Reflections from Cambodia

Greg Rouault, Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts

When Ambassador Caroline Kennedy walked into a classroom at the International University of Kagoshima (IUK) to judge a haiku contest, she encouraged students by lecturing, “Words and ideas can change the world.” Frustratingly, a few months following her visit, the students learned that haiku with anti-war themes can be easily censored. Editors of a community newsletter in Saitama refused to publish a winning entry about a woman holding a placard in the rain voicing dissent for the reinterpretation of the Japanese constitution. But do actions speak louder than words? In June 1963, when Caroline’s father, U.S. President John F. Kennedy, saw a photo of a Buddhist monk who burned himself to death at a busy Saigon road intersection, he remarked, “no news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.” In June 2014, after giving an hour-long speech in Shinjuku, a man set himself on fire in protest against plans to reform the Japanese constitution in order to expand the scope of the military.

Anti-war poem

on a busy street in Tokyo

self immolation

In this essay for Grassroots Outreach, Greg Rouault reflects on having seen a poster in Cambodia at a museum displaying the horrors of genocide. The artist penned a pivotal question on the poster asking how the worst moral crime a government could ever commit was allowed to happen during our lifetime. Reflecting on the horror that mass killings based on nationality, race, or religion do continue to happen in many areas of our world, Rouault shares what he learned from his haunting tours to a former school that now houses the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide and to a former orchard known as the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. His essay argues for the core function of education to be ensuring a better informed population.

Reflections from Cambodia

I traveled to Phnom Penh to attend a conference on English for Regional and International Integration hosted by CamTESOL on 22-23 February, 2014. As I trudged up the concrete steps of a dusty staircase to a linoleum-covered landing with chips of white plaster from the walls collected in the corners, I steeled myself for what I was to encounter. Fortunately, the many smiling faces of teachers and students awaiting my presentation on English reading and listening skills soon put me at ease. The day before that presentation however I had had a much more gut-wrenching experience. I had made my way up steps in identical condition, but they led me to the site where an attempted genocide had occurred.

Conference delegates in any research field who visit Phnom Penh, and particularly those in education, are recommended to make time to visit two memorial sites that caused me more than a moment’s reflection.

The Security Office

In a central area of the city lies the former Security Office 21 (code named S-21). Housed on the grounds of a previous primary and high school, the four main structures were used for jailing, interrogating, and torturing prisoners of the Khmer Rouge regime on the orders of Pol Pot for almost four years, beginning in 1975. These atrocities are well-evidenced with photos and preserved artifacts on display in former classrooms. A wall poster put up during the inaugural opening of this site as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum asks the pivotal question of how this genocide could have happened (and is still happening in many areas of our world) after the “never again” mantra following the Holocaust of World War II? A gallows stands next to the three staggered heights of chin-up bars in the playground and I witnessed the stark, bleak reality of a metal bed frame, shackles, and a munitions box used as a bedpan in the classrooms. Even worse than these horrors are the ID photos on display of those measured, cataloged, and imprisoned. These very authentically presented reminders (also captured in photo books available in the small museum gift shop) are made more sobering by the 14 white graves in the courtyard of decomposed corpses found by the liberating forces.

The Killing Fields

A well-travelled, 14 kilometer route leads out of Phnom Penh to where many of the prisoners of S-21 were herded in trucks and exterminated in the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. At times, in foreign travel we might encounter interesting images or unnatural twists of phrases that make us smirk. The frank reality of the tragic happenings preserved here are no cause for mirth or euphemism. The chilling stories from both guards and survivors and the remorseful admission of guilt made by S-21 prison chief, Duch, during his UN-backed war crimes tribunal can be listened to in multiple languages as an audio tour. At the end of the route, hundreds of skulls, unearthed from the shallow mass graves, and their empty eyes stare back at you from the Memorial stupa.


Some presentations at conferences, especially in developing countries, typically discuss the challenge of overcoming limited resources and physical limitations in the classroom. After having walked through the grounds of these horrific sites, this irony was not lost while I pondered the resolve of the new generation of teachers based in Cambodia whom I met at the conference. A colleague who accompanied me on these pre-conference tours astutely made the philosophical observation that the core function of education is to ensure an informed population so that zealots may not rise and conquer. Furthermore, the visits summed up very well my belief that the role teachers play each day is to accept the challenge of, and take responsibility for, shaping the minds of youth for the future.

The Future

The somber visits before the academic conference were brightened by the sense of hope I felt from the people and the positive growth I saw at the CamTESOL event. I was pleased to participate in the activities of this professional organization for a second time and will again return someday. The current goals of the ASEAN community for regional economic integration include recognizing English as the official language. This matches well with the aims of the CamTESOL conference which include providing a forum for the exchange of ideas and research on good practices within English Language Teaching, and with the support of its domestic and international partners strengthening the network of teachers and those involved in language education in Cambodia and the Southeast Asian region.


Next CamTESOL conference

The 11th Annual CamTESOL conference will be held 28 February to 1 March, 2015. Updates at <>.