Saturday, 8 September 2012

Phnom Penh Part 1: Tuol Sleng Museum


"I want you to know that everything I did, I did for my people"
Pol Pot, Leader of Khmer Rouge

Block A. Tuol Sleng Museum.

What Happened?
For five years the Cambodian people had been facing the bloody civil war. On 17 April 1975, Khmer Rouge was victorious over Khmer Republic of General Lol Nol. The Cambodian people honestly thought their suffering had ended. But what they didn't know is that they were about to face the gruesome nightmare for the upcoming years. 

The Khmer Rouge immediately instituted agrarian peasant society. Khmer rouge began emptying all Cambodian urban centres from its own people, regardless of the physical condition and health, forcing them to leave their belongings and march to the rural side to do forced labour at the country side. Banking and currency were destroyed, religion and culture were abolished and business centres, hospitals and schools were shut down.  Family relationship was banned. Husbands, wives, brothers and sisters were separated from each other. 

People from the urban areas were labelled as the New People. Regardless of their physical conditions and health, young or old, they were forced to work at the paddy fields together with the farmers and peasants from the country side. In the end, this notorious vision not only had taken its toll on the New People, but also the farmers and peasants. Millions starved to death and died of diseases. But still, such deaths were regarded as the most lenient death sentences.

"No gain in keeping, no loss in weeding out..."

It was not that long when Khmer Rouge began executing ex-government officers and ministers. Driven by paranoia, Pol Pot ordered execution of intellectuals who potentially might rise against his agenda - monks, students, teachers, lecturers, doctors, lawyers, judges, engineers. Even those Cambodians who wore spectacle and whose hands were spotted to be soft were also executed (for they were deemed as intellectuals). 

"You can arrest someone by mistake, never release him by mistake..."


Establishment of Prison S-12 (Tuol Sleng)
Tuol Sleng, in Khmer language means hill of the poisonous tree. As devastating as it sounds, one can never imagine the atrocities committed in this place, once a school, converted into prison and torture centre for innocent Cambodian. Run by the popular Duch, this prison housed about 20 000 prisoners, who were later brutally tortured to "extract confession" (rather tortured to agree to pre-drafted untrue confession) and later systematically executed to death. 

"Better to kill an innocent person by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake..."

Visit to Tuol Sleng Museum
Today, the prison had been converted into a museum as memorial for those innocent souls. With admission fee of USD 4, a visitor will be able to witness the site where Cambodian had been imprisoned, tortured to name immediate family members and associate, which were in turn, captured and executed at the killing field. Four blocks remained as they were when they were discovered by the Vietnamese soldier. 

As I walked into the school compound, I could feel the devastation. I composed myself and walk from one block to another, from one classroom to another. 


Block A: 
Large torture cells, where last victims were found dead by the Vietnamese soldiers. The victims were executed an hour before the prison was discovered by the Vietnamese soldiers. Torture equipments were left the way they were. Blood stains were noticeable on the floor. 


I do not own these photos. Photos of the victims were available at the museum.

Block B: Gallery of photographs of almost 7000 S-21 prisoners. Confused, terrified, angry, helpless - those mixed emotions were displayed visually on the wall. Men, women, children. 



Block C: Classrooms subdivided into smaller cells for prisoners. Barbed wire were installed to avoid prisoners from committing suicide. 



Block D: Instruments used for torture. Some illustrations were translated into paintings, painted by one of the survivor, Van Nath. 



Rules and Regulations for S-21 Prisoners

  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. 

We missed the video show. The screening is scheduled 10 am and 3 pm everyday. 


On my way to the exit, I met one of seven survivors of Tuol Sleng museum, Chum Mey. His life was spared by his expertise in fixing machines. I could never really imagine what he had gone through for three months in this prison. 




Till the next post, 
Hairi Tahir


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