Tuol Sleng Museum in Phnom Penh is an unlikely museum. It is where as many as 17,000 or more people were incarcerated, tortured, and then systematically killed during the Khmer Rouge rule from April 1975 to January 1979. The museum's outward appearance was then, and remains today, that of a typical Cambodian school, but it is ominously different as soon as you enter, in its silence, in its foreboding. It was a typical secondary school once, but not any more and never again, not even in a country desperately short of school buildings. Never again will it see crowds of blue and white uniformed school-boys and girls. Nor will it buzz with the familiar chatter of children and their rote-learning chants that once emanated from its eerie classrooms. Instead you are ushered in with the same signs and their stark warning that greeted its many victims such as:
Do nothing! Sit still and wait for my orders. If there are no orders, keep quiet! When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.
The travesty of what went on in Tuol Sleng was undoubtedly the product of an extreme Cambodian leadership but its discovery and preservation is due to the Vietnamese whose army, with dissident Cambodian forces, overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Two of their photo- journalists first entered Tuol Sleng. They saw and recorded exactly how it had been abandoned by its erstwhile custodians, including leaving the corpses of its final victims to rot. Vietnamese authorities soon realized the significance of their find and appointed an expert, Mai Lam, to take charge of it and to document its archives.
Tuol Sleng is therefore much more than a museum testifying to a macabre chapter of history. It is to this day a largely intact crime scene with evidence of mass atrocities and much more. It has been the repository of vital evidence carefully conserved first by Mai Lam, and to this day by the Documentation Center of Cambodia and supporting organizations. That evidence is now playing a vital role in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, the United Nations-backed special court now sitting to judge those most responsible for the tragedies of Khmer Rouge rule. Tuol Sleng images, the museum's exhibits, are not just historical artifacts, but in mid-2009, they are brought to life again in vivid and startling witness testimony. The evidence comes from no less a figure than the man in charge at the time, with his extraordinary admissions, and by those of the very few survivors of his stewardship. Kaing Guek Eav's (alias Duch) is the first Khmer Rouge leader to face trial. Tuol Sleng, he confesses, with its linked facility ten kilometers away, known as Choeung Ek Killing Fields, was indeed a center of extermination; the top one of hundreds for the Khmer Rouge, not seen since the Nazi death camps of the Holocaust.
Tuol Sleng is now the responsibility of the Government of Cambodia through a Secretary of State at the Council of Ministers responsible for national archives and of its Department of Museums. UNESCO provides important technical support. Although it is clear that Tuol Sleng will be preserved for the foreseeable future, its long-term future in inextricably bound up with the outcome of the Khmer Rouge trial and Cambodia's internal debate about how to deal with this dark chapter of its history. So far Tuol Sleng is largely untouched, remaining in its original simplest form. Even plans to improve some facilities for visitors have brought much resistance, but the Government recognizes that it is in need of some essential repair, which must be done in ways that do not destroy its authenticity. Really a new facility will be needed to be able to conserve artefacts and displays for posterity, but even then, it is unlikely that Tuol Sleng will emulate other museums to attract and entertain visitors. Such peripheral facilities, for visitors to engage "interactively", will not be welcomed in the near future, not until that debate is concluded which may take several more generations. Anything that detracts from the simple chilling images and recollections would be seen as insensitive while people who survived the period live on with their painful memories, nightmares and traumas. One entrepreneur learned this the hard way in 2008. He tried to recreate not far away a Khmer Rouge style canteen, complete with the typical meal of meager gruel, eating implements and attire of the period, as if by now there would be some kind of nostalgia for it. His idea aroused universal revulsion; if the authorities had not ordered it closed, it would have been a commercial failure.
