Reflections on Tuol Sleng

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Though its contents and exhibition methods have remained fairly constant from its founding to the present day, the role of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodian society has fluctuated, with first occupying Vietnamese forces and then the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) under Hun Sen exploiting it to serve political, social and economic functions. Tuol Sleng provokes questions about the role and responsibilities of museums in general. Should they educate, commemorate, entertain? Should they aspire to objectivity or wear their prejudices proudly? Following, I examine the problematic aspects of Tuol Sleng as a symbol of the Khmer Rouge atrocities, its role as a major tourist destination, the responses it evokes and the motives of those involved in framing its meaning.

The detention facility operated by the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh during the Democratic Kampuchea era (1975-79) code named S-21, was discovered by two Vietnamese photojournalists on 8 January 1979, only a day after Vietnamese forces had captured the Cambodian capital. The name Tuol Sleng, meaning “hillock of the sleng tree” (a tree with poisonous fruit), adopted after the site was opened as a museum in 1980, was suggestive of the former schools grounds’ nefarious recent history.[1] More than 12,000 people were imprisoned, interrogated and tortured at Tuol Sleng and, either executed there, or sent to a nearby killing field at Choeung Ek. In one ‘execution log’ an S-21 prison guard wrote “[we] killed 160 children today”.[2]

The mass of physical and documentary evidence at Tuol Sleng presented the Vietnamese with the perfect opportunity to justify their invasion of Cambodia by revealing the depravity of the Khmer Rouge. The necessity of discrediting the Khmer Rouge was made more urgent as the majority of international states refused to recognize the newly proclaimed People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) and opposed the invasion. The Vietnamese general and museum enthusiast Mai Lam, who was assigned the job of converting S-21 into a museum, said that his intention was to help the Cambodian people “study the war and the many aspects of war crimes”.[3] However, aspects of the exhibition were clearly suggestive of Vietnamese influence. This included the artificial addition of a wall-mounted map (since removed) that depicted Democratic Kampuchea’s various “acts of aggression” against Vietnam and a photograph of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot meeting with Chairman Mao that seemed intended to implicate the Chinese in the Khmer Rouge reign.[4] Pol Pot himself dismissed the museum as a “Vietnamese exhibition”.

Since Pol Pot’s death in 1998 and the dissolution of the Khmer Rouge, Tuol Sleng has performed a new function – with potentially alienating consequences for the majority of locals – as a major tourist attraction. Three years after calling on Cambodians to “dig a hole and bury the past”, prime minister Hun Sen seemingly changed tack in 2001 in ordering the continued maintenance of existing “physical testimony of the crimes committed… by the genocidal Pol Pot regime”.[5] Although encouraging international tourists to visit places such as Tuol Sleng, Choeung Ek and Anlong Veng (the last Khmer Rouge stronghold) may be economically expedient, it risks perpetuating a monolithic image of the nation, filtered solely through “the narratives of mass atrocities”.[6] This is reinforced by T-shirts emblazoned with phrases such as “I survived Cambodia” or “Danger!! Mines!!” which evoke a country where death is omnipresent.

This sense of danger is embellished by some Western visitors to Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng who seem to revel in the ‘darkness’ of the experience. One writer recounting a visit to the killing fields describes his guide as wearing a “sadistic grin” and imagines dampness on the ground as “puddles of blood” and every crunching noise like the crunching of bones. The wider phenomenon of tourists being drawn to attractions, exhibitions or actual sites of death, suffering and the macabre has been termed ‘dark tourism’. Tim Winter, in his interviews with foreign tourists in Cambodia, identified many who claimed they were enticed to the country by its “sense of danger”.[7] For these tourists, interest in sites such as Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek is centered more on the display of skulls and bones and the techniques of murder, rather than its contextual origins. The inclination to experience suffering as entertainment, as a sensory experience, may obscure deeper exploration of the past.

