There is a fable of a wise Chinese farmer whose horse ran off. When his neighbor came to console him the farmer said, "who knows what's good or bad?"
When his horse returned the next day with a herd of horses following her , the foolish neighbor returned to congratulate the farmer on his good fortune.
"Who knows what's good or bad?" Said the farmer
Then, when the farmer's son broke his leg trying to ride one of the new horses, the foolish neighbor again came to console him.
"Who knows what's good or bad?" Replied the farmer again.
When the army passed trhough the following week , conscripting men for war, they passed over the farmer's son because of his broken leg. When the foolish man came to congratulate the farmer that his son would be spared, the farmer shook his head, "Who knows what's good or bad?"
This dialogue could go on and on and shows that no event however they may first appear to us is inherrantly good or evil, and this is a sentiment that I have myself adopted, that it is not the events around us but our decisions in light of those events that are good or bad. When one visits the the Genocide Museum of Tuol Sleng, formerly Security Prison 21 under Democratic Kampuchea, Cambodia's name under the regime of Pol Pot, one can not help but challenge such a view. The events that took place durring this regime display the lowest depths of human capacity, and it is hard to gaze upon this one monument to their barbarism and not declare this as nothing but purely evil.
Nothing to laugh or smile about
This was not a site I visited lightly, and went back and forth on whether I should go at all. I certainly didn't want to visit it like a tourist atraction, if I was going to visit it, I really wanted to visit it in a manner that did justice to the 17,000 some odd people that died there, and I wanted to take it very seriously in respect to those that had died all over Cambodia durring this period. Although I'm not one to easily cry, there are certain things that really get to me, and I knew just from having watched the movie "The Killing Fields" and having read a couple of books on this period in Cambodia's history that there was a good chance I would break down and cry like a little girl in public. Still I felt that seeing this up close, and realizing that this was something that didn't happen generations ago, but just as I was born and was something that many Cambodians I was interacting with every day survived would give me a bit more appreciation for what the country was currently and what the people here had overcome. Although many people combine this with a trip to the killing fields at the edge of Phnom Penh, I found the tour of the prison draining enough, and didn't feel that anything further was really necessary.
Map showing the redistribution of the populations of urban centers through the country
A very brief history of the prison is that it was originally a primary school, when the Khmer Rouge "liberated" Phnom Penh in 1975 they had the school converted into a prison. It was the detention center for all those who had been declared enemies of the revolution, and of the 17,000 people who passed through its halls only 7 made it out alive. For those unfamiliar with the Khmer Rouge they were a revolutionary movement that advocated a very strict form of communism, inspired by other movements in China, Vietnam, and influenced heavily by the intellectual atmosphere the party leaders were exposed to while studying in France. The presence of a ruling corrupt regime, American bombings along the Vietnamese border, effective propaganda promoting class warfare, and ruthless assertion of power brought the Khmer Rouge into power. Once they controlled the country they set out to reinvent Cambodia as a socialist agrarian utopia, and expelled all urban populations to work in new collectives set up in the countryside. People who had been "upper class", worked for foreign run organizations, or who had any kind of professional education were either killed immediately or sent to this facility. When the prison was liberated by the Vietnamese in 78' it was left as it was in order to document the horrors of the regime that had been in power.
A room in Building A, a bed with leg irons depicts more than what is on display
When you arrive at the location there is a small ticket office where you pay $2 and get a pamphlet describing the museum. It consists of four buildings, labeled A, B, C, D, and one of the eeriest parts of the whole experience is what an unremarkable setting this all took place in. I started with building A, which is where they detained party cadres, where the cells are larger and have old rusty beds. Just outside this building there is a sign listing the rules all prisoners were made aware of on arrival;
The Security of Regulation
Picture taken of a corpse left in Building A when the Vietnamese arrived.
Enemy of the State
Brick cell with leg irons