Tuol Sleng does stand on its own as a memorial, the unique symbolic edifice of the Khmer Rouge rule where any detractor likely to pose a threat was purged most mercilessly. A salient feature of Tuol Sleng is that apart from the stories coming from its only six survivors, with the paintings of one, Van Nath, appearing there depicting the horrors, visitors are left to draw their own impressions based on what they see and feel. There are few of the usual narrative descriptions seen in most museums. There are literally no stories at all of the victims; how or why they ended up there, and unlike for example Holocaust sites, there are no personal possessions, no material evidence of lives once lived and finally lost there. Apart from a few clothes, no mementoes were left. Visitors do not need a guide to internalize the experiences, although if one does accompany them, he or she will not only act as an escort but also be able to add his or her personal dimension. Hardly any family in Cambodia escaped unscathed in that time.
Tuol Sleng, also known as S21 after the district in which it is found, is just a kilometer from central Phnom Penh, near the usual shopping centers, markets, hotels and tourist sites. It is inevitably a "must-see" on the dark tourist trail, with up to five hundred domestic and foreign visitors daily, although their reasons for going are quite different. Foreigners usually feel compelled to exercise a natural morbid fascination. They pay modest admission charges. It is free for Cambodians, for whom it is a solemn pilgrimage visit; often personal and intimate, sometimes a search for an unknown aspect of their identity. Whether foreigner or Cambodian, all visitors are emotionally moved once there. After the somber warning signs are heeded, there are four buildings to visit. Buildings A, B, and C are similar with several storeys, and barbed wire on upper floors put there apparently to prevent inmates from suicide attempts. There are numerous cells, made of brick or wood dividing up the former classrooms. They were used not just for incarceration but also torture. Pictures can be seen of bodies once on the metal beds still standing there. Blood stains on the floor, boxes in the corner for human waste, are still there. In some rooms there are boards displaying photographs of victims, with pictures depicting atrocities such as electrocution, shackles, scorpion stings, and even babies removed from their mother's womb only to be crushed against the walls. Reminders say that many of the "guards" were just teenage children brainwashed and desensitized to the brutality. Building D was the main interrogation center, next to the guard's quarters.
For Cambodians who find the last trace of their lost relatives in Tuol Sleng, it is the saddest of shrines, knowing that the flesh and blood of their own kith and kin was spilled in very the rooms where they are standing. For that reason, it does make Tuol Sleng one more place in the world where the human race must be reminded of its tragic past. It will never be managed in the same way as for example the Silver Pagoda museum in Phnom Penh that sets out Cambodia's long and at times glorious history, including the famous Angkor Wat era.
Tuol Sleng Museum will stay devoted to the history of one short tragic period, and what happened in one place, but its role in this sense as a place of learning should not be under- estimated. It cannot, it does not, and will never answer the question that is most often asked; the same question it is hoped that the Khmer Rouge Trials will answer, which is simply ? "Why?" Cambodians want an answer. They need to come to terms with this the darkest of periods in their history. They are beginning to do this.
However, some Cambodians (who are not considered members of the Khmer Rouge) raise the idea that Tuol Sleng was "invented out of whole cloth by the Vietnamese, so as to blacken the reputation of the Cambodian people and to indict them en masse for genocidal crimes."
To this, David Chandler, a historian on Cambodia, has this response:
I always replied to them that I believe that their suggestions were mistaken. The effort to invent S-21, I think, would have been far too costly for the Vietnamese, and far too complicated. The Vietnamese did not have the resources, for example, to compose the documents discovered in the S-21 archives (and thousands of others related to S-21, discovered elsewhere in Phnom Penh after the Vietnamese withdrew), to invent the names and backgrounds of workers at the prison, to fake the photographic evidence, and to invent biographies for the survivors and former workers at the facility. Moreover, had they mounted such an operation, it seems likely that someone who participated in it would have talked about it, especially after the Vietnamese withdrew their forces in l989.
