Cambodia: The Killing Fields & Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

First a word of warning, this is not for the faint-hearted or those likely to have nightmares for days after.   If that is you, don’t read any further.  But if you can, do.  This is an important part of Cambodia’s tragic history, the legacy of which continues to affect the whole country, the region, even the world.  We need to know.  To learn.  To try to understand.  And to reflect and pray.

The Cambodian genocide took place in my lifetime, when I was a teenager.  Most of the young men who joined Pol Pot and became part of the Khmer Rouge were teenagers then, just as I was.  The most brutal of the torture, violence, interrogation and killings were carried out by these young men, and many are still alive, with children and grandchildren of their own.  Some of them, and some of their commanders are, even now, part of the current Cambodia government, including the prime minister, Hun Sen.  Their victims were their own people, even members of their own villages, their own relatives.  Every person in the country was affected, the vast majority lost family members, some lost their entire families.

Those who survived the atrocities want justice.  Some want revenge.  Many need healing of the nightmare they went through.  Some would rather let sleeping dogs lie, and not have to relive the past all over again.  The Khmer Rouge Tribunal, tasked with putting the most senior responsible members of the Khmer Rouge on trial, is broadly supported by the general public, but not always by the government.  Many of those on trial are now old and in poor health.  Others, including Pol Pot himself, died before they could even be brought to trial.

It is a task unfinished, a tragedy unredeemed, a trauma unresolved, and now affecting the next generation, today’s young people.  Many of the social problems today in Cambodia can be traced back to the Cambodia genocide years.

Visiting Cambodia is unlike any country I have ever been to before.  Lonely Planet describes it thus: “Ascend to the realm of the gods, Angkor Wat. Descend into hell at Tuol Sleng Prison. With a history both inspiring and depressing, Cambodia delivers an intoxicating present.”  That seems more or less about right, at least from my point of view as a first-time, one-week-only, visitor.

I was in Cambodia from October 4-11, primarily to attend a CMS (Church Mission Society) Conference in Phnom Penh.  That finished last Sunday, October 8, and as Taiwan was having a 4-day weekend to celebrate the 106th anniversary of the Republic of China, so I had 2 more days to see something of Cambodia. Of course it wasn’t long enough.  But I managed to spend a day at Angkor Wat last Monday, and then still had Tuesday free in Phnom Penh to learn a little about the terrible Cambodia genocide.

“The Cambodian genocide was carried out by the Khmer Rouge (KR) regime led by Pol Pot between 1975 and 1979 in which an estimated 1.5 to 3 million people died. The Cambodian Civil War resulted in the establishment of Democratic Kampuchea by the Khmer Rouge, who had planned to create a form of agrarian socialism founded on the ideals of Stalinism and Maoism. The subsequent policies led to forced relocation of the population from urban centers, and to torture, mass executions, use of forced labor, malnutrition, and disease which led to the deaths of an estimated 25 percent of the total population (around 2 million people). The genocide ended in 1979 following the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. As of 2009, 23,745 mass graves have been discovered.”

Thus it was that I arrived in Phonm Penh on Tuesday morning on the overnight bus from Siem Reap, which deposited us on the riverside just in time to see the sunrise over the River Mekong that morning.  Next task – to find a tuk-tuk driver to take me out to the location of the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek – 17 km (11 miles) south of Phnom Penh.  It was the rush hour, even though we were supposedly going in the opposite direction from the traffic – out into the countryside….

Choeung Ek is the site of a former orchard and graveyard for the Chinese community, as well as a mass grave for victims of the Khmer Rouge. “It is the best-known of the sites known as The Killing Fields, where the Khmer Rouge regime executed over one million people between 1975 and 1979”.

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Today, Choeung Ek is a memorial, marked by a Buddhist stupa. Cambodia is a predominantly Buddhist country.  The stupa has acrylic glass sides and is filled with more than 5,000 human skulls.

