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Writing—and Making—History

A student’s history of the Khmer Rouge helps Cambodians grapple with their country’s past.

Khamboly Dy
Khamboly Dy, a graduate student at Rutgers–Newark, wrote the groundbreaking textbook A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975–1979).  Photography by Nick Romanenko

Khamboly Dy did not recognize the voice on the phone, but once the caller identified himself, Dy knew who it was—a high-ranking cadre from the Khmer Rouge, the Communist regime responsible for torturing and starving to death about a quarter of the Cambodian population in the late 1970s. The cadre had received a copy of Dy’s groundbreaking textbook, A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975–1979)—the first account of the period written by a Cambodian. “Thank you so much for sending this textbook,” he said. Dy, a 28-year-old Rutgers–Newark graduate student, asked the cadre what he thought of the book, which documents the rise and rule of the Khmer Rouge, including the killing of nearly two million people. The response: “Oh, yes, it’s accurate.”

Until recently, many young Cambodians have known little about the Khmer Rouge period, which has been erased from school curricula. Dy’s book is changing that, with secondary-school teachers throughout Cambodia being trained to use it as a guide to understanding the regime’s policies regarding its economy, security and detention, and foreign relations. About 300,000 copies have already been printed, and Dy aims to have 700,000 available by the end of this year. Published by the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), a Cambodia-based nonprofit that has offices at Rutgers–Newark, the book has been translated from Khmer into English, French, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, and Japanese, and garnered coverage in the Washington Post and the New York Times, and on National Public Radio.

Dy was chosen to write the book by Youk Chang, the director of DC-Cam, where Dy was a volunteer cataloging Khmer Rouge documents and developed an interest in the history of the period. “I understood that this would be a big job, and a big responsibility, to teach the young generation,” Dy says, “and that is my dream.” Dy is working toward a Ph.D. in global affairs, a program affiliated with Rutgers’ Center for the Study of Genocide, Conflict Resolution, and Human Rights, and continuing his work with DC-Cam with the goal of educating Cambodians about the genocide in their country. “It’s a good step that Cambodians are coming to terms with the past.”
                                                                                                                                                      — Allan Hoffman