Cambodian and Vietnamese History: How Much is Too Much for Kids?

The Vietnamese Army's Newest Recruits

The Vietnamese Army’s Newest Recruits

We all know, as adults, that Vietnam and Cambodia have traumatic pasts. And the people of those countries haven’t forgotten either. We’ve just arrived in Phnom Penh and with only one day here, we’re wondering what museums and memorials are appropriate to take kids to. S21 – the prison where the Khmer Rouge tortured so many prisoners before their execution – clearly not. The Killing Field, though? It sounds crazy to suggest a mass-execution site and pile of 8000 human skulls as somewhere to take children, but it’s an important part of this country’s history and a reminder to us all of how dangerous political extremism can actually be. Should we also not teach our kids about the Holocaust for fear of upsetting them?

When I was a child, my family were living in Iran when the revolution happened. I remember being shot at by soldiers of the Revolutionary Guard. It was confusing and frightening but it was also real. History doesn’t pass children by. It sweeps them up, along with everyone else. In many ways, children were the greatest victims of both Vietnamese and Cambodian conflicts.

We had the same decision to make in Vietnam. At the War Remnants Museum there were galleries devoted to the effects of Agent Orange: walls of shocking photographs showing deformed children, and jars containing still-born human fetuses. Needless to say, we didn’t take our kids in.

But we were in a war museum, and I really didn’t want to just show them the cool tanks and fighter planes and have them come away thinking how exciting and glorious war is. We did let them see photographs of carpet-bomb blasted landscapes and American soldiers flame-throwering villages. And we talked about how the war came about; about communism and Americas “domino effect” theories; and we tried to point out ways in which the museum was biased, only showing things from the victorious North Vietnamese perspective.

But maybe the Khmer Rouge’s Year Zero atrocities are just a little bit too recent. I’d have no qualms in telling my kids that thousands of slaves died building the Ancient Egyptian pyramids. But Year Zero happened in my lifetime. There are still people alive for whom it was the defining event of their lives. It’s a personal tragedy, not just a statistic.

[NB. I wrote the following part later, as we were leaving Phnom Penh…]

In the end, we decided against visiting S-21 or the Killing Field. I’m mostly certain that my girls could have handled it, and would have come back having learnt something important. But it wouldn’t have been fair to run the risk of traumatizing them.

Instead, we went to the National Museum where we laid the groundwork for our visit to Ankor Wat by learning more about Khmer history, then we went to the royal palace to see how the royal family live nowadays, as well as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha where as well as the “Emerald” Buddha, there is more gold reliquary than I’ve ever seen in one place and the vast hall is floored with 1kg solid silver tablets.

It’s better, I think, to stick to ancient history until their older.

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