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I arrived at Choeung Ek first thing in the morning, while it was still quite cool and there were hardly any other visitors.  There is an audio guide so visitors can walk around at their own pace and listen.  It was really quite a reflective experience.

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The horror of what I was listening to on the audio, and the awful sights that I was looking at in front of me, with notices of the mass graves and how many were buried there, was in such stark contrast to the beauty of the natural environment around me.  The sun was shining, there was blue sky, green grass, trees and flowers everywhere, the dark pink water lilies on the lake were looking stunning, birds were singing, roosters were running everywhere. And the workers were cutting the grass.  Their small children were playing nearby, one of them joined me in looking at one of the mass graves.  And yet, this was THE most famous of THE Killing Fields.  Over one million people are thought to have been killed here. In the most brutal ways possible.

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One of the audio stories is an account of one man’s experience at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, and how, having watched his family members being killed, he fled, and after years in the USA, he came back to Cambodia.  He came back initially seeking revenge, but ultimately realized that revenge is not what his mother would have wanted for him.  She would have wanted him only to be happy and to find peace.  So instead of revenge, he sought healing, in tribute to his mother and those in his family who had perished.

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The whole area is a fitting memorial to those who perished in that place.  Beautifully preserved, and yet presented in such a way that none of the tragedy and suffering is glossed over.   Dignified and horrible in equal measure.

After an hour or so at Choeung Ek, it was time to move on, back into Phnom Penh City, and visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.  General advice is not to visit these 2 places in the same day.  And not to go alone.  I took the risk, and discovered that visiting both in the same day and alone was OK if I took photos of what I was seeing. Looking at everything through a camera lens kind of put things slightly at a distance and made the overall experience more bearable.  And visiting The Killing Fields first, although chronologically in the wrong order, was somewhat of a preparation for the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.  And so back into town we went…

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is on the site of a former high school “which was used as the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime from its rise to power in 1975 to its fall in 1979.

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Tuol Sleng means “Hill of the Poisonous Trees” or “Strychnine Hill”.  It was just one of at least 150 execution centers established by the Khmer Rouge.  From 1975 to 1979, an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng (some estimates suggest a number as high as 20,000, although the real number is unknown). At any one time, the prison held between 1,000–1,500 prisoners. They were repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates, who were in turn arrested, tortured and killed. In the early months of S-21’s existence, most of the victims were from the previous Lon Nol regime and included soldiers, government officials, as well as academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, etc. Later, the party leadership’s paranoia turned on its own ranks and purges throughout the country saw thousands of party activists and their families brought to Tuol Sleng and murdered.”

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“The buildings at Tuol Sleng are preserved as they were left when the Khmer Rouge were driven out in 1979.

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The regime kept extensive records, including thousands of photographs. Several rooms of the museum are now lined, floor to ceiling, with black and white photographs of some of the estimated 17,000 prisoners who passed through the prison.

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The site has four main buildings, known as Building A, B, C, and D.

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Building A holds the large cells in which the bodies of the last victims were discovered.

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Building B holds galleries of photographs. Building C holds the rooms sub-divided into small cells for prisoners.

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Building D holds other memorabilia including instruments of torture.  Other rooms contain only a rusting iron bed-frame, beneath a black and white photograph showing the room as it was found by the Vietnamese.

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In each photograph, the mutilated body of a prisoner is chained to the bed, killed by his fleeing captors only hours before the prison was captured. Other rooms preserve leg-irons and instruments of torture.”

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There is a lot to see at Tuol Sleng, and an audio guide that is hard to listen to, because it is all so terrible.  The Killing Fields are terrible enough, but Tuol Sleng is even worse.

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Tuol Sleng is the place where the torture and beatings and interrogations went on, day after day after day.  Despite the sunshine and blue sky, it is a truly awful place.

