Theme Parks of Terror

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A story of visits to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (aka the S21 Museum) and Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (aka the Killing Fields) in Phnom Penh during the 2018 Cambodian Elections.

The timing was totally coincidental but put an appropriately sombre mood on the trip as President Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, once again prepared to take power in what was basically a one party election.

Again, the act of writing this up caused me to research and consider a subject in more depth than casual observance permits. And, as always, any flaws in the narrative are entirely my own.

Submitted: August 03, 2018

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Submitted: August 02, 2018

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It wasn’t my intent to visit the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre on this broiling Sunday but it appears to be the only show in town. The National Elections are being held today and in honour of this puppet show of democracy, 90% of businesses have closed their doors to allow staff to return to their native regions and vote. The election is between the twenty “opposition” parties that are all in some way bound to the ruling “Cambodian People’s Party” and its Prime Minister of 33 years, Hun Sen.

Even the National Museum is closed and the place I wanted to visit, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which boasts being open 365 days a year is closed for the duration. Why or how Choeung Ek was exempted I have no idea but I made the dusty bone jarring 15 km trip from the centre of Phnom Penh, the capital city of this fledgling country. I say fledgling as even though the Kingdom of Khmer has an ancient history, as a modern country it has a less than stellar record in self-governance.

Whatever spin you put on it or whatever sympathies you might have for the millions killed; Cambodia orchestrated its own holocaust. For all the vagaries of fate, the ravages of colonialism, the bitter invasions from Thailand, Vietnam and the great Dragon from the North, the genocide was inflicted on Cambodians, by Cambodians.  In a twisted scheme to build an agricultural utopia, it was decided by the leaders of the Khmer Rouge that any opposition, indeed any sort of infraction against the rules, was treasonous and needed to be dealt with in the firmest way possible.

 Technically speaking, Cambodia today is a rich country. Besides the billions of sympathetic aid dollars that have flooded the country since the eighties and teh thriving tourism industry, it is also a lush green country which abounds in many natural treasures, including massive mineral and gas resources and the extensive Mekong river system that provides a natural water way for trade and logistics.  Truly it would seem that Cambodia has been blessed by the gods and favoured with many great and precious things. Except for the Cambodian’s themselves, whose recent governments seem myopic, paranoid and downright dangerous. In the case of Pol Pot, psychopathic is not an overstatement.

So here I am sitting in a restaurant in the front area of Choeung Ek, sipping hot black coffee to wash away the dust and grime stirred up by my motorised journey. Mein host, who we will call Mr D, has reasonable English and his right forefinger is blackened with the ink of a successful voter, so I ask him what he thinks of the election.

He has admitted he spent a couple of years working in Cairns and seeing as I am an Australian and I too have worked and lived in Queensland, he opens up a little though, as he explains, it is not good to speak of politics, looking around somewhat furtively. I tell him I understand, that I have read of the fate of the Cambodia Daily, an Independent dual language newspaper that was pressured by the ruling CPP government to shut its doors last Septemberm, citing mysterious tax obligations of several million dollars. Other independent media, such as Radio Free Asia were also hounded out by the CPP government.

The Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), the main opposition that had garnered over 40% of the vote in the last elections in 2013 was dissolved by the government in 2015, with some of its leaders imprisoned while the rest fled into exile or “retired”.  It is not exactly big news that the current government is basically a self-styled autocracy playing lip service to the idea of democracy.

I point out that his serving staff do not have “blacked” fingers. He shrugs and says a lot of people don’t see any sense in voting. I know that there is a campaign to boycott the election, to signify the disgust at not having a choice by not choosing. The government has got wind of the campaign and has threatened fines of up to USD5000 for non-involvement – in a country where you might be lucky to make $100 a month. 

I explain I have been following overseas news sources using TOR and a VPN but feigned or not, he has lost interest. I say that the difference I have noticed between Vietnam and Cambodia is that in Vietnam they choose not to hold grudges against the past, they are allowed to speak freely about it but they prefer not to, a case of let bygones be bygones. But in Cambodia they don’t talk about such things because of fear of reprisals, fear of perhaps incurring the wrath of the government.

He nods distractedly but steers the conversation into possible tourist trips I might make; he has a car for hire  and with the time I have left, he could easily get us up to Siem Riep and back again in the allotted time. I am unsure if this hides an agenda to show me the real Cambodia or just another way to make a buck. After all, he is a business owner and he has an inked finger. We swap business cards and email addresses but this trip is really about Phnom Penh and Cambodia has a way of incrementally expanding budgets.  For all the talk of obliging Cambodians, in my limited experience so far, all of the kindly offers usually devolve into an expected exchange of USD.

