Unanswered Questions and Empty Spaces: The Challenge of Communicating History and Memory in Post-Genocide Cambodia
Abstract: Twenty-eight years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, many Cambodians are still unclear about what really took place during the 1975-1979 regime, during which an estimated 1.7 million people died. Cambodia still suffers economically, socially and psychologically from the legacy of the Khmer Rouge and the years of war before and since. This has also impacted on the next generation of young Cambodians, who are reportedly poorly informed and sceptical about the Khmer Rouge. This research explores the root causes of the apparent disinterest and lack of knowledge among Cambodia’s youth. It also examines the potential role that radio can play in supporting and contextualising survivors’ testimonies and educating young people about their recent history. This is achieved by studying a phone-in radio series entitled Ka Pit (The Truth), which aims to educate young people about the Khmer Rouge regime. The overall supposition of this study is that real and meaningful reconciliation requires documenting, memorialising and communicating past violence and conflict, a process which has been slow to occur in Cambodia. The research methodology consisted of focus group discussions with young Cambodians, and a comparative survey of listeners and non-listeners of Ka Pit. The field research reveals that 91.7% of survey respondents lost relatives during the Khmer Rouge regime. However, only 8.5% of survey respondents claimed to be very aware of the KR while 87.5% know a little. 91.7% of respondents learned about the Khmer Rouge from their parents and relatives. In general, young people know about the day-to-day hardships suffered during the regime but do not understand the wider geopolitical, ideological and historical context of the Khmer Rouge. While urban educated youths can educate themselves by accessing other sources such as books, memorials, Internet, magazines and videos, rural young people rely almost exclusively on survivors’ testimony and the mass media as sources of information about the Khmer Rouge. Family stories play a crucial and primary role in informing young people about the Khmer Rouge. However, they also contain inherent limitations and provide neither adequate proof that such a horrific regime existed nor sufficient explanation for why it happened. On the other hand, radio is still a popular pastime and an important source of information for young people in Cambodia. It is a versatile medium that can be listened to throughout the day. 87% of respondents listen to the radio sometimes or often and 41.7% learned about the Khmer Rouge through radio. Young people enjoy Ka Pit and find it extremely informative and interesting. They feel that the information in the programme is trustworthy and can contribute to their understanding of the Khmer Rouge time. The impact of Ka Pit to date has been very impressive, given it has only been on the air for a short time. 90.9% of respondents believed that the programme can have a positive impact on society, most notably that young people will understand their history and that a similar regime would be prevented from taking power in Cambodia. Listeners of Ka Pit were consistently better informed that non-listeners about conditions during the Khmer Rouge regime. Furthermore, listeners of Ka Pit are far more likely to discuss the Khmer Rouge than non-listeners.
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