It’s the place from where the trucks left every evening taking people to The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, from where they were never to be seen again.  There is nothing beautiful about this place at Tuol Sleng.  Except perhaps the frangipani trees flowering in the yard.  There’s also a central memorial, with the names of those who passed through Tuol Sleng engraved on large stone slabs.

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Out of an estimated 17,000 people imprisoned at Tuol Sleng, there were only seven known survivors.  Two of them, Chum Mey and Bou Meng are on hand each day at the museum, selling copies of their biographies and talking to visitors, sharing about their experiences.  They even take photos with the visitors.  Here we are, Chum Mey on the left, and Bou Meng on the right.

I bought both their books, and have since read them.  These are survivors’ accounts of their lives before, during and after the genocide.  Both say that they were kept alive because they had skills that their captors judged to be useful. Bou Meng, whose wife was killed in the prison, is an artist.  He lost his children in the genocide too.  Chum Mey was kept alive because of his skills in repairing machinery.  He also lost his wife and children in the genocide. Their stories, their courage and their resilience are amazing.

Chum Mey writes in his book, “When I walk among those photographs of the people at Tuol Sleng, I see portraits of people who wanted to live.  They all wanted to live.  Why were they killed?  According to Buddhist teachings, those killers will reap their karma. It hurts me to walk among those photos, but I do it in order to tell my story…. I do not condemn the people who tortured me.  If they were still alive today and if they came to me, would I still be angry with them?  No.  Because they were not senior leaders and they were doing what they had to do at the time.  I consider them victims like me, because they had to follow other people’s orders.  How can I say I would have behaved differently?  Would I have had the strength to refuse to kill, if the penalty was my own death?  During the interrogation I was angry, but after a long while, learning about that place, understanding that people had to do what they were told to do, I wasn’t angry with them anymore.  Even the ones who tortured me, they also lost parents and family members.  There’s a saying in Khmer language: ‘If a mad dog bites you, don’t bite back’.  If you do, it means you are mad, too.”

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The Khmer Rouge also tried to destroy the culture, the traditions, the history, the way of life of Cambodia.  As we drove round Phnom Penh over the past week, it was hard not to notice that there were no crosses anywhere, no churches of any kind in any place.  In a city with a French colonial history, I’d expected at least to see a massive Roman Catholic cathedral. But there wasn’t anything.  It turns out that the Phnom Penh RC Cathedral was the first building to be destroyed when the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975.  The Khmer Rouge were against anything capitalistic, religious or evoking the colonial past, and to them, the cathedral epitomized all three. “The new regime was so steadfast in attempting to eliminate all forms of religion that it tore the cathedral down stone by stone”.  The town hall now stands on the site, and the only things that survive are 3 (well, 2½) of the cathedral bells that are now lying on the steps at the main entrance of the National Museum.  I went to see them.  You don’t even need to buy a ticket, they are there on the steps, but with no notice telling you what they might be.

Their engravings are special….

Virtually all the church buildings were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.  But all is not lost.  There ARE churches.  Plenty of them.  Just not much in evidence.  Our Cambodian friends said that they worship in homes and apartments, and display their crosses inside the churches rather than outside.  The Roman Catholics do not have many actual church buildings, but they run a lot of schools and colleges, and worship in the school buildings.  And the Anglican Church, part of the Diocese of Singapore, is building a big new church.

There are many stories of how the Christian faith went underground during the Khmer Rouge years.  There are also reports of Khmer Rouge commanders becoming Christians, the most famous of which is Kaing Kek Iew, better known as Comrade Duch, chief of Tuol Sleng Prison.  But I suspect such reports are of no comfort to those he tortured and whose families he slaughtered.  In fact such news may well make it even worse for them to endure.  Or maybe it is just us who ask the question: how come the Khmer Rouge have a chance to receive God’s mercy and forgiveness in this lifetime, when those they murdered didn’t?