My coffee well and truly depleted, I thank him for his time and conversation and head over to the gates of the Genocide Centre a few metres away.  It seems well laid out and efficient with a young girl busily sorting out the disparate clumps of disorientated tourists in excellent English. The posted USD 6 entry fee includes an audio tour and seems reasonable though it makes me shake my head at the wonder of it. Even after 33 years of uninterrupted CPP rule, the country still doesn’t trust its own currency.

With cheerful briskness I am quickly paid in, wired up and sent on the circuit of this theme park of death, terror and misery. For this is not a museum, not in any true sense of the word. Most “displays” are just mounted placards that describe that what used to be here. So yes; you are now standing on the ground where prisoners were first decamped from their trip from S-21 – the notorious prison in Phnom Penh.

Another sign declares that here once stood the wooden building where prisoners would spend a night or two before their inevitable execution.  Over there was the building where the Angkor officials signed the execution orders; this peaceful grove of trees is where the victims were bludgeoned, garrotted, knifed and beaten.  Those shallow depressions to your left are where some nine thousand corpses were recovered; over there is the tree where they bashed babies against before tossing them in a pit with the corpses of their mothers.

Yet outwardly it is just another Asian garden, all is quiet and peaceful, a gentle wind fluttering the mango and frangipani leaves. It is only the placards and the gently accented Cambodian voice in your ears that calmly reminds you, step by step, of the litany of terror, gore and injustice that occurred here.

After an hour of listening and reading and reflecting on such a macabre and grossly indecent misuse of power, we arrive back at the centre building, the only structure that could rightly be classed as a museum piece. The huge stupa like structure reaches 17 “storey” upwards and is filled with the exhumed remains of the victims found here. At the bottom, viewable levels are the skulls, all carefully numbered and arranged according to some ghastly hierarchy of age and sex.

Invited to come closer, the various methods of death are clearly visible in the type of cranial damage – cracks and fissures suggesting blunt force trauma, long gaping holes suggesting hoes or pick axes, circular gaps the result of sharpened iron rods, the lack of any marks suggesting garrotting or decapitation. The casing at the floor level has examples of some of the tools used – the hoes, axes, rods and bludgeons that leave nothing to the imagination.

It seems that bullets were too good or costly for such people and the deaths at Cheung Ek were very much a hands on affair. There is none of the deniability of gas chambers or carpet bombing to somehow distance the perpetrators from the horror but rather everything was up close and very personal.  Many of the ex-Khmer Rouge are still alive today, many in public positions. Even the august leader of the CPP, Hun Sen, was a commander in the Khmer Rouge.

The monument is the final reminder that the past was very real for a great number of people whose hideous single crime was being alive and being in Cambodia at the wrong time.  Unfortunately, since the overwhelming victims were themselves Cambodian, there was nowhere else they could have been.

I have seen the war graves at Kokoda, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, the War Crimes museum in Hanoi. For a time I grew up in the shadow of Konfrontasi, crossed into East Berlin when there was still a wall, rode a motorbike across Timor while the fight was still strong. The difference here was that the crime was internal and the killing was countryman on countryman; Cambodians killing Cambodians.

There was no ethnic cleansing or pointless war involved here, just a methodological genocide of a country by leaders with a supreme belief in that they were the only ones who could possibly save the country, that only their viewpoint was the correct and justified one. I have gone past caring, numb with the thought of the sort of horror that a people could inflict on their own selves.

Somewhat more sober, I hand my audio equipment back in silence and make my way out outside to my ride back into town.  We arrive just in time to catch the last voters at the central polling booths on the Riverside just across from my hotel, a triage of brightly coloured shade cloths, with their pots of indelible ink and the clumps of milling police keeping a watchful eye. As I alight from my motorised rickshaw, a pickup loaded with a complement of military police in full riot gear trundles past.

The next morning I buy a copy of the Phnom Penh Post, the same paper that was taken over In May 2018 by Siva Kumar G, a Malaysian investor with ties to the Hun Sen government. It was seen by many that this was the death of any Independent news source left in Cambodia. But it was a legally binding buyout and the rule of law is very strong in Cambodia, especially the laws enacted by the Hun Sen government.

The headline blares out an amazing 82% voter turnout and a huge swing towards the CPP. There is a shot of Hun Sen and his porcine wife Bun Rany casting their votes at their local booth in Takhmao district a few kilometres south of Phnom Penh. When he is asked for comment, he refuses on the grounds that comments at a polling booth are against the law, finishing with “We have to respect the law”.

