Khmer Rouge Memento

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Note: I took these photos two years ago but just posted them now as a tribute to Vann Nath, one of only a handful survivors of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge torture prison. He dies yesterday in Phnom Penh at 65 (NYT obituary). He testified against his jailers two years ago at the Khmer Rouge tribunal. If you come to the prison, now a genocide museum, you can find painted illustrations of what had been done to the prisoners there. They were paintings by Vann Nath.
(Yogyakarta, 6 September 2011 – Budi N.D. Dharmawan)


Visiting Cambodia, it was hard for me to ignore its dark period under the infamous Khmer Rouge regime in 1975–1979. Growing up in the 1990s when the ruling government still fought the remaining Khmer Rouge forces, I keep hearing of it and the name of its infamous leader, Pol Pot from the news. I keep remember it.

I visited two historical places that had witnessed the ferociousness of the Khmer Rouge regime: Tuol Sleng prison, also known as the Security Prison 21 or S-21 in Phnom Penh, and Choeung Ek mass graves, also known as the killing fields, just outside the Cambodian capital.

Tuol Sleng prison used to be a high school, before Khmer Rouge converted the five building complex into prison cells and torture stations in 1975. During the four year Khmer Rouge regime, an estimated of between 17,000 to 20,000 people had been imprisoned at Tuol Sleng. At any given time, the prison held between 1,000–1,500 prisoners. Many of them were then brought in groups to be interrogated, and later murdered, at the Choeung Ek extermination center.

Most prisoners at Tuol Sleng were held for two or three months, and during this period they were repeatedly tortured. The methods were varied: they were beaten, electrically shocked, seared using hot metal instruments, hung, cut, suffocated with plastic bags, their fingernails were pulled out, their heads held underwater, raped, or just left bleeding to death.

Visiting the mass graves at Choeung Ek, it was even more horrible. Signs indicate places where the prisoners were once tortured, or the conditions of their bodies when found. Children were beaten. Many bodies found without heads. There was also a tree called “the magic tree”, where Khmer Rouge officers hung loudspeaker to disguise the moan of victims while they were being executed. Bone fragments can still be found here and there.

In the mass graves discovered at Choeung Ek, 8,895 bodies were found. A Buddhist stupa was later built there to mark the memorial park. More than 5,000 human skulls were placed in the stupa. Some have bullet holes, many have been shattered.

But yet it was so calm and silent there at the mass graves. It felt so serene. Only the signs and the skulls of the dead reminded us that terrible things had been done here in the past. Things we should not forget.


Budi N.D. Dharmawan © 2009