Tuol Sleng: prison-museum of Cambodia's genocide

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Tuol Sleng: prison-museum of Cambodia's genocide

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Tuol Sleng: prison-museum of Cambodia's genocide
Vicken Cheterian 6 October 2018

A visit to the Khmer Rouge's death chamber seeds reflection on past and present alike.

It is a July day in Phnom Penh, the hot and humid air making it difficult to breathe. The streets leading to Tuol Sleng are noisy and crowded: tuc-tuc drivers' call for potential clients mingles with the smell of street-vendors' grilled fish. Soon, these fall away as the visitor reaches a former school building that would serve as the major prison under the Khmer Rouge regime which ruled Cambodia from 1975-78. Now it is a museum where foreign tourists are queuing to be confronted with the horrors of the Cambodian genocide and the ambiguities of its legacy.

The history of Cambodia has puzzled me for a long time. Movies such as Roland Joffe's The Killing Fields and those by Rithy Panh only added to my bewilderment. Cambodia was the trigger for the China-Vietnam war of 1979, conducted between two supposedly fraternal socialist countries. Most incomprehensible was the violence the Khmer Rouge unleashed against its own people: emptying cities and towns, expelling people to the countryside for rice production, exterminating the nation’s intelligentsia. Perhaps I could find some answers, and if possible make sense of this senseless violence, by seeing for myself the photographs of Khmer Rouge victims?

I was especially puzzled by the fact that Khmer Rouge cadres photographed their victims at their arrest and then after killing them, in between torturing them to record their detailed confessions. More widely, how did Cambodian society manage questions of memory and denial, of victim and perpetrator, of how to manage life after genocide? I wanted to learn its lessons.
https://www.opendemocracy.net/vicken-ch ... s-genocide
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