The dark tourism practice, in which historical context is subordinate to the ‘historical spectacle’, is complementary to Hun Sen and the CPP’s rendering of the past. As a former Khmer Rouge cadre himself, a warts and all narrative of the Democratic Kampuchea period is not in Hun Sen’s best interests. Instead, Hun Sen encourages a narrow view of history which juxtaposes the suffering of Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge with the apparent peace achieved under the CPP. According to this narrative, the CPP is cast as the savior of the nation (in 2008, CPP election posters read: “Hun Sen saved Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge”) and, like the military in Burma, self-styled as the only institution capable of maintaining national stability. In this context, Tuol Sleng is intended to serve an emotive rather than analytical purpose in the same way that national 20 May ‘Day of Anger’ observances are more “ceremonies of condemnation” rather than reflective days of healing and understanding.[8] The existence of Tuol Sleng may also serve to take the pressure off elites to deal with the past in other ways. As Hun Sen continues to obstruct the trial of former Khmer Rouge members by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia – including by opposing further indictments – he can point to Tuol Sleng as symbolic of the government’s willingness to address the past, albeit in its own fashion. 

The uncensored presentation of physical evidence at Tuol Sleng, such as the iron beds which victims were chained to, devoid of explanatory text, is consciously confrontational; designed not simply to educate but to shock. In many ways it is a disorientating experience. Visitors may question the space they are in: a museum, a memorial, a crime scene waiting to be officially cordoned off? The museum is not located simply in the vicinity of the violence it recalls, it is the site of the violence. Its contents less exhibits, than evidence. The buildings, the doorways, the windows, the courtyards are all ‘on display’. Tuol Sleng seems to send what Susan Sontag, in her detailing of the dual power of photography to both generate documents and create works of visual art, calls ‘mixed signals’: “Stop this, it urges. But it also exclaims, What a spectacle!” The act of transforming the torture chamber into a museum invites responses from the viewer that not only register horror or sadness or disbelief – responses that are essentially expected and ‘acceptable’– but also perceived aesthetic qualities. A New York Timesarticle on Nhem En, a photographer at Tuol Sleng whose hundreds of portraits of victims are on display, declared him a “craftsman” and his photographs “carefully posed and lighted”. Through Western eyes, the photographs at Tuol Sleng are not only documents, or artifacts, but art.

For many Cambodians of course, Tuol Sleng has served a more immediate purpose. Initial visitors were less concerned with the supposedly educational rationale of the museum than the practical opportunity to identify missing friends or relatives among the enlarged photographs of victims on display. For Chum Mey, who survived incarceration in Tuol Sleng prison, the museum is a site to which he constantly returns to tell his story to visitors and journalists. In contrast, political elites have at times used the museum as fodder for political point-scoring. In the lead-up to the July 2013 national elections, CNRP Vice-President Kem Sokha allegedly suggested that elements of Tuol Sleng were “staged” by the Vietnamese. In response, the CPP hastily drafted a law that banned statements denying crimes by the Khmer Rouge, with offenders to face up to two years in jail. This episode was purely political opportunism by both sides but it underscored the contested nature of the country’s recent history. Such simplistic and self-serving rhetoric across the political spectrum is symptomatic of the failure of elites to encourage genuine national dialogue and reflection on the Democratic Kampuchea era.

David Hopkins is a researcher based in Melbourne. He visited Tuol Sleng in December 2013. He graduated with a Master of International Relations from the University of Melbourne in 2011.

 

[1] David Chandler, Voices from S-21, St Leonards, NSW, Allen & Unwin, 2000, p. 4.

[2] Craig Etcheson, After the Killing Fields, Westport, USA, Praegar Publishing, 2005, p. 83.

[3] David Chandler, Voices from S-21, p. 8.

[4] Rachel Hughes, ‘Nationalism and Memory at the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide Crimes, Phnom Penh, Cambodia’ in Katherine Hodgkin and Susannah Radstone (eds.), Contested Pasts, Great Britain, Routledge, 2003, p. 178.

[5] Timothy Dylan Wood, ‘Touring Memories of the Khmer Rouge’ in Expressions of Cambodia: the politics of tradition, identity and change, Leakthina Chau-Pech Ollier and Tim Winter (eds.), London, Routledge, 2006, p. 181.

[6] Khatharya Um, ‘Refractions of Home: Exile, Memory, and Diasporic Longing’, Expressions of Cambodia, p. 90.

[7] Tim Winter, ‘When ancient glory meets modern tragedy’, Expressions of Cambodia, p. 44.

[8] Paul Williams, ‘Witnessing Genocide: Vigilance and Rembrance at Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek’ in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, V18 N2, Fall 2004, p. 249.