Cambodia is a beautiful country full of history and culture. Unfortunately, they are also a country that has suffered immense hardship and atrocity. When we went to Cambodia, we made sure to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in order to pay our respects to the people who suffered and honor the memories of those who died.
HISTORY OF THE CAMBODIA and THE RISE OF THE KHMER ROUGE
Cambodia was strong under Khmer rule during the 9th-13th centuries, but began a gradual decline between the 13th and 15th centuries. Over the next several hundred years, Cambodia had a merry-go-round of rulers until one of the worst rulers came to power and ushered in one of the darkest eras in Cambodian history.
From around 1218 until 1863, Cambodia was in a slow decline. After the death of King Jayavarman VII in 1218, internal conflicts led Angkor Wat to be abandoned and the once powerful nation went into a cultural, economic and social decline. As their infrastructure weakened, other nations (namely Siam and Vietnam) began vying for control. The Ayutthaya Kingdom of Siam (now Thailand) conquered Angkor Thom and Cambodia became a protectorate of Siam, though the Vietnamese were still slowly chipping away at Cambodian territories.
In 1863, King Norodom of Cambodia accepted French protection from Siam and Vietnam. The French eventually converted that protectorship into full colonial rule of Cambodia. Colonial rule lasted until March 1945 when Japan began a short rule, but the French took control again in October 1945.
The French retained control over Cambodia until 1953 when King Norodom Sihanouk secured the withdrawal of French and Vietnamese troops from Cambodia, an action he’d been working on since 1945. King Norodom had been backed by the French in his quest for the ruling seat because they thought he was too weak to force a removal of French troops, but King Norodom had a strong desire for an independent Cambodia and made it a life goal to see the French removed from Cambodian soil. Soon after, though, the Vietnam War began and gradually weakened King Norodom’s hold on Cambodia.
King Norodom was ousted by military coup on March 18, 1970 led by Premier Lon Nol, who had formed a coalition with the Khmer Rouge, and the country was renamed the Khmer Republic. King Norodom was allowed to remain a figurehead for the country, but had no real power. Disunity and corruption led to the downfall of the republic in 1975, though the true beginning of the end started in 1973 when the Khmer Rouge began vying for full control of the country. The Khmer Rouge controlled nearly 60% of Cambodia on January 1, 1975 when they launched a 117-day offensive that officially collapsed the Khmer Republic.
After the surrender of the Khmer Republic on April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea. From the very beginning of their rule, the Khmer Rouge began a campaign of terror and genocide over the people of their country. Their first move was to issue an edict ordering entire urban populations to evacuate to rural areas to become farmers and laborers. Organized religions were suppressed and the industrial sector was placed under government control, where most of it was abandoned. Those who were caught practicing any form of religion were imprisoned or executed. The Khmer government cut ties with the communists in Vietnam and strengthened relations with China. Vietnam and the Khmer engaged on border disputes over the entire length of the Khmer Rouge reign from 1975-1979.
The Khmer government was a Communist government formed on the teachings of Mao, Marx, Lenin and the French Communist Party. Where the Khmer differed from the other Communist factions is that they also believed that Khmers were racially superior to other minorities who claimed Cambodian citizenship. This idea led to a Hitler-esque drive to rid the country of the “impure” Cambodians by killing them. This evolved from ridding the country of minorities to ridding the country of anyone viewed as an oppressor, which included those in leadership/government positions prior to the Khmer Rouge takeover, intellectuals, anyone considered “rich”, those in professional employ and anyone who sympathized with the oppressors or the minorities.
And this is where Tuol Sleng came in.
HISTORY OF THE PRISON
After the Khmer Rouge came to power and began their process of ridding Cambodia of “inferior” Cambodians and “oppressors”, they realized they would need a place to conduct interrogations and hold their prisoners. In August 1975, four months after the Khmer Rouge came into power, they converted the Chao Ponhea Yat High School into a prison and interrogation center which they named Security Prison 21 (s-21). The school buildings and grounds were enclosed by electrified barbed wire and all of the windows were retrofitted with bars and barbed wire. The classrooms were converted into prison cells and torture chambers that housed roughly 1,000-1,500 prisoners.