Thun Saray, prominent human rights leader in Cambodia and who personally lived through the horrors, says of Tuol Sleng:
For Cambodians, and international visitors as well, this place should be a memorial place. The experience of visiting this place where so many people suffered and died; where photographs of torture, prisons cells, and more should remind people of the horrible times and that things like this will not be forgotten and will not happen again. Tuol Sleng is part of the legacy and gives access to Cambodians to gain knowledge about the real events that happened under the KR.
This year, for the first time, the Khmer Rouge period is to feature in official teaching of history in schools. The Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) has led a "Genocide Education Project" initiative with forty-eight Cambodian and international experts and the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports (MoEYS). They have trained the first twenty-four senior officials who will go on to train teachers for all children to be taught the subject after 2010. The MoEYS has approved Dy Kham Boly's A History of Democratic Kampuchea as the official history textbook. Youk Chhang, director of DC-Cam says: "Understanding the past, however horrendous, is the first step towards restoring humanity and identity of a nation". The initiative includes active reading, group discussions, guest lectures, theatre arts and field trips. Tuol Sleng will feature in visits for schools from all over the country not just Phnom Penh. Such creative methodology should help teachers overcome the difficulties inherent in conveying lessons to children whose parents and older living relatives not only lived through the horrors, but who are still traumatized by it. Reputable psychosocial research, for example by Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation (TPO) shows that not only has trauma stayed with survivors, but also its pervasiveness is manifested in later generations. That cycle must be broken.
If lessons of history are learned and acted upon, then the cause of universal human rights will be advanced. Tuol Sleng shows graphically how Khmer Rouge leaders ruled by fear; fear over the entire population, real fear of knowing what would befall all those whose absolute loyalty could not be assured. Individuality was destroyed. So was trust in the natural inherent goodness that human beings should harbor and show towards each other. Fear dictated that survival, at any cost, became the main determinant of human behavior. No country in the world will ever attain acceptable standards across the full gambit of civic, political, social, economic, and cultural rights until the day comes when leaders cease to use fear and oppression to maintain their control. If Tuol Sleng helps to bring that day to Cambodia, it would at least bestow one most noble final honor on its victims.
John Lowrie, who has worked in Cambodia since 1998 as a senior human rights and development worker with international and local civil society organizations in developing countries, has been working on the promotion of good governance, rights of disabled people and others living with vulnerability including ethnic minorities, and the sustainability of local civil society organizations in developing countries.
For further information, please contact: John Lowrie, New Horizons Society, ph (855-12) 931 301; e-mai l : nhs@cami nt el . com, firstname.lastname@example.org; www.newhorizonsunlimited.org; and see his recent article: www.scribd.com/doc/11621086/ The-Name-of-the-Game-is- Sustainability-but-Does-the-Last- Player-Count-by-John-Lowrie
1.For a more detailed room by room guide, please visit:
For an excellent pictorial guide with comment, read "Hanging in the Past" by Timothy Dylan Wood and Rita Leistner, available in < http: / /www.ideasmag.artsci.utoronto.ca/issue4_1/ ideas_leistner_wood_low.pdf>.
2.For a very useful commentary on Tuol Sleng and how it relates as a museum compared with others such as those of the Holocaust written before the Khmer Rouge trials read Paul Williams, "Witnessing Genocide: Vigilance and Remembrance at Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek," Holocaust and Genocide Studies; Fall 2004; 18, 2; available in homepages.nyu.edu/~pw32/Cambodian_genocide.pdf
3. For the Cambodian Government Perspective on Tuol Sleng see "Memory of the World Register: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum Archive Ref N° 2008-04, available at : http://portal.unesco.org/ci/en/files/ 27488/12200140123TuolSleng_ web.rtf/TuolSleng%2Bweb.rtf
4.David Chandler, "Tuol Sleng and S-21," Searching for the Truth, June 2001.
5.The Documentation Center of Cambodia has an excellent website http://www.dccam.org/ and also posts regular updates of relevant articles including the Khmer Rouge Trials," http:// www.cambodiatribunal.org/