasses; no one dared speak French; and reading a novel was considered a capital offense. On the basis of these facts, many have concluded that the Khmer Rouge were against education in principle and preferred to rule over illiterate people. It is thus surprising to learn that the Khmer Rouge produced at least three monthly publications. We also know that children were taught to read and write under the auspices of the regime, and that Khmer Rouge cadres kept extensive notebooks from indoctrination sessions. In addition, Khmer Rouge cadres were required to complete an eleven page questionnaire describing their family backgrounds and personal histories.

An important example of this kind of document is a notebook that was obtained in 1979 in the headquarters of the Khmer Rouges Department of Information and Propaganda. In this notebook a Khmer Rouge cadre named Ly Sok Khy, completes his biography and answers questions from a special questionnaire (Figure 1). He writes:

"My name is Ly Sok Khy[,] my revolutionary name is Ly Sok Khy, my age is 19. I was born on the 14th of May 1959 in village number 4, commune Traey Sla,district 18, region 25. Nationality-Khmer. Before the revolution I belonged to the peasant social class.

For several pages, this former peasant writes about his possessions and the sources of income he had access to before the revolution. Ly Sok Khy also writes about his political activities and views. He underlines that before the revolution he never served or was connected with any political organization. He entered the revolution on April 13, 1975, in the territory of village number 8, commune Traey Sla, district 18, region 25. Ly Sok Khy then describes the person and the circumstances that led him to enter the revolutionary ranks. He wrote "the name of the person that recruited me into the revolution was Ney Nil -- he was 30 years old and was head of the Phum revolutionary committee. Now I don't know where he is."

A simple peasant thus had to write a significant amount of information to become a revolutionary propagandist. How would a farmer have known how to write? Although we dont have any reliable figures for what percentage of the population was literate in Khmer at the time, it is reasonable to expect that a farmer like Ly Sok Khy would have learned basic skills. And whereas there were many...
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