Reflections on the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh

On our 8th day in Cambodia, we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh. It was important to us to learn more about the disturbing history of the Khmer Rouge in this country. I am embarrassed to say how little I really understood before coming here. If you don’t know much, please google it.

This post isn’t graphic, but the museum itself is overwhelming and filled with disturbing details and images. I left a changed person. If you’ve visited a Holocaust museum or memorial, you may understand.

The former school, which became a prison and then a museum, is situated in a busy area of the city, with cafes and businesses and residences all around.

You may be surprised and horrified by what you learn when you do a little research, not just about the evil acts of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, which resulted in the deaths of one in four Cambodians in just under four years, but about the incredibly slow response of the world, the US included, in condemning those acts and holding anyone accountable.

Some people say the lessons of history are only lessons to understand human nature not lessons that can or will change the future. I want to believe that isn’t true, but even today I see the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people occurring in Myanmar, so near to Cambodia, and I wonder how it keeps happening.

“It is important for me that the new generation of Cambodians and Cambodian Americans become active and tell the world what happened to them and their families … I want them never to forget the faces of their relatives and friends who were killed during that time. The dead are crying out for justice.”

Dith Pran, survivor of the Cambodian genocide and author of “Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors.”

The museum was once, not very long ago, a prison of torture and death for between 12,000 and 20,000 Cambodian men, women and children. Only about a dozen people who entered S-21, as the prison was called, survived. Before that it was a high school.

This monument in the main courtyard honors the 12,000 or more people who died at S-21 between 1975 and 1979. Millions of others died elsewhere.

So many stories like this one. So many people still today who don’t know what happened to their loved ones during this time.

Hundreds of schools and former places of art, education, commerce, and religion were destroyed or turned into such monstrosities as the Khmer Rouge sought to eliminate all signs of progress. Everyone was driven out of the cities into labor camps in the countryside. Even currency was abolished. People couldn’t own property, feed their families or congregate in groups of three or more. Entire families were exterminated if any one person fell under suspicion. Pol Pot believed better to accidentally kill an innocent than accidentally let an enemy escape.

A large sign with a picture of the few children who survived S-21, January 10, 1979

It is difficult to reconcile the children’s jungle gym and the beautiful courtyard at this place with the thousands of images of torture, destruction and death that now line the classrooms as a reminder of what can happen when a totalitarian regime disregards human dignity and gains power anyway.

I was reminded on this visit to Cambodia that humanity is capable of both great ingenuity and beauty such as the construction of the magnificent Angkor Wat as well as great destruction and evil. No country or civilization is immune.

At the end of the tour, our audio guide instructed us that we are now keepers of this history and that we must preserve and shed light on it so that history may not be repeated. If we all commit to uphold justice and morality in our own small corners of the world, it’s a good start. But I hope we can look further than whatever contrived boundaries may try to keep us from seeking justice and dignity for all people, especially those with less power and privilege than we may have.

“The value of history is, indeed, not scientific but moral: by liberalizing the mind, by deepening the sympathies, by fortifying the will, it enables us to control, not society, but ourselves — a much more important thing; it prepares us to live more humanely in the present and to meet rather than to foretell the future.”

Carl Becker, 1873-1945, U.S. historian


4 thoughts on “Reflections on the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh

  1. Rana, I too lived right through the late 70’s knowing little, actually for me, knowing nothing about this sickening time in our world! But now, with your info, I’m on a search to pull my head out of the sand.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It is indeed a powerful reminder of what can happen when people and ideologies take hold. It’s a hainting place – but necessary to understand the history of the country and it’s people.

    Thank you for the well written reminder.

    Liked by 1 person

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