This installment of “Stories from the Field” features the experiences of the University of Tennessee Chattanooga (UTC) Honors College 3-week group trip to Cambodia. It will be a 5 part series highlighting the meaningful work and experiences the students from UTC accomplished while volunteering in Cambodia with Global Service Corps.
Part 3: The Khmer Rouge and Reconciliation Ceremony
The last post described how the first project the students had at Youth for Peace (YFP) was to make a poster about what peace means to them and they were set to present it at a Reconciliation Ceremony for Khmer Rouge survivors (see our previous post for details). Before we get into the ceremony, here’s some background information about the Khmer Rouge:
The Khmer Rouge was a deadly regime, which was an offshoot of the Vietnam People’s Army from North Vietnam, and led by Pol Pot from 1975-79. The Khmer Rouge sought to create a complete Communist society by removing all social institutions and transforming the society into an agrarian one. Pol Pot was also an atheist so religion of any kind was banned under the Khmer Rouge regime. As a result of the 4 year regime, anywhere from 1.4 – 2.2 million Cambodians died, including many murdered by the Khmer Rouge, most Buddhist temples were destroyed, families were separated, and the Cambodian economy was left in shambles. You can learn more about the Khmer Rouge regime here. The country has since come a long way in its recovery. There are memorials to those murdered by the regime at various killing fields sites around the country, and remembrance ceremonies are held in order to preserve the dark history and honor those who lost their lives, including the Reconciliation Ceremony the students participated in.
Before the ceremony, the students visited a killing site in Battambang which was a wat (Buddhist temple) that was converted into a prison during the Khmer Rouge. Inscribed around a “stupa” (hemispherical structure which contains relics and monks used for meditation) were stories of the kind of torture that occurred there. The descriptions were very graphic but told an important story nonetheless. Going to the killing field in Battambang the day before the Reconciliation Ceremony gave the students a good introduction to the horrors the Khmer Rouge survivors endured and allowed for them to be better prepared for what they were going to hear from them. It was also interesting for the students to see a different type of memorial site and a more public cemetery, contrasted to the memorial sites and cemeteries in the U.S. The killing fields in Battambang are run down and under-funded, unlike the ones in Phnom Penh, so it was valuable for the students to see how the different memorial sites are treated depending on where they are located in the country, i.e. tourist vs. non-tourist areas.
The next day at the Reconciliation Ceremony the students had the unique opportunity to not only listen to the Khmer Rouge survivors’ stories, but after they presented their peace poster they were prompted to ask the survivors questions. This opportunity initially presented a challenge because the students were hesitant so as to not be offensive or insensitive, but about halfway through everyone became more comfortable and most of the group asked their questions. The survivors appreciated the opportunity to share their stories, especially with American university students.
A group of Cambodian high school students were also in attendance at the ceremony and one of the most surprising things the UTC students learned was that Khmer Rouge history isn’t required to be taught in Cambodian schools. As a result, many young Cambodians are unaware of their countries tragic past. The only way for them to learn about it is through word of mouth from survivors, or to visit a killing field site or museum. The ceremony was the first time most of the Cambodian high school students in attendance had the chance to learn about the Khmer Rouge from people who were actually there. Cambodia’s population is overwhelmingly young, with only about 4% of the population being 65+, so having Reconciliation ceremonies and preserving the killing fields are of great importance to keep the history of the Khmer Rouge alive. Overall, everyone in attendance was able to benefit greatly from the event and it was an incredible cultural immersion experience for the UTC students and staff.
Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 4 where you’ll hear about the student’s YFP presentations!