Going round The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng brings out the same emotions and questions as I had recently when watching the movie, ‘Silence’ (about the persecution of Christians in 17th century Japan) – it is truly harrowing, compelling, gruesome, powerful, emotional – and the overriding question, which is of course in the movie’s title, about the silence of God.  When human beings go through such utter anguish and indescribable pain and suffering, why is God so silent?

God is of course there suffering with us in each and every terrible situation.  For the victims, we can only trust that God is merciful.  For the perpetrators, we can only believe that God is just.  Ultimately justice and mercy must belong to God, and in His time.

While at the CMS conference, I shared with everyone there a little about Taiwan’s own history and some of Taiwan’s own tragedies, notably the White Terror, and the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1958, when Mainland China fired an estimated 450,000 artillery shells at the island of Kinmen, an island close to the Chinese mainland, but governed by Taiwan.  Many of those artillery shells are now used to make steel knives for cooking.  On a visit to Kinmen last year, our bishop, Bishop David J. H. Lai had a vision to take the waste metal fragments of artillery shells and transform them into Artillery Shell Crosses.  Now we are ready to start production of the crosses, as below….

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The crosses have black lines running up and down, and across ~ these signify the rifling inside the gun barrels, through which the artillery shells were fired.  The oblique angles at the ends of the crossbar represent human arms uplifted in prayer toward God, and the ‘P’ in the centre stands for ‘Peace’. Objects of evil, hatred, death and destruction are being transformed into a symbol of love, peace, hope and redemption.

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In Cambodia, I visited a shop run by an NGO, Rajana Association, who have a slightly-different-but-similar vision, transforming bombshells from the Cambodian genocide into beautiful jewelry for sale.

I bought some of their ‘bombshell jewelry’: a butterfly necklace (below left photo), which for me is a symbol of transformation.  I ordered a cross for Bishop Lai (below right photo).  I like the words they have printed below the cross, ‘At Rajana, bombshells are transformed into something new and beautiful. The transformation of an object of violence into a piece of art.’

Back in February, we welcomed Presiding Bishop Michael Curry from the Episcopal Church in New York to visit Taiwan (see my blog post here), and on February 26, the Sunday of the Transfiguration, he preached in St. John’s Cathedral, Taipei. He is always a very dynamic, powerful and challenging preacher.  I quote from his sermon that day, because his words came to me in the past few days as I have reflected on my visit to The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Museum….

“God came among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth to show us the way to change the world ~ to show us the way to transform and transfigure this world, from the nightmare we often make of it, into the dream that God has intended for it ~ from the mess humans make of it, into the miracle that God will make of it. He came to change the world – and he came to show us how to do it….”

“Go out and change the world, change Taipei, change Taiwan, change this world, change this church ~ help God change this world from the nightmare it is into the dream that God intends!  May God bless you, may God keep you and may God send you on his way to change this world!”

Amen. Amen. May it be so.  And God forbid that the tragedy that is the Cambodia genocide should ever be repeated.  In Cambodia.  In Asia.  Or anywhere in the world.

Pray for the people of Cambodia and the healing of their nation.

(Some of the above reflections are the result of sharing with my CMS colleagues about our experiences of visiting the Tuol Sleng Museum.  I have incorporated them into what I have written above).

This is Part 3 of 3 posts about my visit to Cambodia, and needs to be read as part of the whole.  For Part 1 see here, and Part 2 see here.

4 thoughts on “Cambodia: The Killing Fields & Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum”

  1. This is a comprehensive story. Thank you so much for taking the trouble to document your visit. I had been there and saw the museum, too. A terrible tragedy and the people are slowly emerging from the trauma of forty years ago. From being entrapped in the Cold War and the Vietnam War, through the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields and the subsequent Vietnam invasion, this small country should be given all the space and time it needs to chart its own course.

  2. Oh Catherine, what an experience. The mind boggles at why people can hate and torture and kill other people. I suppose a big explanation is for power. The world really needs to know God’s love and peace.

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