Paul Vallely: There are two sides to every history

David Cameron's 'spirit of humility' and Comrade Duch's 'excruciating remorse' are not what they seem

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History is shaped by where we choose to begin to tell our stories. David Cameron learned that last week. The victims of the Khmer Rouge killing fields in Cambodia knew it. My 10-year-old son knows it.

We went to see some gladiators fighting Christians in a Roman arena the other day. The Christians won. My son, whose favourite computer pastime for some months has been a strategy game called Rome Total War, was outraged. "This is completely unhistorical," he fulminated. It was not the only solecism.

We were at the historical theme park at Puy du Fou in France on holiday. The massive site contains a variety of historical scenarios: a Roman amphitheatre with gladiatorial combat and chariot races, a Gallic settlement under attack from Vikings, a medieval castle with knights jousting, a palace à la Richlieu with fighting musketeers, and so on.

Historical disbelief had to be suspended again when the Viking raiders were converted, mid-pillage, by a dead saint who rose from a reliquary which the manly Nordics had knocked into the river earlier in their rampage.

You have to understand the difference between history and story, I told my youngster. History, as the old cliché has it, is just one damn thing after another.

But storytellers almost always have a vision of the universe which shapes the way those events are recounted. So was the author of the Puy de Fou spectacles some kind of religious maniac, my lad asked? No, I replied, just a run-of-the-moulin French nationalist who saw the long march of history culminating in the glory that was France. Christianity was that nation's dominating metaphor when it came to putting the Romans, Vikings and any other adversaries in their place.

You can't say this to a 10-year-old, but revisionism is pretty much the norm when it comes to interpreting the past. Indeed tradition, which is often erroneously portrayed as a synonym for conservatism, is just the process of the present paying its dues to the past. Tradition is not a fixed thing; it is a process of managing change.

The American journalist I F Stone pins this down in his Trial of Socrates. Reflecting on the Greek word logos he says: "A thousand years of philosophical thought are embodied in a term that meant 'talk' in Homer, 'reason' in the Stoics and ends up in the Gospel of St John as the creative Word of God." The best stories are filled with such nuance: the reason that Christianity has been so potent for 2,000 years is that it does not just have one story but four; the gospels complement and even contradict in a way which generates the ambiguity and uncertainty on which poetry depends.

There is ambiguity in the relationship between Britain and India, as the Prime Minister found on his travels last week. As he arrived in the place which was once the jewel in the crown of the British Empire he wrote in the mass-circulation newspaper The Hindu that he approached India in a "spirit of humility". (Don't mention the Raj). That century of imperial domination has now been transformed in Cameron-speak into a "shared heritage" which meant that Britain should be India's "partner of choice" in the years ahead.

It was a laudable intent, though bragging about your humility (I won the prize for modesty at Eton, doncha know) is a bit like fighting for peace. Humility is better demonstrated than advertised.

Still, the idea of bringing the two nations' different accounts of their shared past together in mutually acceptable vocabulary is a good idea if you can pull it off. That it is not always possible, as was shown recently in Cambodia where the first major Khmer Rouge figure went on trial since the 1970s regime was overthrown. The fact that it has taken three decades to bring anyone to justice offers a clue as to the intractability of reconciling diverging accounts of the past there.

The man at the centre of the trial, Comrade Duch, who oversaw the mass torture and murder of 14,000 men, women and children at S-21 prison, made courtroom professions of "excruciating remorse" which were adjudged to be genuine. But his excuse that he was just a small cog in the regime was no mitigation, which is why the sentence passed upon him of 35 years, less 16 for time already served, provoked local anger.

The outrage is not merely because this represents only 11 hours in jail for every person killed under his supervision. It is that Duch was in charge of only one of 200 detention centres in which some 1.7 million people died under a planned reign of terror. What about trying the other four senior Khmer Rouge figures in custody, including the deputy of Pol Pot, the leader of the genocidal movement?

The truth is that there are too many former Khmer Rouge officials now in senior government positions in Cambodia. That is why the pursuit of justice has never been full throated. The prime minister, Hun Sen, who was himself a former Khmer Rouge foot soldier who defected to the Vietnamese army which overthrew Pol Pot, has indeed said that no more than the four figures currently in custody will be prosecuted.

That, and the scale of the terror of Pol Pot's attempt to turn back the Cambodian calendar to a Year Zero in which anyone with spectacles was murdered as a potential subversive, leave no room for a peace and reconciliation strategy of the kind masterminded in South Africa by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The versions of history of the two camps in South Africa have not exactly been reconciled. But there has been a common acknowledgement of the need to repair hurt if the nation is to move forward.

The war between black and white in South Africa was, in the end, only a struggle for power in which the whites finally acknowledged that apartheid – the notion of separate development – was a self-deception. The Khmer Rouge never made such an acknowledgement: they lost power because they were defeated on the battlefield.

But there are parallels between South Africa and Northern Ireland; the Irish lost their past in a vision of the future in which increased prosperity, the aegis of the European Union, the phenomenon of globalisation – along with the weariness of the fighting generation as it reached middle age – made the old certainties feel outdated.

The symbols of the past still embody the old ways of seeing things. To the Indians the Koh-i-Noor diamond speaks of colonial oppression and theft; it was sent as a gift to Queen Victoria by the seven-year-old Maharaja of Punjab as part of the punitive settlement of the Treaty of Lahore in 1846. That is why the Indian government keeps asking for its return. To the British, the gem which is the centrepiece of the Queen's primary crown speaks of the power and glory of an imperial heyday. That is why David Cameron, for all his new-found humility, refused last week to hand it back.

History is not only shaped by where we begin to tell our stories. It is moulded by where we chose to end them.

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