Friday, January 14, 2011

Tuol Sleng

There really isn't much to say about the museum itself, as you can read about it by clicking on the link, but the Tuol Sleng Genocide Memorial is place I could not forget. Pol Pot is a name we all instantly recognise, but the Security Prison S-21 was confronting in a very real and very disturbing manner.

There are several blocks (they are lettered starting from A because the block used to be a secondary school), and each block was used for a specific purpose. The first block we saw was used to keep special prisoners and also to carry out the tortures. Those who were high in the ranks of the government before the Khmer Rouge were kept here and subjected to the worst kinds of treatment. Each room of the twenty or so in this block contains the items that were found when the prison was first re-discovered by Vietnamese soldiers. As well as these rusted beds, piss tins and torture implements, there is a large print of a picture that was taken of each room exactly as it was found.

In these pictures, the corpses which were left by the Khmer Rouge are surrounded by pools of their own blood. There are discernable claw marks from when birds have ventured in to the rooms to pick at the faces of the dead, and the bodies give testimonial to how the torture implements were used. I would not have been able to guess the horrific uses of the rusty implements without them.

If you can tear your eyes away from the photographs for long enough, you can see left over blood splatter on the ceiling and droplets on the floor which you have accidentally walked on. Holes have been knocked out of the brick work at floor level so that the pints can be mopped out between sessions. As you move higher up the building, where less people venture, the concentration of remaining blood increases and corners of the walls appear completely stained - until the edges of the blackboards which were previously used to teach children maths.

The next building greets you with hundreds of portraits (or, rather, mugshots) of the "prisoners" of Tuol Sleng. They stare directly at you, pinned there in stillness on crudely created pinboards. All the men wear the same slouch hat, and all the women have their hair cut to the same length. They are made to be identical, with the aim of differentiation only by number. They were supposed to be the Party. There was no such thing as the individual, only the collective- the hive mind.

In the beginning it was the people who disagreed with this idea who were sent to S21, but by the end of the Khmer Rouge rule, there were all kinds of excuses found to imprison and torture more and more and more.  There are seven known survivors who were kept alive because they had special skills. Some could fix typewriters, needed to record confessions and prison documents. Some were artists, useful for painting portraits of Pol Pot. We were fortunate enough to visit the museum on the day when one of these few survivors was there. He was signing and selling the biography that he had finally written, all these years after the genocide. He was an artist who was spared, but his wife and children were all killed at the prison where he was held. Smiling and posing for photos, it is difficult to imagine that it took him so long to come to terms with this past that he could finally write about it and return to the prison.

Bou Meng and me at Tuol Sleng
The thing that shocked me the most, however, was not the graphic images, or stepping on the blood of the victims, or even seeing Bou Meng. What truly upset me, was learning from the guide, that the government had dropped this part of history from the national syllabus in 1993, and now young Cambodians grow up without any real knowledge of what happened.

In Rwanda, the government decided that the best way to prevent atrocities like genocide in the future, was to ensure that the nation could not forget about the past. There is a genocide memorial in every single Rwandan town, and all children grow up informed and respectful. It is this consciousness of the history which helps to inform the future. Our guide referred to the 'steps' it takes for a country to reach the point of civil war and genocide, and raised an important point. Educating people about how a country had previosuly reached this point, means that people can identify a leader taking these steps, or democracy being subverted in these same steps, in the future. As a local himself, he expressed fear that Cambodians had no way of protecting themselves from a potential Pol Pot 2.0. I could not agree with him more.

When I asked why the Khmer Rouge chapter had been removed from the syllabus, the answer was essentially 'shame'. Not only shame for the actions of their predecessors, but shame for the fact that there has hardly been any justice exercised. Pol Pot died in 1998 under suspicious circumstances (read: suicide) after deciding to turn himself in to a justice tribunal. He had not yet been held accountable under proper international law. To the best of my understanding, there are also still several Khmer Rough officers and personnel presently living out their lives with families in Cambodia. It truly is something Cambodia should be embarrassed about. This does not, however, excuse them for trying to sweep it under the rug. I only flinch to imagine if Australia tried to take the white takeover of Australian natives out of the syllabus because it was 'shameful'.

Education is always, and will always be the key. If only more people were aware of how easily government can turn bad, perhaps they would be more grateful for the messy kind of democracy we enjoy.

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