Genocide in Cambodia: Remembering the Past to Protect the Future

(Some may find certain images and descriptions disturbing.)

Genocide. It is a crime against humanity. It consists of atrocities meant to destroy, in whole or in part, certain groups of a population. The Genocide Convention of 1948 condemns and punishes crimes similar to that of the Holocaust committed by the Nazi. The killings and violence in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia have been identified as acts breaching the Genocide Convention.

Genocide is a contentious term even with the published definition under Article 2 of the Convention which states that genocide is any of the “following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

a. Killing members of the group;
b. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
c. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
d. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
e. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Despite the staggering 1.7 million casualties during the Khmer Rouge period of 1975-1979, scholars have argued that the killings in Cambodia do not qualify as genocide under the stipulations of the Genocide Convention because it hasn’t been proven that the atrocities targeted a specific group of the population. Rather it is called auto-genocide or the act by a government or ruling group to exterminate its very own people. Khmers killed Khmers. City dwellers, foreigners, the educated, those who worked for the previous government of Lon Nol, even those who stole food out of hunger, were killed regardless of class and ethnicity.

Photos from the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum or S-21

Toul Sleng-6

The Khmer Rouge documented their prisoners and the atrocities they inflicted on them.

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Women were sometimes raped before they were killed.

Toul Sleng-8

These are photos of foreigners (Vietnamese, Indians, Pakistanis, Thais, Americans, French and Australians) who were not able to leave Cambodia immediately after Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh. A Laotian, an Arab, a British, a New Zealander and an Indonesian were also killed.

Toul Sleng-9

Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, believed that “to kill the grass, you must also remove the root.” Children were not spared so that they won’t be able to avenge the deaths of their families.

Toul Sleng-11

Bloodstains are still evident on the walls and floors of the museum. The Khmer Rouge had several methods of torturing the prisoners in order to extract information. The prisoners had no choice but to create stories to satisfy their torturers because as soon as they run out of information, they will be killed.

Nevertheless, in 1997, the international community responded to the request of the Cambodian government to establish the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) or the Cambodia Tribunal aimed at putting into trial the senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge and those most responsible for the killings during that period. The Cambodia Tribunal is imperfect and oftentimes criticized for being biased, slow and expensive. But in 2010, senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge–Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith were indicted for crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions (international humanitarian law on armed conflict) and are now on trial. In 2012, the Courts sentenced Kaing Guek Eav or Duch and was sentenced to life imprisonment for the same charges. Duch was the head of the Toul Sleng Security Center or S-21 and responsible for ordering torture and murder of its prisoners. It is now the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh.

Toul Sleng-3

One of the four buildings of the S-21 prison

The Hallows

The gallows

Clays wars filled with water were used to torture prisoners by hanging them in the gallows upside down while their heads were immersed in the water.

Clay jars filled with water were used to torture prisoners by hanging them from the gallows upside down while their heads were immersed in the water.

Steel bed frames where prisoners were tied and tortured.

Steel bed frames where prisoners were tied and tortured

Shackles

Shackles

The unreasonable rules inside the prison

The unreasonable rules inside the prison

All these international conventions and legal terms make the actual crimes against humanity seem distant, highly rhetoric and too intellectual for someone like me whose research is outside international law and human rights until I visited the Toul Sleng Museum. With systematic torture and execution of individuals who were labeled as enemies or traitors by the Khmer Rouge, it is known as the “factory of death.” The Khmer Rouge claimed an estimated 20,000 lives in this place alone. Click this link for the history of the Khmer Rouge.

Electric barb wires were used to prevent prisoners from escaping

Electric barb wires were used to prevent prisoners from escaping

S-21 used to be a public school before the Khmer Rouge took power. Since the regime considered the educated/intellectuals as enemies, schools were closed and used as prisons.

S-21 used to be the Chao Ponhea High School before the Khmer Rouge took power. Since the regime considered the educated/intellectuals as enemies, schools were closed and used as prisons. “Re-education” during that period means going to one of these prisons to be tortured and/or  executed.

