Not for Our Tragedy Alone
The genocide committed by Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime earns a place in Washington’s Holocaust Museum
In 2001, the Ministry of Tourism announced plans to draw visitors to Anlong Veng, the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, about an hour’s drive from the ancient temples of Angkor Wat in northwestern Cambodia. Only a few years before the announcement, in the late 1990s, Khmer Rouge soldiers had traded in their rubber sandals for military uniforms when the last of the dwindling movement started to defect to the government. Having never defected, and having held out as long as he could, Pol Pot died there in 1998. Now about 30 to 40 visitors—most of them Cambodian—come every day to see Pol Pot’s pauper grave, where he was cremated. Some believe the grave possesses talismanic powers and bring small gifts.
“We have not yet asked the visitors to pay to see the site, but some tourists pay as charity to clean the environment,” said Seang Sokheng, Anlong Veng tourism chief. “Maybe we’ll charge them when the project progresses more.”
Five or six years ago, as the Khmer Rouge tribunal refocused the world’s and museum officials’ attention on Cambodia, the Holocaust Museum in D.C. was increasing its content on post-World War II atrocities around the globe. The plight of Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge had, Abramowitz told me, “kind of been forgotten by many people in the U.S.”
Museums move slowly, and the Holocaust Museum’s display is still roughly 18 months from opening. Since the first day that the Duch hearings opened in 2009, officials from the Holocaust Museum have been on two trips, gathering their impressions and noting parallels to the Holocaust in the horrors perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge. In October, when members of the delegation went to the tribunal, they heard testimony from someone who was evacuated from Phnom Penh in April 1975.
For Amy Kaslow, a museum board member who was on the trip in October, examining one genocide side by side with another is “uncomfortable.” However, she added, “It’s easy to see commonalities: the early enlistment of nationalists, the twisting of public psyche to mobilize hate on a massive scale.”
Abramowitz said, “You don’t seek to compare these cases,” but comparisons are inevitable. The testimony “obviously reminded us of what the Nazis did to the Jews in the concentration camps in terms of sending them on trains,” he noted. “There was the forcible location of Jews from their homes in France, Germany, and Poland and for those who managed to survive the death camps, there were the forced marches of the Nazis.”
What happened in Cambodia was so “systematic,” said Abramowitz, it was worthy of the museum’s attention.
Two curators have been assigned to the Holocaust Museum’s display on the Khmer Rouge, which will include video, photos, and probably some boilerplate description about the Cambodian genocide. It won’t take up a huge amount of space, though; most of the leftover material will migrate onto the popular website, which acts sort of like another wing of the museum. When the display is finished, it could have an impact on the country’s booming genocide tourism and educational efforts. Cambodians who have been working for years on increasing awareness of the regime’s atrocities can count the addition of the display as a small victory, acknowledgement from an outside source of the magnitude of suffering the country endured. And in addition, museum visitors in Washington who have never been to Cambodia can learn about the Khmer Rouge—and may develop an interest in coming to the actual sites to see first-hand the places where the tragedy took place and the memorials and museums that now stand there.
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