Cambodia: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

I have always been interested in genocide.  Among crimes it is unique in that it needs the collective blind eye of a majority within a society to be effective.  Fearing for their own lives, people will turn against their neighbors yet genocide can be prevented.  Genocides through history have followed patterns in which one group is vilified, propaganda transmitted via cinema, art, newsreels or radio is made, and eventually a system is developed to kill masses of people.  (That’s the brief summary.  I suggest reading The Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power for much more detail).

 I’ve been to memorials, lectures, film screenings, survivor talks, read countless books and memoirs about genocide, visited the US Holocaust Memorial Museum multiple times and participated in the genocide prevention movement while I was a student.  But none of the research I had done on genocide prepared me emotionally for visiting a site where genocide was actually perpetrated.

Tuol Sleng Museum, formerly Security Prison 21 (S-21) and before that a school, stands as a memorial to those who were killed by the Khmer Rouge.  Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge killed approximately 2 million Cambodians, including women and children.  S-21 was the prison where the Khmer Rouge detained and tortured anyone they deemed to be a threat before sending them to the killing fields to be executed.  Upon arrival, each prisoner was photographed; the Khmer Rouge documented all of the prisoners.  (You can click on the photograph to enlarge it so you can see all the faces clearly).

The former classrooms which the Khmer Rouge used as torture chambers and cells stand much as they were left after the S-21 was discovered by the Vietnamese military.  The museum has very little information posted on walls until you get to the photo galleries toward the end.  Education is essential to preventing genocide so, in a way, this is a shortcoming, which the museum acknowledges in a plaque on the wall near the entrance.

There is a wealth of information available on Tuol Sleng and the Khmer Rouge (online and in the form of books and documentaries).  It has even been a considerable presence in the news in recent years as Comrade Duch, the man who was in charge of executions, was sentenced only recently.

As a visitor to the museum, I preferred walking slowly into each room to see them, to take my time contemplating the past.  The floors are still stained with blood; the beds are rusting and broken; corners are filled with dust as if it is forgotten but it is really an illusion brought on by the Cambodian dry season.  I had expected to feel sadness, shock, outrage, anything, but, maybe because I felt nothing.  At first I was impatient at the heat, surprised by the no smiling signs.  Then I was annoyed at my own emotional numbness.  Perhaps I was overwhelmed by actually being present in the place where so many crimes were committed.  Weeks later, I am still mulling over the emotional effect of it, still reading memoirs and old articles about the Khmer Rouge trials, still searching for answers.  I can read and read about genocide, understand its occurrence on a sociological level, but the depth of evil required to commit it still confounds me.

Genocide Book List

A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (Samantha Power)

Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland

(Christoper R. Browning)

Survival in Auschwitz (Primo Levi)

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers

(Loung Ung)

Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind

(Loung Ung)

*Please note that this list is neither Cambodia-specific nor definitive.  I will add a Cambodia reading list soon.  It is a list of titles I’ve read and recommend.  Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments.  You can also visit Yale University’s Cambodian Genocide Program for more information and an extensive bibliography.

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