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Not for Our Tragedy Alone

The genocide committed by Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime earns a place in Washington’s Holocaust Museum

Joe Freeman
February 28, 2013
A foreign tourist looks at skulls of Khmer Rouge's victims displayed in a memorial at the site of the former killing field at Choeung Ek in the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Feb. 2, 2012.(HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)
A foreign tourist looks at skulls of Khmer Rouge's victims displayed in a memorial at the site of the former killing field at Choeung Ek in the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Feb. 2, 2012.(HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)

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.”

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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Joe Freeman is a Southeast Asia-based journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, The Guardian, The Christian Science Monitor, The Phnom Penh Post, and the Nikkei Asian Review.

Joe Freeman is a Southeast Asia-based journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, The Guardian, The Christian Science Monitor, The Phnom Penh Post, and the Nikkei Asian Review.