An opinionated piece on page three catches my eye as a local “analyst” gleefully belittles the exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy and his disbanded opposition calls to boycott the election.  When there was an effective opposition (2013) there was an estimated 69% turnout and 40% went to the Rainsy-led CNPR party. The analyst does not seem to think that the media closures, the threat of heavy fines and the disbandment of the only effective opposition should bear any weight at all, that would be spurious and if the West pushed that view he repeats the threat I have heard elsewhere. That criticism of the election process by the West would only push the country further towards China.

Unwittingly or not, he is repeating the words of Pol Pot in 1977 when the despotic psychopath said “China can help us scare our enemies… Having friends like the Chinese is a good thing”

I pay the USD 5 (20,000 Riel or AUD6.80) for breakfast and book a Grab ride to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The stated 4.5 kilometre trip seems a very long way indeed as we trundle down the narrow alleys and one way streets that seemed designed to forestall any direct route anywhere bar the main routes out of town.

I haven’t yet encountered any of the major traffic jams that you come to accept as part of life in the bustling Asian cities of Jakarta, Bangkok and the like. Nor does it have that kamikaze frenzy of a Saigon or Denpasar.  It is more just the feeling of lethargy, a sort of aimless uncaring road manner, with clumps of garbage spilling out over the broken, potholed roads, the food carts and vendors that fill both the sidewalks and the verges, the unheeding pedestrians and veering motorcycles, everyone consumed with their own destination or interests with little if any heed to the activity around and behind them.

So after 25 minutes of jolts, dusts and the characteristic splutter that gives the tuk tuk its name, we arrive at a compound with a high stucco wall further topped with gnarled rounds of razor wire. It does not require a great deal of acumen to realize that we are at our destination and I pay the driver his $2 (8000 Riel or AUD2.75). He promises to wait for my return and I take that to mean that he will still be there if he does not snag another fare in the meantime.

The first impression of Tuol Sleng is that it is more disorganised than its symbiotic twin at Choeung Ek. The girl on the other side of the ticket booth has a microphone turned loud to converse with her customers standing barely 2 feet away and sits away from the glass as though to disguise her identity. I pay my $8 (32000 riel, AUD11) entry fee in exact change, forestalling the need for her to blast me with instructions. Through the hazed glass, I imagine I see a frown of disappointment on her young face.

I pick up my audio gear from an equally unsmiling guard and begin my odyssey into a second journey of death, torture and inhumanity perpetuated at a truly grand scale.

At point zero (“Press 1 on your dial now”) I hear the story of the fourteen unmarked concrete “tombs” laid out in two neat rows boarded by ancient frangipani trees. They are in remembrance and reverence of the fourteen brutalised corpses found in the building when it was first discovered in 1979. The story goes that in the aftermath of the Vietnamese liberation, two young Vietnamese photographers were intrigued by the horrific smells coming from a non-descript school building nearby.

After documenting the corpses in a series of candid and horrific photographs, the pair reported the find to the local Vietnamese commanders who quickly realised the significance of the place and moved swiftly to secure the site. The fourteen corpses were cremated that night, without being identified, due to concerns of disease and the nauseating smell. It is not mentioned in the recordings but it was the Vietnamese who first established the museum and opened it to foreign observers a few days later.

It is unclear if there are any actual remains of the fourteen in the “tombs” but I gather not; it is a symbolic representation of the thousands that passed through these gates and onto the killing fields of Choeung Ek and elsewhere. According to the “law” of the Angkor, none were supposed to die here, it was “merely” a house of torture and confession with each “criminal’ photographed and processed according to strict guidelines.  Death was against the law at S-21 – that role was taken by Choeung Ek and others.

A large sign displays the “codecs” of imprisonment which basically boiled down that if you were arrested you were guilty; the Angkor did not make mistakes. The role of the prison was to extract the confessions of guilt and no defence was possible. The Law was the Law and it must be followed without complaint or dissent.

So actually dying at Tuol Sleng (or S-21 as it was known by the Angkor) was against the rules. You were processed, your guilt was extracted and you were sent on to your place of execution. These fourteen and plus number of suicides or the many who perished under torture were anomalies, and it would no doubt have irked Kang Kek Iew (the Chief Commander of S-21, nicknamed “Duch”) who was nothing if not a stickler for the paperwork.

So these fourteen were the final victims of torture who, as the liberators drew near were summarily dispatched to allow their murderers to flee and find escape into the chaos around them. The grainy black and white photos show bloated corpses still chained on the iron mesh “torture” beds and wherever possible, are displayed in the same room as their demise. Often, where their distorted and bloated faces might be visible, a thick white line obscures the disfigured visages.

Like in Nazi Germany, there was no real knowledge outside the country as to what was going on. The discovery of S-21 by the Vietnamese army, like the discovery of Auschwitz by the Soviets in 1945, awoke the world to the true horror of the Pol Pot regime and led to the discovery of some 300 other killing fields and torture camps. Indeed, had not the Vietnamese, tired of continual border skirmishes with the Khmer Rouge, invaded in late 1979, the world would have remained ignorant even longer and there is no telling how many other Cambodian lives could have been lost.

