Being big on history, I did a lot of background research on Cambodia during the cold, dark Minnesota winter. And since Cambodia’s recent history is mostly dark and disturbing, I wound up reading several books on the Khmer Rouge era. I was curious to see firsthand what sort of legacy the genocide has had. Still being in tourist mode within a week of arriving in Phnom Penh, I decided to check out the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which, along with the Choeung Ek Killing Fields outside of town, is one of Cambodia’s important memorials to the roughly 2 million victims of the Khmer Rouge from 1975-79.
Tuol Sleng was a high school prior to the Khmer Rouge takeover. In 1975 they renamed it Security Prison 21 (S-21) and turned it into a detention/torture center for “political prisoners.” An estimated 17,000-20,000 people passed through here, most were tortured until they “confessed”, then sent to various killing fields in the countryside. When the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge and liberated the prison, they found 7 survivors.
I went early on a Monday morning to avoid crowds, and found the place mostly empty except for a large group of French tourists.
These rooms are preserved mostly as they were found nearly thirty years ago. There aren’t any panels or background info, only profound starkness.
The buildings and rooms haven’t been restored beyond simple preservation.
Moving on to the next cellblock, I encountered thousands of these mugshots.
The Khmer Rouge was very diligent and thorough in the way they documented prisoners. Every single prisoner who passed through here had their picture taken and a full biography written, including whatever “confession” they had been tortured into making.
Upstairs there were brick and wooden cells, most too small to lie down in.
There was also an interesting photo exhibit on Khmer Rouge leaders, many of whom never paid for their crimes. This photo is of Son Sen, the Khmer Rouge Minister of Defense. He died peacefully in 1997 without being brought to justice. His and other photos were defaced by angry graffiti.
A similar exhibit had before-and-after photos of minor Khmer Rouge figures: Group Leaders, Commune Commandants, soldiers etc. Most live quiet, unassuming lives as farmers, shopkeepers, mechanics, fishermen, anything. This man, a former KR village chief, is now a rice farmer.
Overall it was a powerful experience. Not anywhere near the level of Auschwitz or the Berlin/Washington Holocaust museums, but it had the same impact.
Rest of the set here. I took the original photos in color, but during the editing stage decided to convert them to monochrome. The place had a real dark feel to it anyway.
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