Thursday, April 09, 2009

Pain of Khmer Rouge Era Lost on Cambodian Youth

Published: April 7, 2009

TRAPAENG SVA, Cambodia — Sum Touch has stopped trying to tell her grandchildren about the killings, starvation and terror she lived through when a Communist Khmer Rouge regime ravaged Cambodia 30 years ago.

Seth Mydans/The International Herald Tribune

Visitors looked at skulls displayed in a memorial at Choeung Ek, one of Cambodia's killing fields during the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979, during which 1.7 million people were killed.

“It seems that even if I tell them they don’t believe what I say,” said Mrs. Sum Touch, 71, who lost many members of her family. “It hurts my heart that they don’t know what happened.”

There is a former killing field nearby and a shed filled with the skulls and bones of some of the victims. But many of the young people here, it seems, have no idea why or how they got there.

As it struggles to leave its past behind, Cambodia today suffers from a particularly painful generation gap: those who survived the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, and their children and grandchildren, who know very little about it.

“I don’t like it, but what can you do?” said Ty Leap, 52, who sells noodles and fruit drinks from a roadside stall. “It really is unbelievable that those things happened.”

For nearly four years, from 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge caused the deaths of 1.7 million people from starvation, overwork and disease as well as torture and execution as they tried to construct a harsh peasant utopia.

Almost everyone here of a certain age has stories to tell of terror, abuse, hunger and the loss of family members. But those stories often fall on the deaf ears of a new generation that either cannot conceive of such brutality or seems unwilling to learn about it.

“Some older people get so upset at their children for not believing that they say, ‘I wish the Khmer Rouge time would happen again; then you’d believe it,’ ” Mr. Ty Leap said.

As much as 70 percent of Cambodia’s population is under the age of 30, and four out of five members of this young generation know little or nothing about the Khmer Rouge years, according to a survey last fall by the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

That ignorance — among both young and older — seems also to embrace the trials of five major Khmer Rouge figures that began last month, a process that is meant, in part, to begin a process of healing and closure.

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