It is estimated that during the 4-year run of the prison, between 17,000-20,000 people were imprisoned, tortured and killed there. The purpose of the prison was to interrogate by torture doctors, teachers, engineers, religious leaders, skilled laborers, anyone who had been a member of the previous government, anyone who was suspected of being a political dissident and anyone who was perceived to have been an intellectual. Over time, the inmates began to include political opponents as well as those in the Khmer Rouge party who were suspected of being disloyal or a threat to the regime along with their families. A vast majority of those who entered S-21 only left when they were taken to the Choeung Ek extermination center just outside the city to be killed and buried. Of all the people who entered the prison, there are only 7 known survivors, though it is conjectured that there may have been 5 who escaped, bringing the total to 12.
S-21 remained in operation until 1979 when Vietnam invaded Phnom Penh and drove the Khmer Rouge out.
In 1980 S-21 was reopened under the name Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum with a display of artifacts from the days of operation. The name they chose for the museum is very fitting: Tuol Sleng means “Hill of the Poisonous Trees” or “Strychnine Hill”. The artifacts include authentic tools used for torture, a photo record the Khmer Rouge kept of their victims, honorary graves and informational displays. The new rulers of the country, now named The People’s Republic of Kampuchea, wanted to memorialize the atrocities in honor of those who died and in hopes that this will never happen in their country again.
TUOL SLENG GENOCIDE MUSEUM
Tuol Sleng is a large, rather unassuming complex inside of Phnem Penh. From the outside, it doesn’t look much different from the other buildings in the area, aside from the barbed wire surrounding it and the simple sign over the entrance. There are no flashy signs or shining exterior to entice you to enter and spend an hour or two marveling at what is inside. It is a simple face with a stark message: horrible things happened here.
After paying the foreigner fee (locals can visit free of charge) and entering the complex, you are greeted by a sign designating the complex as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Behind the sign is a field of coffins. These final 14 victims were killed just hours before liberation forces made it to the prison. Each was found badly mutilated and it is widely believed that these deaths occurred just before the prison guards packed up and left the prison as the Vietnamese entered Phnom Penh.
The sign beside it reads: THE VICTIMS GRAVES – 14 corpses of the victims were discovered in Building “A” by the armed forces of the United Front for the Salvation, Solidarity and Liberation of Cambodia. They were brought down and buried in this opposite plot. Among those corpses there was one female victim. These victims were the last ones executed by the agents of S-21 before they fled this prison compound.
On the mid-left side of the above picture there is a sign. Posted on it are the rules of the prison as stated by those who once ran it.
Each room had a different display of the torture artifacts that were found in the rooms along with a picture on the wall showing either the empty bed and tools as they were found or a body that had been found attached to the bed and tools. It truly was heart-wrenching to see the state of those found still imprisoned here and it was horrifying to learn what was done to them. The pictures on the wall show badly emaciated bodies chained to beds, some bleeding heavily. There are pictures in some rooms of bodies laid out across the floor, chained together, crammed as close as they can be with guards standing over them. There are pictures and paintings of people after having been tortured and some of people being tortured.
Some of the floors have dark stains on them and all of the walls are tear-streaked, crying with heartache from the awful scenes played out therein. Even with windows in most of the rooms, a darkness lingers and dampens the brightness that tries to permeate the gloom.
Outside in the light, at the junction between Buildings A and C stands a simple, once innocent, structure. This bar used to be where children exercised and played around, but the Khmer Rouge turned it into a device for torture and interrogation.
The sign reads: THE GALLOWS – This pole with cables attached to it had been used for the student to conduct their exercise. The Khmer rouge utilized this place as an interrogation room. Ther interrogators tied both hands of the prisoners to the back by a rope and lift the prisoners upside down. They did like this until the prisoners lost consciousness. Then they dipped the prisoner’s head into a jar of smelly, filthy water, which they normally used as a fertilizer for the crops in the terrace outside. By doing so, the victims quickly regain consciousness, and that the interrogators could continue their interrogation.
Across from the gallows stands Building C. Building C housed many small cells where prisoners were kept between interrogations and torture sessions. To help bring a sense of reality to those who suffered in these buildings, a few rooms have been converted into exhibits to display personal artifacts and skeletal remains of some of the victims who were buried in a field nearby.
Inside you can see how the Khmer Rouge converted classrooms into multiple tiny prison cells.
Inside these cells the prisoners were chained to either the bar or the floor and could not move more than a few inches. This was most likely not an issue since most inmates were tortured to the point of being to weak to escape or being so ill from disease and malnutrition. There are several pictures around the complex of bodies so emaciated it is a wonder any of them were still alive.
