Not for Our Tragedy Alone
The genocide committed by Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime earns a place in Washington’s Holocaust Museum
On a seasonably hot day last October, Michael Abramowitz, director of the committee on conscience at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, stood on a strip of flat land in central Cambodia, near the mass graves of a former prison and execution site in the province of Kampong Chhnang. Rice paddies stretched out in the distance. The rainy season was nearing its muggy end. The trip was the second Abramowitz had made from his office in Washington, D.C., in as many years, though this time a large group of museum board members and Cambodian experts on genocide accompanied him.
In Kampong Chhnang, Abramowitz spoke with survivors of the Khmer Rouge era and visited the site of a defunct airport built by the regime with forced labor. The group’s weeklong hopscotch through Cambodia also landed the visitors in the audience of the ongoing war crimes tribunal, where three aging former Khmer Rouge leaders are on trial, and took them to the can’t-miss features of this country’s genocide tourism trail: the high-school-turned-torture-center called Tuol Sleng prison, or S-21, in the center of Phnom Penh; and the infamous “killing fields” of Choeung Ek, about a 15-kilometer drive southwest of the capital. But the trip had a practical, not simply educational, aim. The museum’s delegation came here, to Cambodia, to gather background about the devastation wrought by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to early 1979, a period when nearly 2 million people—about a quarter of the country’s total population at the time—were killed through starvation, overwork, and execution. For the first time in its 20-year history, the American museum was carrying out plans to add a display about the Cambodian nightmare to its story of the Holocaust.
“One thing that’s important to understand,” Abramowitz told me in a recent interview, “is that from the time the museum opened its door in 1993 … in addition to teaching about the Holocaust, there was always the mission in doing what we could to prevent future genocides.”
Cambodia’s story, in other words, will take its seat among other existing displays at the museum that explain the post-Holocaust horror shows of the 20th century, from Rwanda to Bosnia. Though a museum display may not seem like much—and physically, it won’t be very large—the mere fact of its existence says something about the way that Cambodia approaches its sensitive history. Establishing a presence at the Holocaust Museum, one of the most visited sites in Washington, is the latest example of the growth of Cambodia’s genocide tourism—though many would prefer the term genocide education—a strange mix of attractions and experiences made possible by local activists and historians, survivors, and Phnom Penh’s post-Khmer Rouge government.
Genocide tourism is nothing new. In fact, the concept has been perfected at Holocaust-related sites that have turned former ghettos, concentration camps, and sites of mass extermination into memorials, museums, and emotional yet educational attractions that draw tourists by the busload. Visitors now pour into the concentration camps in Eastern Europe, either on their own or through organized trips for teens like The March of the Living. The BBC reported last year that in 2011, a record 1.4 million visitors passed through the gates at Auschwitz, “while Holocaust memorials all over the world are also seeing numbers soar.”
It should come as no surprise that these reimagined sites served as a model for the post-Khmer Rouge government in Cambodia when it tried to draw attention to that regime’s atrocities.
In his book Voices From S-21, American historian David Chandler wrote that the person who guided the design of the Tuol Sleng museum was a Vietnamese army colonel named Mai Lam, the same person behind the American War Crimes Museum—now called the War Remnants Museum—in Ho Chi Minh City. According to Chandler, Lam and a Cambodian survivor of S-21 who became its museum’s director, Ung Pech, traveled widely to study Holocaust exhibits and museums across Europe. As Chandler later wrote in a short magazine piece about the book, Lam also saw the value in turning the killing fields at Choeung Ek, where over 10,000 prisoners sent from S-21 were executed, into a “terrifying” destination for tourists. At Choeung Ek, a recently installed audio tour plays the simulated “last sounds” victims heard before they were killed: a buzzing generator, loud propaganda music. By the early 1990s, after a United Nations-brokered peace agreement shifted the nation to a democracy and opened it to the outside world, Tuol Sleng and the killing fields were in full swing as destinations marketed heavily to foreign visitors. Part of the way Cambodians confront their tragic past is by repackaging it and opening the door to outsiders. In The Lost Executioner—his 2005 book about tracking down Duch, the infamous warden of Tuol Sleng—Irish-born photographer and journalist Nic Dunlop wrote: “There is probably no country in the world that advertises its dark history like Cambodia.”
Genocide tourism began in Cambodia right after the genocide. In early January 1979, the Vietnamese military arrived in Phnom Penh and declared victory over the Khmer Rouge, most of whose soldiers and commanders had by then fallen back into countryside redoubts. Khamboly Dy, a researcher with the country’s main repository of genocide history, the Documentation Center of Cambodia, better known as DC-CAM, said the Vietnamese were eager to use the crimes of their enemies in their own favor: “Tuol Sleng genocide museum was one of the effective instruments to expose the Khmer Rouge atrocities to the world to justify the Vietnamese presence in Cambodia, and also to win the popular support by provoking their recent suffering through such a killing site,” Dy told me. “But this does not mean that I rule out the historical facts that happened at S-21.”
The practice of highlighting those crimes in contemporary political settings continues today. Several high-ranking members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, including Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, came over with the Vietnamese after escaping the country toward the end of the regime when, as low- to mid-ranking Khmer Rouge cadres, they likely would have been eliminated during a wave of internal purges. They have not shied away from celebrating their triumph over the regime they replaced. Every year on Jan. 7 they hold a massive ceremony at party headquarters to mark the defeat of the Khmer Rouge, which was led by a former teacher who went by the revolutionary name of Pol Pot.
Estimates vary, but about 14,000 Tuol Sleng prisoners were killed in less than four years, many of them Khmer Rouge cadres whose absolute loyalty was called into question on the slightest paranoia-driven pretext. Guides there now point to pictures of shriveled bodies and the splattering of dried blood on the floor. At the gift shop, tourists can buy Khmer Rouge-printed currency. Portraits hang on the wall of the people who went in but never came out. The first case in the Khmer Rouge tribunal that started in 2006 sentenced Duch—a former mathematics teacher whose real name was Kaing Guek Eav—to life imprisonment last year. He’s the sole convicted war crimes criminal at the tribunal, which is struggling for cash and operating in a time-sensitive environment; all three of the current defendants in the second case are in their 80s. There was a fourth defendant in that case, Ieng Thirith, the former minister of social affairs under the Khmer Rouge, but she was released last year because of her deteriorating mental health. Many believe that the tribunal’s controversial planned third and fourth cases, which Prime Minister Hun Sen has spoken out against because of the belief that more trials could stir unrest, will never happen.
As the trials inch forward, tourists continue to flock to the sites of Khmer Rouge atrocities. In The Lost Executioner, Dunlop described a typical schedule for genocide tourists filing out of Tuol Sleng: “Afterwards they could have lunch at a restaurant looking over the museum, housed next to what had once been a field station for prisoners between torture sessions. And then go out of town to the killing ground of Choeung Ek before returning to a buffet dinner on the riverfront.”
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