Photographic memory: the tale of Tuol Sleng

While visiting Cambodia a few months ago, I was asked by an interpreter, who usually worked as a tour guide, whether I had gone to Tuol Sleng (also known as S-21), the former Khmer Rouge prison that is now a museum.

I told her I hadn’t – and was then stuck for words. Should I attempt to explain why I had not gone to one of her country’s major tourist sites? I didn’t want to offend her. “I don’t see the point of misery tourism” would have been the briefest, most accurate – and most graceless – response.  Tuol Sleng was a high school before the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975.  Up to 15,000 Cambodians and some foreigners were taken there and tortured to extract “confessions”, before being killed either at the prison or at the Choeung Ek killing field, 17 kilometres from Phnom Penh.

Before arriving in Cambodia, I already knew about Tuol Sleng and its role in that terrible time of Cambodia’s history – the years 1975 to 1979 when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge ruled the country. During that time, it’s estimated that 1.5 to two million people died. The prison’s commander, known as Duch, was tried and sentenced last year, so details about the trial and the prison over which he presided kept appearing while I researched my trip. Tuol Sleng also features prominently in the guide books and in tourists’ blogs.

So I also knew about the museum’s presentation, with the classrooms-turned-prison cells left almost as the Vietnamese had found them when they assumed control of Phnom Penh in 1979.  I had seen some of the photographs of the prisoners that are now exhibited on boards at the museum. They are black and white, and many of them were taken by the prison’s chief photographer, Nhem En. Nhem En was interviewed in the documentary “Brother Number One” (see previous post) and he speaks, rather chillingly, in that doco about the artistry involved in his work. It’s true that his photographs are portraits of high technical standard. Most are captioned “Unidentified prisoner’. The  absence of names or other text focuses your attention on the visual: the face of each person, their clothing, the number printed on paper and safety-pinned to them. Many people look frightened; others defiant; some are obviously injured and some lie dead in their own blood. Many are very young.

The photographs are one of the reasons that tourists writing about their visit to Tuol Sleng struggle to bridge the transition between their visit to the museum and say, lunch, or Tuol Sleng and the splendour of the Royal Palace with its silver tiles and Buddha statues. The museum is meant to shock. It’s called the “Museum of Genocidal Crimes” after all. But until recently I hadn’t considered that it might be purpose-designed for this response, that it may have suited those who created the museum for visitors to be sickened by it and to come away disturbed by the barbarity of those who ran it.

Lisa M. Moore draws upon the work of fellow academics Rachel Hughes, Paul Williams and Judy Ledgerwood to provide a broader socio-political context for the Tuol Sleng Museum. According to them, the Vietnamese-sponsored government that took over from the Khmer Rouge was eager to distance itself from the hardline Communist ideology of Pol Pot’s regime. For it was this ideology that drove the Khmer Rouge regime’s practices, which in turn caused the deaths of up to two million people. Not only were the Vietnamese liberators also Communist, Cambodia had recently been at war with Vietnam. So it was politically expedient for the People’s Republic of Kampuchea to establish a museum that presented the story of Tuol Sleng in the context of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge being an unaccountably bloodthirsty regime that killed innocent compatriots before the Cambodian people were liberated by the new government.

But were the Cambodians who were tortured and killed at Tuol Sleng also associated with the Khmer Rouge? Historian and academic David Chandler says that unlike other prisons operated by the Khmer Rouge, the inmates of Tuol Sleng were accused of espionage and other acts of disloyalty to the regime. Moore’s essay contends that maintaining the anonymity of the people depicted in the photographs is also intentional.

Shortly after its inception, many Khmer frequented the Museum to look at the walls of photographs in the desperate hopes of finding their missing relatives and gaining closure. For those who were identified, their relatives were prohibited from inscribing the photographs with the victims’ names.

In my own country a few years ago, there was a fierce debate involving the then-Prime Minister John Howard about how Australian history should be taught. This debate was particularly focused on how to present the history of Australia’s Indigenous people and what happened to them when Europeans “settled” or “invaded” (the word used depends on who’s doing the talking). Howard was adamant that we should not take a “black armband” view of our nation’s beginnings.

I remember speaking to an Aboriginal woman in the year of Australia’s bicentenary, 1988. She said she would be in mourning the whole of that year, to mark how the arrival of Europeans meant the death of many of her people, along with many of their languages and way of life. I remember the shock of realising that to many Aboriginal people, the idea of celebrating Europeans’ arrival would be offensive. It brought home that interpreting history can never be objective. The story will always change depending on who is framing it. Then as now, here or in Cambodia, in hearing about a country’s history, we should bear in mind who is telling the tale and what they  want us to know. Or as Winston Churchill (allegedly) said: History will be kind to me because I intend to write it.


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