It is surprising that the Cambodians today see the Vietnamese as invaders or worse and give little or no recognition to their pivotal role in ending the Angkor genocide. It only makes sense in the context that, like many holocaust deniers, that the whole thing is blamed as a Vietnamese concoction, that the camps were fabricated and the millions dead a fantasy. It does not really make much sense, but then neither does the systematic torture and murder of your fellow citizens so perhaps one goes in hand with the other.

Block B is full of photographs, of the Democratic Kampuchea (DK) leaders lolling around a large black Mercedes, their smiling intelligent faces hardly the stuff you would imagine of mass murderers. There are also rows on rows of the faces of the young men and woman inducted and brainwashed into becoming willing participants in this most heinous bloodletting. It is sobering to realise that they look no more evil than the countless rows of their equally unsmiling victims.

Inhumanity does not seem a physical attribute but something deeper, a disfigurement of the soul that although we would like to think that we could recognise that evil in a glance, if were not for the labels and the cadre uniforms, I think any visitor here would be hard pressed to pick the innocent from the guilty. Indeed, many of the loyal cadres ended up as prisoners, for minor infractions of duty or other spurious reasons. Even many of the hierarchy of the all-powerful Angkor ended up on the wrong end of a chain at S-21, perhaps poetic justice but also just another example of the blood lust that enslaved the country for almost 4 years.

The rooms of Block B also contain exhibits of the instruments of torture, the largest being the two wooden structures used for water boarding but there is also a collection of whips made from electrical cords, homemade bludgeons, sharpened iron stakes, primitive knives, unassuming hoes and of course, garrottes and wire ties.

The philosophy of “the Organisation” was a return to a more primitive, rural lifestyle and to discard the trappings of modern civilisation and the evils of technology. The Khmer Rouge certainly had modern weaponry, some the detritus of the Vietnam War, some “donated” by a China sympathetic to the fledgling communist state but there seems little evidence it was used at S-21 or Choeung Ek. Indeed, the only relics of modern warfare seem to be the empty munition boxes that were placed in each cell as makeshift toilets.

So, in keeping with their return to an agrarian ideal, it seemed the Angkor preferred much more intimate and primitive methods of torture and death. The normal instruments of agriculture and building reinvented as weapons of mass destruction as a sort of a reversal of the swords into ploughs philosophy and proof that you don’t need nuclear bombs to decimate a people.

Block C is an array of individual cells bisecting the once large classrooms. The front facade is covered in razor wire that the audio tour informs us was placed there by the Khmer cadre after several prisoners had committed suicide by leaping from the higher floors. As we now know, death outside the state sanctioned formula of accusation, imprisonment, confession and final execution was against the law. And, of course you must respect the law.

However, after the torture rooms and the grisly photographs and exhibits of Block B, this block of tiny cells seems almost recognisably human, almost quaint. Everything is relative and I have no doubt that 40 odd years ago, lying here in the dark, surround by the smell of human excrement, decomposition and fear, listening to the moans of the dying and the (illegal) screams of the tortured, it was anything but quaint.

My senses overloaded, I switch off the audio and wander through a temporary exhibit describing the educational processes of the Angkor. Which basically consisted of the barely literate (teacher were one of the first “anti-Angkor” groups to be eliminated) teaching the illiterate. The students were children who had worked a ten hour day and were subject to two hour “lessons” before they had “earned” they evening meal.

These classes were held in the open (school buildings were seen as possible places of sedition), with no black boards, writing materials or books. The walls here are filled with translated transcripts of personal stories, how one person would try to practice by writing with sticks on the ground, another luckier one who used chalk on bare rock, the tales of sadness being away from family, the training of 12 year olds in munitions and bomb making.

I exit to sit under the shade of a small Jackfruit tree and listen to the final audio track, a summation of the Cambodia War Crimes Tribunal (ECCC) while staring out at the grey marble slabs inscribed with the thousands of names of at least some of the victims that passed through this “centre”.  Most of the top cadres were given life imprisonment (Pol Pot was dead of a stroke before he could be prosecuted) and there were some voice grabs of a couple of the survivors.

I hit rewind a couple of times to hear again the words of Van Nath, one of the few survivors of the camp due to his role as, of all things, an artist. Talking about the pleas of many of the cadre that they were just unwitting pawns following orders, merely obeying the law, he replied

“I don’t want to hear that….. It is the end of justice; it is the end of the world”

 

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© Copyright 2018 Paul R. All rights reserved.

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