The graves of the last 14 victims found in S-21

The graves of the last 14 victims in S-21

A shrine dedicated for Toul Sleng victims

A shrine dedicated for S-21 vivtims

I thought I won’t be moved believing that I’ve been desensitized by the documentaries I’ve watched and books I’ve read about the tragic history of Cambodia as a preparation for my fieldwork. How wrong I was. Seeing the torture devices, countless black and white photos of the victims, their skulls and clothes, I was moved and pulled in all directions of emotions and questions. There were so many why’s in my head: Why they did it? Why nobody stopped it? Why torture the children? Why this happened? I know the answers from the books I’ve read and documentaries I’ve watched. But the questions kept whirring in my head. The annoying sound and terrifying images haunted me throughout the night. Here, in this country, where I lay my tired head on my comfortable bed, is the same country that endured the horrors of genocide where children starved, women worked to death and men tortured. Here in Phnom Penh, almost 40 years ago, barefoot soldiers in black shirt and pyjamas with red and white scarves around their necks and rifles slung on their backs entered and forced the people to march to the countryside. April 17, 1975 marks the start of the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge.

Previous classrooms were divided into narrow cells for the prisoners.

Previous classrooms were divided into narrow cells for the prisoners.

Cells and their corresponding keys were numbered.

Cells and their corresponding keys were numbered.

A bricked cell

A bricked cell

Wooden cells

Wooden cells

There are only 12 known survivors in Toul Sleng prison and only 2 of them are alive today. Van Nath, one of the survivors who painted the images he saw while imprisoned, died in 2011 but was able to hear the Court’s verdict on Duch. Another survivor is Chum Mey and he was there right before the museum’s exit. He was accompanied by a woman who speaks English and translates for whoever wants to talk to Chum Mey. In front of him was a table displaying copies of biographical book entitled “Survivor” and being sold for US$10. He has this strikingly kind face. After learning a bit of the tragedies of the prisoners in Toul Sleng, I can’t believe that sitting in front of me is one of the survivors, smiling with his twinkling eyes–the same eyes that witnessed the horrors that happened on the same grounds we were on. I bought his book and he automatically signed it for me. The woman with her asked me if I want to take a photo with him. I refused because I refuse to accept that it is possible that Chum Mey’s experiences is now being commercialized by the people around him. He is not a tourist destination that I should take an obligatory photo with. But I want to remember his kind face, his twinkling eyes, and his strength over the years. Shrugging off the thought, I opted for his photo holding his book.

Chum Mey

Chum Mey

Chum Mey survived for so many reasons but one very important reason is for him to share to the world his experiences under the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge. He is there so that we won’t forget that genocide happened in Cambodia, so that we will keep remembering the 1.7 million Khmer lives taken by their fellow Khmers, so that we will continue seeking justice for them and for those they left behind.

A guide in Toul Sleng Museum who survived the Khmer Rouge regime

A guide in Toul Sleng Museum who survived the Khmer Rouge regime

It was a depressing visit but an enlightening one. I learned that it is possible for people to kill their very own people. I learned that while thousands of lives are being taken in one part of the world, the rest of the world moves on with theirs. I also learned that we need to revisit again and again this part of history, no matter how painful it is, so that the same pain won’t be a part of the history we are making now. I am grateful to our guide, to Chum Mey, and to many other survivors who openly share their experiences to serve as lessons for us.

The Cambodia Tribunal is still short of giving justice to the victims of the Khmer Rouge. How can a society which suffered from genocide reconcile with its past without justice served? On the grounds of the very prison that imprisoned and tortured him, Chum Mey is waiting together with the survivors who want justice for the families they lost.

It’s about time to strike the gavel.

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3 thoughts on “Genocide in Cambodia: Remembering the Past to Protect the Future

  1. Pingback: The Killing Fields, Their Resting Place | A drifter off to see the world

  2. We visited Tuol Sleng prison in 2010… your photos bring back a lot of memories. It was by far one of the most depressing days I’ve spent in my travels (we also visited the killing fields on the same day).

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