Inside the small white building behind the trees are pictures of and artifacts from those who were imprisoned here. The Khmer Rouge carefully photographed and documented each person who was brought into the prison. Unfortunately, they kept the photographs and the list of names separate, so it is unknown who all the people in the photographs are.
Not even children were given a pass by the Khmer Rouge.
It breaks my heart every time I look at these photos. Those poor children. The things they went through and it’s most likely that most of them didn’t have a clue what was going on.
Included in Building C are registers of personal details along with crimes they confessed to. It is surmised that a majority of the people who confessed to “crimes” were innocent and were just confessing in a misguided hope that they would be released. With the torture these people were put through – starvation, electrocution, whipping, beatings, burning, suffocation, waterboarding, rape, organ removal without anesthetic, blood draining, pulling fingernails, ritual cutting, medical experiments and sometimes skinning people alive – it is no wonder that almost everyone imprisoned here decided to confess to whatever they were asked to confess to, just to make the pain stop. And it did, just not in the way many were hoping for.
Another room contains pictures along with personal details of those who joined the Khmer Rouge and the story of why they did what they did. Some confessed to believing in the actions of the party and others plead guilty by reason of wanting to keep their families safe or to protect themselves. Some joined as part of a resistance movement to try and destroy the party from the inside. Some had no other means of survival and some just wanted to have power. So many faces and so many different reasons. It’s hard to not feel sorry for the ones who felt their only means of survival and the only way to protect their families was to go along with such action. There is a feeling of pride and gratitude to know that other put themselves in extreme danger in order to find a way to free their country. And then there is the sadness and the sorrow for those filled with such hate and anger that they would willingly join and participate in the destruction of their own country and the lives of people who did nothing other than strive to improve their condition.
Another room contain artifacts that were found in the complex.
All around the complex are signs and information about what happened there.
There are two other buildings in the complex, Buildings B and D, which house additional artifacts found in the prison, but we were short on time and had to leave before seeing them so we could make it to the actual Killing Fields before it was time for our flight. From what I understand, these two buildings (beyond the small white building) contain more instruments of torture along with additional skeletal remains of some of the victims who were buried nearby.
Visiting this place was very heartbreaking and sobering. When we arrived at the museum, we had been in a good mood and full of joy after seeing the Royal Palace and seeing many fascinating sights while driving around Phnom Penh.
But after visiting Tuol Sleng, we were pensive and full of sorrow for the needless suffering of so many.
While walking through the halls of each building and wandering the grounds between them, there is this feeling of sadness and and pressing need to listen to the words the walls are speaking. Each room hold countless stories of fear, horror and pain. The full story of what happened here will never be known. The victims who suffered here will never be truly identified. There are pictures and lists of names, but nobody knows which picture goes with which name. The story behind each face may be known, but which story goes with which face? Who was each of those faces lining room upon room? What is their story?
One of the things I’ve heard since I was a child is a scriptural reference of ‘voices speaking from the dust.’ When visiting this place, that reference became real to me. You can feel the need for the stories to be told. You can feel people yearning for their voices to be heard. Every room is filled with different voices crying for us to know about what happened to them, that they aren’t just names on a paper or pictures on a wall: they are real people who suffered for no other reason, sometimes, than that they had a college education or that they wore glasses. Each room holds the sorrow and pain of each person who suffered and their desire for their families to be safe and to see them once again. You can feel the pressing emotion and the heartbreaking sadness that fills this place. So many voices crying to be heard and for their suffering to not go unnoticed.
It is very fitting that this school was not returned to its former use. The horrors that occurred here can never be erased from these walls. There will never be a time when a person can walk into this place and feel hope or a desire to use this place as anything other than a voice of the past. Too much evil happened here, too much pain that no amount of time will ever be able to fully erase.
I think, though, that keeping the pain alive is the point. The pamphlet states: “Today it is compulsory to preserve the Achieves, Evidence of the bloody regime and remember the oppression, anguish and suffering caused by “Khmer Rouge”. Keeping the memory of the atrocities committed on Cambodia soil alive is the key to building a new strong and just state. Furthermore, making the crimes of the inhuman regime of Khmer rough public plays crucial role in preventing new Pol Pot from emerging in the lands of Angkor or anywhere on earth.“
It is my hope that as people learn about these types of horrifying events that they will feel a desire to do what they can to prevent things like this from happening again. So much needless and senseless violence. “All it takes for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Let us not be the good men who do nothing. Let us stand up for those who suffer and cannot speak for themselves. Let us be their strength and their protectors. There is always something we can do to help those who need our help. Let us find it and let us do it.