A Grim Look into Cambodia’s Past – Our visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Prior to our visit to Phnom Penh, we didn’t really have a good understanding of what happened during the Khmer Rouge era of Cambodian history, but we soon found some shocking and sad stories about how it all unfolded. Our visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum opened our eyes to a dark past of Cambodia’s history.
The Khmer Rouge was a group of radical communists led by Pol Pot, that took hold of Cambodia in the late 1970s. It launched a civil war that deprived people of their basic rights and even practiced mass killings of intellectuals and people who did not agree with their beliefs. So how did something like this happen? The Khmer Rouge manipulated many of the uneducated and poor farmers of the rural areas in Cambodia and successfully brain washed them to believe that the communist cause was worth killing and dying for.
Tuol Sleng was used as a secret prison, also codenamed S-21, where thousands of Cambodians and foreigners were starved to death, tortured, and killed. Life in Tuol Sleng was an inhumane camp, where prisoners were interrogated by the Khmer Rouge. A majority of the prisoners were opposing party officials, soldiers, and intellectuals including doctors, teachers, students, etc.
The building was originally a school, that was taken over and used as a prison. Just walking throughout the inner courtyard it was hard to believe such atrocities occurred here. The inner courtyard had tombs of individuals who’s bodies were found when the Vietnamese arrived.
Walking into the individual rooms, we saw how the Khmer Rouge transformed this school into inhumane living conditions made to torture and punish their prisoners. School rooms were converted to tiny small cells that only had enough room to stand. Doorways were carved out of each room in unison to create a long hallway where Khmer Rouge officers would have a straight down view of all the cells.
These cells were dark, made of bricks and had no bathrooms. Those that were fortunate enough to stay outside of these tiny cells were held in large mass cells and shackled together. These large mass cells had beds but were used for torture, and definitely not a place of comfort for anyone. Walking into these rooms sent chills down our spine as there were photographs lining the walls showing how it looked like for the prisoners. Just looking at the bar lined windows, rusted beds with shackles attached to it and dirty floor depicts the unbelievable hardship the victims had to endure.
Throughout the rooms, there were individual stories posted from survivors of the camp. These stories explained that many of the educated and professional workers were forced to work in the fields. Because they were not familiar with this type of labor, and could not successfully grow crops due to their lack of manual labor skills, they would be tortured and/or killed.
It seemed that these prisoner’s lives were dispensable, and if they did not have any useful information or skills to them, it was only a matter time until they either starved to death or were killed. We also found out that suicide was a big problem at Tuol Sleng. There were cases of suicide in the prison where a prisoner would jump off the 2nd or 3rd story just to end their misery of being constantly tortured in the prison. You can see they prevented this by lining the balcony with barbed wire to stop this from occurring.
Reading through the numerous stories of prisoner life was heart wrenching and saddening. There was also a story about a foreigner from New Zealand who was imprisoned here when his yacht went off course and he ended up in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge captured him thinking he was a spy and interrogated him. They didn’t accept his story of how he came to arrive in Cambodia, so in order to stop the tortures and give his captors “information” he created made up stories of how Colonel Sanders of KFC was his superior and gave them phone numbers of his family members stating they were the direct lines to the CIA. All this information was written down as intel found in notebooks, and sadly, the man from New Zealand did not make it out alive despite giving all the information the Khmer Rouge tortured him for.
Of the thousands that were brought to S-21, only about 7 people survived. Some of their stories were also on display and explain that they were only spared because they were considered useful to their captors. One of them, was an artist who was put to work to draw up propaganda for the Pol Pot Revolutionaries. Another, a mechanic who was able to help repair machinery.
Our visit to the Tuol Sleng Museum made us aware of a dark part of history we didn’t realize existed. What’s most shocking is that this happened pretty recently – in the late 70s. It really hit close to home for us, growing up in a predominantly Asian community, it made us realize that a majority of our friends and their families were not just in the US for a better opportunity, but because many were refugees escaping dangerous conditions like Cambodian Genocide, the Vietnam War, and other unrest throughout Asia. We both felt extremely humbled and appreciative of the freedom that we have today, and for all the amazing sacrifices and hardships the older generations had to endure for our generation to have a better life.
The Tuol Sleng Museum is a somber reminder that history manages to repeat itself in different parts of the world and lifetimes. It stands today as a testament of the brutality man is capable of inflicting on his own kind. The memorial in the center of the museum reads “Never will we forget the crimes committed during the Democratic Kampuchea regime”. A grim reminder that what we should learn from what took place here and never repeat it.