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Cambodia's genocide memorial a controversial reminder of a brutal past

Names inscribed will include both victims and perpetrators of Khmer Rouge atrocities

Robert Carmichael, Phnom Penh

Robert Carmichael, Phnom Penh

Updated: March 26, 2015 11:27 PM GMT
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Cambodia's genocide memorial a controversial reminder of a brutal past

German ambassador to Cambodia, Joachim Baron von Marschall, unveils the new memorial at Phnom Penh's genocide museum on Thursday. (Video still by Robert Carmichael)



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As the red cloth cover slid off the memorial at Phnom Penh’s genocide museum on Thursday, only two of the 16 slabs of polished black marble arranged around its base had been inscribed with victims’ names in gold lettering.

The rest of the names — remembering more than 12,000 men, women and children who were arrested and taken here during the Khmer Rouge’s 1975-79 rule — will be added in the coming months.

Among those names is that of Phung Ton, a respected professor who was brought to S-21 prison, as it was then known, in December 1976, a year after returning to Cambodia from abroad. He was executed the following July.

At Thursday’s ceremony his widow, Im Sunty, welcomed the memorial, which replaces a previous structure that had fallen into disrepair. Im Sunty was one of the 90 civil parties who at the 2009 trial of S-21’s former commandant, Comrade Duch, had asked for a replacement memorial to commemorate the dead.

“Now that the memorial has been built, it gives us some relief from the pain because now we have a place to pay our respects for those who died in Cambodia as well as those who died in this place,” she said.

In recent years the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, as S-21 was renamed after the Khmer Rouge were driven from power in 1979, has become a much-visited tourist site. Hundreds come here each day to wander the rooms of this former school that Duch, a former mathematics teacher, converted into the most efficient arm of Pol Pot’s revolutionary government.

The process devised by Duch was simple enough: prisoners at S-21 were photographed on arrival; next they would need to draft their confessions stating that they were working with the CIA, the KGB or the despised Vietnamese in seeking to undermine the revolution.

Most were guilty of no such thing, but the abundant use of torture ensured that Duch got what he wanted. The end of this unwavering process would see the prisoner executed at Chhoeung Ek, a mass gravesite on the outskirts of Phnom Penh and itself now part of the tourist trail. Just a handful of those brought here survived.

Many of the rooms that tourists now pass through contain boards of monochrome images, the long-dead men, women and children whom S-21’s staff regarded as “dead already” as they languished, shackled to dozens of others awaiting torture and death.

In due course, the marble slabs of the new memorial will contain the names of every prisoner known to have passed through S-21.

Reasonable though that sounds, inscribing all of those names is controversial, says Youk Chhang, the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), the country’s leading research organization into the crimes of the Khmer Rouge.

That is because just 20 percent of those brought to S-21 fall into the category that most people would regard as victims: ordinary people whom the paranoid and secretive leadership, known as Angkar, regarded as enemies, and who were therefore to be killed.

The remaining 80 percent were Khmer Rouge cadres who were caught up in the revolution’s obsession with finding and “smashing” its perceived enemies. Less than a year after the movement took control of Cambodia, it began the savage turning in on itself, killing tens of thousands of its own in the army, the navy, government ministries and the provinces, districts and communes.

As the leaders of Cambodia, by now renamed Democratic Kampuchea, purged their revolutionary ranks of these “no-good elements”, S-21 and other prisons filled with the very people the movement had relied upon to come to power.


Im Sunty, the widow of university professor Phung Ton, whose name appears on the genocide memorial. (Video still by Robert Carmichael)


Inscribing every name of S-21’s 12,272 known prisoners will place the minority of genuine victims of Khmer Rouge violence among those who perpetrated such violence, among them interrogators and torturers who worked at S-21. The former prison’s voluminous archive, which is unique among the network of nearly 200 such centres across Cambodia, make it easy enough to know which prisoners were Khmer Rouge.

Little wonder that Youk Chhang described the decision to list all of the names as “very controversial”.

“[It’s a] much greyer area,” said Chhang. “That’s why I liked the previous memorial. It was just [a] spiritual memorial for all who died. But when you start to name and you start to inscribe names, and you start to identify, then you create questions.”

The debate over whether to name none, some or all of those imprisoned at S-21 is familiar to Germany’s ambassador to Cambodia, Joachim Baron von Marschall. Germany funded the US$90,000 cost of the memorial, which he described as “a place to reflect, to mourn, but also perhaps to forgive and to reconcile”.

“I can sympathise with the feelings of relatives of those victims who never ever acted in any way that was cruel to others,” he told ucanews.com. “And yet, I think, it is not always easy to draw the line between victims and perpetrators, and in extreme situations human beings sometimes do extreme things.

“And so I personally feel that it was a wise decision not to try to distinguish. Those who know about the pasts of victims here, they know to distinguish, I believe,” he said. “And in the end, all those who were in this torture chamber perished in the same terrible, cruel way.”

Thursday’s unveiling was attended by government officials, diplomats and staff from the UN-backed war crimes court, as well as by families of victims and by two of the prison’s few survivors — Chum Mey and Bou Meng. The two men were kept alive by Duch because they had skills he could use: Chum Mey serviced the prison’s typewriters; Bou Meng was an artist and was ordered to paint images of Pol Pot.

In his address to mark the occasion, von Marschall spoke at length about Nazi Germany, and how it had taken decades before that country’s youth began questioning their elders about the manifold crimes of Hitler’s regime.

“As a German, I have always been preoccupied with the question how human civilisation can deteriorate to the point of violating the most fundamental rules of decency and respect for one’s fellow human beings,” he told the audience.

The necessary national debate about Nazi criminality did not start until the 1970s, and was driven by the youth “asking their parents and teachers uncomfortable questions”.

“[But] what I observe in Cambodia is that young people sense the reluctance of their elders to talk and, being for the most part very obedient, do not want to embarrass or challenge them,” he cautioned.

“The consequence of this reluctance is, however, that it is the young generation who will carry on the burden of their parents' and grandparents' legacy. 

The gold lettering on the memorial states in Khmer, French and English that: “Never will we forget the crimes committed during the Democratic Kampuchea regime”.

Forty years after the April 1975 fall of Phnom Penh, which set in motion one of the 20th century’s most brutal regimes, the hope is that this controversial structure will in some way alleviate that burden.

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