Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum – Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Review by Sabrina Selkis

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As much as Cambodia is known for its beautiful temples and crazy night life, there is a much darker side to it too. So I hop on another tuktuk and I make a visit to The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (Khmer: សារមន្ទីរឧក្រិដ្ឋកម្មប្រល័យពូជសាសន៍ទួលស្លែង).

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After seizing power in 1975, the Khmer Rouge and leader Pol Pot began a genocidal regime that lasted until 1979. The Khmer Rouge embarked on an organised mission: they ruthlessly imposed an extremist programme to reconstruct Cambodia on the communist model of Mao’s China. The population must, they believed, be made to work as labourers in one huge federation of collective farms. Anyone in opposition – and all intellectuals and educated people were assumed to be – must be eliminated.

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In 1975, Tuol Svay Prey High School was taken over by Pol Pot’s security forces and turned into a prison known as Security Prison 21 (S-21); it soon became the largest centre of detention and torture in the country. Between 1975 and 1978 more than 17,000 people held at S-21 were taken to the killing fields of Choeung Ek . S-21 has been turned into the Tuol Sleng Museum, which serves as a testament to the crimes of the Khmer Rouge.

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When prisoners were first brought to Tuol Sleng, they were made aware of ten rules that they were to follow during their incarceration. What follows is what is posted today at the Tuol Sleng Museum; the imperfect grammar is a result of faulty translation from the original Khmer:

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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.

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The buildings were enclosed in electrified barbed wire, the classrooms converted into tiny prison and torture chambers, and all windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes.

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I can only struggle to start to explain what it feels like being in this horrific place.Agony and suffering ARE dripping from the walls,the floors,the doors…

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As well as the hot and humid weather, one can only imagine the gruesomeness and all the evil that took place.

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It strikes me that this was not such a long time ago…people treated worse than animals in the name of an absurd ideology.

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Tuol Sleng was only one of at least 150 execution centers in the country, and as many as 20,000 prisoners there were later killed.

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Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge leaders were excellent at keeping records of their atrocity. Each prisoner who passed through S-21 was photographed, sometimes before and after torture. The museum displays include room after room of  B&W photographs; virtually all of the men, women and children pictured were later killed.

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Those old photos are as grim as what they depict. People were starved to death and chained to a metal frame bed, if you can call this a bed.The exhibition has a lot of photos of those tortured victims, some alive, some dead.

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Upstairs is the Cells area.When I thought I had seen the worse already, nothing prepared me for what was to come.

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And it was a sunny morning…

 

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In 1979, the prison was uncovered by the invading Vietnamese army. In 1980, the prison was reopened by the government of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea as a historical museum memorializing the actions of the Khmer Rouge regime.

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So much of the torture equipment that was used now lies in the museum still to this day.

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Remember the photo with that big wooden frame earlier in this feature…

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Some of the “museum” books available to buy.

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When the Vietnamese army liberated Phnom Penh in early 1979, there were only seven prisoners alive at S-21, all of whom had used their skills, such as painting or photography, to stay alive. Fourteen others had been tortured to death as Vietnamese forces were closing in on the city. Photographs of their gruesome deaths are on display in the rooms where their decomposing corpses were found. Their graves are nearby in the courtyard.

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Yes it is worth a visit, but no, you won’t enjoy it.

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