Students Explore History and Reconciliation in Cambodia

Students Explore History and Reconciliation in Cambodia

During winter break, eight Mason students travelled to Cambodia with Field Studies at SAIL for the course “Post Genocide Community Development and Spirituality.” New Century College Professor Tom Wood led the 14-day trip during which students travelled the length of the country, studying Cambodia’s history, religion and culture. Working with local educators, the students gained a deeper understanding of the Khmer Rouge’s oppressive regime, and the philosophy and methods Cambodians use to reconcile past and current violence while moving toward a more stable and optimistic future.

Students arrived in the northern city of Siem Reap and the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies. From their first day, the group was immersed in the country’s rich culture and history. Students visited the temple Angkor Wat and studied the temple’s well-preserved 12th century Khmer architecture. First a Hindu temple and later a Buddhist temple, Angkor Wat represents the cultural blending visible throughout the country.

Local educators from the Spirit in Education Movement and the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies joined the group while they travelled through the country, providing important historical and cultural information to maximize the students’ learning.

The group then travelled to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, where the course shifted focus to highlight the geopolitical importance of Cambodia and its position in the crosshairs of the United States and Viet Cong during the Vietam War. This violence was brought to an end by the Khmer Rouge’s invasion of Phnom Penh in 1975. This transition marked the end of one bloody chapter and the start of the genocide led by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 79. Conservative estimates claim that during this violent time, more than 1.6 million Cambodians died from starvation or were killed as part of Pol Pot’s vicious plan to create a classless, peasant society.

Students visited Tuol Sleng or Security Prison 21, the high school that was turned into a prison and site of torture for thousands. Students stood in the nearby Killing Fields, where thousands of Cambodians were forced to dig their own shallow graves before their own execution. Students also heard from Chea Vannath, a Cambodian activist who survived the torture camp and now works for the Center of Peace and Conflict Studies.

Wood said, “During our debriefing, we talked about the importance of preserving the Killing Fields and S-21. These places are there for understanding and healing and the ability for people to move on.”

In Phnom Penh, students also attended a United Nations hearing for one of the top Khmer Rouge leaders who gave orders for the execution of thousands of Cambodians. Wood noted that the process of healing and justice was much different from the typical Western approach.

Wood said, “From a Western perspective, you’d round up these people and send them off to jail. But it’s not that simple. Many of the perpetrators were victims themselves who would face their own death if they failed to carry out orders. Everyone was a victim in some way.”

In his role as course leader, Wood encouraged students to look beyond Cambodia and ask how such violence happens.

Wood said, “It’s difficult to understand how this happened in the first place, and then to recognize that it has happened throughout history in many places: in Europe during World War II, in Rwanda in the 90’s, and now with the violence led by ISIL, just to name a few. These are different iterations but the same human condition that inspires the violence. How does a community reconcile and move past this?”

The students' time in Phnom Penh included visits to one of the city's slums and discussions with victims of human trafficking. Students often heard individuals recount their painful personal stories, with the hope that others will increase their commitment to activism and social justice. 

From Phnom Penh, the Mason group joined with Buddhist monks from the Buddhists for Development organization in Battambang. Students accompanied the monks on an outreach day which included teaching basic ethics to elementary school children, presenting one needy child with a bicycle and school uniform, and blessing a new home recently built by the monks for an elderly villager in need. 

Following their return to Fairfax, students will integrate their own research and reflections to address one of the main themes explored during the trip, linking their original thoughts and observations to the data regarding community rebuilding and reconciliation.