I only made a brief visit to Phnom Penh, which is too bad because I think I really would have liked the city. It seemed to be an interesting mix of colonial French, traditional Khmer, and modern urban cosmopolitan. I stayed in a lovely neighborhood, with old French houses. It was home to lots of international organizations and houses that I would guess well off expats who weren't ambassadors lived.
I spent the 4th of July in Phnom Penh. To celebrate I ate a donut (with rainbow sprinkles) and a chicken, bacon, swiss burger. Seemed pretty American to me.
The one major stop I made in Phnom Penh was the S-21 Genocide Museum. The museum is housed in the Tuol Sleng prison complex, the most infamous of the Khmer Rouge prisons. Thousands of prisoners, “enemies of the regime,” “CIA or KGB spies,” were held, tortured, and killed on the site of what was once a secondary school. The prison was was run by a man called Duch who was known as a particularly cruel interrogator.
The museum is a powerful testimony to the power of memory. Each prisoner was photographed as he or she was brought into the prison and these photograph, well preserved by the Khmer Rouge, form the backbone of the exhibition. Images of gaunt men, women, and children. Solders and farmers. Mothers with babies and teens. Each image with pain filled eyes, looking directly back at the viewer. A questions and an accusation.
For me on of the most interesting aspects of the museum was that it did not just look at prisoners as victims, but also included the guards and made sure to bring in their perspective, honestly without demonization. While the main planners of the regime, those who masterminded the prison, were examined in a negative light. The guards were treated more similarly to the victims than to the major figures within the Khmer Rouge leadership. In the forgiveness and reconciliation for the acts of the 1970s, the role of societal pressure (and fear) on the guards as taken a prominent position in how their actions seemed to be viewed within the context of the museum. I am sure that not all of people victimized by the Khmer Rouge look to the lower levels of power structure with this level of compassion, but that one of the official state memorials even suggests this is a powerful testament to the idea of forgiveness. I wonder what role the Buddhist beliefs of the Khmer culture have on this view of the guards.
Pictures after the jump…
Rules of behaviors for the prisoners.
Classrooms were turned into prison cells 3' x 6' per person.
Balconies were strung with barbed wire so that prisons could not attempt suicide.