Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Remembering the Victims of the Khmer Rouge

Warning: This post contains graphic images and discusses the heart wrenching genocide that was inflicted on Cambodia durring the reign of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. Not for the squeemish.

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

1. You must answer accordingly to my question. Don’t turn them away.
2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that, you are strictly prohibited to contest me.
3. Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
5. Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.
8. Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.
9. If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.
10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.

The interrogations that took place here sought to get the names of family members and to get the prisoners to "confess" their crimes, be it working for the KGB, CIA, the Vietnamese, or whoever their imagined enemy of the day was. 

Picture taken of a corpse left in Building A when the Vietnamese arrived.

On the walls of each room is a photo of what was found in the room when the Vietnamese liberated the prison. Often the image of broken body sits on one of the beds, often shackled to it, and just as often there is a pool of blood under the bed. In some rooms torture instruments are on display, or the crude containers that they had to put their own waste in. After a room or two of this I'd pause outside for a moment take a breather, and once composed I'd move on to the next. As disturbing as some of it was, I had thus far been able to take it in and found ways to make even the more horrible depictions thought provoking instead of just depressing.

Wall of Photos depicting the victims of S21

This didn't last long though, and what I found in building B, was just a bit too much to bear. Each room has large boards covered with the mug shots of people imprisoned in S-21. Each prisoner, who usually stayed through a few months of torture before being killed, had a complete file; included were pictures, typed confessions and biographies. I felt a bit of a need to look over each photograph, and see each individual person. Some of the photos really connected with me, maybe due to the persons demeanor, the look in their eye, or their age. Some of the pictures of Children were particularly tough.

Enemy of the State

Calm Defiance

After the first room, I took a quick break, then went on to the next and the pictures became even more disturbing. At first it was more of the same, wall after wall of mug shots of those destined to be tortured and killed. Then there was a change, and there were pictures taken after some of the torture.

Photos of victims of S-21 after interrogation

I walked around this room, which also displayed pictures showing conditions in the work camps and while doing so there was a man giving a tour talking about his family. He was talking about how he was shipped out of Phnom Penh to work in the rice fields, separated from his father, who had been killed along with one of his brothers. When he got to the photos pictured above, the woman of the couple that he was showing around broke down and left the building crying. Not wanting to bother her I skipped taking a break between rooms and as I turned the corner I saw a wall of mug shots of children. All of these things combined weighed down on me at once and like I had suspected I darted out of the building breaking into a few sobs like a little girl. After a few minutes I regained my composure and continued the tour.

The barb wired covered building C, the mass detention center.

Building C was the mass detention facility. Each former class room was converted into multiple different holding chambers. On the ground floor the new separating walls were brick and mortar with no doors, just leg irons.There was no bed in the rooms and prisoners were expected to sleep on the floor.

Brick cell with leg irons 

Blood stains were still visible in several cells.

The prison contained over a thousand prisoners at any one time, and most were housed in this building. The barbed wire covering the outside was to prevent any prisoner who might get loose from jumping to his death. The guards here were not afraid of escape in the conventional sense, but escape by suicide which seemed to be preferred by many of the inmates. As such each prisoner was strip searched each morning, with the object being to find any hidden objects that a prisoner may have hidden away to assist in killing themselves.

Wooden cells on the second floor of building C

The second floor of the building consists of small wooden cells with doors that had small windows on them that could be open or closed by the guards. To make for a single hall way, the Khmer Rouge agents had smashed improvised "doors" into the walls. Leg irons and chains again were present in many of the rooms. Just outside this building the structure that had been used for children's physical education had been transformed into gallows where a prisoners hands were tied behind his back and he was then hoisted by that rope up onto the gallows. Once unconscious the interrogators would dunk their heads in a jug of water that had been mixed with putrid debris, quickly waking the prisoner, for further interrogation.

Water boarding table

The final building, D, contains numerous miscellaneous materials, including more photographs, some interviews with victims or their surviving family members as well as those 'forced' to work at the prison. Also on display were the biographies of many of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge and those who had helped run the prison, as well as letters of correspondence that had been recorded there. The letters are especially telling of the lunacy and cruelty that was this regime. One letter as translated reads as follows;

Dear Comrade Pon:

1. Before ten to nine this morning, based on the document and report gathered from our comrades, I reported to Angkar about Ya's case concerning his conscience.
2. Angkar made the decision that if the lowlife Ya continues hiding his enemy lines and traitorous acts, Angkar will decide to kill him. This action was taken in order to keep him from playing tricks on us. One time he accidentally mentioned it [the book], and then another time he denied the [existence of] the entire whole book. His action was regarded as disrespectful towards not only the Security Committee but also the Party.
3. Therefore, you Comrade can employ hot torture methods with force for long periods of time upon brother Ya. Even if it may cause death, you Comrade, will not be accused of disobeying Party regulations.

With warm revolutionary fraternity!

October 1, 1976

Yes, ordering torture in "warm revolutionary fraternity!" Another letter head shows the Khmer Rouge motto to be six words, translated as; Independence, Peace, Neutrality, Sovereignty, Democracy, and Prosperous & Abundant Living Standard. The party didn't quite live up to its billing.

And here we come to the crux of the issue with governments, that when the leaders become so flush with arrogance that they believe they know better than the people they govern what is good for them, they use force to ensure compliance. When the government is shown to be wrong or inefficient the errors are explained away or those who bring them up are smeared or in more brutal regimes are killed, because those who rule must maintain by any absurd means needed to show that they are in fact right, that the system is good, that it means well, and compliance with the Party, the Government, the dictator or what ever it is, is above question and is working for your own good. This is the basis of tyranny, the arrogant of the powerful, and it is created through the compliance and fear of those who carry out the atrocities, even when they know its wrong.

Mass grave at the killing fields of Choeung Ek

What happened in Cambodia is horrifying, and should be a warning to all of us of what can happen when we allow ourselves to pretend to know how other people should live, act and interact with each other. Even under the best of intentions to create a utopian bliss of sharing and equality, when it is done at the end of the barrel of a gun it is never a good thing. It's a warning to all of us of the cruelty that can become unleashed within the human condition, and what people are capable of in the need to try to mold the world to how they think it should be. The horrors of what happened in S21 should stand as a warning to all people, and by remembering them we can hope to keep in our minds the dangers of a state that claims too much authority. 

Who is to say what is good or bad? We can hope through remembering the victims of S-21 and all of those who were brutalized under the Khmer Rouge, the rest of humanity can learn from it's mistakes, that we can be vigilant of this kind of rhetoric and propaganda that leads free people to become slaves under their own institutions. By remembering these people we can hope to make good on their sacrifices and what they endured to try to prevent future recurrence. Let us try and be vigilant in their memory.

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